Memories and Freedom and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy

The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “AMERICA AT WAR WITH ITSELF” by Henry A. Giroux from Part IV: “Spaces of Resistance” from Chapter Eight: “Memories of Freedom and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy” on page 227 and I quote: “America is at war with itself in multiple ways and on multiple fronts, all interconnected, with a racialized class war being the most out in the open.  But this conflict is not unique to the United States.  Across the globe, the tension between democratic values and market fundamentalism has reached a breaking point, ushering in a terrifying horizon of what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times.”  Democracy is under assault, and undisguised manifestations of violent proto-fascism are being propelled to the forefront of national political life.  As this occurs, we bear witness to a media system that is enriched by the repugnant escalation of intolerance and violence.  Today it’s immigrants, communities of color, Latinos, Muslims, and protestors.  But the list is constantly under review, and if you are progressive and you are not already on it, you may be tomorrow. Given these conditions, it becomes frightfully clear that the conditions for totalitarianism and state violence are still with us.  Attracting multiculturalism, criminalizing protest, smothering critical thought, ridiculing social responsibility, foreclosing the ethical imagination, and dismissing democracy itself.  As Bill Dixon observes:

“The totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.”

In the United States, the extreme right in both political parties no longer needs the comfort of a counterfeit ideology in which appeals are made to the common good, human decency, and democratic values.  On the contrary, control is in the hands of relatively few ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations, while power is global and free from the limited politics of the weakened democratic state.  In fact, as authoritarian hierarchies consolidate, state and corporate power increasingly merge.  These processes only serve to further normalize the militarization of local police forces, the increasing invasiveness of the surveillance state, and all of the resources brought to bear by a culture of national insecurity aligned with the war on terror.  Informed judgment has given way to a corporate-controlled media apparatus that is enriched by the theatrical bullying and turmoil that bigoted intolerance clearly seems to generate, all the while reinforcing the racialized class war and value systems of the white-dominated financial elite.

Following Arendt’s description, a dark cloud of political and ethical misinformation has descended on the United States, creating a crisis of memory and agency.  As I have stressed throughout this book, intolerance has become something that now occupies a privileged, if not celebrated, place in America’s increasingly authoritarian landscape.  A new kind of infantilism and culture of ignorance now shapes daily life as agency devolves into a kind of anti-intellectual cretinism evident in the babble produced by Fox News, celebrity culture, the cult of high-stakes testing, and the politicians and pundits who support creationism, argue against climate change, and denounce almost any form of reason.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence that concludes that the financial elite and ultra-rich “are, on average less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.”  It should not be surprising that when a group of narcissistic and militantly self-interested billionaires use their power and influence to reorder society, public goods are defunded in favor of private rights, just as citizenship is dismissed in favor of consumerism.  Intolerance reorders society in ways that serve to further gentrify education and democracy, as civil rights, privacy, and civic power fold before the trump card of national security played out on a daily basis.

Politics has become synonymous with a culture of warfare, just as systemic economic predation and state-sponsored violence increasingly find legitimation in the discourses of fear and insecurity.  Too many people today accept the notion that their fate is solely a matter of individual responsibility, irrespective of wider structural forces.  This much-promoted ideology, favored by the rich, suggests that human relations boil down to competition and combat.  People today are expected to inhabit a set of economic relations in which the only obligation is to fight for one’s own self-interest.  Yet there is more at work here than a flight from social responsibility, community, and the common good.  Also lost is the importance of those social solidarities, modes of community, public spheres, and cultural apparatuses crucial for a sustainable democracy-centered society.

The egalitarianism of democracy and its promise of social protections are among the first forms of collateral damage lost to a new corporate Gilded Age and its fantasy worlds of passive consumption, free social media celebrity, and entertainment, for the masses, along with more privatization, deregulation, and wealth for the few.  At the same time, the civic and formative cultures that make social protections and community central to democratic life are in danger of being eliminated altogether.  As militarization and market-centered authoritarianism tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being choked off, downsized, and defended.  As these institutions vanish–including public defenders, housing, schools, and libraries–there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, social justice, quality, compassion, economic cooperation, environmental preservation, and the common good.  As Wendy Brown [“Neoliberalized Knowledge,” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History,” (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2011), pp.118-119.] points out:

“Neoliberal rationality takes aim at the very idea of a public good as it strives to make a world in the image of the sentence famously uttered by Margaret Thatcher, one of its most ardent and unabashed proponents: “There is no such thing as society . . .[only] individual men and women.”  Neoliberalism thus calls for formally public goods to be privatized in at least three senses.  Neoliberalism thus calls for formerly public goods to be privatized in at least three senses.  First, they are outsourced to nongovernment for-profit providers, hence submitted to calculations of profit rather than public benefit.  Second, they are marketed and priced as individual consumer rather than public goods.  Thus do toll roads and fee-per-use transport, school voucher programs and high tuition institutions replace publicly funded transportation infrastructure and public education.  Third, as both funding and accountability for formerly publicly-provisioned goods are devolved to the lowest and smallest units, these units themselves are forced into wholly entrepreneurial conduct: departments, teachers, students, office workers all have to protect and advance their own interests without regard for common or public ones.”

One outcome of a society at war with itself is that people are stripped of inspiring public spheres and the “thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities” to be found in any viable democracy.  This grim reality marks a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy to resist the confluence of forces currently formed by the normalization of the Terror Wars and the relentless economic gentrification of the American people’s social, justice, political, and education systems.

We live in dangerous times.  Global corporatism, war, violence, racism, an arms race, militarism, terrorism, climate change, the threat of nuclear weaponry, and the rise of authoritarian societies internationally pose a dire threat not just to human rights and democracy, but to humanity itself.  Matters of education, civic literacy, civil rights, and pedagogies that support the social contract, equality, justice, and the common good are crucial in the struggle against authoritarianism.  Within this climate, education has to be seen as more than a credential or a pathway to a job, and pedagogy more than a methodology or teaching to the test.  One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators and students is the need to reclaim the role that education has historically played in developing political literacies and civic capacities, both of which are essential prerequisites for democracy.  Education must also be viewed as a form of moral witnessing and as a crucial element of historical memory.  In this case, educational struggles of the past are resuscitated and critically engaged for the variety of ways in which they connect teaching to social responsibility, learning to social change, and knowledge to modes of individual and social agency.  There is a need to use education to mobilize students to be critically engaged agents, attentive to addressing important social issues, and acutely alert to the responsibility of deepening and expanding the meaning and practices of a vibrant democracy.

If we are to survive ourselves, education has to be seen as more than a credential or a pathway to a job.  It has to be viewed as crucial to understanding and overcoming the current crises of agency, democracy, environment, and historical memory.  Central to such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy.  What work do educators have to do to create the economic, political, and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy?  In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic priorities, what will it take to educate young people to challenge authority and in the words of James Baldwin “rob history of its tyrannical power, and illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social is individualized, emotional life is redirected into “retail therapy,” and quality education is only for those who can afford it?  Progress, particularly economic progress, is defined through a simple culture of metrics, measurement, and efficiency; that which benefits the ultra-rich.  In a social order drowning in a new love affair with empiricism and data reified by the marketplace, that which is not measurable is ignored.  Lost here are the registers of community, cooperation, care for the other, the radical imagination, democratic vision, and a commitment for economic and social justice.

The great Spanish painter Goya once created an engraving titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.  Goya’s title is richly suggestive, particularly in regard to the role of education and pedagogy in mentoring students to recognize, as my colleague David Clark points out, “that an inattentiveness to the never-ending task of critique breeds horrors: the failures of conscience, the ward against thought, and the flirtations with irrationality that lie at the heart of the triumph of every-day aggression, the withering of political life, and the withdrawal into private obsessions.”

Given the accumulation of pathologies and multiple crises that haunt our current political moment, much of American society appears to be drifting–willingly–toward social intolerance and authoritarianism.  Educators need a new language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which there is an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–that are increasingly used to concentrate powerful and diverse forms of control and domination.  Such a language needs to be insurgent without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that pedagogy is always political, because it is connected to the struggle over agency.  In this instance, making the pedagogical more political means being vigilant about those very “moments in which identities are being produced and groups are being constituted, or objects are being created.”   At the same time it means educators need to be attentive to those practices in which critical modes of agency and particular identities are being denied.  For example, the Tucson Unified School District board not only eliminated its famed Mexican American Studies Program, but also banned a number of Chicano and Native American books it deemed dangerous.  The ban included Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  These acts of censorship provide a particularly disturbing case of the war that is being waged in the United States against the very spaces and pedagogical practices that endow critical thinking with political agency.

Such actions suggest the need for faculty to develop forms of critical pedagogy to challenge a growing number of anti-democratic practices and policies while also resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in inequality, environmental degradation, and the normalization of militarization and war as supreme symbols of white hegemony, patriotism, and national strength.  Under these circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with crunching market data, accountability schemes, auditing, and market values.  It becomes a part of a politically and morally bankrupt formative culture in which intolerance prevails and provides the new baseline for prepping society to further succumb to the dictates of self-interested power–totalitarianism.

At a time of increased repression, it is all the more crucial for educators to reject the notion that the university is simply a site for advancing the culture of business.  At issue here is the need for educators to recognize the power of education to challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy.  It is equally crucial that they fight for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and public sovereignty to which democracy is faithfully dedicated.

In both conservative and progressive discourses, pedagogy is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills used in order to teach pre-specified subject matter.  Thus, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique or the practice of a craft-like skill.  Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must grasp the limitations of this definition and its endless imitations, even when they are claimed as part of a radical discourse or project.  In opposition to pedagogies of repression that assault the imagination and impose disciplinary practices on young people through harsh modes of accountability, critical pedagogy investigates and challenges the relationships among knowledge, authority, power, and the possibility of liberation from domination.

What makes pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that it is always a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge and subjectives are produced within particular sets of social relations.  This approach to critical pedagogy does not reduce educational practice to the mastery of methodologies; it stresses, instead, the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions.  What is the relationship between learning and social change?  What does it mean to know something?  How are different forms of knowledge valued?  How should one align their desires?  Pedagogy is always about power, because it cannot be separated from how subjectivities are formed, desires mobilized, how some experiences are legitimized and others are not, or how some knowledge is considered acceptable while other forms are excluded from the curriculum.

Paulo Freire believed that pedagogy could be a form of intervention in the service of genuine social liberation.  As such, he also believed that it was impossible to separate the teaching of content, theories, values, and social relations from how one is formed ethically and politically.  Consequently, he rejected the notion that education is neutral, just as he embraced a notion of the educator that was generous, self-reflective, professionally competent, and willing to provide the conditions for students “to question, doubt, and criticize.””


LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen Member and USAF Veteran


About tim074

I'm a retired dairy farmer that was a member of the National Farmer's Organization (NFO). Before going farming, I spent 4 years in the United States Air Force where I saved up enough money to get my down payment to go farming. I also enjoy writing and reading biographies and I write about myself as well as articles and excerpts I find interesting. I'm specifically interested in finances, particularly in the banking industry because if it wasn't for help from my local Community Bank, I never could have started farming which I was successful at. So, I'm real interested in the Small Business Administration and I know they are the ones creating jobs. I have been a member of Common Cause and am now a member of Public Citizen as well as AARP. I have, in the past, written over 150 articles on the Obama Blog ( and I'd like to tie these two sites together. I'm also on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and find these outlets terrifically interesting particularly what many of these people did concerning the uprising in the Arab world. I believe this is a smaller world than we think it is and my goal is to try to bring people together to live in peace because management needs labor like labor needs management. Up to now, that hasn't been so easy to find.
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