Henry A. Giroux: Youth Panic and the Politics of Schooling: The corporate model of teaching needs to be changed

Henry A. Giroux: Youth Panic and the Politics of Schooling: The corporate model of teaching needs to be changed

In the post-Littleton climate, moral panic and fear replace critical understanding and allow the dominant media to proclaim, as seen in a recent issue of Newsweek, that white suburban youth have a dark side and that youth culture in general represents "Lord of the Flies on a vast scale." Films such as Varsity Blues, The Things I Hate About You, and Cruel Intentions celebrate both mindless, testosterone-driven, infantilized male athletes who are at the top of a repressive school pecking order or young high school girls who are equally vacuous, but also ruthless, arrogant, and sexually manipulative. Films such as Election, Jawbreaker, and American Beauty resonate powerfully with the broader public view that a growing number of white suburban kids are either inane, neurotically self-centered, or sexual deviants. These films reinforce the assumption that such kids, increasingly viewed as a threat to society, are in need of medical treatment, strict controls, or disciplinary supervision. Such representations signal a growing shift in the public’s perception of young people. Youth are no longer at risk but considered the risk. This perception of youth serves to largely eradicate any notion of productive agency among young people, offering few possibilities for analyzing how children actually experience and mediate relationships between themselves and other children as well as adult society. But such representations not only do violence to the complexity of children’s lives, they also erase any understanding of how power relations between adults and young people actually work against many children.

The recent series of school shootings by youth in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, Springfield, Oregon, and Littleton, Colorado along with an increasing number of other towns has further inflamed society’s fear of children and fueled demands to lower the age at which children can be tried as adults for violent crimes. Questions of school safety now become more important than issues of academic quality, even though by all accounts the public schools are just about the safest places available for children. Unfortunately, any sense of perspective appears to be lost, as school systems across the country clamor for metal detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, armed teachers, and in some cases the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom.

Educators seem to have little to say about the ongoing attacks on youth in part because within the dominant discourse on youth and educational reform the language of ethics, politics, culture, and democracy has little currency or exchange value. This is not surprising since school leadership is now modeled after the heroes of corporate culture who are drawn from the executive ranks of multinationals such as Disney, McDonalds, IBM, and Proctor and Gamble. Employing a managerial style that describes school systems as "major companies," the new corporate school leadership describes students as "customers" and learning as measurable outcomes.

One recent example of the new corporate school leader was highlighted in a recent article in The New York Times. Under the byline, "Applying Corporate Touch to a Troubled School System," the article focuses on Andre J. Hornsby, the new superintendent of the Yonkers school district, the fourth largest in New York City. Touted as a model for the new type of leadership now in vogue among urban school systems, the Times describes him as "arrogant, autocratic, an egomaniac...adamant that poor minority children can overcome their socioeconomic hurdles, driven to raise scores on standardized tests using cookie-cutter curriculums, and assuming an almost militaristic take-charge approach." The article goes on to point out that one of Hornsby’s first initiatives was to impose additional work loads on his teachers, which prompted a strike, and at his initiative prompted a successful court battle to prevent extra resources from being distributed to "eight school districts the courts identified as being in most need." It seems that in spite of Hornsby’s concern for poor students, he preferred to distribute the extra money among all school districts, "a tactic favored by the predominantly white school board that hired him."

Hornsby appears typical of a corporate leadership model that has nothing to say about inequality, wields power autocratically, reduces curricula to the language of standards and testing, and makes sure that teachers have little control over the conditions of teaching and learning. The heroes of corporate culture preach a strict adherence to the bottom line, but they have little to say about the need to create public spaces that provide children with forms of civic education that foster critical opportunities for dialogue, engagement, and deliberation. Nor do they offer educational opportunities for young people to critically appropriate forms of literacy that provide the conditions for defending vital social institutions for the public good. Similarly, many proponents of corporate culture often have little to say about the effects of downsizing, deindustrialization, and the devastating impact such policies have on working families, public services, schools, and public life. Nor do they say much about their own role in promoting the flight of capital abroad, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the growing class of permanently underemployed stuck in "deskilled" jobs. Within this corporate model of leadership, the only social spaces made available for children are largely market driven and as a result the marketplace of ideas within schools and other public spheres is increasingly a function not of what young people need to know as critical citizens, as social and political actors, but what they can be sold as consumers.

An oppressively regulating view of educational leadership now dominates the public debate about youth and schooling and has virtually nothing productive to say about what it might mean to address the underlying conditions that shape the lives of young people in this country. With few exceptions, public discussions about Littleton, as Ellen Willis has pointed out, virtually ignored how young people "feel, not only about their recent lives but about the adult world." Moreover, the models of corporate leadership that have been transplanted to all levels of schooling undermine the ability of classroom teachers to play a decisive role in addressing the needs of young people. These models have little regard for the voices of young people, they also severely limit teachers’ control over the development and planning of curriculum, reinforce the bureaucratic organization of the school, and largely remove teachers from the process of judging and implementing classroom instruction. The ideology that guides these corporate models and their view of pedagogy is that the behavior of teachers needs to be controlled and made consistent and predictable across different schools and student populations. In these approaches, it is assumed that all students can learn from the same standardized materials, instructional techniques, and modes of evaluation.

In the corporate model of leadership, teaching is completely removed from the cultural and social contexts that shape particular traditions, histories, and experiences in a community and school. Hence, there can be no recognition in this model of educational reform that students come from different backgrounds, bring diverse cultural experiences, and relate to the world in different ways. There is no sense in this approach of what it means for teachers to make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transforming. Also ignored is the important insight that pedagogy is the outcome of specific struggles, projects, and historical circumstances rather than simply an a priori set of prescriptions that can be imposed upon any context or classroom.

Unfortunately, many educators, parents, and community people appear obsessed with young people but not with the idea of either listening to their needs or addressing the problems they face. How a society treats its youth provides a glimpse into how it balances the tensions between corporate needs and democratic values on one hand, and on the other hand, the reality of despair and suffering that many children face daily.

If schools are to fulfill their obligations to educate students to assume the demands of social citizenship and democratic leadership while living in a global economy, educators need to redefine the meaning and purpose of schooling in ways that both strengthen the practice of critical education and energize and deepen the possibilities of a radical democracy. That is, progressive educators need to define higher and public education as a resource vital to the shaping of a society in which democracy extends into all the vital spheres of everyday life. At issue here is the need to educate students with the knowledge and skills they will need to engage the public world, to become critical actors on a larger stage. This suggests educational practices that connect critical thought to collective action, knowledge and power to a profound impatience with the status quo, and human agency to social responsibility. At the heart of such a task is the need for academics and cultural workers to join together and oppose the transformation of the public schools and higher education into crass commercial spheres.

Given the current assault on public and progressive forms of education, it is politically crucial that educators at all levels of schooling be defended as transformative intellectuals who provide an indispensable civic service to the nation. Such an appeal cannot be made merely in the name of professionalism but in terms of the opportunities such intellectuals create for young people to learn how to govern rather than be governed, locate themselves as critical agents, and be given the opportunities to expand the possibilities of democratic public life. Intellectuals who inhabit our nation’s schools and universities produce and mediate the conditions under which future generations learn about themselves and their relations to others and the world, and in doing so construct pedagogical practices that are by their very nature moral and political, rather than simply technical. At best, such pedagogical practices bear witness to the ethical and political dilemmas that animate the broader social landscape.

This suggests that progressive educators must strongly oppose those approaches to teacher education and practice that regard teachers as merely technicians, and reinforce a technical, caste, and gendered division of labor. It is crucial that educators collectively organize and oppose current efforts throughout this country to deskill teachers through the proliferation of management by objectives schemes, testing schemes, and bureaucratic forms of accountability. Similarly, making the political more pedagogical suggests that educators and others organize against the corporate takeover of schools, especially within higher education, fight to protect the jobs of full time faculty, turn adjunct jobs into full time positions, expand benefits to part time workers, and put more power into the hands of faculty and students. Moreover, such a struggle must address the exploitative conditions under which many graduate students work—constituting a de facto army of service workers who are underpaid, overworked, and shorn of any real power or benefits.

Progressive teachers must also recognize that both what they teach and how they teach must become subject to critical analysis. Neither the knowledge that teachers teach nor the ways in which they teach are innocent; both are informed by values that need to be recognized and critically engaged for their implications and effects. I am suggesting here that progressive educators provide the conditions for students to recognize that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do can count as part of a wider struggle to change the world around them. More specifically, teachers need to argue for forms of pedagogy that close the gap between school and the real world. The curriculum needs to be organized around knowledge that relates to the communities, cultures, and traditions that give students a sense of history, identity, and place. Educators must be attentive to the cultural resources that students bring to schools. In part, this suggests that educators become border crossers, willing to examine the multiple sites and cultural forms that young people produce to create their own means of being heard. Ann Powers, a writer for the New York Times, has insightfully pointed out that as young people have been shut out of the larger society, they have created their own web sites, alternative radio programs, "published their own manifestoes in photocopied fanzines, made their own music and shared it on cassette, designed their own fashions and arranged to have them sold in boutiques." Moreover, Powers has argued that many young women have not sat passively by as they see themselves misrepresented in the American cultural landscape as lazy, shiftless, dangerous, and pathological. In response, they have produced a "far-ranging girls’ culture, which includes bold young athletes, musicians, film makers and writers [which] is invigorating the discourse of women’s liberation. [In addition], activist groups like YELL, an ACT Up youth division...have devised new approaches to safe sex education."

Jon Katz convincingly argues that "children are at the epicenter of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world. They helped build it, they understand it as well as, or better than anyone else [and] they occupy a new kind of cultural space." This is a particularly important insight in light of the attacks on the media and the call for censoring the Internet that arose after the Littleton massacre. These sites produce public pedagogies and must be considered seriously as knowledge producing technologies and spheres that demand new types of learning. Many educators and adults need to redefine their own understanding of the new technologies, the new global forces that support them, and the new literacies they have produced. The new media, including the Internet and computer culture, need to become serious objects of educational analysis. The social affiliations, groups, and cultural experiences these media produce among young people must be incorporated into the school curricula as seriously as the study of history, English, and language arts. Students need to have opportunities, as MIT educator Henry Jenkins points out, to form supportive communities around their interest in and use of digital media, just as the schools need to make media literacy and media production central to the learning process for young people.

Such an approach suggests pedagogical practices that do more than make learning context specific, it also points to the need to expand the range of cultural texts that inform what counts as knowledge. Educators need to understand the world of media texts— videos, films, music, and other mechanisms of popular culture constituted outside of the technology of print. The content of the curriculum needs to affirm and critically enrich the meaning, language, and knowledge that students actually use to negotiate and inform their lives.

Informal learning for many young people is directly linked to their watching CD-ROM’S, videos, films, television, and computers. Students need to learn how to read these new cultural texts critically, but they should also learn how to create their own cultural texts by mastering the technical skills needed to produce television scripts, use video cameras, write programs for CD-ROMS, and produce television documentaries. There are a growing number of alternative school programs that have developed very successful media literacy programs. These programs combine basic literacy aimed at reading and writing with classes aimed at learning the basics of video, computer, and television programming. These pedagogical approaches allow kids to tell their own stories, learn how to write scripts, and how to get involved in community action programs. They also challenge the assumption that popular cultural texts cannot be as profoundly important as traditional sources of learning in teaching about important issues framed through, for example, the social lens of poverty, racial conflict, and gender discrimination. This is not a matter of pitting popular culture against traditional curricula sources as it is a matter of using both in a mutually informative way. But the new technologies must also be studied as part of a broader analysis of global capitalism.

Youth signifies in all of its diversity the possibilities and fears adults must face when they re-imagine the future while shaping the present. To the degree that large segments of youth are excluded from the language, rights, and obligations of democracy indicates the degree to which many adults have abandoned the language, practice, and responsibilities of critical citizenship and civic responsibility. This is a lesson that cannot be ignored in light of the tragedy of Littleton, and the many unreported tragedies that take place in poor urban schools everyday. There can be little doubt that American society is failing its children. The crisis of youth represents the crisis of democracy. Educators need to focus attention on this crisis and work with others to address the complex issues that define and the resources and strategies needed to address it. We need to approach educational reform as a question of political and moral leadership and not simply as an issue of management. As progressive educators, we need to honor the lives of children by asking important questions such as what schools should accomplish and why they fail, and how can such a failure be understood within a broader set of political, economic, spiritual, and cultural relations. Progressives need to remind ourselves in this time of rampant individualism that consumerism should not be the only form of citizenship offered to our children, and that schools should function to serve the public good and not be seen merely as a source of private advantage removed from the dynamics of power and equity.

Henry Giroux is on the faculty of Penn State and is the author of The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman and Littlefield).    

Znet, decembro 1999