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Giroux, Henry A. --- "Youth in a Suspect Society: Education Beyond the Politics of Disposability" [2008] CICrimJust 17; (2008) 20(1) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 111

Youth in a Suspect Society: Education Beyond the Politics of Disposability

Henry A. Giroux[1]


As the United States becomes increasingly more authoritarian in its role as a national (in)security state, its use of surveillance, its suspension of civil liberties, its plundering of public goods, its assault on the social state, its suspension of basic social services, and its increasing use of torture and pure thuggery on the political level, it has become clear that the current generation of young people are no longer viewed as an important social investment or as a marker for the state of democracy and the moral life of the nation. Young people have become a generation of suspects in a society destroyed by the marriage of market fundamentalism, consumerism, and militarism. This article analyses the various economic and political conditions that relegate youth to the lowest national priority as part of a broader effort to connect the current war against young people to the crisis of democracy itself. At stake here is the ongoing political project of reminding adults of their ethical and political responsibility to future generations and to retheorise the category of youth as a powerful referent for a critical discussion about the long term consequences of current neoliberal policies while also gesturing towards the need for putting into place those conditions that make a democratic future possible. Moreover, the article argues that while young people increasingly become the ‘vanishing point’ of moral debate, it is crucial to revive a discourse of critique and possibility that connects the imperatives of an inclusive democracy with the purpose and meaning of higher education and the role of academics as public intellectuals.

Within the last two decades, the United States has increasingly moved from a liberal democracy to a punishing society, one that reflects the presence of an emerging authoritarianism, particularly under the Bush administration. Most people around the world are aware of the precipitous decline of democracy in the United States and there is a general global consensus that the domestic and foreign policies put into place since 2000 rightly qualify the Bush administration as, in the words of former President Jimmy Carter, ‘the worst in history’ (cited in Associated Press 2007). In fact, Carter’s assessment seems tame compared to comments made over the last few decades by writers as renown as Robert Kennedy, Jr., Seymour M. Hersh, and Gore Vidal, each of whom has argued that the United States has displayed the earmarks of an authoritarian regime. Worth repeating is a New York Times editorial that appeared on the last day of 2007, insisting that under the administration of George W. Bush, the United States has become unrecognisable as a democratic country. It states:

There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. ... In the years since 9/11, we have seen ... the President, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant. We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers [plotted] to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them. ... Hundreds of men, swept up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, were thrown into a prison in Guant‡namo Bay, Cuba, so that the White House could claim they were beyond the reach of American laws. ... In other foreign lands, the CIA set up secret jails where ‘high-value detainees’ were subjected to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These crimes were videotaped, so that ‘experts’ could watch them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know. The CIA contracted out its inhumanity to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners – some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports – to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology or hope of redress (New York Times 31 December 2007:A20).

Sidney Blumenthal (2006), former senior adviser to President Clinton echoes these concerns, claiming that the Bush administration has created a government that is tantamount to ‘a national security state of torture, ghost detainees, secret prisons, renditions and domestic eavesdropping’. But Bob Herbert (2006:A25), an op-ed writer for the New York Times, goes even further arguing that all of the surreptitious activities of the Bush regime offer Americans nothing less than a ‘road map to totalitarianism’.

Under the administration of George W. Bush, the majority of Americans have spent the last eight years watching the hollowing out of the social state and its meagre government provisions along with a serious credit fallout and an unprecedented subprime mortgage crisis, resulting in the foreclosure of millions of houses and providing an exemplary case of greedy financial markets out of control (Krugman 2007). At the same time, Americans have witnessed the Bush administration waste billions of dollars on a morally indefensible war in Iraq while offering billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country. In fact, we are entering a new Gilded Age nourished by a politics of greed and a ruthless market fundamentalism and increasingly celebrated by the dominant media. Spread out across this neoliberal landscape are desolate communities, gutted public services, weakened labour unions, 37 million poor people, 47 million Americans without health insurance, and a growing number of either unemployed or underemployed workers. If the Gilded Age has returned with a vengeance, so has the older legacy of rampant unregulated capitalism, merger mania, and a new class of Robber Barons dressed up as corporate power brokers with enormous political influence. Like its 19th-century counterpart, the new Gilded Age is marked by an increasing concentration of wealth among the privileged few while the number of poor Americans increases and inequality reaches historic high levels.[2] As Peter Drier (2007) points out:

Wealth has become even more concentrated during the Bush years. Today, the richest one percent of Americans has 22 per cent of all income and about 40 per cent of all wealth. This is the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. In 2005, average CEO pay was 369 times that of the average worker, compared with 131 times in 1993 and 36 times in 1976. At the pinnacle of America’s economic pyramid, the nation’s 400 billionaires own 1.25 trillion dollars in total net worth – the same amount as the 56 million American families at the bottom half of wealth distribution. Meanwhile, despite improvements in productivity, the earnings of most workers have been stagnant, while the cost of health care, housing, and other necessities has risen.

It gets worse. Bush’s policies have nourished and strengthened a number of anti-democratic forces, fostering a distinctive type of authoritarianism in the United States, including the militarisation of everyday life, an imperial presidency, the rise and influence of right-wing Christian extremists, and a government draped in secrecy that is all too willing to suspend civil liberties (Hedges 2007). This emerging authoritarianism is largely legitimated through an ongoing culture of fear and a form of patriotic correctness designed to bolster a rampant nationalism and a selective popularism (Giroux 2007). Fear is mobilised through both the war on terrorism and ‘the sovereign pronouncement of a “state of emergency” [which] generates a wild zone of power, barbaric and violent, operating without democratic oversight in order to combat an “enemy” that threatens the existence of not merely and not mainly its citizens, but its sovereignty’ (Buck-Morss 2003:29). As Stanley Aronowitz (2001:160) points out, the national security state is now organised through ‘a combination of internal terrorism and the threat of external terrorism’, which works to reinforce ‘its most repressive functions’. Finally, we have entered a period in American life where an all-pervasive market rationality strips democracy of any substance and leaves entire populations vulnerable to what Orlando Patterson (1982) calls a kind of ‘social death’. How else to explain the government response to Hurricane Katrina, the jailing of young people as adults, the massive growth of incarceration among the poor, especially people of colour, the racist discourse of purity and nationalism used by many Republicans to disparage immigrants from South America, and the increasing disinvestment in public life and government provisions for the poor (Giroux 2006a, 2006b)?

The consequences of the new authoritarianism and its policies have had a particularly devastating effect on youth in the United States, especially those who are marginalized by class and race. No longer seen as a social investment or the central element of the social contract, youth are now viewed as either consumers or potential soldiers on the one hand, or as troubling, reckless, and dangerous on the other. The relentless assault against youth cannot be separated from the ongoing devaluing of democracy itself, which has grave implications not only for countries directly influenced by American power such as Iraq, but also for the rest of the world.

As the United States becomes increasingly more authoritarian in its role as a national (in)security state, its use of surveillance, its suspension of civil liberties, its plundering of public goods, its suspension of basic social services, and its increasing use of torture and pure thuggery on the political level, it has become clear that the current generation of young people are no longer viewed as an important social investment or as a marker for the state of democracy and the moral life of the nation. Young people have become a generation of suspects in a society destroyed by the marriage of market fundamentalism, consumerism, and militarism. But the point here is not merely to argue that youth are our lowest national priority, but to understand the importance of connecting the crisis in democracy to the current war against young people in order both to remind adults of their ethical and political responsibility to future generations and to re-theorise what it means to invest in youth as a symbol for nurturing civic imagination and collective resistance in the face of the suffering of others, especially among young people. Youth provide a powerful referent for a critical discussion about the long term consequences of current policies while also gesturing towards the need for putting into place those conditions that make a democratic future possible. All too often young people have become the ‘vanishing point’ of moral debate, considered irrelevant because they are allegedly too young or excluded from civic public discourse because they are viewed as dangerous and depraved. It is in keeping with this need to register youth as the theoretical, moral, and political centre of gravity that I want to address the urgent and related crises of democracy in higher education and the role of academics as public intellectuals.

While the United States has never been free of repression, there is a special viciousness that marks the current regime. War, violence and an attack on human rights coupled with the assault on the social state and the rise of an all-encompassing militarism make this government stand out for its anti-democratic policies. The varied populations made disposable under a militarized neoliberalism occupy a globalised space of ruthless politics in which the categories of ‘citizen’ and ‘democratic representation’, once integral to national politics, are no longer recognised. In the past, people who were marginalised by class and race could at least expect a modicum of support from the government, either through basic social provisions or because they still had some value as part of a reserve army of unemployed labour. That is no longer true. Under the ruthless dynamics of neoliberal ideology there has been a shift away from the possibility of getting ahead to the much more deadly task of struggling to stay alive. Many now argue that this new form of biopolitics is conditioned by a permanent state of class and racial exception in which, as Achille Mbembe (2003:40) asserts, ‘vast populations are subject to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead’.

Disposable populations are less visible, relegated to the frontier zones of relative invisibility and removed from public view. Such populations are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous workplaces far from the enclaves of the tourist industries, incarcerated in prisons that privilege punishment over rehabilitation, and consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse of the social state, a pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth, and a take-no-prisoners neoliberalism, an increasing number of individuals and groups are demonised and criminalised either by virtue of their status as immigrants or because they are young, poor, unemployed, disabled, or confined to low-paying jobs. This is particularly true for young people, who are portrayed increasingly as a generation of suspects.

One register of the growing racism, inequality, and poverty in America can be found in the endless stories of young people of colour dying because of a lack of adequate health care as in the case of Deamonte Driver, a seventh grader in Prince George’s County Maryland, who died because his mother lacked the health insurance to cover an $80 tooth extraction and was unable to find an oral surgeon willing to treat her son. By the time he was admitted and diagnosed in a hospital emergency room, the bacteria from the abscessed tooth had spread to his brain and, in spite of the level of high-quality intensive treatment he finally received, he eventually died. Racism is also on display in the growing re-segregation of public schools in the United States as well as the wholesale resort to punishment and incarceration in the case of poor black and brown students. Howard Witt (2007), a writer for the Chicago Tribune, reports that:

In every state but Idaho, a Tribune analysis of the data shows, black students are being suspended in numbers greater than would be expected from their proportion of the student population. In 21 states ... that disproportionality is so pronounced that the percentage of black suspensions is more than double their percentage of the student body. And on average across the nation, black students are suspended and expelled at nearly three times the rate of white students.

In other words, under the biopolitics of neoliberalism conditions have been created in which moral responsibility disappears and politics offers no space for agency or the provisions for a decent life.

Each of these examples raises the fundamental question of what it might mean in light of these anti-democratic tendencies to take youth seriously as a political and moral referent in order to gauge not only the health of a democratic society, but also to define the obligations of adults to future generations of young people? For over a century, Americans have embraced as a defining feature of politics the idea that all levels of government would assume a large measure of responsibility for providing the resources, social provisions, and modes of education that enable young people to prepare in the present for a better future, while expanding the meaning and depth of an inclusive democracy. This was particularly true under the set of policies inaugurated by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programmes of the 1960s, designed to eliminate both poverty and racial injustice.

Taking the social contract seriously, American society exhibited at least a willingness to fight for the rights of children, enact reforms that invested in their future, and provide the educational conditions necessary for them to be critical citizens. Within such a modernist project, democracy was linked to the well-being of youth, while the status of how a society imagined democracy and its future was contingent on how it viewed its responsibility towards future generations. The end of that project can be seen in the new American reality under the second Bush administration. Instead of a federal budget that addresses the needs of children, the United States now enacts federal policies that weaken government social programmes, provide tax cuts for millionaires, and undercut or eliminate basic social provisions for children at risk. As New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman (2005) points out, compassion and responsibility under the Bush administration have given way to ‘a relentless mean-spiritedness’ and to the image of ‘President Bush as someone who takes food from the mouths of babes and gives the proceeds to his millionaire friends’. For Krugman, Bush’s budgets have come to resemble a form of ‘top-down class warfare’. The mean spiritedness of such warfare can be seen recently in President Bush’s willingness to veto the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides much needed health insurance to low-income children who do not qualify for Medicaid. As a result of this veto, ‘nearly one million American children will lose their health insurance’ (Shakir et al 2007). And without any irony intended, Bush attempted to legitimate this disgraceful action by claiming that ‘it opens up an avenue for people to switch from private insurance to the government’ (Shakir et al 2007). Bush gives new meaning to the neoliberal imperative to privatise or perish.[3]

Punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth to the larger social order. Youth within the last two decades have come to be seen as a source of trouble rather than as a resource for investing in the future and are increasingly treated as either a disposable population, cannon fodder for a barbaric war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or defined as the source of most of society’s problems. Hence, young people now constitute a crisis that has less to do with improving the future than with denying it. As Larry Grossberg (2005:16) points out:

It has become common to think of kids as a threat to the existing social order and for kids to be blamed for the problems they experience. We slide from kids in trouble, kids have problems, and kids are threatened, to kids as trouble, kids as problems, and kids as threatening.

This was exemplified recently when the columnist Bob Herbert (2007b:A25) reported in the New York Times that ‘parts of New York City are like a police state for young men, women and children who happen to be black or Hispanic. They are routinely stopped, searched, harassed, intimidated, humiliated and, in many cases, arrested for no good reason’. Hollywood movies such as Thirteen, kids, Brick, Hard Candy, and Alpha Dog consistently represent youths as either dangerous, utterly brainless, or simply without merit. A recent episode about youth on the widely viewed Sixty Minutes is suggestive of this kind of demonisation. Highlighting the ways in which young people alleviate their alleged boredom, the show focused on the sport of ‘bum hunting’, in which young people search out, attack, and savagely beat homeless people while videotaping the event in a homage to the triumph of reality television. As reprehensible as this act is, it is also reprehensible to vilify young people by suggesting that such behaviour is in some way characteristic of youth in general. Then again, in a society in which politicians and the marketplace can imagine youth only as either consumers, objects, or billboards to sell sexuality, beauty products, music, athletic gear, clothes, and a host of other products, it is not surprising that young people can be so easily misrepresented.

The popular demonisation and ‘dangerousation’ of the young now justifies responses to youth that were unthinkable twenty years ago, including criminalisation and imprisonment, the prescription of psychotropic drugs, psychiatric confinement and zero tolerance policies that model schools after prisons. School has become a model for a punishing society in which children who violate a rule as minor as a dress code infraction or slightly act out in class can be handcuffed, booked and put in a jail cell. Such was the case recently in Florida when the police handcuffed and arrested six-year-old Desre’e Watson, who was taken from her kindergarten school to the Highlander County jail where she was fingerprinted, subjected to a mug shot and charged with a felony and two misdemeanours. Her crime? The six-year old had thrown a tantrum in her kindergarten class ( 2007). Couple this type of domestic terrorism with the fact that the United States rejected a recent resolution by the United Nations ‘calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter. Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison’ (Liptak 2007:A1; also see Stevenson, this volume). In fact, while there are only a handful of cases in other countries, the United States has 2,225 child offenders who will spend the rest of their lives incarcerated (Gumbel 2005).

The hard currency of human suffering that impacts children is evident in astounding statistics that suggest a profound moral and political contradiction at the heart of one of the richest democracies in the world. For example, the rate of child poverty rose in 2004 to 17.6 per cent, boosting the number of poor children to 12.9 million. In fact, ‘[a]bout one in three severely poor people are under age 17’ (Pugh 2007). Moreover, children make up a disproportionate share of the poor in the US in that ‘they are 26 per cent of the total population, but constitute 39 per cent of the poor’ (Chelala 2006). Just as alarmingly, 9.3 million children lack health insurance, and millions lack affordable child care and decent early childhood education. In the meantime, savage cuts to education, nutritional assistance for impoverished mothers, veterans’ medical care and basic scientific research help fund tax cuts for the inordinately rich.

Too many youth within this degraded economic, political, and cultural geography occupy a ‘dead zone’ in which the spectacle of commodification exists alongside the imposing threat of massive debt, bankruptcy, the prison–industrial complex and the elimination of basic civil liberties. Indeed, we have an entire generation of unskilled and displaced youth expelled from shrinking markets, blue collar jobs and the limited political power granted to the middle-class consumer. Rather than investing in the public good and solving social problems, the state now punishes those who are caught in the downward spiral of its economic policies. Consequently, the implied contract between the state and its citizens is broken, and social guarantees for youth, as well as civic obligations to the future, vanish from the agenda of public concern. As punishment, incarceration and surveillance represent the face of the new expanded state and market values supplant civic values, it becomes increasingly difficult ‘to translate private worries into public issues and, conversely, to discern public issues in private troubles’ (Bauman 1999:2).

Black youth are especially disadvantaged since they are often jobless in an economy that does not need their labour and hence constitute a surplus and disposable population. Bob Herbert (2007a:A25) points out:

… [B]lack American males inhabit a universe in which joblessness is frequently the norm [and] over the past few years, the percentage of black male high school graduates in their 20s who were jobless has ranged from well over a third to roughly 50 per cent ... For dropouts, the rates of joblessness are staggering. For black males who left high school without a diploma, the real jobless rate at various times over the past few years has ranged from 59 per cent to a breathtaking 72 per cent …These are the kinds of statistics you get during a depression.

At the current time, however, solutions to these widespread social problems have become difficult to imagine, let alone implement. For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which one can cling to any sense of hope, pleasure, or possibility. Culture as an activity in which young people actually produce the conditions of their own agency through dialogue, community participation, public stories, and political struggle is being eroded. In its place, we are increasingly surrounded by a ‘climate of cultural and linguistic privatization’ (Klein 1999:177) in which culture becomes something you consume, and the only kind of speech that is acceptable is that of the fast-paced shopper. In spite of neoconservative and neoliberal claims that economic growth will cure social ills, the language of the market has no way of dealing with poverty, social inequality or civil rights issues. It has no respect for non-commodified values and no vocabulary for recognising and addressing social justice, compassion, decency, ethics or, for that matter, its own anti-democratic forms of power.

In order to strengthen the public sphere, we must look to its most widespread institutions, undo their metamorphoses into means of surveillance, commodification and control, and reclaim them as democratic spaces. Schools, colleges, and universities come to mind - because of both their contradictions and their democratic potential, their reality and their promise. In what follows, I argue that the purpose and meaning of higher education must be affirmed if youth are to remain a political and moral referent in our society and in a future whose democratic possibilities can only be seized if young people are provided with the knowledge, capacities and skills they need to function as social agents, critical citizens, empowered workers and critical thinkers. But such a task must begin by analyzing the degree to which higher education’s role as a democratic public sphere is now being threatened by a number of anti-democratic tendencies.

Higher Education and the Crisis of the Social

The powerful regime of forces that increasingly align higher education with a reactionary notion of patriotic correctness, market fundamentalism and state-sponsored militarism presents difficult problems for educators. As the 21st century unfolds, higher education faces both a legitimation crisis and a political crisis. As a handmaiden of the Pentagon and corporate interests, it has lost its claim to independence and critical learning. Turning its back on the public good, the academy has largely opened its doors to serving private and governmental interests and in doing so has compromised its role as a democratic public sphere. In keeping with the progressive impoverishment of politics and public life over the past two decades, the university is increasingly being corporatised, militarised and dummified, transformed into a training ground for corporate, military, and right-wing values rather than a public sphere in which youth can become the critical citizens and democratic agents necessary to nourish a socially responsible future. Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of a militarized and corporate culture, many universities are now part of an unholy alliance that largely serves the national security state and the business policies of transnational corporations while decoupling all aspects of academic knowledge production from democratic values and projects (Henwood 2005). College presidents are now called Chief Executive Officers or CEOs and speak largely in the discourse of Wall Street and corporate fund managers. Venture capitalists scour colleges and universities in search of big profits to be made through licensing agreements, the control of intellectual property rights, and investments in university spin-off companies.

In this new Gilded Age of money and profit, academic subjects gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market. While the vision of education is being narrowed and instrumentalised, the Bush administration attempts to wield more control over colleges and universities, cut student aid, plunder public services, and push states to the brink of financial disaster. As higher education increasingly becomes a privilege rather than a right, many working-class youth either find it financially impossible to enter college or, because of increased costs, drop out. Those students who have the resources to stay in school are feeling the pressure of the job market and rush to take courses and receive professional credentials in business and the biosciences as the humanities lose majors and downsize. Not surprisingly, students are now referred to as ‘customers,’ while some university presidents even argue that professors should be labelled as ‘academic entrepreneurs’ (Giroux 2007). Tenured faculty are called upon to generate grants, establish close partnerships with corporations, and teach courses that have practical value in the marketplace. There is little in this vision of the university that imagines young people as anything other than fodder for the corporation or appendages of the national security state. What was once the hidden curriculum of many universities – the subordination of higher education to capital – has now become an open and much celebrated policy of both public and private higher education.

Within the last decade, a variety of right-wing forces has attacked higher education, threatening not only the principle of academic freedom, but the very notion of the university as a democratic public sphere. Left-oriented academics such as Ward Churchill, Norman Finklestein and others are now being fired or denied tenure because they are critical of the American government. Faculty who offer classroom readings that challenge official versions of US foreign and domestic policy have their names posted on web sites, which often label them as un-American while calling on their respective universities to fire them. In some states, laws have been passed that allow students to sue professors whose political sensibilities are unsettled or challenged. The State of Arizona is in the process of passing a bill that would fine faculty members $500 for advocating a political position in the classroom. As one legislator put it, ‘You can speak about any subject you want – you just don’t take a position’ (Jaschik 2007). There is more at issue here than a vile form of anti-intellectualism. A more political analysis would argue that what is being lost in the United States is a society capable of questioning itself, as the public spaces that promote critical inquiry, dialogue and engaged citizens are being transformed by jingoistic hyper-nationalistic practices. What is emerging under such conditions is not only an imperial presidency and a militaristic empire, but also a new type of authoritarianism.

Matters of Hope and Educational Politics

Addressing education as a democratic endeavour begins with the recognition that higher education is more than an investment opportunity, citizenship is more than conspicuous consumption, learning is more than preparing students for the workplace, however important that task might be, and democracy is more than making choices at the local mall. Reclaiming higher education as a public sphere begins with the crucial project of challenging, among other things, those market fundamentalists, religious extremists and rigid ideologues who harbour a deep disdain for critical thought and healthy scepticism, and who look with displeasure upon any form of education that teaches students to read the world critically and to hold power and authority accountable. Education is not only about issues of work and economics, but also about questions of justice, social freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action and change, as well as the related issues of power, exclusion and citizenship. These are educational and political issues and they should be addressed as part of a broader effort to re-energize the global struggle for social justice and democracy.

If higher education is to reclaim itself a site of critical thinking, collective work, and public service, educators and students will have to redefine the knowledge, skills, research, and intellectual practices currently favored in the university. Central to such a challenge is the need to create conditions that enable academics to speak with conviction, use the public sphere to address important social problems and demonstrate alternative models for bridging the gap between higher education and the broader society. Increasingly, as universities are shaped by a culture of fear in which dissent is equated with treason, the call to be objective and impartial, whatever one’s intentions, can easily echo what George Orwell called the official truth or the establishment point of view. Lacking a self-consciously democratic political focus, teachers and students are often reduced to the role of technicians or functionaries engaged in formalistic rituals, unconcerned with the disturbing and urgent problems that confront the larger society or the consequences of one’s pedagogical practices and research undertakings. In opposition to this model, with its claims to and conceit of political neutrality, academics should combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen. This requires finding ways to connect the practice of classroom teaching with the operation of power in the larger society and to provide the conditions for students to view themselves as critical agents capable of making those who exercise authority and power accountable.

Academics, in addition to their responsibility to prepare students to engage critically with the world, must also recognise the impact their students will have on a generation of young people twice removed from the university. Education cannot be decoupled from democracy. As such, it must be understood as a deliberately informed and purposeful political and moral practice, as opposed to one that is either doctrinaire or instrumentalised, or both. Moreover, a critical pedagogy should be incorporated at all levels of schooling, while clearly gaining part of its momentum in higher education among students who will go back to the schools, churches, synagogues and workplaces in order to produce new ideas, concepts, and critical ways of understanding the world in which young people and adults live. This is a notion of intellectual practice and responsibility that refuses the insular, overly pragmatic and privileged isolation of the academy while affirming a broader vision of learning that links knowledge to the power of self-definition and to the capacities of students to expand the scope of democratic freedoms, particularly those that address the crisis of education, politics and the social as part and parcel of the crisis of democracy itself. This is the kind of intellectual practice that Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘taking responsibility for our responsibility’ (cited in Bunting 2003), one that is attentive to the suffering of others and ‘will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep’ (Said 2004:143).

In order for pedagogy that encourages critical thought to have a real effect, it must include the message that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live. If educators are to function as public intellectuals, they need to provide the opportunities for students to learn that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do counts in their struggle to unlearn dominating privileges, productively reconstruct their relations with others and transform, when necessary, the world around them. A critically engaged pedagogy also necessitates that we incorporate in our classrooms those electronically mediated knowledge forms that constitute the terrain of mass and popular culture. I am referring here to the world of media texts - videos, films, the Internet, podcasts, and other elements of the new electronic technologies that operate through a combination of visual and print culture. Such an approach not only challenges the traditional definition of schooling as the only site of pedagogy by widening the application and sites of education to a variety of cultural locations, but also alerts students to the educational force of the culture at large, what I have called elsewhere the field of public pedagogy.

Finally, I want to emphasize that struggles over how we view, represent and treat young people should be part of a larger public dialogue about how to imagine a democratic future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian, believed that the ultimate test of morality resided in what a society did for its children. If we take this standard seriously, American society has deeply failed its children and its commitment to democracy. The culture of neoliberalism and consumer culture rest on the denial both of youth as a marker of the future and of the social responsibility entailed by an acceptance of this principle. In other words, the current crisis of American democracy can be measured in part by the fact that too many young people are poor, lack decent housing and health care and attend decrepit schools filled with overworked and underpaid teachers. These youth, by all standards, deserve more in a country that historically prided itself on its level of democracy, liberty and alleged equality for all citizens. For many young people, the future looks bleak, filled with the promise of low-paying, low-skilled jobs, the collapse of the welfare state and, if you are a person of colour and poor, the threat of either unemployment or incarceration. We have entered a period in which the war against youth, especially poor youth of colour, offers no apologies because it is too arrogant and ruthless to imagine any resistance. But power as a form of domination is never absolute and oppression always produces some form of resistance. For these reasons, the collective need and potential struggle for justice should never be underestimated even in the darkest of times. To confront the biopolitics of disposability and the war on young people, we need to create the conditions for multiple collective and global struggles that refuse to use politics as an act of war and markets as the measure of democracy. Fortunately, more and more young people nationally and internationally are mobilising in order to fight a world dominated by corporate interests and struggling to construct an alternative future in which their voices can be heard as part of a broader movement to make democracy and social justice realisable.

Education, when connected to social change, can help provide the knowledge, tools, and hope necessary to further motivate these young people, many of whom recognise that the world stands at a critical juncture, and that they can play a crucial role in changing it. For many young people, social injustices that extend from class oppression to racial violence to the ongoing destruction of public life and the environment can no longer be tolerated. We have watched young people across the globe march against the injustices of negative globalization in recent years. One of the central messages coming from those youthful demonstrators is that the revolutionary idea of democracy, as Bill Moyers (2007) points out, is not just about the freedom to shop, formal elections, or the two-party system; it is more significantly about ‘the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency’. What needs to be stressed is that these are political and educational issues, not merely economic concerns. As Hannah Arendt insisted, making human beings superfluous is the essence of totalitarianism, and the war against youth and critical education suggests a new form of authoritarianism is ready to take over if we cannot work together to develop a new politics, a new analytic of struggle and, most important, a renewed sense of imagination, vision and hope. We live in a historic moment of both crisis and possibility, one that presents educators, parents, artists, and others with the opportunity to take up the challenge of re-imagining civic engagement and social transformation, but these activities only have a chance of succeeding if we also defend and reinvigorate the pedagogical conditions that enable the current generation of young people to nurture thoughtfulness, critical agency, compassion, and democracy itself.


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[1]Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Canada. He is author most recently of The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex and Against the Terror of Neoliberalism.

[2]On a global level, inequality has risen to extreme levels. For instance, ‘the richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world’s wealth. More specifically, the richest 1 percent of adults owned 40 per cent of global assets in the year 2000, and ... the richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 per cent of the world’s total. In contrast, the assets of half the world’s population account for barely 1 per cent of global wealth’ (Glantz 2006).

[3]Peter Drier (2007) provides a detailed list of additional consequences arising from the class warfare waged by the Bush administration: ‘For example, Bush has handed the pharmaceutical industry windfall profits by restricting Medicare’s ability to negotiate for lower prices for medicine. He targeted huge no-bid federal contracts to crony companies like Haliburton to supply emergency relief, reconstruction services and materials to rebuild Katrina while attempting to slash federal wage laws for reconstruction workers. He repealed Clinton-era ‘ergonomics’ standards, affecting more than 100 million workers, that would have forced companies to alter their work stations, redesign their facilities or change their tools and equipment if employees suffered serious work-related injuries from repetitive motions. He opposed stiffer health and safety regulations to protect mine workers and cut the budget for federal agencies that enforce mine safety laws. Not surprisingly, under Bush, we’ve seen the largest number of mine accidents and deaths in years. Bush’s Food and Drug Administration lowered product-labelling standards, allowing food makers to list health claims on labels before they have been scientifically proven. His FDA chief announced that the agency would no longer require claims to be based on ‘significant scientific agreement,’ a change that the National Food Processors Association, the trade association of the $500 billion food processing industry, had lobbied for. Bush resisted efforts to raise the minimum wage (which had been stuck at $5.15 an hour for nine years) until the Democrats took back the Congress earlier this year.

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