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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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Making the political more pedagogical means treating students as critical agents; making knowledge problematic and open to debate; engaging in critical and thoughtful dialogue; and making the case for a qualitatively better world for all people. In part, this suggests that teachers as public intellectuals take seriously the need to give students an active voice in their learning experiences. It also means developing a critical vernacular that is attentive to problems experienced at the level of everyday life, particularly as they are related to pedagogical experiences connected to classroom practice. As such, the pedagogical starting point for such intellectuals is not the isolated student removed from the historical and cultural forces that bear down on their lives but individuals in their various cultural, class, racial and historical contexts, along with the particularity of their diverse problems, hopes, and dreams.

As public intellectuals, teachers should develop a discourse that unites the language of critique with the language of possibility.  In this instance, educators not only recognize the need to act on the world, to connect reading the word with reading the world, but also make clear that it is within their power individually and collectively to do so. In taking up this project, they should work under conditions that allow them to speak out against economic, political and social injustices both within and outside of schools. At the same time, they should work to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to become critical and engaged citizens who have the knowledge and courage to struggle in order to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. Hope in this case is neither a call to social engineering nor an excuse to overlook the difficult conditions that shape both schools and the larger social order. On the contrary, it is the precondition for providing those languages and values that point the way to a more democratic and just world. As Judith Butler has argued, there is more hope in the world when we can question common sense assumptions and believe that what we know is directly related to our ability to help change the world around us, though it is far from the only condition necessary for such change. [22] Hope provides the basis for dignifying our labor as intellectuals; it offers up critical knowledge linked to democratic social change, and allows teachers and students to recognize ambivalence and uncertainty as fundamental dimensions of learning. As Ernst Bloch insists, hope is "not yet in the sense of a possibility; that it could be there if we could only do something for it." [23] Hope offers the possibility of thinking beyond the given - and lays open a pedagogical terrain in which teachers and students can engage in critique, dialogue and an open-ended struggle for justice. As difficult as this task may seem to educators, if not to a larger public, it is a struggle worth waging. To deny educators the opportunity to assume the role of public intellectuals is to prevent teachers from gaining control over the conditions of the work, denying them the right to "push at the frontiers, to worry the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected things, to find magic in places where others never thought to look," [24] and to model what it means for intellectuals to exhibit civic courage by giving education a central role in constructing a world that is more just, equitable and democratic in dark times.

What role might public school teachers play as public intellectuals in light of the brutal killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School?  In the most immediate sense, they can raise their collective voices against the educational influence of a larger culture and spectacle of violence and the power of the gun lobby to flood the country with deadly weapons. They can show how this culture of violence is only one part of a broader and all-embracing militarized culture of war, arms industry and a Darwinian survival of the fittest ethic, more characteristic of an authoritarian society than a democracy. They can mobilize young people to both stand up for teachers, students and public schools by advocating for policies that invest in schools rather than in the military-industrial complex and its massive and expensive weapons of death. They can educate young people and a larger public to support gun regulation and the democratization of the culture industries that now trade in violence as a form of entertainment; they can speak out against the educational, political, and economic conditions in which violence has become a sport in America - one of the most valuable practices and assets of the national entertainment state.  The violent screen culture of video games, extreme sports, violent Hollywood films, television dramas and other cultural productions do not just produce entertainment, they are mainly teaching machines that instruct children into a sadistic culture in which killing is all right, violence is fun and masculinity is defined increasingly through its propensity to make celebrities out of killers. This is a culture that serves as a recruiting tool for the military, makes military force rather than democratic idealism the highest national ideal and war the most important organizing principle of society. 

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