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.