Education and the Crisis of Public Values

Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, & Public Education

by Henry A. Giroux (Author)
Textbook XII, 129 Pages
Series: Counterpoints

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Praise for the First Edition of Education and the Crisis of Public Values
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Reversing the Authoritarian Assault on Public Education
  • 1. In Defense of Public School Teachers in a Time of Crisis
  • 2. When Generosity Hurts: Bill Gates, Public School Teachers, and the Politics of Humiliation.
  • 3. Teachers Without Jobs and Education Without Hope: Beyond Bailouts and the Fetish of the Measurement Trap
  • 4. Chartering Disaster: Why Duncan’s Corporate-Based Schools Can’t Deliver an Education That Matters
  • 5. Dumbing Down Teachers: Attacking Colleges of Education in the Name of Reform
  • 6. Business Culture and the Death of Public Education: Mayor Bloomberg, David Steiner, and the Politics of Corporate “Leadership”
  • 7. Public Intellectuals, the Politics of Clarity, and the Crisis of Language
  • 8. Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of Bearing Witness
  • Interviews
  • Predatory Capitalism and the Attack on Higher Education
  • The Specter of Authoritarianism and the Future of the Left: An Interview with Henry A. Giroux
  • Intellectuals in the Age of Neoliberal Terror
  • Heather McLean Interview with Henry A. Giroux
  • Henry Giroux on the Militarization of Public Pedagogy
  • Hardened Cultures and the War on Youth: A Conversation with Henry A. Giroux
  • Current “Reforms” Attempt to Drive Young People Out of Democracy: Interview with Henry A. Giroux
  • Index
  • Series Index

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I want to thank Chris Myers for urging me to do a second edition of this book. His support is always deeply appreciated. I also want to thank Ken Saltman and Donaldo Macedo for the many conversations we have had about education. Shirley Steinberg and Peter McLaren have always been enormously supportive of my work in ways that have proven very helpful over the years. Brad Evans is a model of what a colleague should be like. Susan Giroux is my intellectual companion and just brilliant in her interventions, ideas, help with titles, and in the end with the advice that often changes the way I think about issues. I don’t know how to thank her either enough or in a way that would match how appreciative I am. Maya, my assistant for almost a decade never fails to be professional, supportive, joyous, and just a wonderful person to be around. My graduate students Jenny Fisher, Clorinde Peters, and Tyler Pollard are a great source of inspiration, hope, and friendship. They are the best of the best.

Many of these interviews were published in Truthout and I am thankful for the support of Victoria Harper, Leslie Thatcher, and Maya Schenwar who have been enormously generous and helpful as my editors and friends.

Tyler Pollard’s interview is drawn largely from and first published in Pollard, Tyler J. (2014), “Hardened Cultures and the War on Youth: A Conversation with Henry A. Giroux,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 36(3), 180–192.

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Reversing the Authoritarian Assault on Public Education


By the time this introduction is published in the second edition of Education and the Crisis of Public Values, both the Senate and House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republican Party, one of the most extremist, anti-public education political parties in U.S. history.1 Coupled with the empty centrism of the Democratic Party, its ascendency does not bode well for public education or a host of other important social issues. Nor does it bode well for democracy. If we conjured up George Orwell and his fear of state surveillance, Hannah Arendt and her claim that thoughtlessness was the foundation of totalitarianism, and Franz Kafka whose characters embodied the death of agency and the “helplessness of the living,”2 it would be difficult for these dystopian works of literary and philosophical imagination to compete with the material realization of the assault on public education and public values in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century.

These are dangerous times. Compromise and compassion are now viewed as pathology, a blight on the very meaning of politics. Moreover, in a society controlled by financial monsters, the political order is no longer sustained by a faith in reason, critical thought, and care for the other. As any vestige of critical education, thought and dissent are disparaged, the assault on reason gives way to both a crisis in agency and politics. The right-wing Republican Party and their Democratic counterparts along with their corporate supporters despise public schools as much as they disdain taxation, institutions that ← xi | xii → enable critical thinking, and any call for providing social provisions that would benefit the public good. Not only are both parties attempting to privatize much of public education in order to make schools vehicles for increasing the profits of investors, they are also destroying the critical infrastructures that sustain schools as democratic public spheres.

Teachers have been deskilled. Losing much of their autonomy to be creative in the classroom, they have been relegated to technicians whose sole objective appears to be enforcing a deadening instrumental rationality in which teaching to the test becomes the primary model of teaching and learning. Moreover, they are being demonized by the claim that the major problem with public education is lack of teacher accountability. The hidden order of politics here is that larger political and economic considerations such as crushing poverty, mammoth inequality, a brutalizing racism, and iniquitous modes of financing public education all disappear from the list of problems facing schooling in the United States. Teachers also serve as an easy target for the (un)reformers to weaken unions, bash organized labor, discredit public servants, and “argue that education can be improved if taxpayer money is funneled away from the public school system’s priorities (hiring teachers, implementing creative pedagogies, increasing teacher autonomy, reducing class size, etc.) and into the private sector (replacing teachers with computers, removing teachers’ job protections, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, etc.).”3

These policies and practices echo the principles of casino capitalism or neoliberalism and are designed to enforce a pedagogy of repression, one that kills the imagination, sanctions a deadening mode of memorization, and instills in students the discipline necessary for them to accommodate willingly to existing power relations at the expense of developing their capacity to be critical and engaged agents. In this case, the aim of this pedagogy of repression mimics Hannah Arendt’s claim that “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”4 Public schools are also being defunded as states increasingly develop policies that drain state budgets by giving corporations substantial tax breaks. Diane Ravitch elaborates on the right-wing agenda to destroy public education, which consists of a range of groups ranging from right-wing politicians to shadowy groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. She is worth quoting in full:

Since the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of many states, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights. Even some Democratic governors, seeing the strong rightward drift of our politics, ← xii | xiii → have jumped on the right-wing bandwagon, seeking to remove any protection for academic freedom from public school teachers. This outburst of anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators. Its hallmark is promotion of privatization and corporate interests in every sphere, not only education, but healthcare, the environment, the economy, voting laws, public safety, etc. It drafts model legislation that conservative legislators take back to their states and introduce as their own “reform” ideas. ALEC is the guiding force behind state-level efforts to privatize public education and to turn teachers into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason. The ALEC agenda is today the “reform” agenda for education.5

The educational needs of students for many Republican and Democratic Party members, pundits, lobbying groups, and politicians rank low next to the financial needs of hedge fund managers, the ultra-rich such as Bill Gates, the Walton family, and the Koch brothers as well as the legislators who make up ALEC, and any number of major corporations. Individual achievement is invoked to justify education as a private right rather than a public good. The discourses of empiricism and standardized testing become the ultimate measures of achievement just as pedagogical matters concerning civic responsibility, engaged citizenship, thoughtfulness, and critical thought disappear from the vocabulary of educational reform.

Under the regime of neoliberalism, community and working together are viewed as burdens because they are at odds with the neoliberal celebration of a survival-of-the fittest ethos. Paul Buchheit goes even further arguing that “Privatizers believe that any form of working together as a community is anti-American.”6 In this instance, the labeling community and caring for the other as anti-American has deeper political roots. As Robert Hunziker observes, “As for neoliberalism, its dictate of ‘survival of the fittest economics’ is really ‘bottom-feeder economics’ whereby the rich accumulate more and more and more at the expense of lower and lower and lower wages, less benefits, and crushed self-esteem. What could be worse?”7

As Aaron Kase reports, defunding for public education has gotten so out of control that one public school in Philadelphia asked parents to “chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.”8 Equality, justice, and the search for truth no longer define the mission of public education. Economic policies that benefit the bankers, corporations, and the financial elite result in massive inequities in wealth, income, and power increasingly determine how the American public views both public education and the ← xiii | xiv → needs of young people. As market economies are transformed into market societies, the investment in human capital such as young people has been replaced by an overdetermined emphasis on investing in economic capital. Unchecked market fundamentalism now eats its own children while destroying any viable hope they may have for being included in the social and political infrastructure of democracy and a future that benefits them.9

Moreover, the rights of teachers and children are more difficult to protect as unions are either dismantled or weakened by the apostles of neoliberalism and privatization. Secondary education is no longer a right but an entitlement designed mostly to benefit the children of the rich who either flee from public schools to wealthy private schools or attend public schools in wealthy communities that more often than not resemble private schools in terms of how they segregate in class and racial terms, cater to the whims of the rich, and enshrine values that are consistent with the market. Schooling for poor minorities of class and color defined by the school-to-prison-pipeline has come to represent an appendage of the carceral state. This is not only an attack on public education but an attack on democracy itself. The infrastructure of education has been under assault since the 1980s with the advent of market fundamentalism in America and the growing disdain for the welfare state, the public good, and public values. By infrastructure, I am referring to the material, financial, and intellectual resources necessary for public schools to be able to function in ways that protect teacher autonomy, encourage viable unions, create curricula that are both critical and meaningful, and produce modes of critical pedagogy that truly embrace education as the practice of freedom and young people as critical agents and engaged citizens necessary for making democracy meaningful and substantive.

The shadow of Orwell now haunts public education and democracy itself as the political defenders of torture and state surveillance take control of Congress. As lawlessness and moral depravity infect all modes of governance, the push toward treating public schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, as prisons and students as objects of surveillance and control has become more widespread. The presence of police, guards, cameras, and a host of surveillance and security apparatuses have turned schools into incubators for students willing to surrender their freedoms to the national security state. The ghost of Kafka disturbs any vision of democratic education as fear becomes the operative principle in organizing public education, especially for schools largely inhabited by poor minorities of class and color. For the underserved, education is designed not to inspire and energize. Nor is it designed to get students to think, reflect, or question. On the contrary, such schools disable the capacities of students to become knowledgeable, informed ← xiv | xv → speaking agents. Instead, it relegates them to the dreary pedagogical tasks of mastering low-level skills such as memorization, a willingness to conform, and a refusal to question authority. This is more than a pedagogy of repression, it is a pedagogy of helplessness that infantilizes students while dethroning any relationship between learning and social change.

Schools have become punishing factories subjecting students to zero tolerance policies that three decades ago were only tolerated in prisons.10 Security has been turned into a police matter rather than a term that points to pedagogies, classroom policies, emotional support, and modes of administration that provide spaces that dignify students, invest in their welfare, encourage them to expand their capacities for learning, and embrace pedagogies that are meaningful, critical, and transformative. Schools no longer are viewed as places that create dreams of greatness, extend the horizons of the imagination, or point to a future that refuses to mimic the present. On the contrary, they are increasingly held hostage both to the market values embraced by the corporate and financial elite and the fundamentalist ideologies of religious conservatives. It gets worse.

Orwell’s premonition about state-induced surveillance and Kafka’s understanding of the danger of powerlessness encouraged by regimes of fear are now matched by Arendt’s warning that human subjectivity is the foundation of politics and that any threat to critical thought, especially through a culture that directs desire into the most trivial of pursuits and anti-intellectual modes of learning, is as dangerous to democracy as the heavy hand of state repression. Although Arendt did not use the phrase radical imagination to bring home her warning about the crisis and death of critical agency that is exactly what is being destroyed in the testing factories and penal warehouses replacing public education. As the imagination no longer becomes the subject and object of learning, thoughtlessness expands as does the foundation for creating students more suited for a totalitarian regime than for a struggling democracy. Totalitarian governments believe that thinking is dangerous and rightly so. As Arendt points out,

Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. So how I can convince...I think, nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking, ne pas reflechir c’est plus dangereux encore [not thinking is even more dangerous].11

In the new Gilded Age with its growing economic divisions, vast punishing state, its criminalization of social behaviors, and its war on youth and ← xv | xvi → minorities of class and race, public education is being destroyed. Against the prevailing anti-democratic reforms of the economic and religious fundamentalists, the noble belief in schools as democratic public spheres and in schooling as the center of critical thinking and learning needs to be reclaimed, struggled over, and taken up as part of a larger social movement for the defense of the public good, public values, and the democratic commons. It is precisely the concept of education as a building block for both critically engaged youth and a broader public and for a radical politics that inspires a great deal of fear in the billionaire, anti-public (un)reformers.12

Within the next decade the new extremists who now control the commanding institutions of culture, politics, and economics will do everything they can to replace a weakly implemented ideal of democracy with the economic and social principles of a ruthless mode of casino capitalism, which constitutes a new form of authoritarianism. Public spheres that provide a challenge to market-driven fundamentalisms that “promote selfishness and thereby corrode both society and the moral character of individuals” will be under further assault and run the risk of disappearing altogether.13 As selfishness and the amassing of great wealth and power are transformed by the new extremists into a civic virtue, agency itself withers, trapped within the orbit of an inward-looking privatized world.

But there is more at stake here than the collapse of public values and the destruction of a comprehensive vision of politics, largely under assault by the ongoing predatory market forces of commodification, privatization, and an unchecked celebration of self-interests as the cornerstone of human agency. Racist killings, the loss of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, the growing poverty and widening inequality, the increasing corporatization of public goods, and the depleting of resources that serve the commons all point to something more than the mounting privatization and atomizing of everyday life, along with the growing militarization, spying, xenophobia, racism, and other antidemocratic practices in American society.

What unites all of these disparate issues is a growing threat of authoritarianism—or what might be otherwise called totalitarianism with elections. Neoliberal societies embrace elections because they “exclude and alienate most people from political power” and thus provide a kind of magical defense for the authoritarian project of depoliticizing the public while removing all obstacles to their goal of defending massive inequities in power, wealth, and the accumulation of capital.14 It is impossible to understand the current assault on public education without coming to grips with the project of neoliberalism and its devaluation of the social, critical agency, and informed thinking as part of its attempt to consolidate class power in the hands of a largely white financial and corporate elite. ← xvi | xvii →

The struggle for public education as a crucial civic resource and public good must continue through the large-scale organizing of teachers and labor unions, students, and groups outside of education who are also struggling against a range of injustices. The struggle over public education cannot be removed from wider struggles against student debt, funding for public goods, the elimination of massive inequalities in wealth and power, the elimination of the military-industrial-security state, the abolition of police brutality, and the eradication of the punishing-mass incarceration state, among other struggles. These struggles all share underlying interests in restoring and reclaiming a notion of radical democracy that puts power in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the ruling elites. They also intersect around the need to elevate social needs over the narrow interests of the market and those elites who benefit from the financialization of society.

As the ruthlessness and misery produced by neoliberalism are made clear, the state resorts to increased levels of violence, often with impunity, particularly when it comes to attacking peaceful student protesters and assaulting and often killing unarmed black men.15 At the present moment, large-scale protests continue sporadically throughout the United States, making clear that the public will no longer tolerate the indiscriminate killing of black men, the enforcement of racist policies across a wide social landscape, unrestrained police brutality, and the continuing of widespread lawlessness that corrupts every institution—and schools in particular—that have been privatized and organized according to the narrow, if not savage and anti-democratic, interests of the market.

The ongoing protests in response to the killing and non-indictments of police officers who had killed Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, must intersect with protests over the defunding of public schools, the attack on welfare state institutions and services, the movement to save the environment, the anti-nuclear movements, and a host of other isolated movements that need to join together in a new political formation capable of challenging the financial elite who have taken over the U.S. government and all the commanding institutions of American society. The “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” protests must overlap and connect with the struggle over public and higher education and the broader struggle for reclaiming a democracy that fulfills both its most radical ideals and its commitment to the common good, public values, and a capacious notion of justice.

The best hope for reforming public education resides in the emergence of what Stanley Aronowitz calls “disruptive social movements that operate outside of the two-party system.”16 Young people, single women, gays, students, union members, and other left groups no longer believe in either the ← xvii | xviii → Democratic Party or the two-party system. How else to explain their massive refusal to vote in the 2014 elections, which had the lowest voter turnout since 1943? As Aronowitz points out, for the last few decades, the Democratic Party has been particularly beholden to big money, wealthy donors, and the Pentagon and has pursued “centrist politics that allow them to follow the Republicans ever further to the right.”17 Obama personifies the political and moral cowardice of the Democratic Party given his violation of civil liberties and civil institutions, the development of a foreign policy that amounts to a doctrine of perpetual war, and his backing of “corporate-friendly economic policies.”18 Moreover, the Obama administration’s educational policies have been more conservative than those of his predecessor George W. Bush and are based on accountability schemes that reproduce the worse of the testing craze along with an aggressive approach to promoting charter schools, attacking unions, and privatizing public education.

The current “disruptive social movements” emerging all over the country have not only opened up a national conversation about police brutality, they have also challenged the “conventional wisdom about what is possible” politically, and if they continue, they could produce more far-reaching changes.19 Both the movements against police brutality and the now largely defunct Occupy movement have provided new discursive signposts for acknowledging important social issues such as racially-based police brutality and massive inequality in wealth, income, and power. Central to these movements is the recognition of the educative nature of politics and the need to harness the rage of the public to points of identification that move people and indicate to them that they have the power collectively to challenge and transform the current corrupt regime of neoliberal capitalism.

These movements have created new ideological and affective spaces in which to assert the radical imagination and develop a project and politics of educated hope. Making education and the symbols of culture central to their tactics, they have engaged in a war in which representation, affect, struggle, and the need to produce new desires, identities, and modes of consciousness and agency matter. But they have done something more. These emerging movements are taking risks in not only confronting the raw power of state repression, they are also putting forth bold new and controversial issues such as gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the call for a social wage, single-payer universal health care, a shorter work week, the dismantling of the surveillance state, a new Marshall Plan for job development, free education, subsidized child care, and racial justice. Some progressives believe that one response to the extremism of the Republican Party can be found in pushing the Democratic Party to embrace more radical reforms such as gay marriage ← xviii | xix → and raising the minimum wage. The notion that real political, economic, and social reform can be realized within the Democratic Party is more than pure fantasy, it also suffers from a form of historical amnesia that refuses to recognize that the only “reform the Democratic Party has implemented is to move more and more to the right, all in the name of a safe centrism that has marked its legacy for the last fifty years.”20

What Orwell, Arendt, and Kafka have taught us is that when power is decoupled from accountability and responsibility, thoughtlessness prevails, repression increases, and fear becomes the organizing principle of totalitarian societies, whatever form they may take. The legacy of fear and the lawlessness it inspires runs deep in America, and its destructive effects are spreading into every public sphere capable of offering critical reflection on the nature of power in a society. The collapse of education into training, the loss of autonomy by teachers, the removal of the conditions that enable students to be critical and engaged citizens all speak to the character of a society in which independent thought is debased, creativity stifled, and dissent squelched.

We live in an age dominated by financial barbarians who are more than willing to place the vast majority of Americans in strangulating debt, low-paying jobs, devastating poverty, and spheres of life-threatening abjection, or, even worse in “criminogenic ghettoes” and penal gulags. Under such circumstances, the rich commit crimes with impunity while the poor are put in jail in record numbers. Depravity and illegality feed each other as torture is defended by the political leadership as a reasonable tactic to extract crucial information from prisoners. All that stands between state terrorism and mass-induced fear are informed citizens, critically educated agents, and political formations willing to act with the courage necessary to think politics anew while developing innovative strategies, institutions, and organizations that make it possible. Such struggles will not happen in the name of reform alone. Mass resistance to the authoritarian financial state must take place and its goal must be the dismantling of the current corrupt political system that has little to do with democracy and a great deal to do with the values, practices, and policies of authoritarianism. Liberal reforms constitute a form of political regression and lack a powerful vision for challenging the corrupt and lifeless political vision produced by the regime of neoliberalism.

At the same time, the democratic institutions in which education is defined as the practice of freedom, critical learning, and civic responsibility may be under siege by the lobbyists, hedge fund managers, and the billionaires club, but the radical spirit of education is too powerful to be contained under state and corporate repression. The promise of educated citizens along with the enduring character of critical reflection and search for economic, ← xix | xx → political, and racial justice lives on in the demonstrations of workers, unions, and young people all across America who are not just protesting police brutality but also marching in order to have their voices heard as part of the promise of a radical democracy along with the arrangements that give it and them a meaningful and just life. At its best education is dangerous because it offers young people and other actors the promise of racial and economic justice, a future in which democracy becomes inclusive, and a dream in which all lives matter. Ursula K. Le Guin who was recently honored at the National Book Awards speaks about the power of books, words, and artists who believe in the power of freedom, but I think her words also apply to education and other public intellectuals as well. She writes:

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.21

Le Guin’s words remind us of the power of education and point indirectly to the need to resist all forms of miseducation. Miseducation breeds isolated consumerism, ignorance, militarism, a hatred of the other, indifference to the public good, and feeds a logic of disposability embraced by those who view justice and democracy as a liberal burden, if not a pathology. At its best, the critical and humane spirt of public education lives on in the future of social movements and militant labor unions willing to unify into a third party, create a new language of politics, defend those civic principles that are incompatible with casino capitalism, and recognize that the most important investment a country can make is in its youth and educational institutions. The war on public education is part of the war on democracy, and it is, in part, born of the legitimate fear that the emergence of larger radical social movements will depend on the development of a formative educational culture and modes of subjectivity that enable the agents for such movements. That is a concern worth nurturing and a struggle worth waging but time is running out.

The bloodied child in Gottfried Helnwein’s “The Disasters of War 27, 2011” is a provocative and disturbing image that depicts the child in an age of militant neoliberal capitalism—no longer a symbol of innocence but an object of violence. No longer viewed as social investments, young children are now subject to a predatory capitalism that reduces them to commodities, ← xx | xxi → sexual objects, and part of the expanding populations of those groups considered disposable. In contemporary terms, this image of the bloodied child powerfully suggests how youthful innocence is tainted by the violence of war, vulnerable to drone attacks and invading hordes. It is an image we have witnessed repeatedly as a result of the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ferguson, Missouri. Such horrifying violence is repeatedly condemned by people of conscience all over the world. However, what is often overlooked is the theme I have tried to highlight in this book—the war waged against young people who are being subjected to the ravages of poverty, schools modelled after prisons, and modes of pedagogy that are as repressive as they are violent in their attempts to crush the spirit, intelligence, and creative imagination of young people. The American public has become numb to the stark violence in our schools. Hence, I felt it was pedagogically crucial to present an image of the wounded child that provokes a pause and is capable of promoting modes of critical analysis willing to interrogate the relationship between Helnwein’s metaphor of lost innocence and the role that schools play in inflicting acts of repression and violence on today’s youth. The implication throughout the book is that what is happening to young people in the public schools is tantamount to the larger war on youth being waged by the apostles of neoliberal misery. It is also suggestive of the violence taking place in schools against the backdrop of a culture of violence, the rise of a death-dealing gun culture, school shootings, draconian zero tolerance policies, and the increasing criminalization of an ever-expanding range of social behaviors in which young people engage. Young people are increasingly being written out of the vocabularies of justice, compassion, and cruelty, and schools should be the first place to resist such violence and educate young and old alike to create the conditions that eliminate it.


1. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

2. Cited in Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt, Trans by David Dollenmayer (New York: Other Press, 2013), p. 10.

3. David Sirota, “New Data Shows School “Reformers” Are Full of It,” Salon (June 3, 2013). Online: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/03/instead_of_a_war_on_teachers_how_about_one_on_poverty/

4. Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” The Origins of Totalitarianism (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York: 2001), p. 468.

5. Diane Ravitch, “The People Behind the Lawmakers Out to Destroy Public Education: A Primer What You Need to Know About ALEC,” CommonDreams.org (May 2, ← xxi | xxii → 2012). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2012/05/02/people-behind-lawmakers-out-destroy-public-education-primer

6. Paul Buchheit, “How Our Public Schools Became a ‘Communist Threat’,” Common Dreams (November 18, 2013). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2013/11/18/how-our-public-schools-became-communist-threat

7. Robert Hunziker, “A Neoliberal Spring?,” CounterPunch (December 18, 2014). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/18/a-neoliberal-spring/

8. Aaron Kase, “Public School Asks Parents to Pay $613 per Student as Right-Wing Governor Destroys Public Education with Insane Defunding,” AlterNet (August 22, 2013). Online: http://www.alternet.org/education/public-school-asks-parents-pay-613-student-right-wing-governor-destroys-public-education

9. See, for instance, Roger Cohen, “Capitalism Eating Its Children,” The New York Times (May 29, 2014). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/opinion/cohen-capitalism-eating-its-children.html?_r=0

10. See, for instance, the classic work on zero tolerance: William Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Rick Ayers, eds. Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools (New York: The New Press, 2001). See also, Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2013).

11. Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2013), p. 123.

12. Michael D. Yates, “Public School Teachers: New Unions, New Alliances, New Politics,” Truthout (July 24, 2013). Online: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/17756-public-school-teachers-new-unions-new-alliances-new-politics

13. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, “Selfishness in Austerity Times,” Soundings, Issue 56, Spring 2014, p. 55.

14. Lorenzo Del Savio and Matteo Mameli, “Anti-representative Democracy and Oligarchic Capture,” Open Democracy (August 16, 2014). Online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/lorenzo-del-savio-matteo-mameli/antirepresentative-democracy-and-oligarchic-capture

15. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait: Resisting the War Against the Black and Brown Underclass,” CounterPunch (November 25, 2014). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/25/75039/

16. Stanley Aronowitz, “Democrats in Disarray,” The Independent (December 16, 2004), p. 12.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. One recent example of this kind of pie in the sky politics can be found in Scott Galindez, “2014: The Beginning of the End for the GOP?” Reader Supported News (December 26, 2014). Online: http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/27704-focus-2014-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-the-gop

21. Ursula K. Le Guin, “We Will Need Writers Who Can Remember Freedom,” Speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. Online: http://parkerhiggins.net/2014/11/will-need-writers-can-remember-freedom-ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards/

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1. In Defense of Public School Teachers in a Time of Crisis

The noble tradition that once viewed public school teaching as an important public service is in rapid decline in the United States. This democratic legacy, advanced by important scholars such as Jane Addams and John Dewey, valued teachers for providing a crucial educational foundation in the service of the greater social good. Educators were viewed as a valuable resource in teaching students how to take responsibility for their future, develop an unrelenting fidelity to justice, and hone their ability to discriminate between rigorous arguments and heavily charged opinions. Such an education focused on enabling young people to develop the values, skills, and knowledge required for them to enter adult life as critical citizens capable of questioning “common sense,” official knowledge, public opinion, and the dominant media. Developing the conditions for students to be critical agents was viewed as central to the very process of teaching and learning and was part of the broader project of enabling students to both shape and expand democratic institutions. Since the 1980s, however, teachers have faced an unprecedented attack by those forces that view schools less as a public good than as a private right. Seldom accorded the well-deserved status of public intellectuals in the current educational climate, teachers remain the most important component in the learning process for students, while also serving as a moral compass to gauge how seriously a society invests in its youth and in the future. Yet teachers are now being deskilled, unceremoniously removed from the process of school ← 1 | 2 → governance, largely reduced to technicians, or subordinated to the authority of security guards.They are also being scapegoated by right-wing politicians who view them as the new “welfare queens” and their unions as a threat to the power of corporations and the values of a billionaire-sponsored market-driven educational movement that wants to transform schooling into a for-profit investment rather than a public good. Underlying these transformations are a number of forces eager to privatize schools, substitute vocational training for education, govern schools that serve poor white and minority students through the axis of crime, and reduce teaching and learning to reductive modes of testing and evaluation.

Indications of the poisonous transformation of both the role of the public school and the nature of teacher work abound. The passage of laws promoting high-stakes testing for students and the use of test scores to measure teacher quality have both limited teacher autonomy and undermined the possibility of critical teaching and visionary goals for student learning.1 Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content at best and at worst put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test taking. Subject to what might be labeled as a form of “bare” or stripped-down pedagogy, teachers are removed from the processes of deliberation and reflection and reduced to implementing lockstep, time-on-task pedagogies that do great violence to students. Behind the rhetorical smokescreen justifying this kind of pedagogical practice, there is a separation of conception from execution that was originally hatched by bureaucrats and “experts” from mainly conservative foundations. Questions regarding how teachers motivate students, make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, work with parents and the larger community, or exercise the authority needed to become a constructive pedagogical force in the classroom and community are now sacrificed to the dictates of an instrumental rationality largely defined through the optic of measurable utility.

Little is said in this discourse about allocating more federal dollars for public schooling, replacing the aging infrastructures of schools, or increasing salaries so as to expand the pool of qualified teachers. Teachers are no longer praised for their public service. Despite the trust we impart to them in educating our children, we ignore and devalue the firewall they provide between a culture saturated in violence and idiocy and the radical imaginative possibilities of an educated mind and critical agent capable of transforming the economic, political, and racial injustices that surround us and bear down so ← 2 | 3 → heavily on public schools. Teachers are stripped of their worth and dignity by being forced to adopt an educational vision and philosophy that has little respect for the empowering possibilities of either knowledge or critical classroom practices. Put bluntly, knowledge that can’t be measured or defined as a work-related skill is viewed as irrelevant, and teachers who refuse to implement a standardized curriculum that evaluates young people through “objective” measures of assessment are judged as incompetent. Any educator who believes that students should learn more than how to obey the rules, take tests, learn a work skill, or adopt without question the cruel and harsh market values that dominate society “will meet,” as James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” insists, “the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”2 And while the mythic character of education has always been at odds with its reality (as Baldwin notes in talking about the toxic education imposed on poor black children), the assault on public schooling in its current form truly suggests that “we are living through a very dangerous time.”3

As education is reduced to a mindless infatuation with metrics and modes of testing, the space of public schooling increasingly enforces this deadening experience with disciplinary measures reminiscent of prison culture. Moreover, as the vocabulary and disciplinary structures of punishment replace education, a range of student behaviors are criminalized resulting in the implementation of harsh mandatory rules that push many students deeper into the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems.4 With the rise of the governing through crime complex, war becomes a powerful mode of governance in schools, and one consequence is that teachers are increasingly removed from dealing with children as an important social investment and democratic symbol of the future. As the school is militarized, student behavior becomes an issue handled by either the police or security forces. Removed from the normative and pedagogical framing of classroom life, teachers no longer have the option to think outside of the box, to experiment, be poetic, or inspire joy in their students. They no longer have the freedom or power to teach, as W. E. B. Du Bois poetically states “to learn to communicate with the stars.”5

Instead, school has become a form of dead time, designed to kill the imagination of both teachers and students. For years, teachers have offered advice to students, corrected their behavior, offered help in addressing their personal problems, and gone out of their way to understand the circumstances surrounding even the most serious of student infractions. But this role of teachers, as both caretakers and engaged intellectuals, has been severely restricted by the imposition of a stripped-down curriculum that actually disdains creative teacher work while relegating teachers to the status of clerks. Ignorance, fear, and learning ← 3 | 4 → how to take bubble tests are what now give schools a sense of mission and community. Needless to say, the consequences for both teachers and students have been deadly. Great ideas, modes of knowledge, disciplinary traditions, and honorable civic ideals are no longer engaged, debated, and offered up as a civilizing force for expanding the students’ capacities as critical individuals and social agents. Knowledge is now instrumentalized, and the awe, magic, and insight it might provide are rendered banal as it is redefined through the mindless logic of quantification and measurement that now grips the culture of schooling and drives the larger matrix of efficiency, productivity, and consumerism shaping broader society. As testing becomes an end in itself, it both deadens the possibility of critical thinking and removes teachers from the possibility of exercising critical thought and producing imaginative pedagogical engagements. These modes of bare pedagogy that take their cues from a market-driven business culture treat teachers as fast-food, minimum wage workers and disdain the notion that public schools may be one of the few remaining places where students can learn how to deal with complicated ideas. As public schools become more business friendly, teachers are rendered more powerless and students more ignorant. In fact, in some public schools students are turning up for classes in which teachers are completely absent, replaced by computers offering online modes of education. As many as one million students are now finding themselves in classrooms where the only adult is a computer technician. In the Miami-Dade County Public Schools over 7,000 students are enrolled in classrooms with no teachers. The only answers to questions are provided by lab facilitators, who are simply technicians. Many students in Florida sign up for classes and are quite surprised when they find themselves in what are called virtual classrooms. Chris Kurchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami, calls this approach to teaching “criminal” and insists that “They’re standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.”6 The only value this approach to pedagogy seems to have is that it means school districts spend less on teachers and buildings.7 Unfortunately, this approach to teaching is less about learning than about a deep-seated disdain for teachers, students, and critical modes of education. It is also an approach to teaching supported by billionaire reformer Bill Gates, who stands to make millions in profits selling online courses to schools.

One current example of the unprecedented attack being waged against teachers, meaningful knowledge, and critical pedagogy can be found in Senate Bill 6, which is being pushed by Florida legislators. Under this bill, the quality of teaching and the worth of a teacher are solely determined by student ← 4 | 5 → scores on standardized tests. Teacher pay would be dependent on such test scores, while the previous experience of a teacher would be deemed irrelevant. Moreover, advanced degrees and professional credentials now become meaningless in determining a teacher’s salary. Professional experience and quality credentials are rendered inconsequential next to the hard reality of an empiricism that appears divorced from the daily challenges most teachers face. But there is more at stake in this proposed legislation than a regressive understanding of the role of teachers and the desire to eliminate the very conditions, places, and spaces that make good teaching possible. The real point of Bill 6 is both to weaken the autonomy and authority of teachers and to force the Florida teachers’ union to accept merit pay. The bill also mandates that the power of local school boards be restricted and that new teachers be given probationary contracts for up to five years, then humiliated further by being given a contract to be renewed annually. Moreover, salaries are now excluded as a subject of collective bargaining, thereby degrading the purpose of schooling, teaching, and learning. This bill is not only harsh and cruel, but educationally reactionary. It is designed to turn public schools into political tools for corporate-dominated legislators, while simultaneously depriving students of any viable notion of teaching and learning. Bad for schools, teachers, students, and democracy, Bill 6 lacks any viable ethical and political understanding of how schools work, what role they should play in a democracy, and what the myriad forces are that are working to undermine both critical teaching and critical learning. Yet this degradation of teaching and the dumbing down of the curriculum do not capture what is perhaps the most detrimental effect of Bill 6: namely, that it promotes modes of stratification that favor existing class, racial, and cultural hierarchies. David Price, in criticizing what he calls the tyranny of outcome-based, high-stakes testing, points to the forces at work in promoting such tests and how they are used politically. He writes:

Today a lucrative industry of test designers (estimated to be worth between $700 million and one billion dollars a year) is followed by a kowtowing curriculum industry rolling across America like a fleet of ambulance chasers—pitching textbooks, worksheets and bric-a-brac designed to help districts more effectively “teach to the test.”…Curricula are narrowed as underfunded districts struggle to meet external standards. The culture of American primary and secondary schools is increasingly dominated by the needs of standardized tests. These tests are no longer diagnostic aids helping teachers identify the status of individual students—they have become ends unto themselves, and as such they have taken on punitive roles in which test scores are assisting in the acceleration of stratification in America’s primary and secondary education system.8 ← 5 | 6 →

We need a new language for understanding public education as formative for democratic institutions and for the vital role that teachers play in such a project. When I wrote Teachers as Intellectuals in 1988, I argued that education should be viewed as a moral and political practice that always presupposes particular renditions of what constitutes legitimate knowledge, values, citizenship, modes of understanding, and views of the future. In other words, teaching is always directive in its attempt to shape students as particular agents and offer them a particular understanding of the present and the future. And while schools have a long history of simply attempting to reproduce the ideological contours of the existing society, they are capable of much more, and therein lies their danger and possibilities. At their worst, teachers have been viewed as merely gatekeepers. At best, they are one of the most valued professions we have in educating future generations in the discourse, values, and relations of democratic empowerment. Rather than being viewed as disinterested technicians, teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals. They should be supported in their efforts to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills, and culture of questioning that are necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power, and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national, and global public spheres.

The need to define teachers as public intellectuals and schools as democratic public spheres is as applicable today as it was when I wrote Teachers as Intellectuals. Central to fostering a pedagogy that is open, discerning, and infused with a spirit of critical inquiry, rather than mandates, is the assumption that teachers should not only be critical intellectuals but also have some control over the conditions of their own pedagogical labor. Academic labor at its best flourishes when it enhances modes of individual and social agency and respects the time and conditions teachers need to prepare lessons, research, cooperate with each other, and engage valuable community resources. Put differently, teachers are the major resource for what it means to establish the conditions for education to be linked to critical learning rather than training, to embrace a vision of democratic possibility rather than a narrow instrumental notion of education, and to honor the specificity and diversity of children’s lives rather than treat them as if such differences do not matter. Hence, teachers deserve the respect, autonomy, power, and dignity that such a task demands.

The basic premise here is that if public education is a crucial sphere for creating citizens equipped to exercise their freedoms and learn the competencies necessary to question the basic assumptions that govern democratic political ← 6 | 7 → life, then public school teachers must be allowed to shape the conditions that enable them to assume their responsibility as citizen-scholars. Being able to take critical positions, relate their work to larger social issues, offer multiple forms of literacies, and foster debate and dialogue about pressing social problems makes it possible for teachers to provide the conditions for students to conjure up the hope and belief that civic life matters. Students should see teachers modeling in the classroom the principle that they can make a difference in shaping society so as to expand its democratic possibilities for all groups. Of course, this is not merely a matter of changing the consciousness of teachers or the larger public or the ways in which teachers are educated. These are important considerations, but what must be embraced in this recognition of the value of public school teachers is that such an investment in young people is an issue of politics, ethics, and power, all of which must be viewed as part of a larger struggle to connect the crisis of schooling and teaching to the crisis of democracy itself.

Teachers all over America are now flanked on both sides by a number of anti-democratic tendencies. One side can be linked to a shadowy form of ruthless market fundamentalism that mistakes students for products and equates learning with the practice of conformity and disciplinary mindlessness. On the other side are those anti-intellectual and residual religious and political fundamentalists who view schooling as a threat to orthodoxy. Appealing to “tradition,” they want to silence critical forms of pedagogy as well as eliminate those teachers who value thinking over conformity, teaching over training, and empowerment over deskilling. There is also the resurgent movement of Tea Party politicians in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. The most notorious is the union-busting campaign being waged by Governor Walker who, under the guise of calls for austerity and deficit reductions, is attempting to pass legislation that would take away the collective bargaining rights of teachers. This represents not only an attack on teacher unions but on the very nature of public and higher education. As Chris Hayes pointed out in The Nation, “What is driving it is the ultimate aim of permanently scrapping the model of public education that has sustained this country for years. Teacher unions are the stewards of preserving public education, which is the core element of our civil life.”9 Paul Krugman is a bit more forceful, if not accurate, in arguing that Walker is not just trying to be fiscally responsible “by ending workers’ ability to bargain”; he is trying, along with his backers, “to make Wisconsin—and eventually America—less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.”10 What all of these anti-democratic tendencies share is a disregard for critical teaching, a disdain for the notion of teachers as critical and public intellectuals, ← 7 | 8 → and a deep hatred for those organizations that fight for such issues. To oppose these anti-democratic tendencies, we must take up the challenge of redefining and re-imagining teaching as a vital public service and schools as democratic public spheres. This means reminding teachers and everyone concerned about education of their responsibility to take ethical and risky positions and engage in practices currently at odds with both religious fundamentalism and the market-driven values that now dominate public schooling.

Today’s educators face the daunting challenge of creating new discourses, pedagogies, and collective strategies that will offer students the hope and tools necessary to revive education as a political and ethical response to the demise of democratic public life. Such a challenge suggests struggling to keep alive those institutional spaces, forums, and public spheres that support and defend critical education and enable students come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Students should learn to exercise civic courage and engage in community projects and research that are socially responsible. None of this will happen unless the American public refuses to allow schools and teachers to surrender what counts as knowledge, values, and skills to the highest bidder. In part, this requires pedagogical practices that connect language, culture, and identity to their deployment in larger physical and social spaces. Such pedagogical practices are based on the presupposition that it is not enough to teach students how to read the word and knowledge critically. They must also learn how to act on their beliefs, reflect on their role as engaged citizens, and intervene in the world as part of the obligation of what it means to be a socially responsible agent. As critical and public intellectuals, teachers must fight for the right to dream, conceptualize, and connect their visions to classroom practice. They must also learn to confront directly the threat from fundamentalisms of all varieties that seek to turn democracy into a mall, a sectarian church, or an adjunct of the emerging punishing state. What the concept of teachers as public intellectuals means, once again, is that the most important role of teachers involves both educating students to be critical thinkers and preparing them to be activists in the best sense of the term— that is, thoughtful and active citizens willing to fight for the economic, political, and social conditions and institutions that make democracy possible. The reason why the public in education has become so dangerous is that it associates teaching and learning with civic values, civic courage, and a respect for the common good—a position decidedly at odds with the unbridled individualism, privatized discourse, excessive competition, hyper-militarized masculinity, and corporate values that now drive educational policy and practice.

There are those critics who in tough economic times insist that providing ← 8 | 9 → students with anything other than work skills threatens their future viability in the job market. While I believe that public education should equip students with skills to enter the workplace, it should also educate them to contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of work, and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and respect for all people who constitute the global public sphere. Public education is about much more than learning how to take a test, job preparation, or even critical consciousness raising; it is about imagining a more democratic society and a better future, one that does not simply replicate the present. In contrast to the cynicism and political withdrawal fostered by mainstream media culture, a critical education demands that its citizens be able to translate the interface of private considerations and public issues, recognize those anti-democratic forces that deny social, economic, and political justice, and give some thought to their experiences as a matter of anticipating and struggling for a more just world. In short, democratic rather than commercial values should be the primary concerns of both public education and the university. Professor Mark Slouka, an insightful cultural critic, takes on some of these issues in asking what may be the most important question at the heart of any proposed notion of educational reform, “What is the purpose of education in an aspiring democracy?” He writes:

The questions are straightforward enough: What do we teach, and why? One might assume that in an aspiring democracy like ours the answers would be equally straightforward: We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment. In that order. Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst. It is only secondarily—one might say incidentally—about producing workers.11

If the right-wing educational reforms now being championed by the Obama administration and many state governments continue unchallenged, America will become a society in which a highly trained, largely white elite continues to command the techno-information revolution while a vast, low-skilled majority of poor and minority workers is relegated to filling the McJobs proliferating in the service sector. The children of the rich and privileged will be educated in exclusive private schools, and the rest of the population, mostly ← 9 | 10 → middle-class, poor and non-white, will be offered bare forms of pedagogy suitable only for working in the dead-end, low-skill service sector of society, assuming that these jobs will even be available. Teachers will lose most of their rights, protections, and dignity and will be treated as clerks of the empire. And as more and more young people fail to graduate from high school, they will join the ranks of those disposable populations now filling up our prisons at a record pace.

In contrast to this poisonous vision, I strongly believe that genuine, critical education cannot be confused with job training. At the same time, public schools have to be viewed as institutions just as crucial to the security and safety of the country as national defense. If educators and others are to prevent the distinction between education and training from becoming blurred, it is crucial to challenge the ongoing corporatization of public schools, while upholding the promise of the modern social contract in which all youth—guaranteed the necessary protections and opportunities—are seen as a primary source of economic and moral investment and as symbolizing the hope for a democratic future. In short, those individuals and groups concerned about the promise of education need to reclaim their commitment to future generations by taking seriously the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s belief that the ultimate test of morality for any democratic society resides in the condition of its children. If public education is to honor this ethical commitment, it will have to not only reestablish its obligation to young people but reclaim its role as a democratic public sphere and uphold its support for teachers.

Defending teachers as engaged intellectuals and public schools as democratic public spheres and a public good is not a call for any one ideology in the political spectrum to determine the future direction of public and university education. But at the same time, such a defense reflects a particular vision of the purpose and meaning of public and higher education and their crucial role in educating students to participate in an inclusive democracy. Teachers have a responsibility to engage critical pedagogy as an ethical referent and a call to action for educators, parents, students, and others to reclaim public education as a democratic public sphere—a place where teaching is not reduced to learning how to either master tests or acquire low-level job skills but flourishes as a safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue, and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students. Conceived as such, education becomes a site of ongoing struggle to preserve and extend the conditions in which judgment and freedom of action are informed by the democratic imperatives of equality, liberty, and justice. Teaching becomes another site of struggle to ratify and legitimate the role of teachers as critical and public intellectuals, despite attempts to undermine their autonomy. Viewing public schools as laboratories of democracy and teachers as critical intellectuals offers a new generation of educators an opportunity to understand education as a concrete reminder of the great struggle ← 10 | 11 → for democracy. This struggle entails an attempt to liberate humanity from the blind obedience to authority. Individual and social agency gain meaning primarily through the freedoms guaranteed by the public sphere, where the autonomy of individuals becomes meaningful under those conditions that ensure the workings of an autonomous society.

The current vicious assault on public school teachers is a reminder that the educational conditions that make democratic identities, values, and politics possible and effective have to be fought for more urgently at a time when democratic public spheres, public goods, and public spaces are under attack by market fanatics and other ideological fundamentalists. These enemies of democracy believe that corporations can solve all human problems or that dissent is comparable to aiding terrorists—positions that share the common denominator of disabling a substantive notion of ethics, politics, and democracy. The rhetoric of accountability, privatization, and standardization that now dominates both major political parties in the United States does more than deskill teachers, weaken teacher unions, dumb down the curriculum, punish students, and create a culture of ignorance. It also offers up a model for education that undermines it as a public good while disinvesting in a formative culture necessary to creating critical citizens. In this state of fragile democracy, the opportunity for students to learn how to govern and be critical citizens is at serious risk of being hijacked.

As James Baldwin reminds us, we live in dangerous times. Yet as educators, parents, activists, and workers, we can address the current assault on democracy by building local and global social movements that fight for the rights of teachers and students to teach and learn under conditions that foster the autonomy, resources, and respect necessary for successful classroom teaching. Democratic struggles cannot overemphasize the special responsibility of teachers as intellectuals to shatter the conventional wisdom and myths of those ideologies that would relegate educators to mere technicians or adjuncts of the corporation. As the late Pierre Bourdieu argued, the “power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual—lying in the realm of beliefs,” and it is precisely within the domain of ideas that a sense of utopian possibility can be restored to the public realm.12 Teaching in this instance is not simply about critical thinking but also about social engagement—a crucial element of both learning and politics itself. More precisely, democracy necessitates quality teachers and critical pedagogical practices that provide a new ethic of freedom and a reassertion of collective responsibility as a central preoccupation of a vibrant democratic culture and society. Such a task, in part, suggests that any movement for social change needs to put education and the rights of students and teachers at the forefront of the struggle. Teachers are more crucial in the struggle for democracy than security guards and the criminal justice system. Students deserve more than to be trained to be ignorant and willing accomplices of the corporation and the ← 11 | 12 → state. Teachers represent a valued resource and are one of the few groups left that can educate students in ways that enable them to resist the collective insanity that now threatens this country. We need to take teachers seriously by giving them the autonomy, dignity, labor conditions, salaries, freedom, time, and support they deserve. The restoration, expansion, and protection of public school teaching as a public service may be the most important challenge Americans will face in the twenty-first century.


1. For a brilliant critique of high-stakes testing, see Sharon L. Nicholas and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools (Cambridge, Harvard Educational Press, 2007).

David Berliner has also written a class defense of public education, see David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America's Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

2. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” Saturday Review (December 21, 1963). Online at: http://richgibson.com/talktoteachers.htm

3. Ibid.

4. I take this up in Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (Boulder: Paradigm, 2009).

5. Cited in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Changing Reflexes: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” Works and Days, 55/56: Vol. 28, 2010, p. 8.

6. Laura Herrera, “In Florida, Virtual Classroms with No Teachers,” The New York Times (January 17, 2011), P. A15.

7. Trip Gabriel, “More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality,” The New York Times (April 6, 2011), P. A1.

8. David H. Price, “Outcome-Based Tyranny: Teaching Compliance While Testing Like a State,” Anthropological Quarterly 76:4 (Fall 2003), p. 718.

9. Chris Hayes, cited in Sara Jerving, “The Future of Public Education, as Much as Unions, Is at Stake in Wisconsin,” The Nation (February 21, 2011). Online: http://www.then-ation.com/blog/158754/future-public-education-much-unions-stake-wisconsin

10. Paul Krugman, “Wisconsin Power Play,” The New York Times (February 20, 2001), p. A17.

11. Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” Harper’s Magazine (September 2009), pp. 33–34.

12. Pierre Bourdieu and Günter Grass, “The ‘Progressive’ Restoration: A Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March–April 2003), p. 66.

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2. When Generosity Hurts

Bill Gates, Public School Teachers, and the Politics of Humiliation

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone…is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced…from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.


Once again, Baldwin’s words offer a glimpse into a legacy of bad faith, culture of cruelty, and politics of humiliation that seems to have gained momentum in American society since he spoke those words in 1963. His words reflect a transformation of the revolutionary zeal that marked an earlier era’s investment in substantive democratization into an emerging movement that seeks nothing less than the total destruction of the democratic potential of American education. Some fifty years after Baldwin spoke, such pernicious practices have descended on America like a dreadful and punishing plague. They are now ironically embraced in the name of an educational reform movement whose “revolutionary” pretension is entirely antithetical to the Civil Rights revolution for which Baldwin was fighting. Once eager public servants in the fight for equality and justice, teachers are now forced to play with a severe handicap, ← 13 | 14 → as if assembled on a field blindfolded and gagged. The one constant that runs through these last several decades, less obvious only because of its utter pervasiveness in public life, is summed up by Baldwin as the legacy of “bad faith and cruelty.” Bad faith and cruelty are now combined with a power-assisted politics of humiliation, rendered all the more acute because such commitments circulate continuously as spectacle in a 24-hour media cycle easily accessed through any number of commercialized venues.

When I refer to a culture of cruelty and a politics of humiliation, I am talking about the institutionalization and widespread adoption of a set of values, policies, and symbolic practices that legitimate forms of organized violence against human beings and lead inexorably to hardship, suffering, and despair. Such practices are more and more accompanied by forms of humiliation in which the character, dignity, and bodies of targeted individuals and groups are under attack. An extreme form is evident in state-sanctioned torture practices, such as those promoted by the Bush administration in Iraq and on full display in the images of humiliation that emerged from the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib prison. The politics of humiliation also works through symbolic systems, diverse modes of address, and varied framing mechanisms in which the targeted subjects are represented in terms that demonize them, strip them of their humanity, and position them in ways that invite ridicule and sometimes violence. One example can be found in the harsh anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona as well as the banning of ethnic studies in the state’s public school system. The politics of humiliation and its accompanying culture of cruelty are also evident in what the late Pierre Bourdieu called the symbolic dimension of power—that is, the capacity of systems of meaning, signification, and diverse modes of communication to shield, strengthen, and normalize relations of domination through distortion, misrepresentation, and the use of totalizing narratives.2 The hidden order of such politics lies not just in its absences but in its appeal to common sense and its claim to being objective and apolitical. Culture in this sense becomes the site of the most powerful and persuasive forms of pedagogy precisely because it often denies its pedagogical and normalizing function.

Bad-faith practices and the cultural politics that legitimize them are apparent in the zero-tolerance policies adopted by many schools. “Zero tolerance” does little more than legitimate the mindless punishment of poor whites and students of color by criminalizing behavior as trivial as violating a dress code. Such students have been assaulted by the police, handcuffed, taken away in police cars, and in some cases imprisoned.3 Under such circumstances, punishing becomes more important than educating while the practice of discriminating judgment gives way to a rigid governing through crime approach ← 14 | 15 → to schooling. The discourse of humiliation abounds in the public sphere of hate radio and Fox News, which provides a forum for a host of pundits who trade in insults against feminists, environmentalists, African Americans, immigrants, progressive critics, liberal media, President Barack Obama, and anyone else who rejects the militant orthodox views of the new media ideological extremists and religious fundamentalists. Policies that humiliate and punish are also visible in the increasing expansion of the criminal justice system, used regularly to deal with problems that would be better addressed through social reforms rather than punishment. Homeless people are now arrested for lingering too long in public libraries, sleeping in public parks, and soliciting money on the streets of many urban centers. People who receive welfare benefits are increasingly harassed by government agencies. Debtors’ prisons are making a comeback as millions of people are left with no recourse but to default on the myriad bills that they cannot pay.4 The growing numbers of people who are jobless, homeless, and living beneath the poverty line are treated by the government and dominant media merely as statistical fodder for determining the health of the GNP while their lived experience of hardship is rarely mentioned. Millions of people are denied health care, regardless of how ill they might be, because they cannot afford it. Rather than enact social protections such as adequate health care for everyone, the advocates of free market capitalism enact social policies that leave millions of people uninsured. These people are then pushed into the growing ranks of disposable populations and left to fend for themselves, abandoned by the state, society, and a ruthless regime of powerful corporations and financial elites.

Echoes of an expanding culture of cruelty can be heard in the discourses and voices of right-wing and conservative politicians such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann who has called for the eventual abolishment of Social Security and Medicare. Republican House Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan, wants to transform Medicare from a government-run health insurance plan for seniors into a program that subsidizes retirees to buy insurance from private providers.”5 Moreover, he wants to enact drastic cuts in Medicaid, the jointly-funded health plan for the poorest Americans, while at the same time extending tax cuts to the rich and powerful. Central to this slash and burn neoliberal ideology is the ruthless goal of destroying the social contract by turning over vital social programs to private corporate interests while simultaneously enriching through tax benefits and other privileges the upper 1 percent of the population who now control 40 percent of all wealth and nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.6 We hear echoes of the culture of cruelty in the words of anti-government libertarians who insist that all problems are self-made ← 15 | 16 → and claim that those who suffer from a variety of misfortunes whose causes are outside of their control are undeserving of government help and protections. In this neoliberal cutthroat scenario, one’s fate becomes exclusively a matter of individual choice and hence “interpreted as another confirmation of the individuals’ sole and inalienable responsibility for their individual plight.”7 The arrogance of power and cruelty that frames this discourse of humiliation has become viral in a society that has learned to hate any vestige of the social contract. We hear it in the words of the super rich such as Bill Gates, who insists that pension payments should be reduced for retired teachers—a hypocritical and heartless demand coming from one of the world’s richest people and, ironically, one of the world’s best-known philanthropists.8 We see the politics of humiliation and cruelty at work in the efforts of politicians to slash food stamp benefits, openly deriding the poor while doing so. Within the discourse of neoliberal fundamentalism and adherence to free market values, social protections and spending entitlements are viewed as forms of big government corruption that need to be abolished, giving credence to a notion of market freedom in which everyone is expendable or potentially disposable. Right-wing policymakers purposefully generate deficits by reducing taxes on the rich and on corporations in order to cut revenues for social spending, social protections, and the social safety network. In reality, the culture of cruelty and politics of humiliation make it easier for people to turn away from the misfortunes of others and respond with indifference to the policies and practices of truly corrupt individuals and institutions of power that produce huge profits at the cost of massive suffering and social hardship.

Even more disturbing is that this growing culture of humiliation works in tandem with a formative politics of dislocation and misrepresentation. One example can be seen in the efforts of Bill Gates (Microsoft), Philip Anschultz (Denver Oil), Jeff Skoll (eBay), and other members of the corporate elite to use their power and money-soaked foundations to pour millions into a massive public pedagogy campaign that paints America’s system of public education, teacher unions, and public school teachers in terms that are polarizing and demonizing.9 Humiliation, in this case masquerading as generosity, couples with an attempt to divert attention from the real problems and solutions needed to improve American public education.10 Real problems affecting schools such as rising poverty, homelessness, vanishing public services for the disadvantaged, widespread unemployment, resegregation of public schools, massive inequality in wealth and income, overcrowded classrooms, and a bankrupt and iniquitous system of school financing disappear in the educational discourse of the super rich. Moreover, the policies promoted by such anti-public reformers are ← 16 | 17 → endlessly legitimated through a massive public relations campaign that is onesided, politically reactionary, and sectarian in its attempts to disparage and drown out more critical and progressive voices.

The foundation for this mode of soft domination can be seen in the ways in which the rich and elite institutions use the popular media to promote their ideologies, especially those that endorse the impoverishment of public values, public spheres, and democratic public life. Movies such as Waiting for Superman, The Cartel, and The Lottery function as huge propaganda machines parading as truth-telling art, produced and circulated within a cultural apparatus that takes its cues from the Disney empire’s slick and powerful marketing machine.11 Sprinkled with the pixie dust of urgency, a desperate call for reform, and alleged good will, the new market-driven cultural apparatus and public pedagogy of the educational anti-reformers bombard the American public with films and other media that denigrate public education while promoting the values of casino capitalism. And yet the American people largely endorse the “culture of philanthropy,” unlike the British, who—as Terry Eagleton points out— “[N]o more want their children’s education to depend on billionaires than they want Prince Charles to hand out food parcels in Trafalgar Square to the deserving poor. Most British students believe that higher education should be a public responsibility and should come free.”12 This is precisely the position that the anti-public reformers want to eliminate from any discourse about public and higher education in the United States.

The discourse of these so-called educational reformers is simplistic and polarizing. It lacks any understanding of the real problems and strengths of public education, and it trades in authoritarian tactics and a discourse of demonization and humiliation. For example, rather than educate viewers, Waiting for Superman carpet bombs them with misrepresentations fueled by dubious assertions and denigrating images of public schools and teachers. On the surface, we see urgency, altruism, and political purity parading in a messianic language of educational reform and a politics of generosity. Underneath this discourse lie the same old and discredited neoliberal policies that cheerfully serve corporate interests: privatization; downsizing; outsourcing; union busting; competition as the only mode of motivation; an obsession with measurement; a relentless attack on teacher autonomy; the weakening of tenure; educational goals stripped of public values; teacher quality defined in purely instrumental terms; an emphasis on authoritarian modes of management; and a mindless obsession with notions of pedagogy that celebrate memorization and teaching to the test. High-stakes accountability and punishing modes of leadership, regardless of the damage they wreak on students and teachers, are now the only ← 17 | 18 → game in town when it comes to educational reform—so much so that it is called revolutionary.

Spurring this educational reform movement are Gates and his billionaire friends, who gain huge tax write-offs from the money they invest in schools. They use these tax deductions to save money, while the taxpaying public loses valuable tax revenue and cedes control of publicly funded schools to rich and powerful corporate moguls. In reality, this scenario isn’t philanthropic at all. It is morally and politically irresponsible because it represents a form of hostile generosity that serves to expand the power of the corporate rich over public schools while offering the illusion that they are enriching public life.13 It gets worse. Many hedge fund operatives and banks invest in charter schools because they get windfall profits by “using a little-known federal tax break” called the New Markets Tax Credit “to finance new charter-school construction.”14 Once the buildings are finished, they are rented out to public school districts at exorbitant prices.

Democratic goals and public values no longer have any merit for a reform movement in love with the logic of measurement, profit, and privatization. In actuality, this is not a reform movement, but an anti-reform movement that can only imagine schooling within what my colleague David L. Clark calls “an eternal present of consumption and subjection.” It is a movement that attempts to kill critical thought, the ability to think imaginatively, and any notion of pedagogy that takes matters of individual autonomy and social empowerment seriously. In the name of reform, we now face increasing numbers of schools that either bear a close resemblance to the old Ford factory production lines or are modeled after prisons. These are the new dead zones of education, increasingly inhabited by demoralized teachers and bored students and largely supported by the new educational reformers. Manufactured contempt for public schooling breeds more than misrepresentation and a politics of humiliation. It also covers up the real problems public schools face when locked into the ideology and practices of the anti-public reform movement. There is no mention of the cheating and corruption of school administrators, dumping of underperforming students, deskilling of teachers, refusals to accept students for whom English is not their first language or who have learning disabilities, and other forms of violence that accompany such reforms now being undertaken with the blessing of the super-rich and corporate power brokers of casino capitalism. Charter schools have become the dressed-up symbols of the new politics of disposability—presenting well-scrubbed, uniformed children as symbols of order and middle-class values. In actuality, the anti-public reformers who embrace charter schools have little to say or do with the millions of children ← 18 | 19 → who are arguably the most disposable of all—kids with various learning and physical disabilities, along with poor white, black, and brown kids who will never be counted as relevant in a system in which conformity and high test scores are the tickets to success. These kids are shunned by the army of privateers and pushed into schools that warehouse, punish, and use disciplinary methods rooted in the culture of prisons. At the same time, these reformers demonize public schools and public school teachers but are silent about the fact that some of the most extensive studies of charter schools have found that fewer than 17 percent of charter schools outperform traditional public schools.15

Excessive wealth and power do more than direct high-level educational policy in the United States although their influence in that realm should not be underestimated.16 They also circulate and promote their ideologies and market-driven values almost completely free of a sustained critique across the dominant cultural and media landscapes of America. The educational force of the wider culture has now become the weapon of choice in promoting market-driven educational reforms and denigrating American public education and its struggling, hard-working teachers. This marketing machine explains the well-publicized and orchestrated hype over the movie Waiting for Superman, a bought-and-sold product that offers no critiques and lets the right-wing talking heads and hedge fund advocates provide most of the commentary.

For example, not only are there endless numbers of newspaper editorials, television series, media advertisements, YouTube clips, and every other imaginable element of the new and old media promoting Waiting for Superman, but it is also being highlighted by NBC as part of its series “Education Nation,” sponsored by no less than the for-profit University of Phoenix—a school that has been singled out for saddling poor students with unmanageable debts while recording some of the highest dropout rates in the nation. What is incredible about this series is its claim to offer a balanced commentary on the state of education when in fact it is an unabashed advertisement for various versions of corporate educational reform. The enemies it targets are the system, teacher unions, tenure, and teachers whose students do not do well on high-stakes assessment tests. But the film’s misrepresentation breeds more than uninformed citizens. It also collaborates with the dominant media to promote a form of public pedagogy in which the school reform policies of the anti-public school advocates become the only game in town.

Examples of this massive form of corporate-sponsored pedagogy—of which Waiting for Superman is only one example—become almost omnipresent, moving in relay-like fashion through a corporate cultural apparatus ← 19 | 20 → that promotes an anti-public ideology with its denigration of public education and other institutions of the welfare state, as if it were just a matter of common sense and unworthy of debate, critical interrogation, or opposing arguments. How else do we explain the overwhelmingly positive reviews that this deeply biased and conservative film has generated from the dominant liberal and corporate media? In this case, a disillusioned culture fed a steady diet of reactionary political views works in combination with a propaganda blitz engineered by the corporate backers of the film. We get a glimpse of the hermetic and sutured nature of the film’s public relations campaign from Dana Goldstein in her catalogue of the venues that promoted the film. She writes:

“Can One Little Movie Save America’s Schools?” asked the cover of New York magazine. On September 20 The Oprah Winfrey Show featured the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth. Tom Friedman of the New York Times devoted a column to praising the film. Time published an education issue coinciding with the documentary’s release and is planning a conference built in part around the school reform strategies the film endorses. NBC, too, will host an education reform conference in late September, Waiting for Superman will be screened and debated there, and many of the reformers involved in its production will be there. Katie Couric of CBS Evening News has promised a series of segments based on the movie.17

Clearly, the dominant media have provided the broader cultural landscape and mechanism through which such a film received endless praise as one of the most significant commentaries on educational reform to come along in years. And yet the film is nothing more than an advertisement for charter schools; corporate values; market-driven reforms; a slash-and-burn mode of leadership that glorifies tough love policies that bear an eerie resemblance to the way boot camps are run in the military; and a polarizing piece of propaganda aimed at undermining public education while also demonizing and humiliating teachers. Exhibiting an unquestioned faith in market values and charter schools, the film is in denial about both the public schools that work and the need to improve public schooling rather than turn it over to the advocates of free-market fundamentalism and a discredited casino capitalism. The success of this film ultimately speaks less to the persuasiveness of its arguments than it does to the way it is being bankrolled and promoted aggressively by hedge fund operatives looking for a quick profit. Diane Ravitch has aptly called this group—made up of the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations and others who support charter schools and using test scores for teacher evaluation—the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.”18

Within this pedagogical apparatus and marketing spectacle, high-quality schooling for all students is now replaced by the closed and demeaning logic ← 20 | 21 → of the lottery, cloaked in the sanctimonious language and magical aura of “individual choice.” Within this panacea of choice, life and its various facets such as schooling become a perpetual search for bargains and consumer goods rather than a search for truth, knowledge, imagination, andjustice. As morality is rendered painless and divested of any social responsibility, the new anti-public reformers render poverty and inequality invisible as important factors in promoting school failure. At the same time, they argue, apparently without any sense of irony, that the absence of choice is the most profound cause of educational failure. Under such circumstances, equity is divorced from excellence just as the public good is replaced by individual choice and the private good.

And yet the implications of this version of school reform have more immediate consequences. There is no talk in this film or among these so-called billionaire educational reformers about the connection between democracy and schooling, the dignity of teacher labor, students learning about civic responsibility, or the violence that is done to education when the only way we can talk about it is by using industrial metaphors. The repeated emphasis on education manufacturing a product, as if it were designed simply to produce durable goods, does nothing more than justify its treatment as a machine to be repaired rather than a complex social institution made up of living, breathing human beings. Schools in this stripped-down discourse exist free of the relations of iniquitous funding systems, class and racial discrimination, poverty, massive joblessness, overcrowded classrooms, lack of classroom resources, rotting school buildings, lack of basic services for children in need, and so on. This absence is not a minor issue, because without a larger understanding of the political, economic, and social forces that impinge on schools in different contexts it becomes impossible to understand why and how some schools fail and some children remain underserved. Successful schools cannot function without public services that help children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, just as they cannot function adequately when a society refuses to pay teachers decent salaries, provide them with high-quality teacher education, and make financial and ideological investments in order to validate teaching as one of the most dignified and civically cherished professions in the country.

Moreover, there is little or no attempt on the part of the wealthy class of educational misinformers to analyze schooling as a place where students learn about the operations of power and what it means to take risks, engage in critical dialogue, embrace the important lessons that come with shared responsibilities, or learn the knowledge, skills, and values needed to be imaginative and critically responsible citizens. Instead, we are told—not surprisingly by the hedge fund reformers and billionaire gurus—that schooling is about the production ← 21 | 22 → of trained workers; memorization is more important than critical thinking; standardized testing is better than teaching students to be self-reflective; and learning how to read texts critically is not as important as memorizing discrete bodies of allegedly factual knowledge. Having their desires and skills shaped in such a way, students and teachers are reduced to a permanent underclass, denied the opportunities to develop the capacity and motivation to challenge the power and authority of a rich elite. Pedagogical practice in this neoliberal framework is cleansed of any emancipatory possibilities, stripped clean of its ability to teach students how to engage in thoughtful dialogue and use their imagination in the service of understanding the lives and experiences of individuals and groups different from themselves. In addition, all of this educational nonsense is reinforced daily with the silly, if not destructive, notion that wealth guarantees wisdom and that wealthy hedge fund types and the privatized culture of finance offer both a good model for ethical behavior and airtight insights into how to organize schools. Under such circumstances, the corporate-controlled media slavishly repeat and sanctify almost anything that is said by the rich and the famous, suggesting that what they have to say not only has merit but provides a valuable resource for guiding policy, especially educational policy. I was reminded of this recently when Bill Gates appeared on NBC Nightly News and stated that any form of teaching and knowledge that cannot be measured is useless. And there was not a shred of criticism from TV host Brian Williams to indicate the reactionary implications of such a statement.

Within this anti-public educational discourse, with its relentless claim to political innocence, celebration of individual choice and excessive competition, allegiance to corporate values, unflappable sense of certainty, and Wild West manner of governance, there is a mode of engagement and politics of representation that not only mimic an arrogant corporate-based world view but increasingly deploy a strategy of humiliation as a way to wage war against anything that promotes public values and the public good. What does it mean when NBC News presents a video clip, without adding any of its own commentary, of Republican Governor Chris Christie hurling insults at members of the New Jersey Teachers’ Union. In this case, about his plan to strip teachers of tenure and reduce them to the status of clerks with no job security and dismal working conditions? Christie then added to his explanation the following insult: “Your performance was awful, you didn’t do what we asked you to do, you didn’t produce the product we wanted you to produce, but we don’t look at that, all we look at is are you still breathing.”19 Disregarding the foolish suggestion that the purpose of education is to produce something akin ← 22 | 23 → to an industrial product, Christie’s commentary is beyond demeaning and ignorant. It is symptomatic of a type of public bullying that has become a prominent feature in American society and takes its cue from a shift in the larger culture away from a discourse of social investment and compassion toward one of insults, disdain, unchecked individualism, unbridled competition, and scorn for both public values and the institutions and people who work as public servants in them. Conservative politicians, corporate policy makers, and Tea Party ideologues now argue that public sector workers have salaries, benefits, and pensions out of whack with people who have comparable positions in the private sector, a claim that is demonstrably false. As Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson point out in The Nation, the call to balance the budget has become a transparent ploy for singling “out public sector workers—including schoolteachers, healthcare workers, police officers and firefighters—as well as their unions and even their pensions as deadweight burdens sapping the economy’s vitality.…But let’s remember that the recession was caused by Wall Street hyper-speculation, not the pay scales of elementary school teachers or public hospital nurses.”20 Christie and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, rank high as advocates of this assault on public workers.

Unsurprisingly, Christie is a governor who not only wants to balance the New Jersey state budget on the backs of teachers. He is also, as Les Leopold reports, “resolutely opposed to reinstituting the ‘millionaires’ tax’—even though the state’s fiscal crisis is a direct consequence of what millionaires and billionaires did on Wall Street.”21 Economic Darwinism with its ruthless survival-of-the-fittest ethic is more and more legitimated both through an outright attack on teachers, public servants, and unions and by a mode of public pedagogy in which humiliation is used to wage war on one’s opponents, preventing any attempt to create the conditions for thoughtful dialogue, exchange, and debate. Anger rather than understanding and thoughtful reflection is now the most celebrated feature of a society that scorns the connection between reason and freedom. The unmediated and evidence-free outburst now rules, and the more stupid and insulting it is, the more attention it gets as it circulates through a screen culture addicted to spectacular displays of indiscriminate ranting that are now packaged to improve viewer ratings.

Outrageous spectacles of cruelty and humiliation have become the weapon of choice among those elites and corporate moguls now waging war on the social state and vital public institutions and services.22 This is particularly true for the increasing assaults on public education by a diverse group of anti-public educational reformers, armed with their hedge fund connections and limitless trust funds. These corporate power brokers often couch the discourse ← 23 | 24 → of humiliation in terms less harsh than what we hear from right-wing politicians and hate-talk shock jocks. Yet their anti-public discourse, with its polarizing enemy/friend divide and demonization of teachers and teacher unions, reproduces among the general public a culture of silence and complicity. Under such circumstances, debate, dialogue, and thoughtful exchange are largely absent while media spectacles substitute for the genuine public spheres that make such reasoned practices possible. The educational reformers claim to uphold important educational principles. Yet behind their cocoon of privilege, wealth, and power are a pedagogical machine and cultural apparatus that shut down the very public spheres in which such principles become operative.

What has become increasingly clear is that teachers are the new scapegoats for the market-driven juggernaut that is sucking the blood out of democracy in the United States. The call for charter schools and vouchers and the appeal to individual choice emulate the language of the bankers who were responsible for the economic crisis of 2008 and the suffering and destruction that followed. The blatant ideological effects of this ethically sterile discourse have now taken on a more militant tone by flooding the media and other commercial spheres with a politics of humiliation that, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, mimics war, annihilation, unconditional surrender, and full-fledged battles. Public schools and teachers are now the object of a sustained and aggressive attack against all things public in which they are put in the same disparaged league as advocates of health care reform. And what should be obvious is that they now occupy such a position not because they have failed to do their jobs well but because they work in the public sphere. Public schools, teachers, and unions have become objects of enormous scorn and targets of punishing policies. So-called reformers such as Michelle Rhee—in reality hired public relations fronts for the corporate rich—who took over the District of Columbia public schools three years ago, have become iconic symbols for enacting educational policies based on a mix of market incentives, such as paying students for good grades and merit pay for teachers, and punishment—that is, firing teachers en masse who do not measure up to narrow and often discredited empirically based performance measures.23 Rhee was eventually forced to resign, but her influence and power are now subsidized by rich donors who have made her an icon of conservative educational reform. This regime of reform is driven by a slash-and-burn management system that relies more on punitive tactics than critical analysis, teacher and student support, and social development. The hedge fund managers, billionaire industrialists, and corporate vultures backing such policies appear to view teachers, unions, and public schools as an unfortunate, if not threatening, remnant of the social state and days long past when social investments ← 24 | 25 → in the public good and young people actually mattered and public values were the defining feature of the educational system, however flawed. This hatred of public values, public services, public schools, and teachers is only intensified by a wider culture of cruelty that has gripped American society.

The growing culture of humiliation and cruelty in the United States suggests that anyone who does not believe in the pursuit of material self-interest, unbridled competition, and market-driven values is a proper candidate to be humiliated. If one makes even the slightest gesture of protest against the dissociation of economics from ethics, the stripping from social relations of any vestige of public values, the undermining of important modes of solidarity, or the promotion of a market fundamentalism that views social responsibility as a weakness, then he or she is fair game to be publicly denigrated and insulted or at least dismissed as irresponsible. Next to the ethos of a society now driven by the metaphors of war and survival of the fittest, any critical reference by individuals or groups to the social problems affecting American society or concerns voiced about the need to reclaim civic courage and defend the institutions that deepen democratic public life invite scurrilous comments intended to embarrass and humiliate. When the disadvantaged make reference to their plight, they are viewed and labeled as human beings who lack dignity and are subject to insulting remarks, just as the social programs designed to alleviate such suffering become the objects of a discourse that both humiliates and punishes. Consider, for example, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee referring to people with pre-existing health conditions as “houses that have already burned down”—a cruel and crude attempt to place himself in good stead with the health insurance industries. There is also the all-too-common example of Sharron Angle—the former Republican canididate for the U.S.Senate—who claimed that insurance companies should abolish insurance coverage for autism, mocking the term as if it were some kind of reference for a joke told on Comedy Central.

It gets worse. When Carl Paladino, the former Republican candidate for governor of New York, shamelessly stated “that space in prisons should be turned into work camps in which poor people would get…classes in personal hygiene,” the dominant media ignored the underlying hatred for the poor expressed by such a statement.24 When it was revealed in the press that Paladino had emailed his friends images and photos of “a group of black men trying to get out of the way of an airplane that is apparently moving across a field [with] the caption: ‘Run niggers, run,’” the American public barely blinked. In fact, Paladino’s poll ratings increased, furthering his quest to become the governor of New York.25 When Rush Limbaugh speaks to millions ← 25 | 26 → in terms that are racist, demeaning, and thoroughly uncivil, the media respond compliantly by treating such views as just another opinion among many. Humiliation as a mode of discourse and public intervention—enacted upon others with no apologies—has become so commonplace in American culture and politics that the only time we notice it is when it literally results in young people committing suicide, as in the recent tragic deaths of Seth Walsh and Tyler Clementi.26

The politics of humiliation and its underlying relations of power are fluid, mobile, and capacious. It increasingly spreads and infects almost every public and commercial sphere where ideas are produced and circulated. As an ideology, it is politically reactionary and morally despicable. As a strategy, it seeks to denigrate and silence others, often targeting those already disadvantaged, while promoting unthinking self-interest, arrogance, and certitude at the expense of critical thought, dialogue, and exchange. Unfortunately, America is now being shaped by an anti-educational reform movement that uses the politics of humiliation for creating stereotypes about public schooling, teachers, and marginalized youth. At the same time, the movement wins supporters from the dominant media and corporate elite by celebrating the very market-driven values that plunged America into a financial catastrophe. And yet despite these grave circumstances, we seem to lack the critical language, civic courage, and public values to recognize that when a country institutionalizes a culture of cruelty that takes aim at public schools and their hard-working teachers, it is embarking on a form of self-sabotage and collective suicide whose victims will include not only education, but democracy itself.


1. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” Saturday Review (December 21, 1963). Online at: http://richgibson.com/talktoteachers.htm

2. Loic Wacquant, “Symbolic Power in the Rule of the ‘State Nobility,’” in Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics, ed. Loic Wacquant (London: Polity, 2005), p. 134.

3. See Henry A. Giroux, “Schools and the Pedagogy of Punishment,” Truthout.org (October 20, 2009). Online at: http://www.truth-out.org/10200910. See also Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave, 2010), and Christopher Robbins, Expelling Hope (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).

4. Editorial, “The New Debtors’ Prisons,” The New York Times (April 5, 2009), p. A24.

5. Konrad Yakabuski, “Republican plan to fix U.S. budget mess could prove costly for GOP,” The Globe and Mail (April 6, 2011). Online: http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/konrad-yakabuski/republican-plan-to-fix-us-budget-mess-could-prove-costly-for-gop/article1972526/?service=mobile

6. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” Vanity Fair (May 2011). Online: ← 26 | 27 → http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105

7. Zygmunt Bauman, The Art of Life (London: Polity Press, 2008), pp. 89–90.

8. John Fund, “Getting Schooled in Aspen,” The Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2010). Online at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704288204575363100367240836.html

9. Amy Goodman, “Leading Education Scholar Diane Ravitch: No Child Left Behind Has Left U.S. Schools with Legacy of ‘Institutionalized Fraud,’” Democracy Now! (March 5, 2010). Online at: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/3/5/protests.

10. For a thoughtless and shameless celebration of the billionaires’ club, see Diane Francis, “Waiting for Superman and Justice,” Financial Post (September 26, 2010). Online at: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2010/09/26/waiting-for-superman-and-justice/. For a rebuttal to this kind of nonsense, see Editors, “The Real Facts About Waiting for Superman,” FairTest.org (September 30, 2010). Online at: http://www.fairtest.org/real-facts-about-waiting-superman. See also Rich Ayers, “‘Waiting for Superman’: A Missed Opportunity for Education—What ‘Superman’ Got Wrong, Point by Point,” CommonDreams.org (September 27, 2010). Online at: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/09/27–10. For an excellent analysis of the impact of philanthropy on education, see Kenneth Saltman, The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). See also Kenneth Saltman, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007).

11. The reactionary nature of the neoliberal and corporate ideologies driving this film and its view of educational reform are on full display in the promotional book that accompanied its release. See Karl Weber, ed., Waiting for “Superman”: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools (Philadelphia: Public Affairs, 2010).

12. Terry Eagleton, “What Is the Worth of Social Democracy,” Harper’s Magazine (October 2010), p. 80.

13. This issue is taken up in great detail in Saltman, The Gift of Education.

14. Juan Gonzalez, “Albany Charter Cash Cow: Big Banks Making a Bundle on New Construction as Schools Bear the Cost,” New York Daily News (May 7, 2010). Online at: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/education/2010/05/07/2010–05–07_albany_charter_cash_cow_big_banks_making_a_bundle_on_new_construction_as_schools.html

15. See Trip Gabriel, “Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed,” The New York Times (May 1, 2010), p. A1. See also the recent study put out by Stanford University.

16. See Henry A. Giroux, “Chartering Disaster: Why Duncan’s Corporate-Based Schools Can’t Deliver an Education That Matters,” Truthout.org (June 21, 2010). Online at: http://www.truth-out.org/chartering-disaster-why-duncans-corporate-based-schools-cant-deliver-education-that-matters60553

17. Dana Goldstein, “‘Waiting for Superman’ Film Champions Charter Schools, but Hides That 80% of Them Are No Better Than Public Education,” AlterNet (September 30, 2010). Online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/148353. Ironically, this review says almost nothing about neoliberalism and the impact it has had on public schools and the anti-public education movement.

18. Ravitch, cited in Amy Goodman, “Leading Education Scholar Diane Ravitch: No Child Left Behind Has Left U.S. Schools with Legacy of ‘Institutionalized Fraud,’” Democracy ← 27 | 28 → Now! (March 5, 2010). Online at: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/3/5/protests. What Goodman and so many other liberals seem to miss in their slavish adulation of Ravitch’s new liberal credentials is why they and she have ignored left critics of education for so long—a position that is also evident in liberal journals such as The Nation (its recent issue of June 24, 2010, on educational reform does not include one prominent left educational critic). Ravitch’s newly found liberalism is spelled out in greater detail in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010). While Ravitch criticizes venture philanthropists such as Gates, Broad, and Walton for promoting neoliberal educational policies, she does so in defense of a larger conservative attempt to restore Western-based curricula marked by fixed disciplines and traditional core knowledge. There is little in this position that recognizes the importance of the knowledge that young people experience daily or the broader cultures and modes of literacy that shape their lives. As Stanley Aronowitz reminds us, teacher authority must be earned by recognizing the traditions historical and popular that shape kids’ lives, though this should not suggest either romanticizing such experience or doing away with teaching the best of the canon. See Stanley Aronowitz, Against Schooling: For an Education That Matters (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008). Another insightful and critical argument against the casino capitalist philanthropists can be found in Kenneth Saltman’s work. Unlike Ravitch, he does not blame progressive education for the system’s current failings, and he takes up the current reform movement now bankrolled by “the billionaire boys’ club” as part of the neoliberal assault on both schools and democracy itself. See Kenneth J. Saltman, The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).


XII, 129
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2011 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2012. XII, 129 pp.

Biographical notes

Henry A. Giroux (Author)

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His primary research areas are in cultural studies, youth studies, critical pedagogy, popular culture, media studies, social theory, and the politics of higher and public education. In 2002, he was named as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period in Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present . He is on the editorial and advisory boards of many scholarly journals, and has published numerous books and articles. His most recent books include: The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex ; Against the Terror of Neoliberalism ; and Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?


Title: Education and the Crisis of Public Values