Giroux, Henry A. — Neoliberalism’s War Against Teachers in Dark Times

Giroux, Henry A. “Neoliberalism’s War Against Teachers in Dark Times.” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies. 13.6 (2013): 458-468. Web.

In this article, Giroux explores the way in which the public teaching career is disparaged within a neoliberal society, claiming that “the current crisis in education cannot be separated from the rise and pernicious influence of neoliberal capitalist and market-driven power relations, both of which work in the interest of disempowering teachers, dismantling teacher unions, and privatizing public schools” (461). He asserts that this disparagement is actually violent, dubbing it a “war against teachers.” He describes his article as “one small contribution” toward the effort to “rethink not merely the relationship between education and democracy but also the very nature of teaching, the role of teachers as engaged citizens and public intellectuals” (459). Giroux begins with an investigation of the “media’s brief celebration of teachers as defenders of youth” after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He maintains that “[i]t is indeed ironic, in the unfolding nightmare in Newtown, that only in the midst of such shocking tragedy are teachers celebrated in ways that justly acknowledge—albeit briefly and inadequately—the vital role they play every day in both protecting and educating our children” (458). He uses this example to lead into his major claim that teachers have actually “been under vicious and sustained attack” since the 1980s via educational reform.

Giroux spends the rest of the article delving into what he calls neoliberalism’s war against teachers. He draws comparisons between the education and the military, saying that the “increasing militarization of reason and growing expansion of forms of militarized discipline” are evident within pedagogy which “uses education to win consent, produce consumer-based notions of agency, and militarize reason in the service of war, profits, power, and violence” (459). Underlying his educational “war” imagery is his assertion that “America is obsessed with violence and death” and thus “celebrate[s] militarism, hypermasculinity, extreme competition, and a survival of the fittest ethic, while exhibiting disdain for any form of shared bonds, dependency, and compassion for others” (466). Because a discourse of individualism and competition prevails, public education is conceptualized as a “private right” as opposed to a “public good” (460). Furthermore, many public institutions—such as education—are denigrated as antithetical to a pervasive individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps discourse, and public employees—such as teachers—are depicted as the “the new class of government dependent moochers” (459).

He claims that neoliberalism’s “threat [to teachers and students] comes in the form of a series of educational reforms that display little confidence in the ability of public school teachers to provide intellectual and moral leadership for our youth” (460). As a result of these reforms, “reason is gutted of its critical potential and reduced to a deadening pedagogy of memorization, teaching to the test, and classroom practices that celebrate mindless repetition and conformity” (459). Thus, teachers are reduced to “high-level technicians carrying out the dictates and objectives decided by experts far removed from the everyday realities of classroom life”; he calls this “the deskilling and commodification of teacher work” (461). He also cites accountability as a “pedagogy of repression” to which students and teachers have been subjected. Teachers, Giroux’s focus in the article, are forced to repress their creativity and intellect while functioning under these reforms and pedagogies. Lastly, he argues that a way to “restructure the nature of teacher work is to view teachers as public intellectuals,” which will encourage lawmakers to “rethink and reform the traditions and conditions that have prevented teachers from assuming their full potential as active, reflective scholars and practitioners” (462). He asserts that a teacher who is a public intellectual is able to “give students an active voice in their learning experiences” as well as “give students the opportunity to become critical and engaged citizens” (464). He ends his article with the question: “How does the violence against teachers and students destroy the connective tissue that makes the shared bonds of trust, compassion, and justice possible not only in our schools but also in a democracy?” (466).

Giroux’s description of the systemic violence enacted on students and teachers through educational reforms is elucidating for me. I am particularly interested in the creation of this image of teacher as “welfare queen” and “deskilled technician.”  He describes the rhetoric of neoliberalism in violent, militaristic terms and deems it hypermasculine.  On the contrary, he describes the teaching profession as altruistic and giving of “sanctuary to [students’] dreams and aspirations for a future of hope dignity, and justice” but does not specifically gender it (459). This divide makes me consider public institutions that are deemed acceptable and necessary, such as the military which is characterized by violence and also dominated by men. Giroux’s description of neoliberalism versus teaching is also significant considering that teaching has been a historically feminized profession and as such has been historically denigrated. Throughout the nineteenth century, women were considered to be perfect for teaching as they exhibited characteristics deemed necessary for the profession, such being altruistic, caring, and nurturing.  Though he does not extensively delve into gender in his article, I think that would be appropriate to explore. Questions I have after this reading include the following: What specific educational reforms pose the threat Giroux describes and how do they do this? What cultural discourses (other than educational and political) contribute to this violence against public teachers and students? How does the rhetoric of accountability and other pedagogy enact violence on teachers and students? How does this violence trickle down into day-to-day classroom instruction? And in what ways are teachers attempting to combat this?  

–Katie Garahan

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