The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre and George W. Bush’s torture chambers and black sites, among other historical events, now disappear into a disavowal of past events made even more unethical with the emergence of a right-wing political and pedagogical language of erasure. For example, the Republican Party’s attack on the teaching of “critical race theory” — labeled as “ideological or faddish” — denies both the history of racism as well as the ways in which it is enforced through policy, laws and institutions.
For many Republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persists in American society. For instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” In this updated version of historical and racial cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred, leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn and confront in the public imagination the history and tenacity of racism in American society.
Across the globe, democratic institutions such as the independent media, schools, the legal system, certain financial institutions and higher education are under siege. The promise, if not ideals, of democracy recede as the barbarians who breathe new life into a fascist past are once again on the move, subverting language, values, courage, vision and critical consciousness. Education has increasingly become a tool of domination as right-wing pedagogical apparatuses controlled by the entrepreneurs of hate to attack workers, the poor, people of color, refugees, immigrants from the south and others considered disposable.
A Republican Party dominated by the far right believes education should function as a tool of propaganda and pedagogy of oppression, rightly named “patriotic education.” Dissent is defiled as corrupting American values and any classroom that addresses racial injustice is viewed as antithetical to “a Christian and white supremacist world where Black people ‘know their place’.” Banning instruction on “critical race theory” has become the new McCarthyism. Noam Chomsky argues that any reference to the history of slavery, systemic racism or racial injustice now replaces “Communism and Islamic terror as the plague of the modern age.” Chomsky may not have gone far enough, since GOP extremists argue that the threat of communism has simply been expanded to include CRT, Black Lives Movement and other emerging protest groups, all connected and viewed as updated forms of Marxism and part of an international communist-global conspiracy. The Red Scare is alive and well in America.
Under the influence of a number of Republican governors in Florida, Texas and other red states, the cult of manufactured ignorance now works through schools and other disimagination machines engaged in a politics of falsehoods and erasure. DeSantis has signed into law a number of bills that require public universities to conduct “annual surveys of students and faculty to assess their personal viewpoints.” This is a form of ideological surveillance parading as educational reform. It gets worse. He has also put in place the implementation of “state-mandated curricula that would include ‘portraits in patriotism’ that celebrate the US governing model compared with those of other countries and teach that communism is ‘evil.'” James Baldwin was right in connecting the long durée of economic and racial injustice to the legitimating power of ideas and education. Baldwin wrote: “It must be remembered — it cannot be overstated — that those centuries of oppression are also a history of a system of thought.”
Right-wing attempts to demonize and discredit teaching about racism in public schools echo Donald Trump’s claim that teaching students about racism is comparable to the claim “that America is systemically evil and that the hearts of our people are full of hatred and malice [and] is at odds with” students receiving a patriotic, pro-American education” To this end, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has introduced the “END CRT Act,” based on an utterly false description of CRT. He writes, “By teaching that certain individuals, by virtue of inherent characteristics, are inherently flawed, critical race theory contradicts the basic principle upon which the United States was founded that all men and women are created equal.”
Cruz and other right-wing political operatives have little or no understanding of CRT as a disciplinary field that attempts to understand how the law sanctions racial inequality through large and small aspects of structural racism. They ignore any work by prominent Black scholars, ranging from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to Angela Davis and Audre Lorde. Those who attack CRT have nothing to say about its origins and the work of late Harvard professor Derrick Bell, who is credited with being the founder of critical race theory as an academic discipline. There is no room for complexity among critics of CRT, just as there is no attempt at either a critique of structural racism or the actual assumptions and complex knowledge that make up CRT’s academic body of work.
The underlying message of CRT is to dismantle forms of structural racism in order to create a more fair and just society. This idea of justice and struggle in the service of an expanded notion of democracy is precisely what Cruz, Steve Bannon and other right-wing political operatives oppose. History is too dangerous for them; critical pedagogy is a threat and justice is expendable in order to distort CRT for political purposes. It would be hard to invent this display of ignorance and crass opportunism.
In this instance, education becomes a site of derision, an object of censorship and a way of demonizing schools and teachers willing to critically address matters of racism and racial inequality. Right-wing politicians use education and the repressive power of the law as weapons to discredit any critical approach to grappling with the history of racial injustice and white supremacy. In doing so, they attempt to undermine and discredit the critical faculties necessary for students and others to examine history as a resource to “investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion.”The current attacks on critical race theory, if not critical thinking itself, are but one instance of the rise of apartheid pedagogy.
The conservative wrath unleashed against critical race theory is an example of manufactured ignorance parading as a form of “patriotic pedagogy,” which in reality is central to the conservative struggle over concentrated economic and political power and control in shaping civic culture. Manufactured ignorance is crucial to upholding the poison of white supremacy. This is a form of apartheid pedagogy, which functions to whitewash history, undermine dissent and engage in the erasure of historical memory regarding the long legacy of racism in the United States. Apartheid pedagogy freezes history, turning it into a propaganda machine for the manufacture of ignorance.
As C. Wright Mills made clear in “The Politics of Truth,” in an age when the architecture and language of the social disappears and everything is privatized and commodified, it is difficult for individuals to translate private into public issues and see themselves as part of a larger collective capable of mutual support. The erosion of public discourse and the onslaught of a culture of manufactured ignorance “allows the intrusion of criminality into politics,” as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has put it. As Coco Das has mentioned, America has a Nazi problem that has emerged with renewed vigor, and one lesson to be learned from the current assault on democracy regards the question of what role education should play in a democracy. As Wendy Brown observes, democracy cannot exist without an educated citizenry. It “may not demand universal political participation, but it cannot survive the people’s wholesale ignorance of the forces shaping their lives and limning their future.”
Education has always been the substance of politics, but it is rarely understood as a site of struggle over agency, identities, values and the future itself. Unlike schooling, education permeates a range of corporate-controlled apparatuses that extend from the digital airways to print culture. What is different about education today is not only the variety of sites in which it takes place, but also the degree to which it has become an element of organized irresponsibility, modeled on a flight from critical thinking, self-reflection and meaningful forms of solidarity. Education now functions as part of the neoliberal machinery of depoliticization that represents an attack on the power of the civic imagination, political will and a substantive democracy. It also functions as a politics that undermines any understanding of education as a public good and pedagogy as an empowering practice that can get people to think critically about their own sense of agency in relation to knowledge, and their ability to engage in critical and collective struggle.
Under Trumpism, education has become an animating principle of violence, revenge, resentment and victimhood as a privileged form of identity. Political illiteracy has moved from the margins to the center of power and is now a crucial project that the Republican Party wants to impose on the wider public. As the philosopher Peter Uwe Hohendahl has noted, the real danger of authoritarianism today lies “in the traces of the fascist mentality within the democratic political system.”
This suggests reintroducing how the cultural realm and pedagogies of closure operate as an educational and political force by enacting new forms of cultural and political power. We must therefore raise questions about not only what individuals learn in a given society but what they have to unlearn, and what institutions provide the conditions to do so. Against an apartheid pedagogy of repression and conformity, there is the need for a critical pedagogical practice that values a culture of questioning, views critical agency as a condition of public life, and rejects voyeurism in favor of the search for justice within a democratic, global public sphere.
Such a pedagogy must reject the dystopian, anti-intellectual and racist vision at work under Trumpism and its underlying nativist pathologies, thrill for authoritarian violence and grotesque contempt for democracy. Against gangster capitalism and the Trumpian worldview, there is the need for educators and other cultural workers to provide a language of both criticism and hope as a condition for rethinking the possibilities of the future and the promise of global democracy itself. At the same time, it must struggle against the concentration of power in the hands of the few who now use the instruments of cultural politics to function as oppressive ideological and pedagogical tools.
This is a crucial pedagogical challenge for individuals to become critical and autonomous citizens, capable of interrogating the lies and falsehoods spread by politicians, pundits, anti-public intellectuals and social media, all while being able to imagine a future different from the present. The will to refuse the seductions of false prophets, neofascist mentalities and the lure of demagogues preaching the swindle of fulfillment cannot be separated from learning how to be self-reflective, self-determining and self-autonomous. But there is more at work here than learning how to be self-reflective — there is also learning how to turn memory into a form of collective resistance, to connect ideas to action. Learning from history is crucial in order to fight the ghosts of the past as they emerge in new forms. Vincent Brown brilliantly captures this insight in his observation:
I’m interested in looking to the past to understand the ongoing processes that have shaped our world. The predicaments in which we find ourselves derive in part from the history of colonial conquest, slavery, imperial warfare, and the inequalities that resulted. Our struggles for freedom and dignity emerge from that history. By understanding it, we might discern the scope, force, direction, and likelihood of the changes ahead — and be guided in our decisions by the example of our ancestors. Many people have the idea that the past is over because its events and its actors may be long gone. But processes of transformation — their motivating forces and legacies — are continuous; they connect the past, present, and future.
Theorists and activists as different as social critic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and historian Andrew Bacevich argue that racism, militarism, white nationalism, materialism and sexism, among other social problems, can no longer be explained away through the language of neoliberal capitalism, which has become synonymous with massive inequality, staggering poverty and the looting and destruction of the public sphere and social state. Both agree that the current historical conjuncture is in the midst of a legitimation crisis that demands a new language and support for the unfolding revolts that have spread across the United States in the wake of racialized state violence. Yet rage and massive demonstrations do not fully explain the challenge of addressing the crisis of consciousness that has produced the mass following that defines Trumpism — code for an upgraded neofascist politics.
The urgency of such calls to acknowledge and support such uprisings often say too little about the need to develop forms of popular education that speak to people’s needs and promote an anti-capitalist consciousness that allows them to see the interconnections among racism, economic inequality, militarism, patriarchy and ecological destruction. Nor do they address the need to expand the public’s understanding of the social contract so that political and personal rights are joined with economic rights.
Nor do they call for a massive pedagogical campaign needed to deconstruct the regressive notions of freedom and self-interest at the heart of neoliberal ideology. The overarching crisis facing the United States is a crisis of the public and civic imagination, and this crisis, at its core, is educational. Such a crisis suggests closing the gap between educational/cultural institutions and the public by creating the ideas, narratives and pedagogical relations necessary for connecting the shaping of individual and collective consciousness to the conditions necessary for individuals to say no, to understand the causes of systemic violence and to free themselves from the social relations put in place by neoliberal capitalism.
At issue here is the urgent need to acknowledge and think through the connections among politics and education, on the one hand, and power and agency on the other. Central to such a task is developing the intellectual and ethical capacities to address the question of what modes of address, interventions and institutions are necessary to get people to think, debate and share power while being able to imagine a future free of injustice. At the heart of such a challenge is the need to produce a public imagination that enables people to define themselves beyond the regressive neoliberal notions of a raw self-interest, market-based notions of individualism and commodified conceptions of personal happiness. This suggests reclaiming a democratic notion of the social by analyzing and legitimating the political, social and economic connections and supports that provide the conditions for enacting a sense of meaningful solidarity, community, dignity and justice.
Politics follows culture, and culture is the bedrock for creating the habits, sensibilities, dispositions and values crucial to democracy’s survival. Democracy needs a formative culture to sustain it. Theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, John Dewey, Paulo Freire and C. Wright Mills have argued that democratic conditions do not automatically sustain themselves and that democracy’s fate largely rests in the domain of culture — a domain in which people must be educated critically in order to fight for securing freedom, equality, social justice, equal protection and human dignity. Institutions, however democratic and just, cannot exist without critically engaged citizens willing to defend them. Democracy is always unfinished, and the formative culture that sustains it must be aggressively nurtured in the systems of schooling and the broader educational culture.
Education should be the protective site where individuals can learn to fight for the values of justice, reason and freedom while also learning how to connect personal worries with public issues. Education is always about a struggle over agency, identity, power and our hopes for the future. Critical pedagogy, in particular, should not only shift the “way people think about the moment, but potentially energize them to do something differently in that moment, and how to link [their own education] to … an active engagement of one’s critical imagination, and political activism, not in terms of electoral politics but as active engagement within the public sphere.”
If the civic fabric and the democratic political culture that sustain democracy are to survive, education must once again be linked to matters of social justice, equity, human rights, history and the public good. Education in this sense must free itself from the technocratic obsessions with a deadening instrumental rationality, a regressive emphasis on standardization, training for the workplace and the memorizing of facts. It must also educate students and others to fight against the closing down of public and higher education as critical sites of teaching and learning. To make the political more pedagogical, education must affirm in its vision and practice the interdependence of humanity and must embrace hope against a paralyzing indifference.
Education is not just a struggle over knowledge, but also a struggle about how pedagogy is related to the power of self-definition and the acquisition of individual and social forms of agency. More specifically, education is a moral and political practice, not merely an instrumentalized practice for the production of pre-specified skills. The task of education is to encourage human agency, refresh the idea of justice in individuals and recognize that the world might be different from how it is portrayed within established relations of power. The late Roger Simon added to this vision of critical pedagogy, writing that the goal of teaching and learning must be linked to educating individuals “to take risks, to struggle with ongoing relations of power, to critically appropriate form of knowledge that exist outside of their immediate experiences and to envisage vision of a world which is ‘not-yet’ — in order to be able to alter the grounds upon which life is lived.”
Matters of education are crucial to developing a democratic socialist vision that examines not only how neoliberal capitalism robs us of any viable sense of agency, but also what it means to think critically, exercise civic courage and define our lives outside the pernicious parameters imposed by the veneration of greed, profit, competition and capitalist exchange values. Education is a place where individuals should be able to imagine themselves as critical and politically engaged agents. In a time of tyranny, education becomes central to politics. Educators, public intellectuals, artists and other cultural workers need to make education central to social change and in doing so reclaim the role that education has historically played in developing political literacies and civic capacities, both of which are essential prerequisites for democracy.
A primary question here concerns what education should accomplish in a democracy: How might it function as a form of provocation and challenge, rooted in a vision and pedagogical practice that takes individuals beyond the common-sense world they inhabit and empowers them to refuse the identifications imposed by others? How might critical pedagogy be used to alter the ways in which individuals relate to themselves, others and the larger world? How might the narratives educators and cultural workers use to shape their cultural work speak to people in a language in which they can recognize and realize themselves as informed and engaged citizens?
Without a pedagogy of identification and recognition, pedagogy too easily becomes both alienating and a form of symbolic and intellectual violence. As João Biehl has argued, “subjectivity is the material of politics,” which gives credence to the question of what kind of subjectivity is possible when one’s voice is unrecognized and “no objective conditions exist for that to happen.” Without making education meaningful in order to make it critical, cultural workers run the risk of creating educational spaces where individuals have no voice and are relegated to zones of precarity and social abandonment in which they face oppressive conditions in which their own voices cannot be translated into action.
There is more at work here than affirming the critical function of critical pedagogy that enables individuals to break the power of common sense. There is also the crucial issue of opening up the space of translation, developing modes of meaningful identification and building bridges of understanding and relevance into the pedagogical practices used in the service of social change. Matters of identity, place and worth are crucial to developing the formative cultures necessary to challenge the threats waged by authoritarian movements against the ideas of justice and democracy and the institutions that make them possible. Any pedagogy of resistance must conceptualize and enable the conditions in which people can learn the capacities, knowledge and skills that enable them to speak, write and act from a position of agency and empowerment.
Stuart Hall has rightly argued that politics must be educative, that is, it must be capable of “changing the way people see things.” Education as empowerment must be able to take on the task of shifting consciousness in order to enable individuals to narrate themselves, prevent their own erasure, address the economic, social and political conditions that shape their lives, and learn that culture is an instrument of power. For this to happen, people have to recognize something of themselves and their condition in the modes of education in which they are addressed. This is both a matter of awakening a sense of identification and a moment of recognition. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy has to be on the side of understanding, clarity, persuasion and belief. Education in this instance is a defining political fact of life because it is crucial to the struggle over critical agency, informed citizenship and a collective sense of resistance and struggle. As a political project it must press the claims for economic and social justice and strengthen the call for civic literacy and positive collective action.
Rethinking the future suggests making critical education central to politics, functioning as a transformative force that enables people to address important social problems and the modes of resistance needed to defeat them. Such a future is impossible without a politics committed to the understanding that a substantive democracy cannot exist without informed and critically engaged citizens. James Baldwin was right in stating, at the end of his essay “Stranger in the Village,” that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” At the heart of Baldwin’s message is that the condition of a country’s morality and politics can be judged by the degree to which education becomes a central force in producing a political culture and public imagination that expands the notion of freedom, social justice and economic equality as part of the long march towards a democratic socialist future.
At a time when the fascist ghosts of the past have once again emerged and the monsters are no longer lurking in the shadows, we must reclaim the public imagination and develop the mass educational and political movements that make such a future possible. Forces of resistance and radical collective movements are once again on the march, and it is crucial to remember that education opens up the space of translation, breaks open the boundaries of common sense and provides the bridging work between schools and the wider society, the self and others, and the public and the private.
Against the dictatorship of ignorance and the destruction of the public imagination is the need for a politics of education that interrogates the claims of democracy, fights the failures of conscience, prevents justice from going dead in ourselves and imagines the unimaginable. This is an educational politics that not only connects agency to the possibility of interpretation as intervention, but also illuminates the forces that make people unknowable, and both make visible how social agency is denied and where in time and place it is least acknowledged.
There is also a need to develop a more comprehensive view of oppression, political struggle and ongoing efforts to align progressive movements. Such movements must be willing to embrace an alternative vision for change that includes the destruction of the ideological and structural foundations of neoliberal capitalism. At stake here is not only the recognition that capitalism and democracy are at odds with each other, but also that neoliberal capitalism has morphed into an updated form of fascist politics. In this instance, any viable notion of resistance must address specific crises ranging from mass poverty and staggering inequality to the destruction of the environment and systemic racism as strands of a larger general crisis threatening society as a whole.
As democratic socialist congressional candidate Nina Turner makes clear, “good ideas are not enough — we need to marry our ideas to power.” Radicalizing the public imagination suggests viewing democracy as part of a project that can be both recovered and radicalized through the combined struggles for emancipation, social justice, economic equality and minority rights. Central to such a challenge would be adopting a common agenda dedicated to developing a vast educational movement in defense of public goods. Any struggle against the dictatorship of ignorance will not only have to take matters of education seriously in the effort to address the current crisis of consciousness but will also have to bring diverse movements together to build a common agenda under the rubric of creating a critically engaged populace willing to fight for a democratic socialist society.
For any progressive movement to succeed, it must overcome its differences and be unified. That means that under the banner of democratic socialism it must connect a range of issues extending from free health care, free education and a living wage to canceling student debt, protecting workers’ rights and supporting the Green New Deal. All these issues should be fought over within a broader concern for political, personal and economic rights, which suggests defunding the military-industrial complex and increasing provisions of the welfare state. All these struggles must be connected to the larger fight for racial and economic justice, social equality and radically improving “the material conditions of working people,” as Turner says.
Making education central to social change is fundamental for any mass movement of resistance to succeed. If popular consciousness is to be shifted, people need to learn from the trajectory of history, develop an anti-capitalist consciousness through diverse modes of institutional and popular education and rethink the politics of fundamental change. This means recognizing and convincing a larger public that only democratic socialism can provide secure jobs, protect lives, affirm the common good and establish the life-giving institutions and functions that serve basic needs and provide the conditions that ensure dignity, freedom and security for everyone.
Ignorance has become willful, in that it is now a right-wing political project in the service of a fascist politics, manufactured and conscious in its pursuit of creating new forms of mass illiteracy. As such, it is no longer merely about the absence of knowledge but a depoliticizing project aimed at eliminating the critical faculties and modes of agency crucial to a democracy. As such, ignorance has lost its innocence and has become lethal. In doing so, it has produced a cultural apparatus that denies reason, truth and social responsibility. We need to recover and reframe the discourse and purpose of education as an empowering political project.
Malcolm X was right to say, “Education is a passport to the future,” and he added to this insight, making the notion of education political, when he wrote: “Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression, because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.”
The language of critique, compassion and hope must be collective, embracing our connections as human beings and respecting our deeply interrelated relationship to the planet. Any affirmation of the social must ensure that public services and social provisions bind us together in our humanity as human beings. Capitalism has proven that it cannot respond to either society’s most basic needs or address its most serious social problems. The pandemic has exposed neoliberal capitalism’s criminality, cruelty and inhumanity. It has become clear in the age of plagues and monsters that any successful movement for resistance must be not only for democracy and anti-capitalist; it must also be anti-fascist. We owe such a challenge to ourselves, to future generations and to the promise of a global socialist democracy waiting to be born.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Salon.