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Left behind?

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

American youth and the global fight for democracy

Part two – by Henry A. Giroux

Increasingly, it has become more difficult for American students to recognise how their education in the broadest sense has been systematically devalued and how this not only undercuts their ability to be engaged critics, but contributes further to making American democracy dysfunctional.

How else to explain the reticence of students in protesting against tuition hikes? The forms of instrumental training they receive undermine any critical capacity to connect the fees they pay to the fact that the United States puts more money into the funding of war, armed forces and military weaponry than the next 25 highestspending countries combined – money that could otherwise fund higher education.1 The inability both to be critical of such injustices and to relate them to a broader understanding of politics, suggests a failure to think outside the normative sensibilities of a neoliberal ideology that isolates knowledge and normalises its own power relations. In fact, one recent study found that “45% of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years”.2

A culture that prohibits emergence of engaged and critical agents

The corporatisation of schooling over the last few decades has done more than make universities into adjuncts of corporate power. It has also produced a culture of illiteracy and undermined the conditions necessary to enable students to be engaged and critical agents. The value of knowledge is now linked to a crude instrumentalism and the only mode of education that seems to matter is one that enthusiastically endorses learning marketable skills, embracing a survival-of-the-fittest ethic and defining the good life solely through accumulation and disposing of the latest consumer goods. Academic knowledge has been stripped of its value as a social good; to be relevant and therefore funded, knowledge has to justify itself in market terms or simply perish.

Enforced privatisation, the closing down of critical public spheres and the endless commodification of all aspects of social life have created a generation of students who are increasingly being reared in a society in which politics is viewed as irrelevant, just as the struggle for democracy is erased from social memory. This is not to suggest that Americans have abandoned the notion that ideas have power or that ideologies and visions can move people. Unfortunately, the institutions and cultural apparatuses that generate such ideas seem to be primarily controlled by the corporate media, right-wing think tanks and other conservative groups. Public pedagogy is dominated by the right, whose activities proceed, more often than not, unchallenged from a left that has never taken public pedagogy seriously as part of its political strategy.

The rise of the Tea Party movement seems to have no counterpart among progressives, especially young people, though this may change given the arrogant and right-wing attack being waged on unions, public-sector workers and public school educators in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey and other states where Tea Party candidates have come to power.3

Everyday life privatised and commodified

In a social order dominated by the relentless privatising and commodification of everyday life and the elimination of critical public spheres, young people find themselves in a society in which the formative cultures necessary for a democracy to exist have been more or less eliminated, reduced to spectacles of consumerism made palatable through a daily diet of game shows, reality TV and celebrity culture. What is particularly troubling in American society is the absence of vital, formative cultures necessary to construct questioning agents, who are capable of seeing through the consumer comeons, who can dissent and act collectively in an increasingly imperilled democracy. Sheldon Wolin is instructive in his insistence that the creation of a democratic, formative culture is fundamental to enabling both political agency and a critical understanding of what it means to sustain a viable democracy. According to Wolin, Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. What is at stake in democratic politics is whether ordinary men and women can recognize that their concerns are best protected and cultivated under a regime whose actions are governed by principles of commonality, equality and fairness, a regime in which taking part in politics becomes a way of staking out and sharing in a common life and its forms of self-fulfilment. Democracy is not about bowling together but about managing together those powers that immediately and significantly affect the lives and circumstances of others and one’s self.4

A society that is more about forgetting than learning

Instead of public spheres that promote dialogue, debate and arguments with supporting evidence, American society offers young people a conservatising, deformative culture through entertainment spheres that infantilise almost everything they touch, while legitimating opinions that utterly disregard evidence, reason, truth and civility. The delete button has replaced the critical knowledge and the modes of education needed for intimacy, long-term commitments and the search for the good society. Attachments are short-lived and the pleasure of instant gratification cancels out the coupling of freedom, reason and responsibility. As a long-term social investment, young people are now viewed as a liability, if not a pathology. No longer a symbol of hope and the future, they are viewed as a drain on the economy and if they do not assume the role of functioning consumers, they are considered disposable.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio and Penn State University. His most recent books include Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009) and Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010). This extract appears here with his kind permission.


1 Engelhardt, T. (2010) ‘An American World War: What to Watch for in 2010’, available at: See also Bacevich, A. (2005) The New American Militarism. New York: Oxford University Press; and Johnson, C. (2006) Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire. New York: Metropolitan Books.

2 Gorski, E. (2011) ‘45% of Students Don’t Learn Much In College’, Huffington Post, available at: n_810224.html? The study is taken from Arum, R. and Roksa, J. (2011) Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3 For an informative commentary on these anti-union tactics and assaults on public schoolteachers and public education, see Shakir, F., Armbruster, B., Zornick, G., Jilani, Z., Seitz-Wald, A. and Somanader, T. (2011) ‘The Main Street Movement’, The Progress Report, available at: 134&catid=27:tree-of-liberty&id=2711:main-street-movement-erupts-as-thousandsacross- country-protest-war-on-the-middle-class&option=com_content&view=article. For those who believe that public workers are the problem, this chart on inequality tells a different story altogether. See: Gilson, D. and Perot, C. (2011) ‘It’s the Inequality, Stupid’, Mother Jones, available at: in-america-chart-graph.

4 Wolin, S.S. (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 259-260.

Category: Spring 2011

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