The Chicago Teachers Strike: Challenging Democracy’s Demise
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
What the world is witnessing in Chicago as thousands of teachers, staff and support personnel strike is the emergence of a revolutionary ideal.
This is an ideal rooted in the promise of democracy – one that challenges corrupt neo-liberal practices, such as giving corporations and markets the right to define the purpose and meaning of public education; opposes policies that systemically defund public education by shifting the burden of low tax rates for the rich, and the cost of bloated military expenditures, to teachers and other public servants; and refuses to support educational reforms that debase educational leadership and teaching in order to undermine public education as a bulwark of democracy.
The enemies of public education and other vital social services are committed to draconian cuts in education, while simultaneously refusing to increase state and federal spending. But this is not solely an economic problem. Rather, it is also a political issue wrapped up in the “gutting [of] vital social services such as education, health care, police and public transit services, spending for the disabled and other areas of state services and employment.”
Under the guise of austerity measures, the burden of deficit reduction now becomes an excuse to remove public education from the discourse of freedom and social transformation. Within this regime of repressive schooling, education for the masses now consists of a “dumbing down” logic that enshrines top-down high-stakes testing, vocationalized education for the poor, schools modeled after prisons and teachers reduced to the status of mindless technicians.
The brave teachers in Chicago have had enough of this authoritarian and anti-democratic view of education. They have revolted in the name of a revolutionary ideal that inserts dignity and power back into teaching, and breathes vitality and substance back into the relationship between education and democracy. In rejecting the primacy of “the market as the sole principle of social and political organization,” they have recognized that what is at stake in the current struggle they face is “a whole generation ‘s sense of the future.”
They are reclaiming the right, if not the responsibility, to assert the civic duty of public education, address the issues of race, class and agency that over-determine the relations of power that bear down on schools; and assert that the real crisis of education is about the conditions of its democratic institutions and the teachers, students and citizens who are responsible for maintaining them.
And while the strike is close to being settled, the ideals it is fighting for are far from settled. The noble ideals and project underlying this strike are primarily focused on both the purpose of schooling, and the vital nature of public education in developing the formative culture necessary to produce the ideas, values, individuals and public spheres essential for the construction of a vibrant and substantive democracy.
In part, this ideal is fueled by a discourse of outrage, resistance and struggle on the part of educators, particularly as it is confronted by a hyper-charged vocabulary of denial and humiliation on the part of the economic and political elites who govern the city of Chicago.
The dominant media, with its whipped-up frenzy about striking teachers, would have us believe that the strike is simply about greedy and dysfunctional unions irresponsibly insisting that teachers and school staff strike in order to preserve unwarranted, cushy benefits and high salaries and other alleged excessive perks. In actuality, it is about hardworking, dedicated teachers who are striking to preserve, in part, watered-down medical benefits, eroding job security and limited control over the conditions in which they labor while doing everything they can to provide students with a quality education.
What is crucial to remember is that the Chicago teachers’ strike represents much more than a series of specific school-related reforms that empower unions and benefit teachers (surely, a straw man argument if there ever was one). On the contrary, the strike points to a much broader series of questions about the meaning of public education, school governance, the quality of classroom pedagogy and the role of public education as a crucial democratic public sphere.
What teachers in Chicago are attempting to tell the American public is that public schools are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public spheres that keep alive the relationship between learning and the hope of a more equitable, free and just society. Public schools are the DNA of democracy and they are under attack by a political virus that reduces teachers to technicians (or worse) and schools to investment opportunities for the rich, on the one hand, and militarized training centers for low income and poor minority students on the other. The Chicago teachers have taken upon themselves what many other academics in both public and higher education have failed to do. They have been advocating “for education as a public good and critical thinking as perhaps the most important capacity of responsible citizens under a republican form of government.”
Clearly, public school teachers understand that if they have little control over the conditions of their labor they can become deskilled and treated as technicians, while powerless in preventing corporate-driven politicians and conservative administrators from imposing curricular models that devalue critical thought and reduce imaginative inquiry to the teaching of marketable skills.
What becomes clear in this assault on public school teachers and unions is a deeper order of politics that makes visible the attempt being made on the part of right-wing fundamentalists, hedge fund elites and advocates of privatization to reduce education to training and learning, to nothing more than a euphemism for a kind of instrumental, commodified and privatized test-driven form of illiteracy.
Increasingly, what Diane Ravitch calls the “billionaires club” is fostering on the American public a view of education tied to profit margins and the savage Darwinian shark tank logic of the marketplace. As Martha Nussbaum points out, the consequences are costly in ethical and political terms. She writes: “Education based mainly on profitability in the global market [produces] a greedy obtuseness and a technically-trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself.”
The United States is in the midst of a crisis in which corporate-driven models of pedagogy are waging an assault not only on public schools, teachers, unions and public servants, but on the very ideas, institutions, and pedagogical relations that make a democracy possible. The apostles of casino capitalism are also waging a war on young people by turning their future over to corporate-driven ideologies, modes of governance and policies that benefit the very people who produced a massive degree of human suffering through the financial crisis of 2008.
The project of schooling has been stripped of its democratic ideals and is now defined within a reform logic that produces profits for a few and powerlessness for the many.
Let ‘s be clear. Chicago teachers are not simply fighting for increased benefits, resources and freedom (however important these demands are). They are fighting primarily against a neo-liberal disciplinary machine that would turn public schools into another tool of casino capitalism while destroying any vestige of the relationship between education, public values and democracy.
This fight is not simply about the right of public school teachers to have some control over their working conditions and the quality education they labor to provide daily to their students; it is about the struggle over public education as a public sphere that is fundamental to the survival of democracy. A healthy democratic society, by all vital social and economic measures, is also an educated society and that truism must be understood and embraced as a defense of education as a public good rather than a corporate, privatized and commodified right. This is precisely the message that has emerged from the Chicago teachers strike, one that can serve as a lesson to other educators and citizens who have a vested interest in education as essential to the survival of a democratic society.
In what follows, I want to reiterate from my book, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values,” some of the larger issues at work in the Chicago strike so as to provide a context for why this fight is and was as much a struggle for a substantive democracy as it is a struggle to make clear the need to recognize the value of public schooling and the important civic and educational work that teachers do every day in their capacities as guardians of critical learning and civic justice.The noble tradition that once viewed public school teaching as an important public service is in rapid decline in the United States. This democratic legacy, advanced by important scholars that extend from John Dewey to Paulo Freire, valued teachers for providing a crucial educational foundation in the service of the greater social good. Educators were viewed as a valuable resource in teaching students how to take responsibility for their future, develop an unrelenting fidelity to justice and the ability to discriminate between rigorous arguments and heavily-charged opinions. Teaching for the public good did not simply prepare students for subordinated labor but for what Stanley Aronowitz calls a
“self-managed life” in which self-management could only occur when people have fulfilled three goals of education: self-reflection, that is, realizing the famous poetic phrase, “know thyself,” which is an understanding of the world in which they live, in its economic, political and, equally important, its psychological dimensions. Specifically, “critical” pedagogy helps the learner become aware of the forces that have hitherto ruled their lives and especially shaped their consciousness. The third goal is to help set the conditions for producing a new life, a new set of arrangements where power has been, at least in tendency, transferred to those who literally make the social world by transforming nature and themselves.
Such an education focused on enabling young people to develop the values, skills, and knowledge required for them to enter adult life as critical citizens capable of questioning common sense, official knowledge, public opinion, and the dominant media.
Developing the conditions for students to be critical agents was viewed as central to the very process of teaching and learning and was part of the broader project of enabling students to both shape and expand democratic institutions.
Since the 1980s, however, teachers have faced an unprecedented attack by those forces that view schools less as a public good, than as a private right, with the Chicago Public School system being the most recent object of such an assault. Seldom accorded the well-deserved status of public intellectuals in the current educational climate, teachers remain the most important component in the learning process for students, while also serving as a moral compass to gauge how seriously a society invests in its youth and in the future. Yet teachers are now being deskilled, unceremoniously removed from the process of school governance, largely reduced to clerks of corporate sovereignty, or subordinated to the authority of security guards.
They are also being scapegoated by right-wing politicians who view them as the new “welfare queen,” and their unions as a threat to the power of corporations and the values of a billionaire-sponsored, market-driven educational movement that wants to transform schooling into credential factories for the market, depoliticized commercial spheres that promote conformity and negate intellectual inquiry and the power of critical thinking.
Under policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, public education is guttered as public spheres where students learn to become knowledgeable, thoughtful and capable of participating in the decisions that shape their lives, their relations to others and the larger world. Education as a lesson in public values, civic politics and public life is subordinated, if not erased, under the mandate of preparing students through high-stakes testing for competing in the global marketplace.
Underlying these transformations are a number of forces eager to privatize schools, substitute vocational training for education, promote vouchers and charter schools and reduce teaching and learning to reductive modes of testing and evaluation. All of these reforms are as anti-democratic as they are anti-intellectual. And most importantly, all of them are driven by a deeply anti-labor paradigm and a deep distrust of democracy.
Indications of the poisonous transformation of both the role of the public school and the nature of the work that teachers do abound. The passage of laws promoting high-stakes testing for students and the use of test scores to measure teacher quality have both limited teacher autonomy and undermined the possibility of critical teaching and visionary goals for student learning.
Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content at best, and at worst put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test-taking.
Subject to what might be labeled as a form of repressive pedagogy, teachers are removed from the processes of deliberation and reflection and reduced to implementing lockstep, time-on-task pedagogies that do great violence to students.
Behind the rhetorical smokescreen justifying this kind of pedagogical practice, we will find a contradiction between conception and execution that was originally hatched by bureaucrats and “experts” from mainly conservative foundations.
Questions regarding how teachers motivate students, make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, work with parents and the larger community or exercise the authority needed to become a constructive pedagogical force in the classroom and community are now sacrificed to the dictates of an instrumental rationality largely defined through the optic of measurable utility.
Little is said in this discourse about allocating more federal dollars for public schooling, replacing the aging infrastructures of schools, or increasing salaries so as to expand the pool of qualified teachers.
Nor is anything said about changing the class-based financing structure that allocates unprecedented resources to wealthy children and inadequate financial support for those young people from low-income neighborhoods. Teachers are no longer praised for their public service.
Despite the trust we impart to them in educating our children, we ignore or devalue the firewall they provide between a culture saturated in violence and idiocy, and the radical imaginative possibilities of an educated mind capable of transforming the economic, political and racial injustices that surround us and bear down so heavily on public schools.
Teachers are stripped of their worth and dignity by being forced to adopt an educational vision and philosophy that has little respect for the empowering possibilities of either knowledge or critical classroom practices.
Put bluntly, knowledge that can ‘t be measured or defined as a work-related skill is viewed as irrelevant, and teachers who refuse to implement a standardized curriculum that evaluates young people through “objective” measures of assessment are judged as incompetent.
Any educator who believes that students should learn more than how to obey the rules, take tests, learn a work skill or adopt, without question, the cruel and harsh market values that dominate society “will meet,” as James Baldwin ‘s “Talk to Teachers” insists, “the most fantastic, the most brutal and the most determined resistance.”
And while the mythic character of education has always been at odds with its reality (as Baldwin notes in talking about the toxic education imposed on poor black children), the assault on public schooling in its current form truly suggests that “we are living through a very dangerous time.”
Stanley Aronowitz builds on this notion by pointing out that under current neo-liberal policies, what emerges is a form of education wedded not only to a pedagogy of conformity and subordination, but also to a pedagogy of repression. He writes:
Whether intended or not, we live in an era when the traditional concepts of liberal education and popular critical thinking are under assault. Neo-liberals of the Center, not less than those of the right, are equally committed to the reduction of education to a mean-spirited regime of keeping its subjects’ noses to the grindstone. As the post-war “prosperity” which offered limited opportunities to some from the lower orders to gain a measure of mobility fades into memory, the chief function of schools is repression.
As education is reduced to a mindless infatuation with metrics and modes of testing, the space of public schooling increasingly enforces this deadening experience with disciplinary measures reminiscent of prison culture. Moreover, as the vocabulary and disciplinary structures of punishment replace education, a range of student behaviors are criminalized, resulting in the implementation of harsh mandatory rules that push many students deeper into the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. 
With the rise of the governing-through-crime complex, war has now become a mode of governance in schools and one consequence is that teachers are increasingly removed from dealing with children as an important social investment and democratic symbol of the future.
As the school is militarized, student behavior becomes an issue handled either by the police or security forces. Needless to say, when Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan was the CEO of the Chicago School System, he expanded the ongoing militarization of public schools to the great detriment of low-income and poor minority students. Removed from the normative and pedagogical framing of classroom life, teachers no longer have the option to think outside of the box, experiment, be poetic, or inspire joy in their students.
Instead, with curriculum and policies now designed to kill the imagination of both teachers and students, the hours spent in classrooms are a kind of “dead” time. When not reduced to high-stakes drill centers, schools increasingly have become armed camps, sites for those young people now considered excess, disposable or simply human waste.
For years, teachers have offered advice to students, corrected their behavior, offered help in addressing their personal problems and gone out of their way to understand the circumstances surrounding even the most serious of student infractions. But the role of teachers, as both caretakers and engaged intellectuals, has been severely restricted by the imposition of a stripped-down curriculum that actually disdains creative teacher work while relegating teachers to the status of clerks.
Ignorance, fear, and learning how to take bubble tests is what now gives public schools a sense of mission and community. Teaching students to take risks, think critically or exercise their imagination is now considered a crime in many schools. Profit and efficiency measures now seem to be the only sources of motivation. One consequence of this transformation is the growing frequency of corruption and cheating among school administrators and teachers who want to cash in on the bonuses available to them if they raise student scores.
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the model of the racetrack and prison represent mutually reinforcing sides of how public education is now defined. Needless to say, the consequences for both teachers and students have been deadly. Great ideas, modes of knowledge, disciplinary traditions, and honorable civic ideals are no longer engaged, debated and offered up as a civilizing force for expanding the students ‘ capacities as critical individuals and social agents. Knowledge is now instrumentalized, and the awe, magic, and insight it might provide are rendered banal as it is redefined through the mindless logic of quantification and measurement that now grips the culture of schooling and drives the larger matrix of efficiency, productivity and consumerism shaping broader society.
As testing becomes an end in itself, it both deadens the possibility of critical thinking and removes teachers from the possibility of exercising critical thought and producing imaginative pedagogical engagements. These modes of bare pedagogy that take their cues from a market-driven business culture treat teachers as fast-food like minimum wage workers and disdain the notion that public schools may be one of the few remaining places where students can learn how to deal with complicated ideas. As public schools become more business friendly, teachers are rendered increasingly more powerless and students more ignorant.
What we see happening in Chicago and in a host of other cities are a series of market-driven reforms designed to turn public schools into political tools for corporate-dominated legislators, while simultaneously depriving students of any viable notion of teaching and learning. Bad for schools, teachers, students and democracy, such neo-liberal reforms lack any viable ethical and political understanding of how schools work, what role they should play in a democracy, and what the myriad forces are that are working to undermine both critical teaching and critical learning.
Yet this degradation of teaching and the dumbing-down of the curriculum through an emphasis on high-stakes testing, an obsession with free market values and a devaluing of any form of knowledge or experience that cannot be measured does not capture what is perhaps the most detrimental effect of such reforms: namely, that they promote modes of stratification that favor existing class, racial, and cultural hierarchies.
Chicago educators are calling for a new language for understanding public education as a formative force for democratic institutions, and for the vital role that teachers play in such a project. They are demanding that education should be viewed as a moral and political practice that always presupposes particular renditions of what constitutes legitimate knowledge, values, citizenship, modes of understanding and views of the future. In other words, teaching is always directive in its attempt to shape students as particular agents and offer them a particular understanding of the present and the future.
And while schools have a long history of simply attempting to reproduce the ideological contours of the existing society, they are capable of much more, and therein lie their danger and possibilities. At their worst, teachers have been viewed as merely gatekeepers. At best, they occupy one of the most valued professions we have to educating future generations in the discourse, values and relations of democratic empowerment. Rather than viewed as disinterested technicians, teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals. Regardless of the terms in which this strike will be settled, their fight is not over.
And teachers in Chicago and elsewhere should be supported in their efforts to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills and culture of questioning that are necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power, and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national, and global public spheres.
Chicago teachers are assuming the role of engaged public intellectuals and fighting for schools as democratic public spheres. Central to fostering a pedagogy that is open, discerning and infused with a spirit of critical inquiry, rather than mandates, is the assumption that teachers should not only be critical intellectuals but also have some control over the conditions of their own pedagogical labor. Academic labor at its best flourishes when it enhances modes of individual and social agency and respects the time and conditions teachers need to prepare lessons, research, cooperate with each other and engage valuable community resources.
Put differently, teachers are the major resource for what it means to establish the conditions for education to be linked to critical learning rather than training, to embrace a vision of democratic possibility rather than a narrow instrumental notion of education, and to honor the specificity and diversity of children’s lives rather than treat them as if such differences do not matter. Hence, teachers deserve the respect, autonomy, power, and dignity that such a task demands.
The basic premise that drives the strike by Chicago public school teachers is that if public education is a crucial sphere for creating citizens equipped to exercise their freedoms and learn the competencies necessary to question the basic assumptions that govern democratic political life, then public school teachers must be allowed to shape the conditions that enable them to assume their responsibility as citizen-scholars. Being able to take critical positions, relate their work to larger social issues, offer multiple forms of literacies, and foster debate and dialogue about pressing social problems makes it possible for teachers to provide the conditions for students to conjure up the hope and belief that civic life matters.
Students should see teachers modeling in the classroom the principle that they can make a difference in shaping society so as to expand its democratic possibilities for all groups. Of course, this is not merely a matter of changing the consciousness of teachers or the larger public, or the ways in which teachers are educated. These are important considerations, but what must be embraced in this recognition of the value of public school teachers is that such an investment in young people is an issue of politics, ethics and power, all of which must be viewed as part of a larger struggle to connect the crisis of schooling and teaching to the crisis of democracy itself.Today’s educators face the daunting challenge of creating new discourses, pedagogies and collective strategies that will offer students the hope and tools necessary to revive education as a political and ethical response to the demise of democratic public life. Such a challenge suggests struggling to keep alive those institutional spaces, forums, and public spheres that support and defend critical education and that help students come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. And that is exactly what Chicago teachers are fighting for.
What the Chicago teacher ‘s strike has made clear is that the “public” in education becomes dangerous when it associates teaching and learning with civic values, civic courage, and a respect for the common good -a position decidedly at odds with the unbridled individualism, privatized discourse, excessive competition and hyper-militarized culture that now run rampant through American society. Public education is about much more than learning how to take a test, prepare for a job, or raise one ‘s critical consciousness; it is about imagining a more democratic society and a better future, one that does not simply replicate the present. In contrast to the cynicism and political withdrawal fostered by mainstream media culture, a critical education demands that its citizens be able to translate the interface of private considerations and public issues, recognize those anti-democratic forces that deny social, economic, and political justice and give some thought to their experiences as a matter of anticipating and struggling for a more just world. In short, democratic, rather than commercial, values should be the primary concerns of public education.
If the right-wing educational reforms now being championed by the Obama administration and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago continue unchallenged after the strike ends, America will become a society in which a highly-trained, largely white elite continues to command the techno-information revolution while a vast, low-skilled majority of poor and minority workers is relegated to filling the McJobs proliferating in the service sector. The children of the rich and privileged will be educated in exclusive private schools while the rest of the population, mostly poor and non-white, will be offered deficit forms of pedagogy suitable only for working in the dead-end, low-skill service sector of society, assuming that these jobs will even be available.
Teachers will lose most of their rights, protections, and dignity and will be treated as clerks of the empire. And as more and more young people fail to graduate from high school, they will join the ranks of those disposable populations now filling up our prisons at a record pace. In contrast to this vision, I strongly believe that genuine, critical education cannot be confused with job training.
At the same time, public schools have to be viewed as institutions just as crucial to the security and safety of the country as national defense. If educators and others are to prevent the distinction between education and training from becoming blurred, it is crucial to challenge the ongoing corporatization of public schools, while upholding the promise of the modern social contract in which all youth – guaranteed the necessary protections and opportunities – are seen as a primary source of economic and moral investment and as symbolizing the hope for a democratic future. This is precisely what the teachers strike in Chicago is about.
When Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told a massive crowd of supporters that “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere,” she was only partly right. The struggle in Chicago is as much about the fate of democracy as it is about the fate of public schooling in America.
The demonization of public school teachers, unions and public schooling in general permeates American popular culture and is now a theme dominating a number of right-wing billionaire-produced Hollywood films.  The enemy of education in these films is not under- performing teachers or misguided unions, but democracy itself. The current vicious assault on public school teachers, particularly in Chicago at the present moment, is a reminder that the educational conditions that make democratic identities, values and politics possible have to be fought for more urgently at a time when democratic public spheres, public goods and public spaces are under attack by market fanatics and other ideological fundamentalists.
These enemies of democracy believe that corporations can solve all human problems or that dissent is comparable to aiding terrorists – positions that share the common denominator of disabling a substantive notion of ethics, politics and democracy. The rhetoric of accountability, privatization, choice, charter schools and standardization that now dominates both major political parties in the United States does more than deskill teachers, weaken teacher unions, dumb down the curriculum, punish students, and create a culture of ignorance. It also offers up a model for education that undermines the idea that the very institution itself is a public good while disinvesting in a formative culture necessary in creating critical citizens. In this state of fragile democracy, the opportunity for students to learn how to govern and be critical citizens is at serious risk of being hijacked. We should all be grateful for the brave teachers, staff and students in Chicago who are making visible what should be clear to all Americans: education matters as a public good because democracy is too important to hand over to corporations, hedge fund operators and other apostles of casino capitalism. But, of course, the Chicago teachers need more than our gratitude, they need our support and they need it now, regardless of the fact that the strike is coming to a settlement. The Chicago teachers’ strike is an important call and salvo in the war being waged against all things public, all things associated with public values, all things democratic and it is far from over. Regardless of how this strike ends, it should have a life far beyond its resolution. Hopefully, this example of this strike will provide the fulcrum for social movements to emerge that will take up this fight remembered, not just as a struggle for the future of Chicago public schools, but for the fate of all young people and the possibility of their living in a society in which equality, freedom and justice, become the driving force for learning, agency, democracy and the future.
1. Anthony DiMaggio, “Gutting Public Education: Neoliberalism and the Politics of Opportunity“, TruthOut, (June 25, 2010)
2. Nick Couldry, “Fighting For Its Life: The English University in 2010,” Unpublished manuscript.
3. 1G. Rendell, “Politics, pedagogy, the press, and professors (a prickly post),” Blog U, (December 15, 2009).
4. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Education for Profit, Education for Freedom,”Liberal Education, (Summer 2009), p.13.
5. Stanley Aronowitz, “Forward,”Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities, ed. Sheila L. Macrine, (N.Y.: New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) p. ix.
6. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” Saturday Review (December 21, 1963).
8. Stanley Aronowitz, “Paulo Freire ‘s Pedagogy: Not Mainly a teaching method,”in Robert Lake and Tricia Kress, Paulo Freire’s Intellectual Roots: Toward Historicity in Praxis (New York, NY: Continuum, 2012), in press.
9. I take this up in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2009).
10. Danny Weil, “Film ‘Won ‘t Back Down ‘ Models Hollywood Propaganda in Age of School Reform.” Truthout (September 5, 2012).
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