This post has been inspired by my reading of Henry Giroux’s new book, America’s Addiction to Terrorism.
In this enthralling read, Giroux asks the important question; what is terrorism? The definition is never applied consistently during the highly controlled discourse on terrorism. Meaning that the condemnatory power of the term should be applied to government instigated violence as much as the terrorist acts we see glamorised in the media, thus losing the usefulness of the word for the state’s propaganda purposes. As Arun Kundnani suggests for example, “The term ‘terrorism’ is never used to refer to the military violence of Western States.” Henry’s complex thought processes and insightful reasoning catalyses the reader into thinking about the idea that the Unites States’ neoliberal agenda – that is permeated through every part of its society – is actually an act of terrorism in itself. As Michael D. Yates writes in the forward for the book, “…terrorism is as American as apple pie.”
Giroux pays special attention to the transformational nature of education and how it can be used to fight this neoliberal terrorism. It is education that may, ironically, be our weapon of mass destruction on neoliberalism. It is this theme that I would like to explore further.
“Compromise and compassion are now viewed as pathological behaviours, a blight on the very meaning of politics. Moreover, in a society controlled by financial monsters, the political order is no longer sustained by faith in critical thought and care for the Other.” Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism is an ideology that fundamentally promotes self-interest. Neoliberalism is a flavour of capitalism. A flavour that is selfish and built around individual consumerism and materialistic ‘success’. As Giroux wrote last year in a piece titled, The Curse of Totalitarianism and the Challenge of Critical Pedagogy, “People today are expected to inhabit a set of relations in which the only obligation is to live for one’s own self-interest and to reduce the responsibilities of citizenship to the demands of a consumer culture.”
In this survival-of-the-fittest regime, neoliberalism deliberately replaces any sense of social responsibility for personal consumption and individual attainment. The values of justice, equality and democracy are seen as the enemy to the main goals of commercialisation and the creation of an anti-intellectual society. Giroux writes that, “Under neoliberalism every individual is responsible for their own fate, and this skewed notion of freedom is reinforced by an emphasis on possessive individualism and the notion that personal advantage is far more important that the public good.” When neoliberalism pervades our education systems any democratic acts of collaboration, critique and solidarity are replaced by conformity, passivity and reluctance for independent thought.
As Giroux summarises, when successful, a neoliberal educational regime will lead to a “…devaluation of the social, critical agency, and informed thinking as part of its attempt to consolidate class power in the hands of a largely white financial and corporate elite”
A Pedagogy of Repression
“Teachers are being de-skilled. Losing much of their autonomy to be creative in the classroom, they have been relegated to the role of technicians whose sole objective appears to be enforcement of a deadening instrumental rationality in which ‘teaching to the test’ becomes the primary purpose of schooling.” Henry Giroux
Giroux writes at length at how neoliberalism can actually act as a form of pedagogical terrorism, where the very role and purpose of education is destroyed and replaced for training camps grooming young people to become simply economic fodder. Teachers are having their art form dismantled with their roles more akin to technicians of knowledge, while students are having their, “creativity stifled, and dissent squelched” and are often taught in a “political and moral vacuum.”
This beautiful passage in America’s Addiction to Terrorism, explains further the danger of how neoliberalism will and is having a devastating effect on generations upon generations.
“The ghost of Kafka disturbs any vision of democratic education as fear becomes the operative principle in organizing public education, especially for schools in low-income neighbourhoods inhabited by minorities of colour. For the underserved, education is not designed to inspire of energise. Nor is it designed to get students to think, reflect, or question. On the contrary, such schools disable the capacities of students to become knowledgeable, informed speaking agents. They focus instead on dreary pedagogical tasks of mastering low-level skills such as memorization, a willingness to conform, and a refusal to question authority. This is more than a pedagogy of repression: it is a pedagogy of helplessness that infantilizes students while undermining any relationship between learning and social change.”
Henry Giroux often cites this deliberate strategy of depoliticalising students as the ‘war on youth’. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote in 1993, our children are the future of any given society, and, “if you want to maim the future of any society, you simply maim the children.”
Without a desire for change and a willingness and passion from educators to think, organise and act we will be left with a pedagogy of repression. As James Baldwin decreed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We live in a time where slowly and permanently, schools will no longer be places to, “…create dreams of greatness, extend the horizons of the imagination, or point to a future that refuses to mimic the present.”
In a stagnant educational landscape, which currently seems unshakable and rebukes anyone who attempts to disrupt or subvert it, we need voices of dangerous and courageous thinking. As Henry Giroux explains, the totalitarian governments of the US – and I would add of the UK – believe that thinking is dangerous. Here, Giroux advocates the thoughts of Hannah Arendt to suggest that although thinking is dangerous, not thinking at all, is even more dangerous.
The classroom should be a space of grace
“The mission and meaning of higher education should always involve teaching young people what it means not merely to be educated, but also to be socially and ethically responsible to each other and the world at large. This role of higher education is perceived by neoliberal acolytes as dangerous because it has the potential to educate young people to think critically and learn how to hold power accountable.” Henry Giroux
For over forty years, Giroux has been an advocate for Critical Pedagogy. A pedagogy that he, and many others, including myself, believes can have a transformational power to change social inequality by nurturing a generation with an educated mistrust of everything that has been indoctrinated before. Critical pedagogy isn’t a prescriptive set of practices; it’s a continuous moral project that enables young people to develop a social awareness of freedom. This pedagogy connects classroom learning with the experiences, histories and resources that every student brings to their school. It allows students to understand that with knowledge comes power; power that can enable young people to do something differently in their moment in time and take positive and constructive action.
My only challenge to Giroux’s thinking is that he believes that the transformational nature of Critical Pedagogy should start reaching its full potential in Higher Education. I believe however that the skills, values and knowledge he describes should and can be taught as early as Primary Schools. I admit that complex issues and current affairs may not be suitable or appropriate subjects for our younger students, but the basic concepts of equality, democracy and justice should not be emitted from the teaching and learning vacabulary of our Primary and Secondary school students.
Giroux passionately argues, “…that any talk about democracy, justice, and freedom has to begin with the issue of education, which plays a central role in producing the identities, values, desires, dreams, and commitments that shape a society’s obligations for the future. Education in this instance provides the intellectual, moral and political referents of how we both imagine and construct a future better than the one previous generations inherited. Within such a critical project, education is defined not by test scores, or draconian zero tolerance regimes, but by how it expands the capacities of students to be creative, question authority, and think carefully about a world in which justice and freedom prevail and the common good is reaffirmed.”
When discussing the possibilities of a radical pedagogy, Giroux uses Professor Kristen Case’s idea of teachers and students sharing moments of classroom grace.
“Pedagogies of classroom grace allow students to reflect critically on common-sense understandings of the world, and begin to question, however troubling, their sense of agency, relationships to others, and their relationship to the larger world. This is a pedagogy that asks why we have wars, massive inequality, a surveillance state (and) the commodification of everything that matters.”
I have written previously about the need to consider and understand the importance of creating ‘safe spaces’ for our students (especially our Muslim students), where authentic debate and discussions can happen without surveillance or suspicion.
We need to ensure that every classroom is a space of grace, where students and teachers have, “…a place to think critically, ask troubling questions, and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures”
I’ll leave it to Henry Giroux, explaining here about the true meaning of education and what, as teachers, we should be doing for our students, every single day.
“…teach them the skills, knowledge, and values that they can use to organise political movements capable of stopping the destruction of the environment, ending the vast inequalities in our society, and building a world based on love and generosity rather than on selfishness and materialism.”