In order to understand the meaning of Henry Giroux’s The Violence of Organized Forgetting, you have to understand the metaphor he’s working with. The menace here is neoliberalism, and its assault on critical thinking, public memory, and the collective imagination. We don’t normally think of neoliberalism’s victims in such abstract terms; usually there are tangible effects, like the rising cost of education, the yawning wealth gap, the privatization of public space, the corporatization of politics, and declining investments in social provisions like health and social security.
But the effect of neoliberalism on our own mental degeneration is harder to register. If we could actually feel our consciousness regressing, we’d be reclaiming our dignity by any means necessary. There is only a gradual decline in the things that make us human, and a quiet corroding of the attitudes and dispositions which help us participate productively in democratic life. It’s hard to develop a sense of agency in an age of rampant consumerism; it’s hard to think clearly when the the media pedals so much propaganda; it’s hard to develop “viable visions of the future” when we’re captive to the satisfaction of our immediate needs; it’s hard to feel independent when we’re under constant pressure to work. It’s hard to think creatively when ideology is so pervasive, and so few opportunities exist for meaningful public engagement. And so we acquiesce; our critical faculties atrophy from underuse. Or we just become cynical and resentful, certain that powerful forces will win out in the end.
But what does the effect of neoliberalism have to do with the schools? Well, it’s the schools that undertake the vital task of educating the young, allowing them to cultivate the intellectual and social skills that help them lead fulfilling lives. In schools committed to democratic principles, education is also the mechanism through which students practice leadership and participation. For many kids, it’s their first experience as members of a public space, where they can pursue their passions, and form rich and meaningful relationships within a community of peers. Of course, this vision of education is not how most schools operate, even ones that bill themselves as progressive. There is sorting, tracking, and constant testing even at the most forward thinking schools; students face unrelenting pressure to attend selective and pricey colleges which promise the best in education, but mainly perpetuate meritocracy, or crippling debt. Tuition rates at private schools makes high quality education a privilege for the wealthy, while declining investments in public schools, in the wealthiest country in the world, leave so many talented students and communities in the dust, consigned to social perdition.
In line with the society, everything in schools is at risk of commodification. Education, which is supposed to be a public good (even in its private form), is increasingly governed by market principles. This doesn’t always produce a bad effect, especially for individual students and families who can afford the cost of a quality education. They do fine. But it’s the society that suffers; the status of democracy as a community of free and equal citizens. Maybe this ideal was never realizable, and never really the point to begin with. The entire purpose of private education, ever since the ruling in Pierce, was to prevent the state from exercising a monopoly on the schools. The point was to encourage experimentation, and allow parents to exercise meaningful choice outside of the public realm. In so doing, we accepted that education was a form of social capital and cultural expression.
We ask so much of the schools; prevent the world from turning into a giant shopping mall; resist market pressures which undermine educational quality, make students aware of their critical and creative powers. These are lofty responsibilities for any single institution to assume, especially ones whose survival depends, in part, on conforming to what the market requires. But there are solutions, even if they are small and incremental. And these solutions can emerge from critical pedagogies which awaken individual and social consciousness. Giroux’s recommendations are vague, but instructive:
- We need to “think critically and ethically about the coercive forces shaping US culture–and focus our energy on what can be done to change them.”
- We need to create “alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for communities and ourselves.”
- We need to develop “alternative public spheres in which to produce democratic narratives and visions, and a notion of politics that is educative, one that takes seriously how people interpret and mediate the world, how they see themselves in relation to others, and what it might be to imagine otherwise and to act otherwise.”
- We need to “make memory, imagination, and consciousness central elements of what it means to be critical and engaged citizens.
- We need to reconnect political power to its “civic, ethic, and material moorings.
- We must invest in “social movements that invoke stories as a form of public memory, stories that have the potential to unsettle common sense, challenge the commonplace, and cove communities to invest in their own sense of civic and collective agency.”
These are goals which demand a complete democratization of the school system; no small task. I don’t mean democratization in terms of broadening access to schools; of course this is essential. What I mean is a democratization of how schools operate; a democratization of curriculum, pedagogy, and programming. We don’t normally think of schools as venues for students to practice citizenship; when we do, it’s usually in terms of the civic and political content students learn in Government and Economics. In other words, we judge the effectiveness of democratic learning goals based on whether students know the three branches of government, whether they can differentiate libertarianism from socialism, whether they can identify the causes and effects of American Revolution, and so on. There’s far less attention on the effects of these knowledge goals; do they limit forms of discourse? Are they open to challenge? Are they just, fair, and ethical? How can the knowledge be applied?
Just as society needs “alternative public spheres in which to produce democratic narratives and visions,” so do the schools. Here there is a very obvious solution; develop structures within the school devoted to democratic deliberation, open discussion, ethical inquiry, and community wide decision making. One of these structures is the Town Hall (or Community Meeting), where all members of the school community join together on a weekly basis to discuss issues of moral, social, or political consequence. In these settings, students learn to “see themselves in relation to others,” and they participate in the creation of community. At the same time, students develop a sense of individual and collective agency. This is because the problems of the world, and the problems within the school, are brought within their grasp. Students learn to speak publicly about important issues; they learn to revise their assumptions; they practice engaging in a philosophical dialogue where questions of meaning, value, and purpose play central roles; they deepen their commitments to each other, and the school; they learn to distrust opinions that are parochial, dogmatic, and anti social; they become tolerant, empathic, and reflective. Most importantly, they learn to embrace public spaces and public engagement, and seek out these forums for the intellectual and social fulfillment they confer.
Memory, imagination, and consciousness expand when learners encounter new experiences, and shift their thinking beyond traditional boundaries and strictures. This can really only happen if schools trust students to engage in such a process. This does not mean leaving students alone without guidance or structure; what it means is posing challenges, problems, and dilemmas that invite students to imagine new possibilities, construct understanding, and generate ideas. Students learn to examine their own prejudices, interrogate evidence, and navigate complexity. They remember more and forget less. When this happens in the classroom, learning is deep and enduring; when this transpires in the form of public discourse, students contribute to social and civic transformation. In so doing, students develop precisely the habits which allow them to resist the easy pleasures of consumerism, and challenge the forces that seek to narrow and repress the public.