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Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots and Rick Santorum

Democracy cannot function without an informed citizenry, and an ignorant public is just what Santorum and his allies count on.

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What are we to make of a incident in a Stockton school where a five-year-old was handcuffed and taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation? This hard-to-believe event happened because the child in question pushed away a police officer's hand after he placed it on the child's shoulder. What does it mean when young people are charged with assault for engaging in behaviors that, in the past, would have barely solicited a teacher's attention? How do we defend a public schools system that warrants the pepper spraying of a child with an IQ well below 70 because "he didn't understand what the police were saying?" 

This is barbarism parading as sound educational and disciplinary practice. As is well known, zero tolerance laws have become a plague imposed on public schooling. In fact, they have become a shameless quick and easy fix for punishing young people. For example, Texas served more than a 1,000 primary school kids over a six-year period with tickets for misbehaving and, in some cases, fines ran as high as $500. In Chicago, Noble Street schools, run by Michael Milkie, set up a dehumanizing discipline system that repeatedly issued demerits and fines to students "for 'minor infractions' ranging from not sitting up straight to openly carrying ' flaming hot' chips." In the course of three years, ten Noble schools netted $386,745.00 in fines. The Advancement project has called such disciplinary practices " pernicious and harmful to youth." 

No doubt, but they are also harmful to poor families who have to choose between buying food and paying school administrators for punishing and cruel fines. In many respects, this amounts to a tax on poor people, one that Matthew Mayer, a professor in the graduate school of education at Rutgers University, described as "almost medieval in nature. It's a form a financial torture, for lack of a better term.... because it likely has no bearing on students' academic performance and disproportionately hurts poor families." Clearly, this practice cannot be defended as a disciplinary measure, however stringent. On the contrary, it is a form of harassment, one that is aimed at both students and their parents. And what is the pedagogical rationale for this illogical and cruel practice? Students in this pedagogical scenario are reduced to Pavlovian dogs, while the anti-public privateers extend the reach of the punishing state into the school and make a large profit to boot. What is it about critical schooling and pedagogy that is so dangerous to the religious and ideological fundamentalists?

The most obvious answer is that critical pedagogy believes in forms of governing that respect both teachers and administrators on the one hand, and students on the other. That is, it supports those institutional conditions that extend from decent pay to equitable modes of governance that make good teaching possible. Second, it argues for modes of education that extend the capacities of students to both critique existing social forms and institutions and transform them when necessary. Put bluntly, it insists that knowledge is crucial not merely to thinking critically, but also to acting responsibly in the service of civic courage. What the critics of critical pedagogy refuse to accept is that as a moral and political practice, rather than an empty and sterile method, critical pedagogy offers the promise of educating students to be able to reject the official lies of power and the utterly reductive notion of training as a substitute for an informed mode of education. Paraphrasing Bill Moyers, critical pedagogy is, in part, part of a project whose purpose is to dignify " people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency." In this instance, critical pedagogy opens up a space where students should be able to come to terms with their own power as critical agents; it provides a sphere where the unconditional freedom to question and assert one's voice, however different, is central to the purpose of public education, if not democracy itself. And as a political and moral practice, pedagogy should make clear both the multiplicity and complexity of history as a narrative in which students can engage as part of critical dialogue rather than accept unquestioningly. Similarly, such a pedagogy should cultivate in students a healthy skepticism about power, a "willingness to temper any reverence for authority with a sense of critical awareness." As a performative practice, pedagogy should provide the conditions for students to be able to reflectively frame their own relationship to the on-going project of an unfinished democracy. It is precisely this relationship between democracy and pedagogy that is so threatening to conservatives such as Santorum, Sarah Palin, and other religious advocates of the new theocracy as the only mode of political governance and learning.