‘America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth’ reviewed by Alex Sager


America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth

Monthly Review, New York, 2013. 238pp., $16.95/ £13.95pb
ISBN 9781583673447

Reviewed by Alex Sager

About the reviewer

Alex Sager is Assistant Professor in Philosophy and University Studies at Portland State University. …

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Henry A. Giroux has been a leading figure of the critical pedagogy movement since the early 1980s. America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth is his latest attempt to combine progressive pedagogical theory with cultural criticism, to offer a dire diagnosis of America’s political, economic, and educational systems, and to rally support for change. It is a passionate, angry book that disappoints, however, as a critical analysis and as a rallying cry for political activism.

Giroux’s early books Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling (1981) and Theory and Resistance in Education (1983) engaged the Frankfurt school and Paulo Freire to develop an analysis of education at odds with the myth of public schooling as a progressive institution. Instead of universally extending opportunities to children, and developing virtues necessary for responsible citizenship, public schooling imposes a hidden curriculum that reproduces class, gender, and racial inequities, and perpetuates domination and oppression. Critical pedagogy seeks to reveal the ideological nature of schooling and to identify mechanisms that support the reproduction of social hierarchies.

Giroux’s contribution was to demand that critical educators connect theory and practice to imagine an alternative to authoritarian institutions, and to promote students’ agency. He challenged the class-based reproductive theory of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis and the culture-based reproductive theory of Pierre Bourdieu on the grounds that their structural analyses left little space for human agency or for progressive resistance. A common theme throughout Giroux’s career is the need for education to connect to a radical, participatory democracy. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed serves as a model for Giroux of how to connect structure and agency through pedagogical practice. Freire’s radically democratic, anti-authoritarian approach to education enabled Brazilian campesinos to gain insight into exploitative and oppressive social and economic relations, and to acquire tools to change them.

In the last twenty years, Giroux has increasingly turned to media studies and to cultural criticism, promoting himself as a public intellectual. He has published over fifty books and hundreds of articles on topics that include need for a critical pedagogy, neo-liberalism and its effects on the public sphere, political authoritarianism and the war on terror, cultural politics and the effect of mass media on youth, the criminalization of American youth, and the military-academic complex. America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth repackages many of the themes in Giroux’s recent books and popular articles. Giroux connects the democratic deficit in the United States with an education deficit in which education policies and practices prevent students from developing the critical thinking capacities necessary for engaged citizenship (23). Under neo-liberalism – what Giroux dubs in different places ‘casino capitalism’, ‘hyper capitalism’ and ‘turbo capitalism’ – public spaces that operated under the logic of democracy have been privatized and commoditized. In the United States, measures promoting charter schools and vouchers supported by powerful backers such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation follow broader trends of identifying freedom and democracy with the choices of self-interested consumers.

Giroux identifies ‘four fundamentalisms’ prevalent today. Market fundamentalism combines possessive individualism and the rejection of the common good with the commercialization and privatization of public spaces. Religious fundamentalism encourages blind faith and intolerance. Educational fundamentalism serves the manufacturing of consent, and promotes conformity and obedience. Military fundamentalism condones the securitization of domestic life in the United States, the militarization of police forces, the prison-industrial complex, and the surveillance and increasing criminalization of school children. In response to these ‘fundamentalisms’, Giroux envisions a social movement modeled on Occupy Wall Street to challenge the current democratic deficit and ‘to build a network of new institutions that can offer a different language, history, and set of values, knowledge, and ideas’ (65).

We should assess America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth on its theoretical rigor and explanatory power, and on its success as a political and educational intervention. Unfortunately, the book does not analyze neo-liberalism and its relationship to changes in public schooling or to religious and military fundamentalism. Giroux sees the proponents of these fundamentalisms having ‘converging interests’ in ‘new forms of authoritarianism’ (36) – but does not explain why. How are the four fundamentalisms connected?

Giroux does not acknowledge the possible contradictions of forces determining education policy. For example, market logic sits uneasily with heavy-handed standardized testing driven by ‘No Child Left Behind’. Much of the malaise of contemporary schooling in the US is not a direct result of market forces, but rather of a process of bureaucratization, deprofessionalization, and federal and state governments’ heavy-handed market distortions. Similarly, it is not clear how the new authoritarianism Giroux identifies is a product of neo-liberalism, or how educational fundamentalism functions as a separate category. The complaint is not that there are no connections between these four tendencies – there may well be – but that Giroux fails to reveal them. Nor does he help explain why people with seemingly progressive motives are drawn to privatization, standardized testing, and other naive and despotic measures to improve performance. This demands a theory of ideology that he does not offer.

Perhaps it is wrong to assess America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth on its theoretical rigor. Instead, it might be read primarily as a work of cultural criticism – an extension of Giroux’s articles on Truthout where versions of many of these chapters initially appeared. Does Giroux successfully ‘reclaim the radical imagination’?

No. His metaphor of the ‘war against youth’ is no more apt than the ‘war on poverty’, ‘the war on drugs’ or ‘the war on terror’. The word ‘war’ does little to communicate the causes and nature of the brutality often inflicted on members of marginalized groups. His rhetoric sometimes resembles that of the Fox News commentators that he disparages. Religious fundamentalists are accused of ‘Taliban-like moralism’ (58-9), and mainstream commentators are ‘gated intellectuals’ who work ‘hard to make thinking an act of stupidity’ and to ‘turn lies into truths’ (134). He does not substantiate his charges, or attempt to understand the malaise of many Americans attracted to the Tea Party and right-wing talk radio. His arguments rely heavily on anecdote – failed Republican candidate Rick Santorum figures broadly – and his references are largely to the alternative media and to commentary by similarly-minded intellectuals. As a result, Giroux’s rhetorical strategy fails to address anyone who does not share his political ideology or his dystopian vision of the United States.

Nor does Giroux provide a clear diagnosis of the problems or the alternatives. He rejects ‘reformist blabber’ which he opposes to ‘critical viewpoints, modes of governance, and policymaking that address matters of democracy, public life, equality, and the redistribution of wealth and power’ (21). His concrete proposals include seemingly reformist measures, such as paid family and medical leave, ecological reform, free child care, and health care programs alongside more radical proposals such as a guaranteed minimum income, the cancellation of student-loan debt, ‘a Marshall Plan-like program to end poverty and inequality in the United States’ (22) and the dismantling of the current electoral system to ‘construct a new political landscape capable of making a claim on equity, justice and democracy for all of its inhabitants’(16). Giroux does not develop any of these concrete proposals, preferring to proffer vague solutions such as a ‘culture of questioning’ (154), ‘democratic public spheres’ (155), ‘hope’ (154) and a need for ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘contextual’ (200) education. He makes the banal observation that education is always embedded in power relations and in questions of values and politics, and gestures at an analysis of how claims to scientific objectivity often mask ideological interests. There are echoes of his earlier Frankfurt school inspired criticism of positivism and instrumental rationality, but these criticisms are not explored or updated.

Giroux’s recommendations remain at a high level of abstraction with little attention to everyday pedagogical practice. He insists that teachers should be public intellectuals, but does not address concerns about the challenges and dangers of teachers assuming an explicitly ideological role. As a result, it is easy for liberals and radicals of all persuasions to agree with him since they can fill in the details as they like. Giroux’s lack of theoretical rigor prevents him from presenting a radical vision of society and of education. His complaints about neo-liberalism are not sharply distinct from Michael Sandel’s recent nostalgic challenges to the encroachment of the market (Sandel 2012). Similarly, it is difficult to distinguish Giroux’s prescriptions about critical education from the views of liberal philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum (2012) or from the criticisms of conservatives such as Diane Ravitch (2011). In many ways, the Giroux of America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth is a conventional, liberal thinker whose radical imagination (as opposed to his rhetoric) does not extend beyond an idealized version of Johnson’s Great Society. Public schooling is repeatedly treated as a public good, despite the powerful criticisms of reproduction theorists, and government is uncritically seen as a progressive antidote to the market.

This is surely not Giroux’s intention. He refers to the Occupy movement as presenting an opportunity for a ‘new language of radical reform’ (18) and calls for a ‘truly participatory and radical democracy’ (18). He gestures at the need for new modes of communication and engagement, but in advocating a ‘pedagogy of disruption’ unwittingly appropriates the term from Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen who has applied his ideas about ‘disruptive innovation’ to education (Christensen et al. 2008). The imposition of standardized testing, the techno-utopianism, and the deprofessionalization of teaching in the last decade has been profoundly disruptive, but hardly laudable.

Giroux rightly sees pedagogy as a ‘moral and political practice’ (65), and correctly identifies schools as an important site for social transformation. We need a critical pedagogy and a new political project, but it needs a firmer theoretical account of the underlying forces transforming education, and more attention to successful, local forms of resistance.

4 October 2013

References

  • Christensen, C. M. et al. 2008 Disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (New York: McGraw-Hill).
  • Nussbaum, Martha Craven 2010 Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities The Public Square Book Series (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press).
  • Ravitch, Diane 2011 The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books).
  • Sandel, Michael J. 2012 What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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