Yesterday I read a paper by Gert Biesta, a professor of education drawing from philosophy and political science whose interdisciplinary thinking inspires those of us like myself who are unconvinced by the all-too-often superficiality and dilettantism of the field of education. (I will write about this this week, as it bothers me greatly that those of us researching and working to improve the education system in the United States seem sometimes to be perceived as the redheaded stepchildren of academia.) Biesta’s paper, entitled “The Ignorant Citizen: Mouffe, Ranciere, and the Subject of Democratic Education,” addresses a little-critiqued assumption in education and political thinking in the United States: that democracy as a political regime is a good thing.
He focuses on two authors, Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe, social and political thinkers whose (post-)Marxist collaborations on radical redefinitions of democracy offer a response to the democratic paradox, a conceptualization of the modern democratic state and the messy imbrications of liberalism and democracy as propositions in the question of political identity, subjectivity, and subjectification. Biesta asks whether our view that democratic citizenship should be a substantive goal of education presupposes a set of assumptions of political conformity that make democracy itself possible, thus conceiving of the role of education as a process of socialization, rather than one of subjectification. Of these two processes, Biesta suggests, the former asks “how ‘newcomers’ can be inserted into an existing political order” (141), while the latter supports a redefining of democracy not as a space of assumed consensus — which proposes a preestablished order into which the political subject is inserted — but rather a producer of “dissensus” in which political subjectivity can be contested and “new ways of doing and being can come into existence.” (emphasis in original, 150)
I find this particularly fascinating given both my own work and the current state of affairs in the United States. Whatever democracy was supposed to be, we must concede, has over the years been weather-worn and worm-ridden with myriad divestments of the possibility of equality, teetering on the values and behaviors of the powerful in the form of casino capitalism and corporate influence in government while variously commodifying and excluding immigrants, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, trans and queer people, women, and the poor. Critical thinking invites consideration of the democratic paradox from our country’s earliest conception. On a more philosophical level, the question of the role of education in the definition and positioning of the political subject is broad and hard to address. My research focuses on “low-status” adult immigrants and their participation in educational opportunities in nonprofit organizations, especially those which provide workforce skills training, and the influences of such educational experiences on their political participation as “new Americans.” Even this term brings a different challenge when we consider whether it refers to democracy as emblematic of political systems which permit participation so long as an individual is socialized into following the rules, so to speak, or whether it refers to a contestation of what participation itself means, of what the individual’s role and possibilities are, of what civic learning is and can be, and so on. Biesta states:
“The ignorant citizen is the one who is ignorant of a particular definition of what he or she is supposed to be as a ‘good citizen.’ The ignorant citizen is the one who, in a sense, refuses this knowledge and through this, refuses to be domesticated, refuses to be pinned down in a pre-determined civic identity.” (emphasis in original, 152)
Can we even conceive of civic learning as an opportunity to access the “experiment of democracy” (152) as it could truly be construed, where the political subject, the individual, can access spaces of dissent and creative generation of new political possibilities, not simply as a sleepwalker through the monolithic set of political norms through which we experience our political selves in the era of Trump?