Youth Panic and the Politics of Schooling


A. Giroux

In
the post-Littleton climate, moral panic and fear replace critical understanding
and allow the dominant media to proclaim, as seen in a recent issue of Newsweek,
that white suburban youth have a dark side and that youth culture in general
represents "Lord of the Flies on a vast scale." Films such as Varsity
Blues, The Things I Hate About You,
and Cruel Intentions celebrate
both mindless, testosterone-driven, infantilized male athletes who are at the
top of a repressive school pecking order or young high school girls who are
equally vacuous, but also ruthless, arrogant, and sexually manipulative. Films
such as Election, Jawbreaker, and American Beauty resonate
powerfully with the broader public view that a growing number of white suburban
kids are either inane, neurotically self-centered, or sexual deviants. These
films reinforce the assumption that such kids, increasingly viewed as a threat
to society, are in need of medical treatment, strict controls, or disciplinary
supervision. Such representations signal a growing shift in the public’s
perception of young people. Youth are no longer at risk but considered the risk.
This perception of youth serves to largely eradicate any notion of productive
agency among young people, offering few possibilities for analyzing how children
actually experience and mediate relationships between themselves and other
children as well as adult society. But such representations not only do violence
to the complexity of children’s lives, they also erase any understanding of
how power relations between adults and young people actually work against many
children.

The recent series
of school shootings by youth in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Edinboro, Pennsylvania,
Springfield, Oregon, and Littleton, Colorado along with an increasing number of
other towns has further inflamed society’s fear of children and fueled demands
to lower the age at which children can be tried as adults for violent crimes.
Questions of school safety now become more important than issues of academic
quality, even though by all accounts the public schools are just about the
safest places available for children. Unfortunately, any sense of perspective
appears to be lost, as school systems across the country clamor for metal
detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, armed teachers, and in some
cases the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom.

Educators seem to
have little to say about the ongoing attacks on youth in part because within the
dominant discourse on youth and educational reform the language of ethics,
politics, culture, and democracy has little currency or exchange value. This is
not surprising since school leadership is now modeled after the heroes of
corporate culture who are drawn from the executive ranks of multinationals such
as Disney, McDonalds, IBM, and Proctor and Gamble. Employing a managerial style
that describes school systems as "major companies," the new corporate school
leadership describes students as "customers" and learning as measurable
outcomes.

One recent
example of the new corporate school leader was highlighted in a recent article
in The New York Times. Under the byline, "Applying Corporate Touch to a
Troubled School System," the article focuses on Andre J. Hornsby, the new
superintendent of the Yonkers school district, the fourth largest in New York
City. Touted as a model for the new type of leadership now in vogue among urban
school systems, the Times describes him as "arrogant, autocratic, an
egomaniac…adamant that poor minority children can overcome their socioeconomic
hurdles, driven to raise scores on standardized tests using cookie-cutter
curriculums, and assuming an almost militaristic take-charge approach." The
article goes on to point out that one of Hornsby’s first initiatives was to
impose additional work loads on his teachers, which prompted a strike, and at
his initiative prompted a successful court battle to prevent extra resources
from being distributed to "eight school districts the courts identified as
being in most need." It seems that in spite of Hornsby’s concern for poor
students, he preferred to distribute the extra money among all school districts,
"a tactic favored by the predominantly white school board that hired him."

Hornsby appears
typical of a corporate leadership model that has nothing to say about
inequality, wields power autocratically, reduces curricula to the language of
standards and testing, and makes sure that teachers have little control over the
conditions of teaching and learning. The heroes of corporate culture preach a
strict adherence to the bottom line, but they have little to say about the need
to create public spaces that provide children with forms of civic education that
foster critical opportunities for dialogue, engagement, and deliberation. Nor do
they offer educational opportunities for young people to critically appropriate
forms of literacy that provide the conditions for defending vital social
institutions for the public good. Similarly, many proponents of corporate
culture often have little to say about the effects of downsizing,
deindustrialization, and the devastating impact such policies have on working
families, public services, schools, and public life. Nor do they say much about
their own role in promoting the flight of capital abroad, the widening gap
between the rich and the poor, and the growing class of permanently
underemployed stuck in "deskilled" jobs. Within this corporate model of
leadership, the only social spaces made available for children are largely
market driven and as a result the marketplace of ideas within schools and other
public spheres is increasingly a function not of what young people need to know
as critical citizens, as social and political actors, but what they can be sold
as consumers.

An oppressively
regulating view of educational leadership now dominates the public debate about
youth and schooling and has virtually nothing productive to say about what it
might mean to address the underlying conditions that shape the lives of young
people in this country. With few exceptions, public discussions about Littleton,
as Ellen Willis has pointed out, virtually ignored how young people "feel, not
only about their recent lives but about the adult world." Moreover, the models
of corporate leadership that have been transplanted to all levels of schooling
undermine the ability of classroom teachers to play a decisive role in
addressing the needs of young people. These models have little regard for the
voices of young people, they also severely limit teachers’ control over the
development and planning of curriculum, reinforce the bureaucratic organization
of the school, and largely remove teachers from the process of judging and
implementing classroom instruction. The ideology that guides these corporate
models and their view of pedagogy is that the behavior of teachers needs to be
controlled and made consistent and predictable across different schools and
student populations. In these approaches, it is assumed that all students can
learn from the same standardized materials, instructional techniques, and modes
of evaluation.

In the corporate
model of leadership, teaching is completely removed from the cultural and social
contexts that shape particular traditions, histories, and experiences in a
community and school. Hence, there can be no recognition in this model of
educational reform that students come from different backgrounds, bring diverse
cultural experiences, and relate to the world in different ways. There is no
sense in this approach of what it means for teachers to make knowledge
meaningful in order to make it critical and transforming. Also ignored is the
important insight that pedagogy is the outcome of specific struggles, projects,
and historical circumstances rather than simply an a priori set of prescriptions
that can be imposed upon any context or classroom.

Unfortunately,
many educators, parents, and community people appear obsessed with young people
but not with the idea of either listening to their needs or addressing the
problems they face. How a society treats its youth provides a glimpse into how
it balances the tensions between corporate needs and democratic values on one
hand, and on the other hand, the reality of despair and suffering that many
children face daily.

If schools are to
fulfill their obligations to educate students to assume the demands of social
citizenship and democratic leadership while living in a global economy,
educators need to redefine the meaning and purpose of schooling in ways that
both strengthen the practice of critical education and energize and deepen the
possibilities of a radical democracy. That is, progressive educators need to
define higher and public education as a resource vital to the shaping of a
society in which democracy extends into all the vital spheres of everyday life.
At issue here is the need to educate students with the knowledge and skills they
will need to engage the public world, to become critical actors on a larger
stage. This suggests educational practices that connect critical thought to
collective action, knowledge and power to a profound impatience with the status
quo, and human agency to social responsibility. At the heart of such a task is
the need for academics and cultural workers to join together and oppose the
transformation of the public schools and higher education into crass commercial
spheres.

Given the current
assault on public and progressive forms of education, it is politically crucial
that educators at all levels of schooling be defended as transformative
intellectuals who provide an indispensable civic service to the nation. Such an
appeal cannot be made merely in the name of professionalism but in terms of the
opportunities such intellectuals create for young people to learn how to govern
rather than be governed, locate themselves as critical agents, and be given the
opportunities to expand the possibilities of democratic public life.
Intellectuals who inhabit our nation’s schools and universities produce and
mediate the conditions under which future generations learn about themselves and
their relations to others and the world, and in doing so construct pedagogical
practices that are by their very nature moral and political, rather than simply
technical. At best, such pedagogical practices bear witness to the ethical and
political dilemmas that animate the broader social landscape.

This suggests
that progressive educators must strongly oppose those approaches to teacher
education and practice that regard teachers as merely technicians, and reinforce
a technical, caste, and gendered division of labor. It is crucial that educators
collectively organize and oppose current efforts throughout this country to
deskill teachers through the proliferation of management by objectives schemes,
testing schemes, and bureaucratic forms of accountability. Similarly, making the
political more pedagogical suggests that educators and others organize against
the corporate takeover of schools, especially within higher education, fight to
protect the jobs of full time faculty, turn adjunct jobs into full time
positions, expand benefits to part time workers, and put more power into the
hands of faculty and students. Moreover, such a struggle must address the
exploitative conditions under which many graduate students work—constituting a
de facto army of service workers who are underpaid, overworked, and shorn of any
real power or benefits.

Progressive
teachers must also recognize that both what they teach and how they teach must
become subject to critical analysis. Neither the knowledge that teachers teach
nor the ways in which they teach are innocent; both are informed by values that
need to be recognized and critically engaged for their implications and effects.
I am suggesting here that progressive educators provide the conditions for
students to recognize that the relationship between knowledge and power can be
emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they
say and do can count as part of a wider struggle to change the world around
them. More specifically, teachers need to argue for forms of pedagogy that close
the gap between school and the real world. The curriculum needs to be organized
around knowledge that relates to the communities, cultures, and traditions that
give students a sense of history, identity, and place. Educators must be
attentive to the cultural resources that students bring to schools. In part,
this suggests that educators become border crossers, willing to examine the
multiple sites and cultural forms that young people produce to create their own
means of being heard. Ann Powers, a writer for the New York Times, has
insightfully pointed out that as young people have been shut out of the larger
society, they have created their own web sites, alternative radio programs,
"published their own manifestoes in photocopied fanzines, made their own music
and shared it on cassette, designed their own fashions and arranged to have them
sold in boutiques." Moreover, Powers has argued that many young women have not
sat passively by as they see themselves misrepresented in the American cultural
landscape as lazy, shiftless, dangerous, and pathological. In response, they
have produced a "far-ranging girls’ culture, which includes bold young
athletes, musicians, film makers and writers [which] is invigorating the
discourse of women’s liberation. [In addition], activist groups like YELL, an
ACT Up youth division…have devised new approaches to safe sex education."

Jon Katz
convincingly argues that "children are at the epicenter of the information
revolution, ground zero of the digital world. They helped build it, they
understand it as well as, or better than anyone else [and] they occupy a new
kind of cultural space." This is a particularly important insight in light of
the attacks on the media and the call for censoring the Internet that arose
after the Littleton massacre. These sites produce public pedagogies and must be
considered seriously as knowledge producing technologies and spheres that demand
new types of learning. Many educators and adults need to redefine their own
understanding of the new technologies, the new global forces that support them,
and the new literacies they have produced. The new media, including the Internet
and computer culture, need to become serious objects of educational analysis.
The social affiliations, groups, and cultural experiences these media produce
among young people must be incorporated into the school curricula as seriously
as the study of history, English, and language arts. Students need to have
opportunities, as MIT educator Henry Jenkins points out, to form supportive
communities around their interest in and use of digital media, just as the
schools need to make media literacy and media production central to the learning
process for young people.

Such an approach
suggests pedagogical practices that do more than make learning context specific,
it also points to the need to expand the range of cultural texts that inform
what counts as knowledge. Educators need to understand the world of media
texts— videos, films, music, and other mechanisms of popular culture
constituted outside of the technology of print. The content of the curriculum
needs to affirm and critically enrich the meaning, language, and knowledge that
students actually use to negotiate and inform their lives.

Informal learning
for many young people is directly linked to their watching CD-ROM’S, videos,
films, television, and computers. Students need to learn how to read these new
cultural texts critically, but they should also learn how to create their own
cultural texts by mastering the technical skills needed to produce television
scripts, use video cameras, write programs for CD-ROMS, and produce television
documentaries. There are a growing number of alternative school programs that
have developed very successful media literacy programs. These programs combine
basic literacy aimed at reading and writing with classes aimed at learning the
basics of video, computer, and television programming. These pedagogical
approaches allow kids to tell their own stories, learn how to write scripts, and
how to get involved in community action programs. They also challenge the
assumption that popular cultural texts cannot be as profoundly important as
traditional sources of learning in teaching about important issues framed
through, for example, the social lens of poverty, racial conflict, and gender
discrimination. This is not a matter of pitting popular culture against
traditional curricula sources as it is a matter of using both in a mutually
informative way. But the new technologies must also be studied as part of a
broader analysis of global capitalism.

Youth signifies
in all of its diversity the possibilities and fears adults must face when they
re-imagine the future while shaping the present. To the degree that large
segments of youth are excluded from the language, rights, and obligations of
democracy indicates the degree to which many adults have abandoned the language,
practice, and responsibilities of critical citizenship and civic responsibility.
This is a lesson that cannot be ignored in light of the tragedy of Littleton,
and the many unreported tragedies that take place in poor urban schools
everyday. There can be little doubt that American society is failing its
children. The crisis of youth represents the crisis of democracy. Educators need
to focus attention on this crisis and work with others to address the complex
issues that define and the resources and strategies needed to address it. We
need to approach educational reform as a question of political and moral
leadership and not simply as an issue of management. As progressive educators,
we need to honor the lives of children by asking important questions such as
what schools should accomplish and why they fail, and how can such a failure be
understood within a broader set of political, economic, spiritual, and cultural
relations. Progressives need to remind ourselves in this time of rampant
individualism that consumerism should not be the only form of citizenship
offered to our children, and that schools should function to serve the public
good and not be seen merely as a source of private advantage removed from the
dynamics of power and equity.
            Z


Henry Giroux is on the faculty of Penn State and is the author of
The
Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence
(Rowman and
Littlefield).