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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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Right-wing fundamentalists such as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum hate public schools, which he suggests are government schools wedded to doing the work of Satan, dressed up in the garb of the Enlightenment. Santorum, true to his love affair with the very secular ideology of privatization, prefers home schooling, which is code for people taking responsibility for whatever social issues or problems they may face, whether it be finding the best education for their children or securing decent health care.

Actually, Santorum and many of his allies dislike any public institution that enables people to think critically and act with a degree of responsibility toward the public. This is one reason why they hate any notion of public education, which harbors the promise, if not the threat, of actually educating students to be thoughtful, self-reflective and capable of questioning so-called common sense and holding power accountable. Of course, some progressives see this as simply another example of how the right wing of the Republican Party seems to think that being stupid is in. But there is more going on here than the issue of whether right-wing fundamentalists are intellectually and politically challenged. What makes critical education, especially, so dangerous to radical Christian evangelicals, neoconservatives and right-wing nationalists in the United States today is that, central to its very definition, is the task of educating students to become critical agents who can actively question and negotiate the relationships between individual troubles and public issues. In other words, students who can lead rather than follow, embrace reasoned arguments over opinions and reject common sense as the engine of truth.

What Santorum and his allies realize is that democracy cannot function without an informed citizenry and that, in the absence of such a citizenry, we have a public disinvested from either thinking reflectively or acting responsibly. There is nothing more feared by this group of fundamentalists than individuals who can actually think critically and reflectively and are willing to invest in reason and freedom rather than a crude moralism and a reductionistic appeal to faith as the ultimate basis of agency and politics. What Santorum and his appeal to theocracy longs for is a crowd of followers willing to lose themselves in causes and movements that trade in clichés and common sense. This is the Tea Party crowd with their overt racism, dislike for critical thought and longing for outlets through which they can vent their anger, moral panics and hatred for those who reject their rigid Manichean view of the world. This is a crowd that embraces the likes of Santorum and other fundamentalists because they provide the outlets in which such groups can fulfill their desire to be amused by what might be called the spectacle of anti-politics.

As the anti-public politicians and administrative incompetents in Arizona made clear in their banning ethnic studies and censoring books critical of a conflict-free version of American history, critical pedagogy is especially dangerous. Not only does it offer students a way of connecting education to social change, it also invokes those subordinated histories, narratives and modes of knowledge in an attempt to give students often rendered voiceless the capacities to both read the word and the world critically. But the religious fanatics and privatizing fundamentalists do more than censor critical thought; they also substitute a pedagogy of punishment for a pedagogy of critical learning. Too many children in America now attend schools modeled after prisons. Schools have become places where the challenge of teaching and learning has been replaced by an obsession with crime, punishment and humiliation. Too many young people are being charged with criminal misdemeanors for behaviors that are too trivial to criminalize.