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The Audacity of Educated Hope
Most recently a number of progressive pundits have argued that with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, intelligence and hope are once again not only embraced but promoted as part of an essential element of American culture. At work in this discourse is a qualified endorsement of Obama’s emphasis on hope, one that is audacious in its reach and courageous in its ability to see beyond the wretched cynicism and inflated self-interest that accompanied the embrace of an unchecked and unprincipled market fundamentalism celebrated with great fervor since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. But the country needs more than a notion of hope that is audacious; it needs a conception of educated hope, one that is both bold in its vision and keen in its understanding that only by supporting those institutions that provide the conditions for an educated citizenry can reform actually work in the interest of sustaining a substantive democracy in which hope as a precondition for politics itself.
Educated hope begins in opposition to a long legacy of privatization and corporatization that has shaped the public imagination, especially with respect to public and higher education. Oddly enough, Obama seems to miss this. He is a strong advocate for education that is engaged, critical, and on the side of public service an yet he reduces the goal of higher education to providing a competitive work force, while supporting some of the most reductionistic and instrumental elements of educational reform. What are we to make of Obama’s call for educational reform in the public school system, one that celebrates intelligence and public service while endorsing the brain-dead methods of drill and skill testing schemes and pay for performance objectives that have so guttered public schooling for the last eight years. These approaches are not about schooling but training and punishment. In fact, they are methods that have been used as part of the right-wing war on public schooling that has been going on in full blast since the Reagan era. What is one to make of the audacity of hope in Obama’s appointment of Arnie Duncan as Secretary of Education–more well known for supporting bankrupt accountability schemes, charter schools, and establishing military academies for those kids viewed as disposable. Similarly, where is the audacity of hope when it comes to rescuing higher education from the creeping hand of corporatization and militarization that now structures the governance and research initiatives in so many these schools.
In opposition to the corporatizing of everything educational, parents, teachers, intellectuals, and young people need to define and reclaim public and higher education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation. At the heart of such a task is the challenge for academics, cultural workers, and labor organizers to join together and oppose the transformation of public and higher education into a consumer oriented corporation more concerned about accounting than accountability.1 As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, schools are one of the few public spaces left where students can learn the “skills for citizen participation and effective political action. And where there is no [such] institutions, there is no “citizenship” either.”2
Defending public and higher education as a vital public sphere is necessary to develop and nourish the proper balance between democratic public spheres and commercial power, between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, self-interested individualism that celebrate selfishness, profit making, and greed. This view suggests that public and higher education be defended through intellectual work that self-consciously recalls the tension between the democratic imperatives or possibilities of public institutions and their everyday realization within a society dominated by market principles. If formal education is to remain a site of critical thinking, collective work, and social struggle, public intellectuals and progressive social forces need to expand its meaning and purpose. That is, they need to define public and higher education as a resource vital to the moral life of the nation, open to working people and communities whose resources, knowledge, and skills have often been viewed as marginal. The goal here is to redefine such knowledge and skills to more broadly reconstruct a tradition that links critical thought to collective action, human agency to social responsibility, and knowledge and power to a profound impatience with a status quo founded upon deep inequalities and injustices.
There is more at stake here than recognizing the limits and social costs of a market fundamentalism that reduces all relationships to the exchange of goods and money, there is also the responsibility on the part of critical intellectuals and other activists to rethink the nature of the public. In addition there is the need to address new forms of social citizenship and civic education that have a purchase on people’s everyday lives and struggles expressed through a wide range of institutions. In light of this profound crisis of spirit, vision, and economics now facing the nation, I believe that academics and others bear an enormous responsibility in opposing Obama’s courtship with neoliberal values by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Part of this challenge suggest creating new locations of struggle, vocabularies, and subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations, and “to give some thought to their experiences so that they can transform their relations of subordination and oppression.”3
In part this suggests that it is important for educators, parents, young people and others to take Obama’s notion of hope seriously by resisting his administration’s use of neoliberal values to shape any discourse about educational reform. At the same time, the defense of education as a democratic public sphere should extend to further efforts to push the Obama administration in providing the financial and ideological support for giving all students regardless of race, ethnicity, or class position access to a quality education that does not carry the burden of life long debt. Of course, in the first instance, Obama must recognize that education is more than a financial investment, it is an investment in educating future generations to what it means to take seriously not only their own sense of civic courage and agency, but the need to struggle for a democracy that is never finished and always has to be on guard in not allowing itself to degenerate in to a new form of authoritarianism.
Obama is right in wanting to revitalize the language of civic education as part of a broader discourse of hope, but this discourse must extend to the conditions that make political agency and critical citizenship possible in a global world, and to ground such a call in defense of militant utopian thinking as a form of educated hope. Utopianism in this context suggests that any viable notion of the political must address the primacy of pedagogy as part of a broader attempt to revitalize the conditions for individual and social agency while simultaneously addressing the most basic problems facing the prospects for social justice and global democracy.
Educators need a new vocabulary for linking hope, social citizenship, and education to the demands of substantive democracy. I am suggesting that educators and others need a new vocabulary for connecting how we read critically to how we engage in movements for social change. I also believe that simply invoking the relationship between theory and practice, critique and social action will not do. Any attempt to give new life to a substantive democratic politics must address both how people learn to be political agents and, what kind of educational work is necessary within what kind of public spaces to enable people to use their full intellectual resources to both provide a profound critique of existing institutions and struggle to create, as Stuart Hall puts it, “what would be a good life or a better kind of life for the majority of people.”4
As educators, writers, parents, and workers we are required to understand more fully why the tools we used in the past feel awkward in the present, often failing to respond to problems now facing the United States and other parts of the globe. More specifically, we face the challenge posed by the failure of existing critical discourses to bridge the gap between how the society represents itself and how and why individuals fail to understand and critically engage such representations in order to intervene in the oppressive social relationships they often legitimate.
At his best Obama’s notion of hope signals something crucial about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new vocabulary and vision for clarifying our intellectual, ethical and political projects, especially as they work to reabsorb questions of agency, ethics, and meaning back into politics and public life. But this is not the language of post-partisanship and consensus, it is the language of civic responsibility, engaged citizenship, power, and social justice. Along these lines, Sheldon Wolin has argued that we need to rethink the notion of loss and how it impacts upon the possibility for opening up democratic public life. Wolin points to the need for progressives, theorists, and critical educators to resurrect and raise questions about “What survives of the defeated, the indigestible, the unassimilated, the ‘cross-grained,’ the ‘not wholly obsolete’.”5 He argues that “something is missing” in an age of manufactured politics and pseudo-publics catering almost exclusively to desires and drives produced by the commercial hysteria of the market. What is missing is a language, movement, and vision that refuses to equate democracy with consumerism, market relations, and privatization. In the absence of such a language and the social formations and public spheres that make it operative, politics becomes narcissistic and caters to the mood of widespread pessimism and the cathartic allure of the spectacle. Instead of the audacity of hope, maybe we need a language that embraces a militant utopianism while constantly being attentive to those forces that seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or punish and dismiss those who dare look beyond the horizon of the given.
Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites, the mark of courage on the part of intellectuals in and out of the academy who use the resources of theory to address pressing social problems. But hope is also a referent for civic courage and its ability to mediate the memory of loss and the experience of injustice as part of a broader attempt to open up new locations of struggle, contest the workings of oppressive power, and undermine various forms of domination.
At its best, hope translates into civic courage as a political practice, one which often begins when one’s life can no longer be taken for granted. In doing so, it makes concrete the possibility for transforming politics into an ethical space and public act that confronts the flow of everyday experience and the weight of social suffering with the force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic social transformation.
Educated hope involves struggle, assumes a boldness that sees beyond the discourse of consensus, and takes seriously a view of education that views learning as part of an engaged and practical politics that is inextricably linked to the quality of moral and political life of the wider society . There is more at stake here than the semantics of hope, there is the question of whether a democracy can survive without an educated citizenry.
HENRY A. GIROUX holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: "Take Back Higher Education" (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), "The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex" (2007) and "Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed" (2008). His newest book, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.
1.. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp, 11, 18.
2. Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 170.
3.. Lynn Worsham and Gary A. Olson, “Rethinking Political Community: Chantal Mouffe’s Liberal Socialism,” Journal of Composition Theory 19:2 (1999), p. 178.
4. Stuart Hall cited in Les Terry, “Travelling ‘The Hard Road to Renewal,” Arena Journal, N0. 8 (1997), p. 55.
5. Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory: From Vocation to Invocation,” in Jason Frank and John Tambornino, eds. Vocations of Political Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 4.