by Seth Kershner -
Critique is Not Enough
As a counterpoint to the current hand-wringing over public education in the U.S., it may be helpful to remember that we will spend a comparatively small amount of time during our lives as students in the classroom. That the focus thus far has been on teachers and tests should not surprise us, however. These are tangible, and measurable, aspects of education. It happens to be much harder to reform – or even to keep track of – the educational force of culture. What does that force look like? As C. Wright Mills put it in his famous BBC address, “The Cultural Apparatus,” we base our understanding of the world around us not only on schools but also on “the observation posts, the interpretation centers” and “presentation depots” of the mass media and entertainment industry (Mills 406). “Taken as a whole,” Mills continued, “the cultural apparatus is the lens of mankind through which men see; the medium by which they interpret and report what they see” (Mills 406). The media’s overpowering influence in our lives and the fact that we never actually confront pristine reality (only a mediated version thereof), raises the question: Could the cultural apparatus be the most influential teacher we ever have?
Mills, of course, was speaking more than half-a-century ago. In search of a more contemporary take on the matter, I spoke with Henry Giroux, a former professor at Penn State and currently the Global Television Network Chair of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Giroux is author or co-author of more than 50 books, including The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Paradigm, 2007) and his newest work, Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm, 2013). Professor Giroux calls the educational influence of mass culture “public pedagogy” and has over the years used the examples of Disney films and popular television shows like Mad Men to expose and critique the embedded pedagogy of popular culture. As he remarked in our interview, “The most powerful educational force in the US is not the schools, it’s outside the schools.”
I talked with Henry last February about public pedagogy, the promotion of pro-military values in schools, and organized efforts by students themselves to resist these trends.
SK: I just got back from San Diego, where my colleague and I spoke with young people who had been student activists in their high school. These kids and their peers had become radicalized after their principal cut back on their college-prep curriculum to make way for a JROTC unit. These students – many of whom were Latino and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds – could no longer take AP Spanish, but they could learn marksmanship on the campus’s JROTC firing range.
HG: This is an important issue and symptomatic of a much larger problem. Public schools are not simply being corporatized, they are also subjected increasingly to a militarizing logic that disciplines the bodies of young people, especially low income and poor minorities, and shapes their desires and identities in the service of military values and social relations. For a lot of these young people, there are only a few choices here: you can be unemployed and hopefully be able to participate in some way in the social safety net, you can take a low-income job, you can end up in prison or you can go into the military. And it seems to me that increasingly the military is becoming the best option of all of those. So you have a whole generation which – by virtue of this massive inequality – really has very limited choices. But also you have these institutions that are basically there to socialize kids, telling them the only way to succeed is to join the military-industrial complex, and that there really are no other options, at least for them. Moreover, as these young people are subject to the warring logics of a militarized society, a society in which life itself is increasingly absorbed into a war machine, it becomes difficult for them to imagine a social order that can be otherwise, one that is organized around democratic values.
SK: Like this program I’ve been following: it’s called STARBASE. This is a Defense Department program that every year reaches around 70,000 students in over one-thousand schools – the majority of them in fifth grade. Pitched as a way to supplement school curriculum in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, there’s an insidious element of military marketing at work: soldiers “mentor” students enrolled in this program and most of the instruction takes place at military installations. As part of the program students are given plenty of time to horse around on “cool” military hardware.
HG: It’s mind-blowing. I think what we often forget – and this is something that you and others like yourself are trying to make clear – is that when you talk about the militarization of American society you’re not just talking about increasing the military budget or arming the police with military-style weapons and so forth. You’re also talking about the militarization of a culture in which military values and relationships permeate every aspect of what C. Wright Mills called the cultural apparatus – schools, fashion, movies and screen culture. Violence becomes the only shared relationship that we have to each other, the only mediating form through which people can now solve problems. More insidiously, it defines our sense of identity and personal liberation through violence both as a mediating force and as a source of pleasure and entertainment. It’s one of the reasons why the majority of people in the U.S. support state-sanctioned torture. How do you explain that? It’s really a culture that’s become so saturated in this military/violent mindset that it has lost any sense of critical thought and ethical responsibility and has little understanding of what a democratic society might look like.
SK: Militarism in the schools is of course just one aspect of a larger culture of militarism in the U.S. And this gets at your notion of public pedagogy, doesn’t it?
HG: I may be terribly wrong but I think the central issue here is that first of all you have to realize that the educational force of the culture represents the most important pedagogical force at work in the United States, Canada, and in many other countries. This is not to suggest that schools are not involved in the process of teaching and learning. But I think we commit a grave mistake when we assume that schools are the only place where learning goes on. I would be willing to argue – and I have argued – that the most powerful educational force in the US is not the schools, it’s outside the schools. Young people are awash in a public pedagogy that is distributed across numerous sites that extend from movies and the Internet, readily amplified through a range of digital apparatuses that include cell phones, computers and other electronic registers of the new and expanded cultural flows. When schools fail to make a connection between knowledge and everyday life – between knowledge and these ever expanding cultural apparatuses – they fail to understand, interrogate, and question the educational forces that are having an enormous influence on children. The ongoing commercial carpet-bombing of kids through a range of ever expanding technologies–that make possible new social networks and information flows–is aggressively commodifying every aspect of their lives. Not to address this and make it pedagogically problematic, not to interrogate the massive violence kids are exposed to through screen culture and the new digital technologies is to do an enormous disservice to the way in which young people are being educated by the wider culture.
SK: But young people are resisting, in various ways. You were obviously inspired to write your latest book because you believe youth have a role to play in fighting and changing the system.
HG: As someone from the generation of the ‘60s, I’m enormously inspired by what they’re doing. Right now they may be the only chance that we have. Consider their courage: the bravery of these young kids in Occupy Wall Street fighting against state-sanctioned violence in the form of police pepper spray, police dragging them off to jail and arresting them en masse. They’ve become a model for what it is to stand up to this one percent that has turned the US into an authoritarian society. I think that what these kids are doing is not only producing a new language to talk about inequality and power relations in the US but they’re actually trying to create public spaces where new forms of social relationships inspired by democratic and cooperative values are really becoming meaningful. These young people are rethinking the very nature of politics and asking serious questions about what democracy is and why it no longer exists in many capitalist countries across the globe. They have been written out of the discourses of justice, equality, and democracy and are not only resisting how neoliberalism has made them expendable, but they are also arguing for a collective future very different from the one that is on display in the current political and economic systems in which they feel trapped. That’s important.
But they face enormous challenges. They don’t have access to the dominant media. They’re trying to use new media to create new modes of communication. They’re trying to understand what democratic processes might mean in terms of sustaining collective struggles, and all of this takes time. I think that rather than saying that Occupy Wall Street has died, we can say that they’re in the process of understanding what the long march through alternative institutions might mean.
As conditions get worse in the U.S. this movement will grow and take on an international significance. Hopefully they’ll join with young people in other countries to figure out how to address the biggest problem that the global community faces – politics is local and power is global. Nation-states can’t control the flow of capital; it’s outside the boundaries of nation-states. So, we need a politics that’s global to be able to deal with that.
SK: In reflecting on my own research I’ve seen examples of school administrators treating student activists in two distinctly different ways. In my area, Western Massachusetts, for example, there are high school students who are very heavily involved in organizing around issues of ecology and sustainability. They lobby for locally grown foods to be served in the cafeteria, install small garden plots for community members, school officials give them land on school property to grow vegetables, and so on. But then you have the students in San Diego that I mentioned before. Because they were fighting against the military presence in their schools they were seen as agitators. School administrators and police would conduct video surveillance of the students’ marches, and one of their leaders was prevented from taking part in the graduation ceremony with the rest of his class. What might explain the differential response here?
HG: As long as these modes of resistance don’t challenge relations of power, that’s fine with school officials and others in a position of authority. As long as they’re focused on students finding a happy spot in themselves, positive thinking, that’s fine. But as soon as they start talking about power, militarization, inequality, racism – all those things that point to deep structural problems—student resistance and dissent is viewed as exceeding its possibilities and limits. Just look at what happened in places like Arizona, where these racist educators and politicians succeeded in banning ethnic studies. When young people protested against their history, culture, and forms of witnessing being excluded from the curriculum, they were labeled as criminals, communists, and agitators.
What is most important in terms of these youth movements is that you have a lot of young people making connections, saying “Look you can’t talk about the rise in tuition unless you talk about the attack on the social state and social protections. You can’t talk about what’s happening in education unless you talk about the rise of the punishing state.” In a place like California where more is spent on prisons than on education clearly those connections are what give force to a generation of students who are simply refusing to isolate these issues. It no longer makes sense to say that these are spoiled kids who don’t want to spend much for their education. These young people are developing a conversation about society at large, calling into question its most fundamentally oppressive economic, political, and educational structures.
Also, young people are recognizing that they’re not going to find their voice in the Democratic Party or in the existing labor unions. What they really need to fight for are new mass and collective organizations that can call the entirety of society into question and mobilize so as to develop the policies and institutions that make a new and radically democratic society possible.
SK: Here’s a paradox for you: How do you teach social change or resistance to authority within public schools – institutions that many have criticized for being authoritarian and resistant to change?
HG: You can’t do it if you believe these institutions are so authoritarian that there’s simply no room for resistance. That’s a mistake. Power is never so overwhelming that there’s no room for resistance. Power and the forms it takes are always contradictory in different ways and there is always some room for resistance. What needs to be understood is the intensity of dominant power in different contexts and how it can be named, understood, and fought. The issue here is to seize upon the contradictions at work in these institutions and to develop them in ways that make a difference. During the sixties, the term for this was the long march through institutions and the reference had little to do with reform but with massive restructuring of the instruments of democracy.
And we also need to impose a certain kind of responsibility upon adults in the schools – whether they be social workers, university professors, or high school teachers. Clearly it’s not enough to say they operate under terrible burdens that make them voiceless. I understand those structural conditions but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t resist either. That means they not only have to promote particular kinds of pedagogies in their classrooms but they also have to join social movements that give them the force of a collective voice that can bear down on these problems and create change.
The greatest battle that we’re facing in the U.S. today is around the question of consciousness. If people don’t have an understanding of the nature of the problems they face they’re going to succumb to the right-wing educational populist machine. This is a challenge that the Left has never taken seriously because it really doesn’t understand that at the center of politics is the question of pedagogy. Pedagogy is not marginal, it is not something that can be reduced to a method, limited to what happens in high schools, or to what college professors say in their classes. Pedagogy is fundamental not only to the struggle over culture but also, if not more importantly, the struggle over meaning and identity. It’s a struggle for consciousness, a struggle over the gist of agency, if not the future itself – a struggle to convince people that society is more than what it is, that the future doesn’t simply have to mimic the present.
SK: What would this look like in practice? One encouraging experiment I had the privilege of observing up close is taking place at the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy in Oakland. There, in an “alternative high school” within the Oakland Unified School District, student interns working with a group called BAY-Peace lead youth in interactive workshops on topics relevant to their lives: street violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, military recruiters in their schools, and so on.
HG: I think two things have to go on here, and you just mentioned one of them. We’ve got to talk about alternative institutions. There has to be some way to build institutions that provide a different model of education. On the Left, we had this in the ‘20s and ‘30s: socialists had Sunday schools, they had camps; they found alternative ways to educate a generation of young people to give them a different understanding of history, of struggle. We need to reclaim that legacy, update it for the twenty-first century, and join the fight over the creation of new modes of thinking, acting, and engaging ourselves and our relations to others.
On the second level is what Rudi Dutschke called what I referred to earlier as the “long march through the institutions.” It’s a model that makes a tactical claim to having one foot in and one foot out. You can’t turn these established institutions over to the Right. You can’t simply dismiss them by saying they’re nothing more than hegemonic institutions that oppress people. That’s a retreat from politics. You have to fight within these institutions. Not only that, you have to create new public spheres.
SK: Henry, we’ve covered a lot of territory. Is there anything we haven’t addressed that you would like to bring up before closing?
HG: We need both a language of critique and a language of hope. Critique is essential to what we do but it can never become so overwhelming that all we become are critics and nothing else. It is counterproductive for the left to engage in declarations of powerlessness, without creating as Jacques Rancière argues “new objects, forms, and spaces that thwart official expectations.” What we need to do is theorize, understand and fight for a society that is very different from the one in which we now live. That means taking seriously the question of pedagogy as central to any notion of viable progressive politics; it means working collectively with others to build social movements that address a broader language of our society – questions of inequality and power (basically the two most important issues we can talk about now.) And I think that we need to find ways to support young people because the most damage that’s going to be done is going to be heaped upon the next generations. So what we’re really fighting for is not just democracy; we’re fighting for the future. And so critique is not enough; we need a language of critique and we need a language of possibility to be able to go forward with this.
Harding, Scott, and Seth Kershner. “Students Against Militarism: Youth Organizing in the
Counter-Recruitment Movement.” Left Behind in the Race to the Top: Realities of School
Reform. Eds. Julie Gorlewski & Brad Porfilio. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2013, 257-273. Print.
Lagotte, Brian W. “Gunning for School Space: Student Activists, the Military, and Education
Policy.” Be the Change: Teacher, Activist, Global Citizen. Ed. R. Verma. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010. 183-214. Print.
Mills, C. Wright. “The Cultural Apparatus.” Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays
of C. Wright Mills. Ed. Louis Horowitz. New York: Oxford, UP, 1963. 405-423. Print.
  The Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program (JROTC) is now present in more than 3,000 high schools across the country, enrolling more than 400,000 14- to -18-year-old “cadets.” Students enrolled in JROTC – which the Pentagon describes as a citizenship training program, not a recruiting operation – receive classroom instruction in citizenship, history and “military science” from retired military personnel; practice military drill formation; and attend school in uniform once a week. Some JROTC units even have firing ranges on campus so that cadets can train to be … well … good citizens. For more on student-led resistance to JROTC, see Harding & Kershner and Lagotte.
Seth Kershner is a reference and instruction librarian at Northwestern Connecticut Community College.