We can fight the dictatorship of ignorance — and we can win
What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social has been individualized, emotional life collapses into the therapeutic, and education is reduced to either a private affair or a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation in which everything is reduced to a desired outcome? What role can education play to challenge the deadly neoliberal claim that all problems are individual, regardless of whether the roots of such problems lie in larger systemic forces? In a culture drowning in a new love affair with instrumental rationality, it is not surprising that values that are not measurable — compassion, trust, solidarity, care for the other and a passion for justice — wither.
Given the crisis of education, agency and memory that haunts the current historical conjuncture, the left and other progressives need a new vocabulary for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which there is an unprecedented convergence of resources — financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military and technological — increasingly used to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control and domination. Such a language needs to be political without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. In this instance, making the pedagogical more political means being vigilant about what Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham describe as "that very moment in which identities are being produced and groups are being constituted, and [knowledge and values] are being created.”
At the same time, it means educators and other cultural workers need to be attentive to those practice in which critical modes of agency and particular identities are being denied. It also means developing a comprehensive understanding of politics, one that should begin with the call to reroute single-issue politics into a mass social movement under the banner of a defense of the public good, the commons and a global democracy. In addition, how can educational and pedagogical practices be connected to the resurrection of historical memory, new modes of solidarity, a resurgence of the radical imagination and broad-based struggles for democratic socialist society? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism’s most brutal weapon: “the slow cancellation of the future?”
In part, this suggests developing pedagogical practices that not only inspire and energize people but also are also capable of challenging the growing number of anti-democratic practices and policies under the global tyranny of casino capitalism. Such a vision suggests resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, and which elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes, an audit culture, market values, and an unreflective immersion in the crude empiricism of a data-obsessed, market-driven society. In addition, it rejects the notion that all levels of schooling can be reduced to sites for training students for the workforce and that the culture of public and higher education is synonymous with the culture of business.
At issue here is the need for educators, young people and others to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures and social formations necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations and politics. Embracing the dictates of making education meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, however, also means recognizing that cultural apparatuses such as mainstream media and digital platforms are teaching machines, not simply sources of information and entertainment. Such sites should be spheres of struggle removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as propaganda and disimagination machines.
Central to any viable notion of what makes pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that it is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations because it narrates particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others and our physical and social environment. More than a teaching method, pedagogy is a moral and political practice actively involved not only in the production of knowledge, skills and values but also in the construction of identities, modes of identification and forms of individual and social agency. It is in this respect that any discussion of pedagogy must be attentive to how pedagogical practices work in a variety of sites to produce particular ways in which identity, place, worth and, above all, values are organized and contribute to producing a formative culture capable of sustaining a vibrant democracy.
In this instance, pedagogy as the practice of freedom emphasizes critical reflection, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and difficult knowledge, and extending democratic rights and identities by using the resources of history and theory. Unfortunately, among many educators, progressives and social theorists, there is a widespread refusal to recognize that this form of education not only takes place in schools, but is also part of the educative nature of the culture. At the core of analyzing and engaging culture as a pedagogical practice are fundamental questions about how culture functions as a pedagogical machine, what it means to engage common sense as a way to shape and influence popular opinion, and how diverse educational practices in multiple sites can be used to challenge the vocabularies, practices and values of the oppressive forces at work under neoliberal regimes of power.
There is an urgent political need for a public to understand what it means for an authoritarian society to both weaponize and trivialize the discourse, vocabularies, images and aural means of communication in a society. How is language used to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of craven self-interest, legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity, portray essential public services as reinforcing and weakening any viable sense of individual responsibility, and, among other instances, using the language of war and militarization to describe a vast array of problems that nations face. In an age that echoes the nightmares of a fascist past, war has become an addiction, the war on terror a Pavlovian stimulant for control, and shared fears one of the few discourses available for defining any vestige of solidarity.
Such falsehoods are now part of the reigning neoliberal ideology, proving once again that pedagogy is central to politics itself because it is about changing the way people see things, recognizing that politics is educative and that domination resides not simply in repressive economic structures but also in the realm of ideas, beliefs and modes of persuasion. Just as I would argue that pedagogy has to be able to speak to people in a way that is meaningful, offering them an opportunity to see a relationship between knowledge and their everyday lives, I think it is fair to argue that there is no politics without a pedagogy of identification; that is, people have to invest something of themselves in how they are addressed or recognize that any mode of education, argument, idea or pedagogy has to speak to their condition and provide a moment of recognition.
Lacking this understanding, pedagogy all too easily becomes a form of symbolic and intellectual violence, one that assaults rather than educates. Another example of such violence can be seen in the form of high-stakes testing and empirically driven teaching that dominate public schooling in the United States, which amount to pedagogies of repression and serve primarily to numb the mind and produce what might be called dead zones of the imagination. These are pedagogies that are largely serve to discipline and have little regard for contexts, history, making knowledge meaningful, or expanding what it means for students to be critically engaged agents. Of course, the ongoing corporatization and militarization of all levels of education are driven by an audit culture and modes of assessment that treat knowledge as a commodity, students as customers, and teachers and faculty as Walmart workers, and that impose brutalizing structures of governance on education, especially higher education. Under such circumstances, pedagogy becomes a tool of control, enforces powerlessness, and is used to strip teachers of their autonomy and students of their capacity to think critically.
Public and higher education represent two of the most important sites over which the battle for democracy is being waged. These are the sites where the promise of a better future emerges from those visions and pedagogical practices that combine hope, agency, politics and moral responsibility as part of a broader emancipatory discourse. Teachers and academics have a distinct and unique obligation, if not a political and ethical responsibility, to make learning relevant to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method or research specialization.
More importantly, they can further the knowledge, passion, values and social relations in the service of forms of agency that are crucial to addressing important social issues in which education plays an important civic, critical and ethical role. That is, they can become relevant as citizen educators. In fact, public school teachers across the United States have come to recognize that they have been written out of the script of democracy. They and have waged a series of strikes that speak to a resurgent mass resistance against the attacks that have been waged and continue to be waged by the financial elite, neoliberal politicians and religious fundamentalists.
The attacks on public higher education have also been precipitous, encompassing both drastic cuts in funding and a full-fledged assault on the power of faculty and tenure itself. Faculty face special challenges if they attempt to function as public intellectuals, especially at a time when the neoliberal university is making them disposable by systematically eliminating full-time, tenure-track jobs. In the current historical moment, 75 percent of all faculty in higher education are employed as contingent labor and lack adequate wages, support services and time to do their research. They often live in fear of taking on critical issues while enduring the existential burden of shame, surrender and despair. Herb Childress is right to argue that such academics have become another category in the neoliberal embrace of disposability and have become refugees in a country that both fears and disrespects them.
The fundamental challenge facing educators within the current age of neoliberalism, militarism and religious fundamentalism is to provide the conditions for students to address how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency. This suggests providing students with the knowledge, skills, ideas, values and authority necessary for them to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and to fight deeply rooted injustices in a society and world founded on systemic economic, racial and gendered inequalities. As Hannah Arendt argued in “The Crisis of Education,” the centrality of education to politics is also manifest in the responsibility for the world that cultural workers have to assume when they engage in pedagogical practices that lie on the side of belief and persuasion, especially when they challenge forms of domination.
At the same time, any critical comprehension of those wider forces that shape public and higher education must also be supplemented by an attentiveness to the historical and conditional nature of pedagogy itself. This suggests that pedagogy can never be treated as a fixed set of principles and practices that can be applied indiscriminately across a variety of pedagogical sites. Pedagogy is not some recipe or methodological fix that can be imposed on all classrooms. On the contrary, it must always be contextually defined, allowing it to respond specifically to the conditions, formations and problems that arise in various sites in which education takes place. Such a project suggests recasting pedagogy as a practice that is indeterminate, open to constant revision, and constantly in dialogue with its own assumptions.
The notion of a neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. Education and pedagogy do not exist outside of relations of power, values and politics. Ethics on the pedagogical front demands an openness to the other, a willingness to engage a “politics of possibility” through a continual critical engagement with texts, images, events and other registers of meaning as they are transformed into pedagogical practices both within and outside the classroom. Pedagogy is never innocent and if it is to be understood and problematized as a form of academic labor, cultural workers have the opportunity not only to critically question and register their own subjective involvement in how and what they teach in and out of schools, but also to resist all calls to depoliticize pedagogy through appeals to either scientific objectivity or ideological dogmatism. This suggests the need for educators to rethink the cultural and ideological baggage they bring to each educational encounter; it also highlights the necessity of making educators ethically and politically accountable and self-reflective for the stories they produce, the claims they make upon public memory, and the images of the future they deem legitimate. Understood as a form of militant hope, pedagogy in this sense is not an antidote to politics, a nostalgic yearning for a better time, or for some “inconceivably alternative future.” Instead, in Terry Eagleton’s words, it is an “attempt to find a bridge between the present and future in those forces within the present which are potentially able to transform it.”
Militant hope is not a form of radical or fanciful optimism, which ignores the world as it is and the obstacles that have to be faced in the pursuit of economic and social justice. On the contrary, militant hope begins with “coming face-to-face with the world as it is rather than as we might want it to be” as part of an effort to rethink a future that does not imitate the present. Militant hope rejects the authoritarian politics of the current moment with its discourses of hate, its logic of disposability, and its attack on dissent and democracy. At the same time, it also resists the moderation and incrementalism at the heart of a liberalism which is wedded to the financial elite and helped create the massive inequality, deindustrialized cities, depressed working class, and landscapes of abandonment and degradation that fueled the rise of right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism.
At this point in the 21st century, the notion of the social and the public are not being erased as much as they are being reconstructed under circumstances in which public forums for serious debate, including public education, are being eroded. Reduced either to a crude instrumentalism or business culture, or defined as a purely private right rather than a public good, our major educational apparatuses are being removed from the discourse of democracy and civic culture. Under the influence of powerful financial interests and ideological fundamentalists, we have witnessed the takeover of public and increasingly higher education as well as diverse media sites by a corporate logic that both numbs the mind and the soul, emphasizing repressive ideologies that promote winning at all costs, learning how not to question authority, and undermining the hard work of learning how to be thoughtful, critical and attentive to the power relations that shape everyday life and the larger world.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has become the model for this type of repression, and has been praised by Donald Trump. As learning is privatized, depoliticized, and reduced to teaching students how to be good consumers, any viable notions of society, public values, citizenship and democracy wither and die. Under the reign of neoliberalism with its antithesis for community, embrace of deregulation, privatization and consumerism, individuals can only find sanctuary in the feudal orbits of self-interest, a selfie culture, and individualistic rather than social goals.
As a central element of a broad-based cultural politics, critical pedagogy, in its various forms, when linked to the ongoing project of democratization, can provide opportunities for educators and other cultural workers to redefine and transform the connections among language, desire, meaning, everyday life and material relations of power as part of a broader social movement to reclaim the promise and possibilities of democracy. Critical pedagogy is dangerous to many people and others because it provides the conditions for students and the wider public to exercise their intellectual capacities, embrace the ethical imagination, hold power accountable and embrace a sense of social responsibility.
The paramount role of violence in many countries today raises questions about the role of education, teachers and students in a time of tyranny. How might we imagine education as central to politics whose task is, in part, to create a new language for students, one that is crucial to reviving a radical imagination, a notion of social hope, and the courage to collective struggle? How might higher education and other cultural institutions address the deep, unchecked nihilism and despair of the current moment? How might higher education be persuaded not to abandon democracy, and take seriously the need to create informed citizens capable of fighting what Walter Benjamin once called the “illumination” of fascism and its swindle of fulfillment? As Christopher Newfield argues, “democracy needs a public” and public and higher education have a crucial role to play in this regard as democratic public goods rather than defining themselves through market-driven values and modes of accountability defined by the financial elite.
One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers and other cultural workers is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility. This means developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect reading the word with reading the world, and doing so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people as critical agents and engaged citizens. In taking up this project, educators and others should attempt 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. Nevertheless, raising consciousness is not enough. Students need to be inspired and energized to address important social issues, learning to narrate their private troubles as public issues, and to engage in forms of resistance that are both local and collective, while connecting such struggles to more global issues.
Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as public and higher education in which civic values, public scholarship and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. The question regarding what role education should play in democracy becomes all the more urgent at a time when the dark forces of authoritarianism are on the march in the United States and a range of other countries. As public values, trust, solidarities and modes of education are under siege, the discourses of hate, racism, rabid self-interest and greed are gaining traction. Under such circumstances, civic illiteracy substitutes opinions for informed arguments; it works to erase collective memory, and becomes complicit with the militarization of individual lives, public spaces and society itself.
I want to return to the Trump administration because it is in the forefront of obstructing reason, producing endless lies and constructing a vast ecosphere of illiteracy and ignorance. Trump represents a distinctive and dangerous form of American-bred authoritarianism, but at the same time he is the outcome of a past that needs to be remembered, analyzed and engaged for the lessons it can teach us about the present. Not only has Trump “normalized the unspeakable” and in some cases the unthinkable, he has also forced us to ask questions we have never asked before about capitalism, power, politics and, yes, courage itself. In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, citizenship and justice that has real substance.
One challenge is to confront the horrors of capitalism and its transformation into a form of fascism under Trump. There will be no real movement for change without, as David Harvey has pointed out, “a strong anti-capitalist movement.” In addition, no movement will succeed without addressing the need for a revolution in consciousness and values, one that makes education central to politics. As Fred Jameson has suggested, such a revolution cannot take place by limiting our choices to a fixation on the “impossible present.” Nor can it take place by limiting ourselves to a language of critique and a narrow focus on isolated issues.
What is needed is also a language of militant possibility and a comprehensive politics that draws from history and rethinks the meaning of politics, embracing what Gregory Leffel calls a language of “imagined futures.” Ideally, such a language “can [help] snap us out of present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there and inspire heroic commitment.” Another challenge faced by such a language is the need to create political formations capable of understanding neoliberal fascism as a totality, a single integrated system whose shared roots extend from class and racial injustices under financial capitalism to ecological problems and the increasing expansion of the carceral state and the military-industrial-academic complex. Nancy Fraser is right to argue that we need a subjective response capable of connecting diverse racial, social and economic crises and in doing so addressing the objective structural forces that underpin them. William Faulkner once remarked that we live with the ghosts of the past, or to be more precise: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Donald Trump stands as proof that we are once again living with the ghosts of a dark past. The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice and collective action in the fight for a democratically socialist society.