Rather than a reivew, the following are selected quotes from an interview on Truthout with the author, Henry A. Giroux about this important book. Giroux makes a strong and eloquent case that the war on public education is a war on America’s people and the social contract by a cruel neoliberal power structure whose intent is to shift away from a local democratized society to global power. And anyone who is not a ‘consumer’ is garbage to be thrown away (as garbage.)
Giroux: “I argue in this book that the deepening political, economic and moral deficit in America is inextricably connected to an education deficit, which is currently impacting young people most of all by starving them of both the economic resources and the formative educational experiences required to help them develop into knowledgeable and engaged citizens. The book begins with the premise that the crisis of schooling cannot be disconnected from the economic crisis – fueled by endless wars, a bloated military-industrial complex, and vast disparities in wealth and income. I argue throughout the book that as the United States proceeds headlong on a reckless course of civic illiteracy, which serves to legitimate and bolster a malignant gap in income, wealth and power, the end point is sure to entail the destruction of current and future possibilities for developing the educational institutions and formative culture that advance the imperatives of justice and democracy.
The book takes up the theme of the educational deficit by analyzing how recent attacks on youth can be linked to systemic attempts by a corporate and financial elite, conservative think tanks, and other right-wing forces to dismantle the social state and undermine opportunities for critical education, civic courage, and actions that make a world more just and democratic. These attacks range from the militarization of schools and the reduction in social services to the ongoing criminalization of a wide range of youth and adult behaviors and an increasing disinvestment in policies that would provide jobs, health care, and a future for young people.
Examining the regressive educational apparatuses, conservative politics, and cultures of cynicism that have dominated the United States in recent years, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth describes and analyzes how American society is increasingly infused by real and symbolic forms of violence promoted by a range of intersecting forces, including neoliberal policymaking, militarization, religious fanaticism, corporate elitism, the violation of civil liberties, unconstitutional forms of surveillance, the disinvestment in public and higher education, and persistent racism. Despite widespread calls for electoral reform, the nation has arrived at such a crisis in governance that it cannot possibly begin to redress prevailing issues through political reform alone. Education must be taken seriously as a matter of primary importance among anyone who believes in the promise of US democracy.
Since the 1970s, there has been an intensification of the anti-democratic pressures of neoliberal policies. What is particularly new is the way in which immigrants, poor minorities and vast numbers of the working and middle classes are increasingly denied any social provisions as a result of an already eviscerated social contract and the degree to which they are no longer viewed as central to how the United States defines its future. Keeping up with the Joneses has been replaced with the struggle to simply survive – and mimics a neo-Hobbesian world in which the politics of disposability has replaced the most minimal elements of the welfare state. With the growth of finance capital, a global shift in power, and a move from a society of producers to a society of consumers, American society took a turn to the dark side, one that eviscerated any pretense to democracy and condemned millions of people to a life of perpetual suffering, hardship and misery. Under the dictates of a neoliberal society, not only are resources and consumer goods thrown away, but human beings are now also considered excess to be relegated to the garbage can of society. In other words, we do not just throw away goods but also people.
Heightened expectations and progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness and despair, while giving millions to mega corporations, financial services, banks and the military. The logic of disposability now threatens anyone who cannot fulfill their role as a consumer, provide unquestioned support to established corporate and political bastions of power, willingly accept the capitalist drive for profits regardless of the social costs, and accommodate a notion of the public sphere that is largely white, male and deeply conservative.
What we have seen in the last thirty years is the shredding of all vestiges of the social contract, especially those policies that emerged out of the New Deal and the Great Society. Under the older forms of liberalism there was an agreement between labor and capital that workers had to be protected with decent pensions and working conditions, the future of young people demanded certain social investments, the elderly needed health care and social benefits to protect them from dire poverty and illnesses and workers needed retirement funds to allow them to have a decent life once they reached a certain age. Today, all of these policies and social provisions are viewed as extravagant and the people who receive them are increasingly demonized, especially by right-wing politicians. Under the auspices of a neoliberal notion of austerity, these populations have become a burden rather than an embodiment of a society’s commitment to the social good. Consequently, large and diverse members of the public now inhabit a zone of disposability and a future of terminal exclusion. The reality of redundancy, excess, and disposability, rather than the promise of getting ahead, has become the new normal in American society.
One feature of the savage neoliberal worldview that has a grip on American society, if not most of the larger world, is a commitment to a form of political purity in which all relationships are reduced to a friend/enemy binary. More often than not, the response to those who dare dissent, speak out and question dominant power relations, especially on the part of the state, involves the increased use of state violence, the threat of incarceration and even the threat of assassination – as exemplified in the revelation of an Obama government-sponsored kill list. Fear and the all-engulfing encirclement of the war on terror and the permanent warfare state have not only narrowed and militarized the parameters of civility, dialogue and thoughtfulness, but have largely rendered them pathological, if not dangerous. Such a response is evident in the violence waged against peaceful student protesters, the imprisonment of whistleblowers, the rise of the punishing state and imprisonment binge, the ongoing drug war that is as racist as it is undemocratic and the transformation of public schools into either malls with their myriad forms of advertisement and corporate culture or, more brutally, into models of prison culture.
The culture of cruelty that has been ratcheted up with great intensity since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 provides the symbolic registers for viewing some populations as excess, redundant and disposable. In fact, the language of disposability has become central to a growing culture of cruelty in which it is stated without apology that “the poor in America have it too easy because they have refrigerators and televisions … Poor black and brown children should be given mops and brooms and put in veritable work houses like Dickensian street urchins … Electric fences should be used to kill ‘illegal’ immigrants.”(2) Those populations who are poor, homeless, lacking work, sick, or racially other are now described as a scourge on the American character and are defined in less than human terms, stripped of their rights, and relieved of the promise of the safety and security once offered by the social contract. There is more at work here than the poverty of public discourse. There is also a hardening of the culture in which the shift away from public values and democratic politics is matched by a growing education deficit and an American style form of authoritarianism. Theodor W. Adorno was right when he argued: “I consider the survival of [fascism] within democracy to be potentially more menacing that the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”(3)
We now live in a society in which the mass surveillance of Americans by the government makes clear that the distinction between the innocent and guilty, suspects and non-suspects, terrorists and non-terrorists has broken down. Neoliberalism, in this discourse, has created a formative culture in which violence now becomes the most important element of power in mediating social relationships. And as the bonds of trust are replaced by the bonds of fear and humiliation, all forms of dependency and trust are viewed with suspicion – making it easier for a society to inhabit a formative culture in which many Americans seem to delight in human suffering, a particularly pathological mentality at this time when so many Americans are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, homelessness, joblessness and utter despair.
No democracy can survive without a formative culture that offers the public the opportunity to broaden their knowledge, skills, and values in ways that enhance and expand their capacities to think critically, imagine otherwise, create the conditions for shared responsibilities, and hold power accountable. The Jeffersonian ideal of education providing the conditions to produce an informed citizenry is now under siege at every level of society in which knowledge is produced and circulated. Moral indifference now replaces social responsibility just as civic literacy is now replaced by the idiocy of celebrity culture, the anti-intellectualism embraced by a commodity based-culture, and the current utterly instrumental and repressive view of education.
Instead of embracing neoliberal public pedagogy with its emphasis on privatization, commodification, self-interest and unchecked individualism, Americans need to gain control of existing institutions such as public and higher education in order to counter such ideologies and practices. At the same time, progressives need to struggle vigorously to create alternative educational programs, modes of public pedagogy and communities of care and compassion that promote cultures of deliberation, critical exchange, questioning and thoughtfulness across a wide number of cultural and institutional sites. But the educational task is only the first step in creating a new vision of politics, democracy and economic justice. In order to challenge successfully the neoliberal assumption that a corporate-dominated market society represents the essence of democracy, there is a need to create broad-based social movements that can fight for critical infrastructures, alternative institutions, new community-based modes of communication, and participatory forms of democracy. Everything must be done to rethink politics in light of the current separation of local politics from global forms of power. Any politics that matters must create new institutions for preventing global powers from shaping local and global politics. Americans need a new sense of utopia, one that recreates the coordinates of the real and the possible – an adoption of what I have called educated hope.
The public needs to be convinced that early childhood education, public education and higher education are crucial for a democracy to survive and that, as Erica Shaker has argued, educated societies are more healthy, equitable and democratic. There is more being lost in the push for quantitative measures than a loss of respect for teachers, students and professional judgment. What is also being lost is the power of the public to develop, finance, maintain and protect educational institutions that are public and crucial to creating engaged and critical citizens and sustaining the formative cultures necessary for the ongoing development of democratization. The war against public schools, higher education and professionalization of the best kind is really about politics and power. The hedge fund managers, billionaires such as the Koch brothers and the Bill Gates liberals could care less about the notion of respect for an educated populace or the environment, because what they really want is concentrated power, control over American society’s commanding institutions, and new markets to sell their junk and endless array of products. In their ravenous struggle for concentrated power, they corrode public spaces, reinforce wide disparities in income and wealth, turbo-charge a culture of cruelty, reproduce racist practices, and corrupt any democratic rendering of politics.
I think it is reasonable to argue, as I do in this book, that education at all levels is the fundamental precondition that makes democratic politics possible, provides a space where meaningful histories, voices and cultural differences can flourish, and enables students to grow intellectually and morally, reflect critically about their relationship with others, and interrogate thoughtfully their relationship with the broader society and the larger world. The Education Deficit and the War on Youth is a call for educators and others to organize collectively both within and outside of schools to further develop the ideas, values and institutions necessary to sustain a world where justice prevails and individual and collective consciousness does not fall asleep.”
(Or into the garbage can)