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Why Don’t Americans Care About Democracy at Home?

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Posted on Oct 3, 2012
david_shankbone (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

Universities and colleges have been largely abandoned as democratic public spheres dedicated to providing a public service, expanding upon humankind’s great intellectual and cultural achievements and educating future generations to be able to confront the challenges of a global democracy. As a core political and civic institution, higher education rarely appears any longer to be committed to addressing important social problems. Instead, many universities and colleges have become unapologetic accomplices to corporate values and power, and in doing so increasingly make social problems either irrelevant or invisible. Just as democracy appears to be fading in the United States, so is the legacy of higher education’s faith in and commitment to democracy.

Unfortunately, one measure of this disinvestment in higher education as a public good can be seen in the fact that many states such as California are spending more on prisons than on higher education.[45] Educating low income and poor minorities to be engaged citizens has been undermined by an unholy alliance of law-and-order conservatives, private prison corporations and prison guard unions along with the rise of the punishing state, all of whom have more of a vested interest in locking people up than educating them. It is no coincidence that as the US disinvests in the institutions fundamental to a democracy, it has invested heavily in those apparatuses that propel the rise of the prison-industrial complex and the punishing-surveillance state. The social costs of prioritizing punishing over education is clear in one shocking statistic provided by a recent study that stated “by age 23, almost a third of Americans or 30.2 percent have been arrested for a crime…. Researchers say [this] is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life.”[46]

The assault on the university is symptomatic of the deep educational and political crisis facing the United States. It is but one lens through which to recognize that the future of democracy depends on achieving the educational and ethical standards of the society we inhabit.[47] Political, moral, and social indifference is the result, in part, of a public that is increasingly constituted within an educational landscape that reduces thinking to a burden and celebrates civic illiteracy as foundational for negotiating a society in which moral disengagement and political corruption go hand in hand.[48]

This collapse on the part of the American public into a political and moral coma is induced, in part, by an ever expanding mass mediated celebrity culture that trades in hype and sensation. It is also accentuated by a governmental apparatus that sanctions modes of training that undermine any viable notion of critical schooling and public pedagogy. While there is much being written about how unfair the left is to the Obama administration, what is often forgotten by these liberal critics is that Obama has virtually aligned himself with educational practices and policies that are as instrumentalist and anti-intellectual as they are politically reactionary and therein lies one viable reason for not supporting his candidacy.[49]What liberals refuse to entertain is that the left is correct in attacking Obama for his cowardly retreat from a number of progressive issues and his dastardly undermining of civil liberties. In fact, they do not go far enough in their criticisms. Often even progressives miss that Obama’s views on what type of formative educational culture is necessary to create critically engaged and socially responsible citizens is utterly reactionary and provides no space for the nurturance of a radically democratic imagination. Hence, while liberals point to some of Obama’s progressive policies - often in a new age discourse that betrays their own supine moralism - in making a case for his re-election, they fail to acknowledge that Obama’s educational policies do nothing to contest, and are aligned with, his weak-willed compromises and authoritarian policies. In other words, Obama’s educational commitments undermine the creation of a formative culture capable of questioning authoritarian ideas, modes of governance and reactionary policies. The question is not whether he is slightly less repugnant than Romney. On the contrary, it is about how the left should engage politics in a more robust and democratic way by imagining what it would mean to work collectively and with “slow impatience” for a new political order outside of the current moderate and extreme right-wing politics and the debased, uncritical educational apparatus that supports it.

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The Role of Critical Education

One way of challenging the new authoritarianism is to reclaim the relationship between critical education and social change. Education both in and out of schools is the bedrock for the formative culture necessary to create not only a literate public but also a public willing to fight for its capacity to hold power accountable and to participate in the decisions and institutions that shape its everyday existence. The question of what kind of subjects and modes of individual and social agency are necessary for a democracy to survive appears more crucial now than ever before, and this is a question that places matters of education, pedagogy and culture at the center of any understanding of politics. We live at a time when the American people appear to have no interest in democracy - beyond the four-year ritual performance of voting, and even this act fails to attract a robust majority of citizens. The term has been emptied of any viable meaning, hijacked by political scoundrels, corporate elites and the advertising industry. The passion that democracy exhibits as an ongoing struggle for rights, justice and a future of hope has been transmuted into a misplaced desire to shop, fulfill the pleasure quotient in spectacles of violence and misappropriate the language of democracy to deploy it as a rationale for racist actions against immigrants, Muslims and poor minorities of color and class.

Clearly, as the Occupy Movement and other youth movements around the world have demonstrated, the time has come not only to redefine the promise of democracy but also to challenge those who have poisoned its meaning. We have already witnessed such a challenge by protest movements both at home and abroad in which the struggle over education has become one of the most powerful fulcrums for addressing the detrimental effects of neoliberalism. What these struggles, particularly by young people, have in common is the attempt to merge the powers of persuasion and critical, civic literacy with the power of social movements to activate and mobilize real change. They are recovering a notion of the social and reclaiming a kind of humanity that should inspire and inform our collective willingness to imagine what a real democracy might look like. The political philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis, rightly argues that “people need to be educated for democracy by not only expanding the capacities that enable them to assume public responsibility but also through active participation in the very process of governing.”[50] The current attack on democracy is directly linked to a systemic destruction of all those public spheres that expand the power of the imagination, critical inquiry, thoughtful exchange and the formative culture that makes critical education and an engaged citizenry dangerous to fundamentalists of all ideological stripes.

As the crucial lens through which to create the formative culture in which politics and power can be made visible and held accountable, pedagogy plays a central role. But as Archon Fung points out, criticism is not the only public responsibility of intellectuals, artists, journalists, educators and others who engage in critical pedagogical practices. “Intellectuals can also join citizens - and sometimes governments - to construct a world that is more just and democratic. One such constructive role is aiding popular movements and organizations in their efforts to advance justice and democracy.”[51] In this instance, understanding must be linked to the practice of social responsibility and the willingness to fashion a politics that addresses real problems and enacts concrete solutions. As Heather Gautney points out:

We need to start thinking seriously about what kind of political system we really want. And we need to start pressing for things that our politicians did not discuss at the conventions. Real solutions - like universal education, debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution and participatory political structures - that would empower us to decide together what’s best. Not who’s best.[52]

Critical thinking divorced from action is often as sterile as action divorced from critical theory. Given the urgency of the historical moment, we need a politics and a public pedagogy which make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative. Or as Stuart Hall argues, we need to produce modes of analyses and knowledge in which “people can invest something of themselves ... something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition.”[53]

I want to conclude by quoting from James Baldwin, a courageous writer who refused to let the hope of democracy die in his lifetime and who offered that mix of politics, passion and courage that deserves not just admiration but emulation. His sense of rage was grounded in a working-class sensibility, eloquence and passion that illuminates a higher standard for what it means to be a public intellectual and an engaged intellectual. His words capture something that is missing from the American cultural and political landscape, something affirmative that needs to be seized upon, rethought, and occupied - as part of both the fight against the new authoritarianism and its cynical, dangerous and cruel practices, and the struggle to reclaim a notion of justice and mutuality that seems to be dying in all of us. In “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin writes:

One must say Yes to life, and embrace it wherever it is found - and it is found in terrible places…. For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


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