Defending Educators and Students as Public Intellectuals
The growing popularity of neoliberal capitalist narratives coincides with a trend of perceiving and thinking of society through a strictly economic lens. This myopic narrowing of the social sphere entails a myriad of consequences: democracy becomes the freedom to make a profit, freedom becomes maximizing personal wealth through the privatization of everything, and education becomes technical training where a student’s developed skill is a commodity he or she can trade in the marketplace.
As reigning market values translate all aspects of our personal and social lives into the context of commerce, the mode of critique that searches for the gaps between the socio-politico configuration of the moment and the ideal of democracy to come is quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by a desire not for our collective betterment and the social good, but monetary gain of a distinctly selfish bent. When political engagement disappears, how can a movement towards equality and social justice even begin to emerge?
In all of his work and most recently in Dangerous Pedagogy in an Era of Casino Capitalism and Religious Fundamentalism, Henry A. Giroux shows the pivotal role that educators as public intellectuals can play in resisting the neoliberalization of society by using pedagogy to arm students not with dogmatic knowledge or strictly technical abilities, but with the critical skills and sense of agency they need to play an active role in fighting for and shaping a genuinely democratic future.
To cultivate such an oppositional movement, pedagogy must intervene in the world to transform it by creating a “formative culture” (both inside and outside the classroom) that will trouble and challenge prevailing antidemocratic forces. Critical pedagogy can help us to imagine and enact alternatives to market-driven ways of being, while using self-reflection and reflexive practice to link learning to our everyday lives and social change.
To enable students to be active builders of a democracy, educators must participate in the development of “a new political and pedagogical language” so they can effectively delineate and discuss the shifting contexts and the problems emergent in this capitalist moment in their classrooms. In the critical classroom, the authority of the educator is not suffocating or imperious, but it is directive and self-critical, seeking to guide students towards becoming critical and informed citizens.
Teachers, as public intellectuals, can play a pivotal role in recontextualizing democracy outside of market values. Moreover, educators might then use this new vocabulary to teach students the critical skills, knowledge, and agency they need to question naturalized narratives and ways of being by situating taken-for-granted assumptions “within a broader set of historical and institutional contexts.”
Students, armed with a new understanding of the workings of power in its different forms, can take this knowledge and operationalize it to fight social injustices by subverting destructive power and reshaping its direction. Conceiving themselves as citizens with a keen sense of civic and social responsibility—and public intellectuals in their own right—these students will go on to spread a desire and a movement for radical democracy in lots of different public spheres that are themselves (as forces of culture) pedagogical as well.
The responsibility of educators and students to play a role in democratic movements should not be ignored, especially at this moment when groups intent on increasing the inequalities in society are attacking public schools and higher education in an attempt to smother democracy. To nurture equality and social justice, everyone must recognize that education is an invaluable vehicle in the struggle for democracy.