Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Henry Giroux: Left Behind? American Youth and the Global Fight for Democracy

Left Behind? American Youth and the Global Fight for Democracy
by Henry Giroux


Student resistance in the United States must be viewed within a broader political landscape that, with few exceptions, remains unexamined. In the first instance, students in Western Europe, in particular, are faced with a series of crises that are more immediate, bold and radical in their assault on young people and the institutions that bear down heavily on their lives. In the face of the economic recession, educational budgets are being cut in take-no-prisoners extreme fashion; the social state is being radically dismantled; tuition costs have spiked exponentially; and unemployment rates for young people are far higher than in the United States (with the exception of youth in poor minority communities). European students have experienced a massive and bold assault on their lives, educational opportunities and their future. Moreover, European students live in societies where it becomes more difficult to collapse public life into largely private considerations. Students in these countries have access to a wider range of critical public spheres; politics in many of these countries has not collapsed entirely into the spectacle of celebrity/commodity culture; left-oriented political parties still exist; and labor unions have more political and ideological clout than they do in the United States. Alternative newspapers, progressive media and a profound sense of the political constitute elements of a vibrant, critical, formative culture and range of public spheres that have not erased the possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organize collectively and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and critical theories can be developed.

Because of the diverse nature of how higher education is financed and governed in the United States, the assault on colleges and universities has been less uniform and differentially spread out among community colleges, public universities and elite colleges, thus lacking a unified and highly oppressive narrative against which to position resistance. Moreover, the campus "culture wars" narrative has served to galvanize many youth around a reactionary cultural project while distancing them from the very nature of the economic and political assault on their future. All this suggests another set of questions has to be raised. The more important questions, ones which do not reproduce the all-too-commonplace demonization of young people as apathetic, are twofold. First, the issue should not be why there have been no student protests, but why have the protests that have happened not been more widespread, linked, sustained? The student protests against the draconian right-wing policies attempting to destroy the union rights and collective bargaining power of teachers supported by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin is one example indicating that students are engaged and concerned. There are also smaller student protests taking place at various colleges, including Berkeley, CUNY, and on other campuses throughout the United States. But student activists appear to constitute a minority of students, with very few enrolled in professional programs. Most student activists are coming from the arts, social sciences and humanities (the conscience of the college). Second, there is the crucial issue of what sort of conditions have young people inherited in American society that has undermined their ability to be critical agents capable of waging a massive protest movement against the growing injustices they face on a daily basis? After all, the assault on higher education in the United States, while not as severe as in Europe, still suggests ample reasons for students to be in the streets protesting such policies. Close to 43 states have pledged major cuts to higher education in order to compensate for insufficient state funding. This means an unprecedented hike in tuition rates is being implemented, enrollments are being slashed, salaries are being reduced and need-based scholarships in some states are being eliminated. Pell Grants, which allow poor students to attend college, are being cut. Robert Reich has chronicled some of the impacts on university budgets, which include: Georgia cutting "state funding for higher education by $151 million"; Michigan reducing "student financial aid by $135 million";(29) Florida raising tuition in its 11 public universities by 15 percent; and the University of California increasing tuition by 40 percent in two years.(30) As striking as these increases are, tuition has steadily risen over the past several decades, becoming a disturbingly normative feature of post-secondary education.

One reason students are not protesting these cuts in large numbers may be that, by the time the average American student now graduates, he or she has not only a degree, but also an average debt of about $23,000.(31) The vast majority must balance jobs with academics, leaving no opportunity to protest, however motivated a student might be. This debt amounts to a growing form of indentured servitude for many students that both undercuts any viable notion of social activism and is exacerbated by the fact that "unemployment for recent college graduates jumped from 5.8 percent to 8.7 percent in 2009." (32) Crippling debt plus few job opportunities in a society in which individuals are relentlessly held as solely responsible for the problems they experience leaves little room for rethinking the importance of larger social issues and the necessity for organized collective action against systemic injustices. In addition, as higher education becomes one of the most fundamental requirements for employment, many universities have reconfigured their mission exclusively in corporate terms, replacing education with training and defining students as consumers, faculty as a cheap form of subaltern labor and entire academic departments as "cost centers and revenue production units."(33) No longer seen as a social or public good, higher education is increasingly viewed less as a site of struggle than as a credential mill for success in the global economy.
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Meanwhile, not only have academic jobs been disappearing, but given the shift to an instrumentalist education that is technicist in nature, students have been confronted for quite some time with a vanishing culture for sustained critical thinking. As universities and colleges emphasize market-based skills, students are neither learning how to think critically nor how to connect private troubles with larger public issues. The humanities continue to be downsized, eliminating one source of learning that encourages students to develop a commitment to public values, social responsibilities and the broader demands of critical citizenship. Moreover, critical thinking has been devalued as a result of the growing corporatization of higher education. Under the influence of corporate values, thought in its most operative sense loses its modus operandi as a critical mediation on "civilization, existence and forms of evaluation."(34) Increasingly, it has become more difficult for students to recognize 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 countries combined - money that could otherwise fund higher education.(35)

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 of the normative sensibilities of a neoliberal ideology that isolates knowledge and normalizes its own power relations. In fact, one recent study found that "45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years."(36) The corporatization 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 privatization, 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.(37)

In a social order dominated by the relentless privatizing 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 come-ons, who can dissent and act collectively in an increasingly imperiled 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-fulfillment. 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.(38)

Instead of public spheres that promote dialogue, debate and arguments with supporting evidence, American society offers young people a conservatizing, deformative culture through entertainment spheres that infantilize 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.

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