Educators as Public Intellectuals in an Age of Tyranny: Confront, Fight Back and Organize

Book burners. Image: JSC and AI Art Generator.

In his landmark book The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills argues that social scientists (and educators) have an obligation to address the question of truth and its political meaning during a time of widely communicated nonsense. He further argues that in addition to a politics of truth, social scientists have to support the values of reason and human freedom. He also believed that the role of social scientists was to disturb, bear witness, and resist systems of oppression. In this view, intellectuals have to have a deep sense of commitment and civic courage while “writing with vigor and clarity for the general reader [in order] to sustain the idea and the hope of a public culture.”[1] These principles, in the age of emerging fascism, are under attack  by a horde of anti-public intellectuals and far-right members of the GOP.  For Mills, politics, truth, reason, and freedom are central and mutually informing principles guiding the work of public intellectuals. Mills, like Raymond Williams,  Noam Chomsky, Vaclav Havel and others believed that the public role of intellectuals should be to confront important social problems, make visible how power works, address culture as a force for both domination and empowerment, recognize that everyday life has a politics, and help people to understand the world in critical and imaginative ways. Central to such a task was the intellectual’s role in translating private or personal troubles into broader structural, systemic and social issues.

Mills rejected both the notion of the objective or disembodied intellectual, as well as a strangulating notion of indoctrination. In response to the right-wing notion that educators should not be political, or that education was not a site of political struggle, he posited that considerations of values, power, and considered judgment cannot be removed from education, and hence were always present in any educational practice. The claims to neutrality and the regressive alleged notions of a “patriotic education” proffered by the far right serve a cover for a white supremacist pedagogy of dogmatism, indoctrination, and repression. Taking sides, viewing education as a public good, and educating young people to develop a historical consciousness, challenge systemic racism, and be informed critical citizens is dismissed by the far-right, especially among groups such as Moms for Liberty, serve as a form of not too subtle indoctrination. The irony here is hard to miss, as fascist politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are banning books, waging war on trans-people, and turning schools into white nationalist indoctrination factories. Mills, in his own time recognized that such threats are not only waged against education as a democratic public sphere, but against democracy itself. In response to the far-right denigration of “woke” and the charge that critical education is a  naïve and indoctrinating left-wing call to “save the world,” Mills’ words are still relevant.  Mills writes:

I do not believe that social science will ‘save the world’ although I see nothing at all wrong with ‘trying to save the -world’—a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the re-arrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. Such knowledge as I have leads me to embrace rather pessimistic estimates of the chances. but even if that is where we now stand, still we must ask: if there are any ways out of the crises of our period by means of intellect, is it not up to the educators to state them?[2]

Defending the role of the intellectual has a long history in the United States extending from W.E. B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and Pierre Bourdieu to  Edward Said, Toni Morrison and Noam Chomsky, among others. Each of these figures has argued that public intellectuals may not have all the answers, but that they can critically frame the questions of the public imagination and refuse to be silent in times of tyranny. This tradition is persistent in centering education as intimately tied to politics. As Bourdieu has argued, public intellectuals believe that “the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.”[3] As such, educators and other intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for providing a critical language capable of challenging diverse forms of domination, while also providing a vocabulary of possibility and educated hope in the search for a more humane future. Crucial here is the recognition, considered dangerous to the far-right, that a substantive democracy cannot exist without genuinely critical and informed individuals, and the institutions that educate them. Under such circumstances, higher education must play a central role in protecting the ideals of a critical democracy, its potential agents, and the knowledge, social relations and values that insist it has an important role to play in times of crisis, war, emerging fascism, ecological destruction, and the weakening of civic institutions. At the same time, educators must expose the far-right’s view of education as an exercise in training and the spread of indoctrination. This is a particularly dangerous ideology that is increasingly becoming normalized in the United States and  legitimates a society organized around appeals to manufactured ignorance, racism, class domination, and organized violence.

Educators must face several central questions, emerging from the rich tradition of public intellectuals, in the current moment of organized irresponsibility and fascist politics. What is the role of educators in a time of tyranny, in a society rife with oppression? What is the relationship between our role as educators and democracy?  How do we address education as a political project in which learning is central to creating informed citizens and catalyzing social change?  How might educators join with others in and out of academia to form a social movement in defense of public goods while also becoming part of a broader international movement? Educators have an obligation to make visible how power works, how it can be made accessible, and how it can be used in the interest of democratic social change.

Educators have a responsibility to embrace a vision and language that enables them to both defend learning as a tool of social change and to struggle for those crucial public spheres that provide the modes of critical literacy and opportunities for people to think and act in an imaginative way. Educators must develop a new language and vision regarding theory, politics, power, agency, and the future. They need a theoretical language that makes education central to politics, fosters critical thinking, and addresses the role of culture, consciousness, and memory as terrains in which agency and politics can be reimagined as part of a broader project of ethical, political, and social changes. Such a language should be comprehensive and able to bring diverse issues together as part of a larger totalizing understanding of how societies develop, define themselves, and bear down on both everyday life and the larger world. Central to this task is the important role that educators might play as public intellectuals by speaking in a rigorous and accessible language to multiple audiences and connecting what  Mills called elements of the individual, social, historical and political imagination, i.e., the sociological imagination. Assuming the role of engaged public intellectuals, educators, students, artists and other cultural workers face the challenge of believing that their work matters and that they can produce knowledge that is politically driven, critical, and opens up new analytical horizons. In addition, it is crucial for activists to lift such knowledge into the public realm, making it understandable and meaningful in order for people to recognize themselves in a way that speaks critically to the conditions that shape their lives. As Stuart Hall has observed, changing consciousness and rupturing common sense assumptions can only take place within what he calls a politics of identification. He writes:

There’s no politics without identification. People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition, and without that moment of recognition . . .politics will go on, but you won’t have a political movement without that moment of identification.[4]

Educators also need to develop a language and mode of criticism that dissolves the assumption that capitalism and democracy are synonymous, that the market is the template for all social relations, that all problems are individual in nature, and that economic and political actions can be divorced from social costs and ethical responsibilities. The language of social change cannot be frozen within the discourse of an alleged reformed capitalism. Capitalism cannot be reformed; it must be replaced by a sustainable form of democratic socialism.  At the same time, educators should be at the forefront of acknowledging that socialism cannot be implemented simply by changing economic policies. Such change requires a new kind of critical agent, a new script for mobilizing desire, and a change of consciousness. Matters of agency, creativity, compassion, and community must be embraced as part of a radical restructuring of the subject and the grounds for creating a mass movement of resistance and a more just world.

Educators bear enormous obligations as public intellectuals who must sustain and expand the values, knowledge, and modes of thinking crucial to bringing democratic political culture back to life while reimagining the project of human emancipation itself. Central to such a project is the need for critical educators to protect the conditions of their own labor. In part, this means protecting the tenure process, and exercising collective control over how power is wielded in the academy, with respect to issues of control and the vision of higher education. Such a task also means eliminating the inequities that have resulted in the ballooning of part-time positions and the casualization of academic positions for most educators in higher education. These problems cannot be solved by simply focusing on forms of economic domination or the policies enacted by far-right politicians.

Critical educators must also focus on how culture as a mode of education produces iniquitous differences among disciplines, bodies of knowledge, identities, and visions of the future.  Culture along with education is a central element of politics and is always connected to power and the making of meaning and practices which give significance to both individual identities and how individuals relate to others and the larger world.  Educators must work within higher education to create counter-public spheres that affirm thinking as an act of resistance, spaces that promote a culture of questioning, and opportunities for marginalized groups to speak, be heard, and exercise power. As citizen educators, they need to help people become informed, active, creative, and socially responsible members of society and the larger world. They have a responsibility to educate people to be not only knowledgeable and critically informed but to also be compassionate and caring, refusing to allow the spark of justice to die in themselves and within larger society.

Educators must take active responsibility for raising fundamental questions about the knowledge they produce, how that knowledge gets circulated, and how it is ethically and politically related to broader notions of social change.  This means playing a role in shaping the purposes and conditions of matters of agency, consciousness, action, and social relations.  The role of educators as critical public intellectuals is a huge undertaking, one that calls on them to look at their work as a political, civic, and ethical practice that combines critical reflection and action as part of a struggle to overcome economic, political and social injustices. This work cannot be done alone; educators must join with workers, social movements, youth groups, and unions in their fight against the terrorism wrought by neoliberal fascism.

As fascism expands across the globe, and extremism is normalized in a number of countries extending from Hungary and Poland to Italy and the United States, the crisis of politics must be matched by a crisis of ideas. Moreover,  if the Left is to become both an educational and political force, it must merge the movement for economic and social justice with a formative culture and educational project that places matters of morality, justice, compassion, care, and civic courage above a predatory neoliberal capitalism that is destroying the planet and ushering in a new age of fascist barbarism. Educators need to think on the edge of possibilities, develop an anti-capitalist vision, and learn how to make social change meaningful and just. These changes must highlight power relations, providing people with a sense of dignity and with access to crucial social support. The urgency of this task demands that educators unite in order to face the challenges that now threaten to destroy humanity. Under such circumstances, resistance is no longer an option, but a necessity.

Notes.

[1] George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009), p. 4.

[2] C. Wright Mills, “On Politics”, The Sociological Imagination, (Oxford University Press, 2000), P. 193.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass, “A Literature From Below,” The Nation (July 3, 2000), p. 26

[4] Stuart Hall and Les Back, “In Conversation: At Home and Not at Home”, Cultural Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, (July 2009), p. 681

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018), On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury), and Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2021). His website is www. henryagiroux.com.