Educated Hope and the Promise of Democracy

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The following is a commencement speech given by Professor Henry A. Giroux at Chapman University to the class of 2015 at Chapman University on May 24th, 2015.

I am very moved and humbled to accept an honorary degree on this important occasion today, and to be with all of you in sharing this wonderful achievement of graduating from Chapman University. As a father who struggled to put three boys through higher education, I think it is appropriate that I should begin by first acknowledging those parents and family members, whose support throughout the years helped to make it possible for you to achieve this tremendous milestone in your life. And as Stephen Colbert said to a graduating class at Northwestern University, “If you don’t thank them now, you’ll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them.” Just kidding, I hope.

I am especially honored to be in the presence of so many of you who have chosen education as a field of study. I can think of no generation for whom education is more important than it is for yours at this particular time in history. At a time when the public good is under attack and there seems to be a growing apathy toward the social contract, or any other civic minded investment in public values and the larger common good, education has to be seen as more than a credential or a pathway to a job. It has to be viewed as crucial to understanding and overcoming the current crisis of agency, politics, and democracy faced by many young people today. One of the challenges your generation faces is the need to reclaim the role that education has historically played in developing critical literacies and civic capacities. At the heart of such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy. What work does your generation have to do to create the economic, political, and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people to challenge authority and in the words of James Baldwin, rob history of its tyrannical power, and illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Public and Higher education have always been fraught with notable inequities and anti-democratic tendencies, but it also once functioned as a crucial reminder of the pivotal role it might play in enabling students to take heed of, understand, and address social problems in the interests of pursuing a vibrant democracy to come. Understandably, this sounds anachronistic in an age when education is being privatized and instrumentalized. But John Dewey’s insistence that a democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife, was once taken seriously by many political and academic leaders.Today, Dewey’s once vaunted claim has been either willfully ignored, forgotten, or has become an object of scorn.
I have been writing about the relationship between education and democracy in the United States for over forty years. I have done so because I believe that democracy has become ever more fraught, ever more at risk in the past several decades. If your educational institutions choose not to nurture and develop generations of young people who are multi-literate, take on the role of border crossers, embrace civic courage, be socially responsible, and display compassion for others then our democratic potential will disappear. I believe that any talk about democracy, justice, and freedom has to begin with the issue of education, which plays a central role in producing the identities, values, desires, dreams, and commitments that shape a society’s obligations to the future. Education in this instance provides the intellectual, moral, and political referents for how we both imagine and construct a future better than the one our parents inherited. Within such a critical project, education is defined, not by test scores, or draconian zero tolerance regimes, but by how it expands the capacities of young people like yourselves to be creative, question authority, and think carefully about a world in which justice and freedom prevail and the common good is reaffirmed. Once you leave the university, your actions and choices will be informed by a broader sense of ethical and social responsibilities and this developing sense of who you are and your relationship with the larger world will be inextricably linked to what kind of world you make for yourself and your children.
In both conservative and progressive discourses today, education is often narrowed to the teaching of pre-specified subject matter and stripped-down skills that can be assessed through standardized testing. This enshrines a pedagogy that kills the imagination, and produces what might be called an embodied incapacity. The administration of education suffers a similar fate. Increasingly, it is too often defined by a business culture and corporate strategies rooted in a view of schooling that reduces it to a private act of consumption. Lost here is the creation of the thinking, speaking, acting human being “competent in matters of truth and goodness and beauty… [equipped] for choices and the crucibles of private and public life.”In opposition to the instrumental reduction of education to an adjunct of corporate and neoliberal interests which offer no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility, or the demands of citizenship. Your generation must take on the challenge of developingcritical approaches to education that illuminate how knowledge, values, desire, and social relations are always implicated in power and related to the obligations of engaged citizenship.
Critical education matters because it questions everything and complicates one’s relationship to oneself, others, and the larger world. It also functions to “keep historical memory alive, to give witness to the truth of the past so that the politics of today is vibrantly democratic.”Education has always been part of a broader political, social, and cultural struggle over knowledge, subjectivities, values, and the future. Today, however, public and higher education are under a massive assault in a growing number of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, because they represent some of the few places left that are capable of teaching young people to be critical, thoughtful, and engaged citizens who are willing to take risks, stretch their imaginations, and, most importantly, hold power accountable. Such an attack is not unrelated to the distinctive problems now facing many young people in the United States.
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares" quote on the NCSU Belltower Door

Isaiah 2:4 on the Belltower door at North Carolina State University. Credit: CreativeCommons / Scott Akerman.

Your generation confronts a number of serious challenges. You live at a time in which civil liberties, long term social investments, political integrity, and public values are under assault from a number of fundamentalist groups who exercise power from a wide range of spaces and cultural apparatuses in an age marked by a politics of disposability.This is an age defined by rising numbers of homeless, a growing army of debt-ridden students, whole populations lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, swelling refugee camps and detention centers housing millions of economic migrants, political refugees and those displaced by ecological catastrophe. And in addition to these millions, more are contained in prisons and jails, mostly nonviolent, mostly poor, and mostly uneducated. You live in an age in which local police forces are militarized, drone strikes miss terrorists and wipe out wedding parties, the surveillance state threatens to erase any sense of privacy along with personal and political freedoms, and consuming appears to be the only obligation of citizenship. Legal lawlessness and a politics of disposability are the anti-democratic methods for dealing with those who are unable to pay their debts, violate a trivial rule in school, are unhoused from mental hospitals, or caught jaywalking in poor neighbourhoods that make them a prime target for the criminal justice system. The politics of disposability has gone mainstream as more and more individuals and groups are now considered without social value and vulnerable, consigned to zones of abandonment, surveillance, and incarceration.
Fear now drives the major narratives that define social relations and legitimize dominant forms of power freed from any sense of moral and political responsibility, if not accountability. These conditions raise a number of challenges for your generation, which I am sure you will address. How will you enable young people to develop their critical capacities to be change agents? How will you dismantle the school to prison pipeline? How will you disrupt the mechanisms that want to turn all black men into criminals in the schools and on the streets? How will you address the widespread anti-intellectualism that enables a culture of thoughtlessness and violence to continue? What limits will you put on the growing atomization and isolation of everyday life and the ludicrous assumption that shopping is the highest expression of citizenship?
How a society both represents and treats its children is a measure of how it values itself, the ideals of democracy, and the future. This is an especially important insight because the future that young people inherit is not of their own making. Yet, no one can escape responsibility for the future because the future we create for generations of young people who follow us are tied to our ability to imagine a more just world, one infused by our responsibility to others. Imagining a more just future presents a serious challenge for your generation because the language of democracy and social justice have been emptied out as a result of the triumph of individual rights over social rights, the collapse of the public into the private, and the celebration of self-interest over the common good. Democratic values are under siege in a world dominated by commodified, corporatized, and instrumentalized standards. In a post-Ferguson world, the space of shared responsibility has given way to the space of shared fears and the ongoing spectacle of violence; moreover, exchange value has become the only value that matters, and the rise of celebrity culture suggests the triumph of a commodified and infantilized culture over all that matters in a democracy, which means among other things putting up with the likes of the Kardashian sisters as role models.
Education should be preparing people to enter a society that badly needs to be reimagined. As future educators, I would hope you would teach your students to become agents of social change, teach them the skills, knowledge and values that they can use to organize political movements capable of stopping the destruction of the environment, ending the vast inequalities in our society, and building a world based on love and generosity rather than on selfishness and materialism. You can use your classroom to do this, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures. I also want you to remember that schools are not going to change one classroom at a time. Teachers need to organize not just for better pay, but also to once again gain control over their classrooms. That means building a movement to create a different kind of educational system and a more democratic society. Get involved in politics, run for local school boards, become publicly engaged citizens, use the power of ideas to move your peers and others, and work to develop the institutions that allow everybody to participate in the creation of a world in which justice matters, the environment matters, and living lives of decency and dignity matter.
Politics takes many forms but central to it is the need for citizens to be able to translate individual problems into public concerns. And that is going to be your job. You will leave here today with degrees in what might be the most important field for arousing the civic imagination, embracing pedagogy as a public good, viewing education as a mainstay of civic literacy and engaged citizenship. Today, I ask you to think of yourselves not merely as competent professionals, but also as civic leaders. Leaders who question the basic assumptions of a democratic society, learn how to govern and not simply be governed, who are capable of promoting a vision of the better society, and raise important questions about what education should accomplish in a democracy.I want to end with a quotation from Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In this letter he calls for people to be radicals in the cause of justice. He writes:

Was not John Bunyan an extremist? “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice? Or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
Borrowing from King’s call to conscience and justice, the future is now in your hands and it is a future that needs your skills, critical judgment, sense of responsibility, compassion, imagination, and humility. Everything is possible for you but only if you take seriously the challenge of Jacques Derrida’s provocation that “We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.” Remember, history is open and the space of the possible is always larger than the one currently on display.

The author wishes to thank Michael Lerner for his editorial advice in helping him think through this article. His insights were incredible and his editorial skills vastly improved the piece.
Henry A. Giroux is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University in the English Department.