Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9/11.
Henry Giroux's Public Spaces, Private Lives is both a continuation and a significant contribution to his work of recent years, in which he addresses the criminalization of youth, the role of education in civic participation, and the possibilities of radical democracy from a broad-ranging critical pedagogy and cultural studies perspective. This collection of essays is especially relevant--even critically important--after 9/11: Giroux begins with the claim that cynicism has been and continues to be a driving force in American political culture, a force that understands both critique and social-political action as futile. He argues for a new or resurrected "language of resistance and possibility" that will culminate in what he calls "educated hope," a kind of utopianism based on a practical social vision.
Giroux returns throughout this collection of his writings to the costs of erasing the social and political from public discourse and policy, and the consequences of the growing cultural belief that unfettered markets are properly understood and valued as the democratic ideal--what Giroux calls "neoliberalism." He turns to those policies that increasingly target youth as suspects, to the commercialization of public life, and the increasing disinvestment in public goods, offering ample evidence that the crisis of education, the crisis of civil liberties, and the crisis of democracy itself have accelerated since 9/11. He contends that we are witness (and party) to "the collapse of public discourse, the increasing militarization of public space, and the rise of a state apparatus bent on substituting policing functions for social services" (31), and that "totalitarianism now resides in a thorough dislike for all things social, public, and collective" (55). In this context, "the first casualty is a language of social responsibility capable of defending those vital public spheres that provide education, health care, housing, and other services crucial to a healthy democracy" (82).
The upshot, according to Giroux, is a rising indifference in the U.S. toward those aspects of education that foster critical consciousness, cultivate a respect for public goods, and engender in student-citizens the intellectual and practical knowledge necessary to revitalize democratic public life and social citizenship. Public schools and colleges, he insists, have become corporatized, education is increasingly vocationalized, and the "traditional idea of the university as a not-for-profit institution that offers a liberal education and enfranchises citizens of the republic, not to mention the more radical view that the university should foster a socially critical, if not revolutionary, class, has been evacuated without much of a fight" (82-83). Giroux does not play partisan favorites here; both the left and the right, he notes, are willing to "depoliticize pedagogy" such that teaching and learning are dissociated from questions of power, struggle, and social change, and the result is a "retreat from pedagogical and political engagement," and a growing culture of cynicism.
Giroux insists that pedagogy be taken up by educators as part of a broader public politics--as part of a larger attempt to explain how learning takes place outside of schools. This is necessary to combat the growing cynicism he notes, without resorting to traditional utopian thinking that, given its modern historical manifestations, gives intellectuals and activists across the political spectrum ample reason to pause. Giroux thus argues for what he calls "educated hope," a concept that "rests on a much more expansive notion of pedagogy" and "points to broader considerations about the role that education now plays in a variety of cultural sites" (129). If what we are experiencing in public life today is a retreat from the political and a growing disdain for the social, Giroux concludes, we must realize "what it means to render hope practical and despair unconvincing ... if utopian thinking is to become concrete, it must be rooted in a social vision that is practical" (140).
Giroux argues in this collection for a "militant utopianism" to mitigate against what he views as a growing culture of cynicism, and I am encouraged by his rhetorical move here to a focus on persuasive argumentation as a means to that end. But I am somewhat troubled by his positioning of "political cynicism" over and against "socially engaged citizenship" (3). In the context of teaching and learning, cynicism may be a crucially important pedagogical moment on the way to socially engaged citizenship, rather than its nemesis. Cynicism, like hegemony, is predicated on knowing, and understanding how both are (re)produced would seem critical for both envisioning and enacting democratic social reforms.
When Giroux says that cynicism in U.S. political culture is a force predicated on the belief that political action and participation are futile, he conflates political cynicism with its possible conclusions or material-cultural consequences, when their distinction could signal the potential for some of that post-9/11 hope he deems (and I agree) so crucially important for a vital democracy. Similarly, when he links "cynicism and despair" without clarifying that their relationship is neither necessarily causal nor immutable, he shuts the door on any political utility progressives might find in a culture of cynicism.
Cynicism itself is too steeped in experience for us to dismiss it as necessarily destructive for democracy and social justice or, indeed, to separate it morally or practically from pedagogy, particularly in a broader politics of pedagogy in which we engage both teaching and learning within and across multiple cultural sites, not just in classrooms. A more subtle approach to cynicism might include exploring the possibilities inherent in a cynical knowing, and the ways in which cynicism is political, in the sense that it may engender forces useful for social and political movement.
University of Akron
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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