Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (1)

Brad J. Porfilio

Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism, Sense Publications, The Netherlands, 2007; 200pp. 

Over the past decade, the field of critical pedagogy has gradually (re)embraced class-based analyses of what larger political, economic, and social forces perpetuate unjust policies, practices and institutions, which are responsible for the conditions that create oppression, hate, hostility, violence, and domination in schools and other social contexts across the globe. Much of the resuscitation of a Marxist humanist perspective in the world of critical pedagogy is in response to how transnational capitalists and Western politicians employ “an any means necessary approach” to commodify all aspects of life across the planet as well as to suffocate any forms of resistance or dissent launched against the social relations of capital that has led to the ruling elite’s unprecedented wealth and power and to the utter “devastation for the ranks of the poor” (Pozo, 2003)   It is also linked to the fact that much of the postmodern scholarship produced by critical pedagogues during the 1980s and 1990s focused on identity narratives, which brought newfound awareness to the discursive systems of power that trivialize or demonize the Other, gave resonance to the voices of peoples oppressed on the axes of race, class, gender and sexuality, and lent space for individuals to cross ethnic, race, class, gender, and sexual “borders” to create empowering forms of selfhood, but arguably this movement failed to account for how the larger power structures used “representations” “to exploit the objective world (as opposed to the lexical universe) of the working-classes” (Ibid).

In Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism, Peter McLaren, one of thisgeneration’s leading critical pedagogues, social theorists and cultural workers, and Nathalia Jaramillo of Purdue University set out to provide critical-scholar practitioners and other concerned citizens four riveting essays that pinpoint how the current “crises of global capitalism” is linked to barbarism, naked imperialism, torture, xenophobia, racism, environmental degradation, suffering and domination faced by schoolchildren, teachers, and working-class citizens in various global contexts (p.6), while concomitantly providing them emancipatory guideposts, visions which have the potency to turn their social movements into a political project that makes “the interconnections among capitalism, ecosystem destruction and the racialization of the exploitation of human labor more transparent and less seemingly inevitable-and to find ways of bringing about a socialist alternative” (p.18).

In the Introduction, “What a Disaster: The Rising Tide of Belligerence,” the authors provide a critical examination of Hurricane Katrina to contextualize their arguments in relation to how “class warfare and racism” perpetuate capitalism, oppression, and domination in the United States (p.6).  They show how the US government’s (or lack thereof) response to the victims of Katrina “is emblematic of the fate of those oppressed by the racists and imperialistic practices of global neoliberalism” (p.7). US government officials and mass media outlets failed to explicate how the victims of Katrina – mainly impoverished and elderly African Americans – endured the wrath of neoliberal capitalism before the tragedy unfolded.  Because of the capitalists’ unquenchable desire to make a profit, many African Americans in New Orleans, like other people of color in the US, were without adequate healthcare, food, shelter, public transportation, and education.  Not coincidently, during the tragedy, the US government and major media outlets played upon America’s racists’ fears and blamed the victims for the pernicious and tragic events that transpired in New Orleans. Untrue stories of African Americans, such as African American men “gang raping women and children, looting stores of liquor and drugs, shooting at ambulances, police patrols, and rescue helicopters, and throwing the city into a vortex of violence and anarchy” were told on nightly newscasts and chronicled in newspaper columns (p.9). After pumping the public full of fear and lies, George Bush, transnational corporations, and faith-based politicians shamelessly used the tragedy to advance “their fundamentalist ideologies,” their desire to promulgate military imperatives to solve conflicts, and to find new entrepreneurial opportunities during the rebuilding phase in New Orleans (p.13-17).  In the end, the authors capture how the elite’s propaganda was, in part, responsible for many flag-waving, unenlightened citizens viewing the event either as God’s mandate to punish the sinners in New Orleans, as the “Other” “typically” acting inline with aberrant forms of stereotypes, or as a barometer of the ruling elite’s power to save its White citizens from another form of savagery and tragedy (p.11). The authors conclude the introduction by showing, correctly, what is conveniently left out of ruling elite’s depiction of this tragedy.  The fact that capitalists are ill-concerned about the moral, social, and spiritual needs of their citizens or the “deaths of thousands of human beings or eco-destructively that leads to the elimination of the biosphere” (p.18).

In the first chapter, “Critical Pedagogy as Organizational Praxis: Challenging the Demise of Civil Society in a Time of Permanent War,” the authors document the impact of US imperialism in Iraq and other such unjust incursions across Latin America to challenge progressive educators to revive critical pedagogy-to ensure it challenges the neo-liberal onslaught of globalization “and its “civilizing mission” for the oppressed of developed and developing countries alike” (p.34).  Here, McLaren and Jaramillo do an excellent job capturing how critical pedagogy has been domesticated by the same transnational elite’s agenda to garner the world’s labor power and resources.  Progressive teachers are often forced to remain silent in the struggle to guide their students to understand how corporate greed perpetuates injustices in schools and other social contexts because the “corporate logic of privatization and the imperialistic ideology of the militarized state” are driving what is taught and how students’ learn in schools across the globe (p.33).  Despite the barriers critical educators may face when instituting a revolutionary agenda inside and outside of their classrooms, the authors optimistically think that, critical educators can work collectively to subvert the hegemony of neoliberal globalization.  In the remaining part of the essay, they provide us with several strategies to overcome “the dilemma and the challenge of the global working-class” (p.39), point to their own cultural work in Latin America to document how working-class peoples have successfully forged “new forms of social organization as part of revolutionary praxis” (p.41), and believe the most “important front against capitalism is stopping the US from invading more countries” (p. 56).

In Chapter 2, the authors provide a critical examination of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – “a major political initiative that has been extolled by the Bush administration as the most significant educational reform package in the history of the nation” (p.65).  The authors show that the alleged revolutionary policy in educational reform, which was touted to produce “higher quality, more equitable, and more accountable public schools,” (Wood 2004) was used during Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 to camouflage legislation “that renounces civil liberties” and to block the public from focusing on the elite’s imperialistic missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to the “slaughter of dissidents” and to the spending of billons of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars (p.74).  The policy itself has been instrumental in allowing the Bush administration to further its larger agenda to militarize and commercialize the planet.  They capture how the act has given power to military recruiters to cajole poor and working-class students into combat and provided companies, such as “the Big Four” testing companies (e.g., CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing, Hartcourt Educational Measurement and NCS Pearson), an easy path to feed their coffers through high-stakes testing and accountability schemes (p.78-79).  Other scholars have also recently shown how NCLB has made it very arduous for many US schoolteachers to implement pedagogical projects geared to subvert the capitalist social relations. For instance, Jonathan Kozol has been fasting to bring attention to how NCLB has boiled teaching and schooling in urban schools down to “miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic “teaching to the test,” pushed thousands of enlightened schoolteachers to quit their jobs, and positioned many urban youths to disengage from the schooling process (Kozol 2007). The authors conclude the chapter by highlighting the efforts of various grassroots educational movements such as the Center for Education and Justice, groups that are making inroads in promoting the critical revolutionary agenda in schools (p.81).

In Chapter 3, the authors illuminate “the importance and efficacy of Marxist theory” in relation to taking inventory of the form of Latina(o) education in the US (p.93).  The authors argue that several national policy initiatives enacted over the past decade, such as the NCLB Act, English-only propositions, and anti-immigrant initiatives, are reflexive of the ruling elite’s desire to erase marginalized “students native language, national origins, and cultural formations” (p.99). The policies amount to a politics of erasure in which transnational corporations, political leaders, and scholars, such as Samuel Huntington, use education as the chief apparatus to assimilate and acculturate “a growing Latina(o) population into the economic and social dimension of an increasingly imperial and militaristic Pax Americana” (p.99). The form of schooling provided to assimilate Latina(o) students also serves to “alienate them from their local histories, their culture and location where their knowledge is most readily inscribed” (p.109). Not only do the author believe the contemporary neocolonial model of education keeps Latina(o) youths filling dead-end jobs for US capitalists, but they argue it legitimizes to members of the dominant society their “superiority” and subordination of the Other (p.105). The authors also pinpoint how the US government purposely denigrates Latino(a) culture, language and experiences as a way to gain public support to “export democracy” to the region. However, when the US government and Western corporations intervene in non-Western regions, McLaren and Jaramillo find that the only things they export are the peoples’ resources and labor power (p.99).  The authors conclude this chapter by focusing on their own work with social and political movements across Latin America. The major lesson they learned was there remains much promise and possibility to build a larger democratic project across the globe with “people who refuse to become peons within a transnational elite protectorate stage managed by Washington” (p.106).

In the book’s final essay, the authors lend a critical examination of how “the crisis of global capitalism” has unfolded during the Bush administration.  We learn that Bush is a mere servant for the military-industrial complex. His hawkish corporate executives, political advisors, and religious irrationalists dream of creating a neoliberal empire, where “civilized” US officials, under a mandate from God, will lead the Other to become enlightened (p.128). The authors show how the mass media has served as Bush’s handmaiden to craft theocratic nationalist rhetoric, helping him lull working-class and unemployed poor Christians, right-wing Christian Zionists, and middle-class evangelical Christians to support his administration’s “War on Terror.” Besides the environmental destruction, torturing of soldiers and civilians, outright attack on any forms of dissent against US foreign or domestic policies, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of citizens during the ruling elite’s imperialistic raids across the Middle East, the authors indicate that US citizens are still politically unconscious that their country is headed on a course to continue to use force to garner resources and exploit dispossessed citizens, on a quest to build a theocratic empire, and in the process of becoming a fascist state (p.190).  The authors conclude the book with a clarion call to the US public to take the first step to examine what is causing terrorism and imperialism at today’s historical juncture. This may spark critical educators to revamp their pedagogy so as to educate their students on how capitalists’ social relations of production are antithetical to producing a society predicated on democracy, love, fairness and equity, but are firmly linked to producing the hate, violence, greed, and oppression that has permeated life under the misguided leadership of “God’s Cowboy Warrior.”

Overall, McLaren and Jaramillo’s book is must read for critical theorists, graduate students, those new to the field of critical pedagogy, and any concerned citizen seeking a Marxist analysis of what constitutive forces mediated life in schools and the wider social world during the past decade. This book provides critical insight to help us recognize how the current configuration of capitalism is inextricably linked to the Bush administration’s imperialistic policies and practices and its domestic policies of indifference and “blaming the victims” who experience the fallout associated with corporate greed, to privatization and militarization of schooling and life, to Latino(a) students’ alienation and marginalization in US schools, and to the US government’s embracement of theocratic and neo-fascist impulses. In contrast to the egregious and erroneous claim by Bill Ayers (2006) that the authors have failed on previous occasions to provide their readers with pedagogical guideposts or theoretical insights to “change their world” and to build a socialist alternative, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism is grounded with concrete examples of working-class citizens confronting oppressive social formations and building larger political movements earmarked to create a socialist alternative to neoliberal capitalism. It is also layered with theoretical insights in relation to how critical pedagogues can retool their pedagogy to help their students understand how the “current crisis of capitalism” is antithetical to improving the material and spiritual condition of humanity, while simultaneously capturing how life would be ameliorated outside the orbit of transnational capitalism.

Brad J. Porfilio is Assistant Professor of Education at Saint Louis University, St Louis, Missouri (US).

References

Ayers, William. December 2006. “Essay Review of Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire. Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think).” Teachers College Record.  http://billayers.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/

Kozol, Jonathan. September 10, 2007. “Why I am fasting: An Explanation to My Friends.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-kozol/why-i-am-fasting-an-expl_b_63622.html

Pozo, Michael. Fall, 2003. “Toward a Critical Revolutionary Pedagogy: An Interview with Peter McLaren.” St. John’s University Humanities Review, 2(1)http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~ganterg/sjureview/vol2-1/mclaren.html

Wood, George. 2004. “Introduction.”  In How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and our Schools. Edited by Deborah Meier’s, et al. Boston: Beacon Press.

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