Journal of Educational Controversy


Monday, November 10, 2008

Democracy and the Obama Presidency

As the editor of the Journal of Educational Controversy, I would like to welcome you to our new blog. Although our journal has a rejoinder section for formal, refereed responses, we thought there needed to be a public space for more spontaneous discussion. Our current issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters" appeared before the historic events of November 4th that saw the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Henry Giroux, who wrote the article, "Education and the Crisis of Democracy: Confronting Authoritarianism in a post 9/11 America," for that issue of our journal has posted a follow up in light of the Obama election. We have decided to publish it as a separate post and invite our readers to contribute their comments and responses.


Obama and the Promise of Education

Needless to say, like many Americans, I am both delighted and cautious about Barack Obama's election. Symbolically, this is an unprecedented moment in the fight against the legacy of racism while at the same time offering new possibilities for addressing how racism works in a post-Obama period. Politically, I think it puts a break on many authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies operating both domestically and abroad, while offering a foothold not only for a fresh critique of neoliberal and neoconservative policies but also an opportunity to reclaim and energize the language of the social contract and social democracy. While the Bush administration may have been uninterested in critical ideas, debate, and dialogue, it was almost rabid about destroying the economic, political, and educational conditions that make them possible. In the end, the Bush administration was willing to sacrifice almost any remnant of democracy to further the interests of the rich and powerful, especially those commanded by corporate power. The Obama administration will fail badly if it does not connect the current financial and credit crisis to the crisis of democracy and its poisonous undoing by commanding market forces. Corporate power, rather than simply deregulation, has to be addressed head on if any of the ensuing reforms undertaken by the Obama administration are going to work. Similarly, the social state has to be resurrected once again against the power and interest of the corporate state, and that battle is not just economic and political but also pedagogical. Of course, the last thing we need is to overly romanticize the Obama election. We don't need lone heroes offering a path to salvation and hope. Obama's victory is not about the gripping story of his personal journey and ultimate victory as a Black man, but about the emergence of a certain moment in history when not only small difference matter, but new possibilities appear for making real claims on the promise of democracy to come. What this historic event should make clear is the necessity for various progressive and left-oriented groups to get beyond their isolated demands and form a powerful progressive movement that can push Obama to the left rather than allow him to drift to the center and right. Of course, this means that progressives will have to do more than embrace a language of critique, they will also have to engage in a discourse of hope but a hope that is concrete, rooted in real struggles, and capable of forging a new political imagination among a highly conservative and fractured polity. This is an especially important time for educators. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof recently argued that one of the most remarkable things about this election is that Obama is a practicing intellectual and that the era of anti-intellectualism so pervasive under the Bush administration may be coming to an end. Surely a message that resonates with anyone interested in the power of ideas. But there is more at stake here than an appeal to thoughtfulness, critique, and intelligence, there is also the need to rethink the relationship between education and politics, the production of particular kinds of subjects as a condition of civic life, and the ways in which new and diverse sites of education in the new millennium have proliferated into one of the most powerful political spheres in history. The most important challenge, especially for educators, facing the US in a post Obama period, is to make the pedagogical more political and take seriously the educational force of a culture that is central to creating a new citizen, one that is defined less through the hatred and bigotry of racism and the narrow commodified identities offered through market fundamentalism than through the values, identities, and social relations of a democratic polity.


Aideen said...

In this world thick with political and educational buzzwords it’s important to question what we mean by “critical thinking.” . I welcome President-Elect Obama's commitment to fostering critical thinking among students in K-12 education. But could we elaborate upon the concept? I worry we employ the phrase without thinking much about what it might mean. I see this lack of thought in my dealings with pre-service teachers. When asked what they believe critical thinking is they either stare back blankly or ask tentatively whether it has something to do with “justice.” It would appear that it is time for educators to think critically about their definition of critical thinking.

Fostering critical thinking in U.S. students and future U.S. voters is a worthy goal. But it has fallen victim to the educational jargon machine. Perhaps even more worrying is the tacit agreement among certain educators that “critical theory” is synonymous with “critical thinking.” While I agree with much under the banner of critical theory, including its commitment to social justice, I am also aware that theories of whatever type (e.g., feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory, post colonial theory etc.), by definition are lenses through which see the world. They therefore represent perspectives on "truth". In our attempts to redress social injustices we must resist against accepting critical theory as a substitute for critical thinking. By fostering critical theory as a substitute for critical thinking in our schools of education we inevitably situate our new teachers exclusively as political agents rather than critical thinkers as such. Strong political agendas do not by themselves foster the kind of critical detachment needed for critical thought. In fact sometimes they get in the way. Critical thinking must bring with it the risk that students will reach conclusions about the world that we had not anticipated or intended. That is the worthwhile and necessary risk of a truly democratic vision. We do not need parrots but brave, caring and conscientious human beings. .

Critical thinking requires us to challenge individuals to engage critically with a variety of perspectives on "truth". To do this they must be empowered with the capacity to dissect discourses of power but not necessarily with the predetermined necessity of dismantling or disrupting those discourses. Some of those may be legitimate and justified. How could we know in advance that they are not? A critical thinker approaches the world and the systems in it with open questions not with an indoctrinated sense of an a priori necessity for resistance. A truly critical thinker does not engage with the world, and the theoretical perspectives constructed therein, in a passive sense. But the notion of an active mind inherent in the concept of critical thinking empowers the individual to be more than a tabula rasa and challenges us to draw and redraw our understanding of the world. Political education clearly plays a role in this individual growth but only if it is truly education and not political training.

Educators, perhaps more than other citizens, have a responsibility in this age of social change and economic turmoil to reengage with the concept of critical thinking as an essential characteristic of the participating democratic citizen. The first step is to cut the ideal of critical thinking from the chains of critical theory and encourage democratic citizens to evolve in a spirit of genuine dialogue as opposed to a cognitively paralyzing deference to one or other worldview. Adopting a politicized theoretical perspective as the lens through which every child must "read" the world in the name of justice is an understandable reaction to the need to right past wrongs. But very often it overdoes it. Force feeding social justice down students throats is a poor substitute for giving them the time and opportunity to acquire a taste for questioning their world and hence a willingness to take bigger and more regular bites out of the critical thinking cake. If our paramount concern is to produce free democratic thinkers equipped to engage with a ever-more diverse nation and ever-shrinking planet, then critical theory’s notion of critical thinking is due for an re-inspection.

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