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A stirring case that the education sphere is key to US democracy, and that attacks on it constitute an attack on youth and democracy, finds Ralph Graham-Leigh

Henry A. Giroux, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press 2013), 238pp.

Giroux asserts that a fundamental attack on democracy is currently occurring in the US, and urgent action is needed to defend democratic values against this assault. His view is that an examination of the education system provides evidence for this attack, and that education is itself both a key battleground, and the crucible in which the defence of democracy can be formed.

The book is a strong polemic and seems to be designed as a call to arms for those already on the left, rather than to win over new converts. Giroux unapologetically uses potentially controversial language, and starts from the position that readers are already comfortable with terms such as the ‘prison-industrial complex’, agree that the current American economic system is best described as ‘casino capitalism’, and that the financial industry is ‘a criminal and rogue industry’. Readers who do not agree with these starting points may well be deterred from continuing with the book.

The book argues that neoliberalism (or ‘Casino Capitalism’, as Giroux calls it) has been relentlessly promoted over the last forty years by the rich and powerful in society in order to entrench their power and enrich themselves further. In the US, the neoliberal undermining of democracy has combined with the growing militarisation of society and with religious fundamentalism to produce an unprecedented three-pronged assault against American democracy.

In Giroux’s view, neoliberalism undermines democracy because proper functioning of democratic institutions requires an engaged, well-informed citizenry and public spaces, whether physical or virtual, where free discourse can occur. Neoliberalism counteracts this in two ways. Firstly, neoliberalism privatises physical public spaces and, by defining citizens solely as customers, people exist in a relentlessly competitive and individualistic environment. They have no responsibilities to their fellows or any role beyond materialistic consumption. Secondly, promotion of neoliberalism relies on three techniques, which are less effective when used against a well-informed citizenry. Therefore the interests of those promoting neoliberalism are directly contrary to the interests of a well-functioning democracy.

The techniques Giroux describes are a) misinformation, b) obfuscation, and c) distraction. Misinformation Giroux describes as constant lies promoted by ‘gated intellectuals’, particularly the ‘big lie’ that democracy and casino capitalism are the same thing. Obfuscation is the act of turning the victims of neoliberalism into the villains (e.g. the poor caused the crisis through reckless borrowing and mindless materialism) and turning the causes of depravation into its solution (e.g. the solution to the economic crisis caused by neoliberalism is more privatisation and reduced welfare. Distraction is the use of a combination of materialism and a culture of violence to provide an outlet for the dissatisfactions of life under capitalism and distract from the true causes of this dissatisfaction.

Giroux sees US society as increasingly based on violence, both through the imposition of violence by the state on its citizens (including through a huge, profit-making, prison system), by the US identifying itself through its use of military power abroad, through a pervasive gun culture, and relentless media glorification of, and fascination with, violence. Particularly since 9/11, ideal civic values are personified by the military, not by non-violent public institutions. This state violence is particularly applied against young people, to the extent that Giroux sees US society as being ‘suicidal’, in that it seeks to destroy its own young; as an example Giroux cites the popularity of the 2012 film ‘The Hunger Games’ (based on a 2008 novel), a dystopia in which youths are forced to hunt and kill each other for the dual purposes of collective punishment and as entertainment for a depraved adult society. While Giroux admits the film can be read as a critique of class-based consumption and violence (which, it has been argued, was the author's intention), he finds the portrayal of violence within it disturbingly gratuitous rather than instructive.

He is also concerned about religious fundamentalism, with prominent religious Republican politicians such as Rick Santorum seeking to promote legislation inspired by religious beliefs, such as limiting female reproductive rights and promoting faith-based ideas, such as creationism, over scientific-rationalist concepts.

Giroux asserts that education naturally becomes a key area of conflict between the forces of democracy (as Giroux sees it) and those promoting neoliberalism, militarism and religious fundamentalism. Giroux sees the latter as seeking to turn education into a mechanistic, oppressive process aimed at preventing the sort of critical thinking and social engagement that democracy requires. This manifests itself in three ways.

Firstly, there are direct attempts to change curriculum content, such as replacing evolutionary theory with creationism, eliminating references to slavery, and emphasising the Christian heritage of the US state, and removing references to separation of Church and State. This also extends to preventing critical thought; Giroux uses the example of the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform which called for the prevention of teaching methods which would ‘have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority’ (p.118).

Secondly, particularly in poorer areas, schools are increasing militarised and prison-like. Students are frisked, go through metal detectors, and are subjected to involuntary drug-testing, student-locater ID-badges, surveillance cameras, and zero-tolerance policies which restrict their rights. Giroux mentions a particularly discipline-orientated school in which the code involves the student ‘following the teacher with their eyes at all times’ (p.123). Infringement of the code results in fines, non-payment of which prevents graduation.

Students are also heavily criminalised. Misdemeanours and minor infringements result in the police being called and criminal sanctions, such as imprisonment or fines, being imposed. Giroux gives many shocking examples of the extent to which children are criminalised for school disciplinary issues, such as a six-year old being arrested, handcuffed and charged for kicking a teacher, or a twelve-year old being arrested and handcuffed for defacing a desk. Beyond individual examples, there are high volumes of criminal cases and fines being applied to schoolchildren. This imposition of violence on children constitutes the ‘war on youth’ of Giroux’s title, and many children move straight from a prison-like school to become inmates in the US’s substantial profit-making prison sector.

Thirdly, Giroux believes teaching is being systematically degraded as a profession. Teachers should be public intellectuals, but are being turned into technical providers of training, using set curricula which have no room for critical interpretation. Students and teachers are working to a high-stakes inflexible testing regime. The working rights of teachers, such as job security and pensions, are also being greatly eroded in common with other public-sector workers.

Having explained the magnitude of the attack on US democracy, Giroux attempts to explain how education can lead the way in defending democracy. Teachers should accept that they cannot be neutral politically, as pedagogy is always shaped by the views of those applying it. Instead, teachers should be self-aware, accept that they are public intellectuals and that their role is to foster critical thinking in their students, who can then act as engaged citizens.

The book loses its power towards the end as Giroux’s description and analysis of the problem is much stronger than the suggested approach for resolving it. Giroux mentions critical pedagogy, but this is not explained in any detail, and the book does not effectively address how critical pedagogy could be able to withstand the sustained assault Giroux has detailed in the rest of the book. Giroux is one of the key theorists of critical pedagogy, but readers would need to turn to his other works for a more complete examination of the theory and its application. However, the book does work as a polemic and contains a stirring and passionately argued case for the gravity of the attack on public values in the US.

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