Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Henry Giroux - lessons for New Zealand educators.Revitalizing the role of public education –

I was recently sent a rather long article written by Henry Giroux. I struggled to read it but I believe it is important to share the ideas he writes about if the true aims of education are to realised. Giroux sees education as central to the development of a just and democratic society currently under attack by neo –liberal thinking.
There is no doubt that current political leadership, influenced by a neo –liberal philosophy of small government, individualism and the need to privatise of all aspects of living has led to the erosion of the belief in the common good resulting in a growing gap between so called ‘winners and losers’.
The winners are the financial and corporate elite - the one percent.
The corporate and financial elite, right wing think tanks –and extreme fundamentalist political groups (the Tea Party in America and the ACT party in New Zealand) are increasingly focusing on privatising education for their own profit. There is big money to be made!
The neo-liberal authoritarian (‘big brother’) political landscape does not encourage questioning and those who dare are regarded as mischievous or ignored. This has been the fate of respected educationalists that have criticized the National Party’s imposition of National Standards which are more about political than education ends.
 To open the way for privatisation (Charter Schools) there is a need to compare schools (to prove school failure) so data is required – unfortunately data only gathered from a narrow range of learning areas resulting in a narrowing of the curriculum and eventually teaching to the tests.
Since the 1980s there has been an intensification of the anti-democratic pressures of neo –liberal governments of the Anglo West. The welfare state is being dismantled, social services reduced and, as a result, creating growing unemployment, crime rates and environments that see people as disposable and, in some cases (unemployed youth), a problem rather than an opportunity. Poor minorities and vast numbers of the working class, and increasingly the middle class, are denied social support.  Keeping up with the Joneses has been replaced with the struggle to simply survive. According to Giroux we have moved ‘from a society of producers to a society of consumers’.  
Young people in particular, says Giroux, no longer see much hope in such an unfair society with its ethos of greed. ‘The mall and the prison’ he writes, ‘have  become the preeminent institutions  for symbolizing what the future hold for them as they suffer the soft war of commodification or the hard war of hyper-punishment and possible incarceration’. This marginalisation of youth can be seen in in any city and town in New Zealand. The belief in the common good with its shared social bonds, established  after the Great Depression (in America by Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ by the Welfare State established (and at the same time by the first Labour Government in New Zealand) have been replaced by rampant selfish individualism. In response, around the world, young people are taking things into their own hands (the 99%) demonstrating against this creeping authoritarianism – about the pernicious effect of corporate influence in all aspects of life.
'Greed is good!"
The shared destiny  and collective responsibility  of a decent life for all of earlier times has been ‘replaced by a market driven ideology that now privatises, commodifies, atomizes and taints most everything it takes’.  Today right wing politicians happily demonize people on welfare (‘the poor have it too easy’) and the unemployed (too lazy) – such people are seen as a burden – a problem they wish would go away forgetting it was their polices that created the situation in the first place.
The savage neo-liberal worldview that has a grip on American society has its grip equally in New Zealand. The ‘cheerleaders for neo- liberalism’, Giroux writes, ’live in circles of certainty and are deeply suspicious of anyone who dares think critically, asks damaging questions, holds power accountable, or challenges the existing order’. Giroux calls this a ‘hardening of the culture’ ….ushering a spirit of meanness’ where ‘bonds of trust are replaced by bonds of fear and humiliation’. We now live in an environment in which mass surveillance by Governments (coming soon in New Zealand) makes it clear that the distinction between the innocent and the guilty has broken down. The ‘nanny state’, so despised by the neo-liberals, has been replaced by Orwell’s ‘big brother’ state.
As a result of these undemocratic forces Giroux believes that education as an alternative liberating force needs to be taken seriously. ‘No democracy,’ he writes, ‘can survive without an education system  that offers the public the opportunities 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’.
This takes the educational debate well away from the current narrowness of National Standards. In contrast Giroux sees schools as ‘enabling people to be able to assume the role of critical agents, thinking subjects, and critically engaged citizens willing to learn how to govern ….able to care for others’. This is the intent of the all but side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. 
Education as a means to provide the conditions to produce an informed citizenry is the last thing  Giroux believes the financial and corporate elite would want. They prefer, for the masses, the ‘idiocy of celebrity culture….embraced by a commodity based culture, the privatisation of all services, possessive individualism (‘me first’), and crass materialism’.  What the corporate elite want is a compliant unquestioning world with pedagogy that that produces political quietism served by the repressive surveillance view of education that schools that are being forced to comply with.
To escape this world view, which is increasingly being taken for granted, there needs to be a collective transformation of consciousness and values. ‘Until people unlearn values’, Giroux writes, ’neoliberalism and other forms of oppression will be normalised, viewed as common sense, self-evident ,and removed from critical inquiry’.’ Without a change of consciousness, it becomes difficult  for people to recognise the predatory and pernicious ideologies and effects of a savage casino capitalism that has real stake in producing injustice…and a full-fledged assault on the environment’. It was in this cut throat world of ‘winners and losers’ ‘casino capitalism’ that our current Prime Minister gained his reputation.
For many it seems as we have no alternative (TINA); that we all have to live with the demands of the market and that ‘sufferings, hardships and successes are simply a function of individual choice and responsibility’. To combat this, schools need to develop a ‘language of both critique and hope’. Only through education will people be able to unlearn their attachments.
Giroux writes ‘once education becomes instrumentalized, transformed into training for the workplace, or reduced to mind numbing misery of teaching to the test those pedagogies and values that encourages students to take risks, engage in critical, creative and collaborative thinking, care for the other, and cultivate a deep commitment to the public good begin to vanish from our educational institutions’. What is being lost in this push for quantitative measurement is not only the loss of respect for teachers, students and professional judgement but also seeing public education as a means of sustain a real  inclusive democracy – an alternative to the current rule by financial and corporate elites.
As in American we have seen right wing politicians (including our Prime Minister) blame school failure on teachers and on their unions rather than seeing them as dedicated public servants. To combat the forces behind these attacks, if education is to be reclaimed as a common good, these threats need to be made visible. We need fully educated citizens, with their unique talents developed in preference to being sorted into above, at, or below by the ‘shonky’ limited National Standards schools are being forced to comply with; we need  a personalised rather than a standardized education system.
While the right wing politicians blame schools for the ‘one in five failing’, ignoring in the process the effects of the poverty their very policies have produced, the’ biggest problem’ Giroux writes, ‘is not they were failing – but that they were public’. The so called new “reformers” want to privatise education as a ‘part of their attack on all things public, which also includes public servants such as teachers and especially teacher unions’, disguising their intentions by pushing such terms as freedom and choice.  According to their rhetoric teachers are the problem because they lack accountability and are protected by self-serving unions. Underlying their claims of school failure there is a ‘refusal to  address how larger structural issues such as racism, income inequality and exploding poverty impact on school failings or how education should be reformed in light of these forces’.
The new ‘reformers’, who push their agenda of privatisation( funnelling taxpayers money into private schools), standardisation, high stakes testing, and school competition, are really reactionaries intent on returning schooling to its earlier grading and sorting role. In the process the “new reformers”, by privatising education through charter schools, by the provision of textbooks and tests, allow vested interests to make a lot of money. ‘Another get rich scheme shrouded in the veneer of altruism’!
In contrast, those who advocate egalitarian reforms, see schools  as organisations that promote democracy, where young people have  ‘access to the expertise, skills and experience that both deepen  their understanding of history, the arts, the sciences – of humanist traditions…and the new world of advanced technologies, digital communications and screen culture’. Such an enlightened view of education is not just for students to find meaningful work but also to ensure students ‘become critical and engaged citizens of the world.’
The message for New Zealand teachers is to focus on implementing the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, place an emphasis on developing the diverse gifts and talents of all students, and not to be side- tracked by limiting National Standards.
Public schools need to be defended as public goods that benefit not just individual children and their parents but an entire society’. New Zealand would be well-advised to look towards Finland rather than America for their inspiration in this respect.
‘Those  market and corporate forces that now undermine public education in the name of fixing it have little to do with democracy and critical teaching and learning….battling against those forces puts one on the side of genuine educational reform’.
Giroux writes that we should be ‘fighting for smaller schools and classes, more resources, more full time quality teachers’. And, he continues, ‘all attempts at the privatisation and corporatisation of schools must be rejected as to make education truly public and widely accessible’.
Teachers’, he writes, ‘ need to work under conditions that provides them with the autonomy that enables them to take risks, be creative, and draw upon a range of educational approaches and pedagogies’. Teachers need to fight ‘against the imperatives of standardisation and testing’. He continues, ‘we need modes of pedagogies that enliven the imagination, create thoughtful and curious students, incorporates an ethic of civic responsibility, and teach the practice of freedom’. He writes that ‘we need to connect education to the lives and ideas that young people bring to any learning situation’.
Giroux, quite rightly, sees education as a political act helping every student come to terms with their own powers as individual and social agents. Pedagogy is not neutral, must treat young people with respect and enable them to develop their own voice and sense of agency, ‘a viable  mode of critical pedagogy  and to do so in an environment that is thoughtful, critical, humane, and challenging’.
Giroux, echoing the thoughts of John Dewey, believes that ‘education at all levels is the fundamental precondition that makes democratic politics possible, providing the space where meaningful histories, voices and cultural differences can flourish’.
It seems to me that in New Zealand (as in America) we have yet to realize such a vision of democratic schooling and, if we continue with the current standardisation, we never will.
Such a vision is surely worth fighting for.
What is the alternative?

1 comment:

Bruce Hammonds said...

I am hoping that New Zealand teachers might take the time to read this blog during their July break! I thought the original article great ( if difficult) and have done my best to interpret Giroux for the New Zealand situation