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The War Against Teachers

If the U.S. is to cease its slide into a violent, anti-democratic state, we must rethink the relationship between education and democracy, and the very nature of teaching.

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 What is ignored in this retrograde view is any understanding of pedagogy as a moral and political practice that functions as a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge, values and identities are produced with particular sets of classroom social relations.  What is purposely derided in conservative notions of teaching and learning is a view of pedagogy, which in the most critical sense, illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power and draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Pedagogy in this sense addresses and connects ethics, politics, power and knowledge within practices that allow for generating multiple solidarities, narratives and vocabularies as part of a broader democratic project. As Chandra Mohanty insists, pedagogy is not only about the act of knowing, but also about how knowledge is related to the power of self-definition, understanding one’s relationship to others and one’s understanding and connection to the larger world. [17] In the end, pedagogy is not, as many conservatives argue, about immersing young people in predefined and isolated bits of information, but about the issue of agency and how it can be developed in the interest of deepening and expanding the meaning and purpose of democratization and the formative cultures that make it possible.

Technocratic and instrumental rationalities are also at work within the teaching field itself, and they play an increasing role in reducing teacher autonomy with respect to the development and planning of curricula and the judging and implementation of classroom instruction.  In the past, this took the form of what has been called "teacher-proof" curriculum packages. The underlying rationale in many of these packages viewed teacher work as simply the carrying out of predetermined content and instructional procedures. The method and aim of such packages was to legitimate what might be called "market-driven management pedagogies."  That knowledge is broken down into discrete parts, standardized for easier management and consumption and measured through predefined forms of assessment. Curricula approaches of this sort are management pedagogies because the central questions regarding teaching and learning are reduced to the problems of management, regulation and control.  While such curricula are far from absent in many schools, they have been replaced by modes of classroom instruction geared to a pedagogy of repression defined through the rubric of accountability. This approach works to discipline both the body and mind in the interest of training students to perform well in high-stakes testing schemes. It defines quality teaching through reductive mathematical models. [18]

Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on "measurements of value derived from market competition." [19] Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.  It is also a pedagogy that infantilizes both teachers and students. For instance, the Texas GOP built into its platform the banning of critical thinking.[20] Not too long ago, the Florida legislature passed a law claiming that history had to be taught simply as a ledger of facts, banning any attempt at what can loosely be called interpretation.

The soft underlying theoretical assumption that guides this type of pedagogy is that the behavior of teachers needs to be controlled and made consistent and predictable across different schools and student populations.  The more hidden and hard assumption at work here is that teachers cannot be intellectuals, cannot think imaginatively and cannot engage in forms of pedagogy that might enable students to think differently, critically or more imaginatively. The deskilling of teachers, the reduction of reason to a form of instrumental rationality, and the disinvestment in education as a public good is also evident on a global level in policies produced by the World Bank that impose on countries forms of privatization and standardized curricula that undermine the potential for critical inquiry and engaged citizenship. Learning in this instance is depoliticized, prioritized as a method and often reduced to teaching low-level skills, disciplinary-imposed behaviors and corporate values. Neoliberal disciplinary measures now function to limit students to the private orbits in which they experience their lives while restricting the power of teachers to teach students to think rationally, judge wisely and be able to connect private troubles to broader public considerations.

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