Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325.

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25.

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach.

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at


Be(com)ing a professor

My professors at the Graduate Center tell me that my work as a scholar and a new professor — I work as an adjunct at two colleges in the CUNY system — is a process of socialization, one which involves me becoming a professor as I learn, experience, and grow by doing. I love this idea. I think it speaks to what is most true about learning: that it is personal, meaningful but differently so according to where and who we each are, and transformative.

Tonight, my students showed me this, yet again. It’s been a fantastic class and a blessing in my life, one which I look forward to every week. Our last meeting tonight was a sad one for me, and I thanked them for everything the course has meant and all the great work they’ve done, as well the community we’ve built together. I handed out Self-Evaluation forms for my students to complete, as a means of reflecting on the semester and pulling together the ideas we’re taking away from class. Reading them on the way home, one comment struck me, and made me realize how far we’d all come together:

new doc 60_1

I always thought that the highest compliment a teacher could receive was, “I loved this class” or “My teacher was the best.”

I stand corrected.

With a pure heart

A Hungarian friend shared poetry from her homeland on Thursday, which she has translated and continues to engage with in her off hours when not studying and soaking in new brain-stretched ideas. One in particular struck me, a beautiful slash through reality written in 1925 by Attila József, a poet who died at the age of 32. This is the translation of With a pure heart.

With a pure heart.

Without father without mother
without God or homeland either
without crib or coffin-cover
without kisses or a lover

for the third day – without fussing
I have eaten next to nothing.
My store of power are my years
I sell all my twenty years.

Perhaps, if no else will
the buyer will be the devil.
With a pure heart – that’s a job:
I may kill and I shall rob.

They’ll catch me, hang me high
in blessed earth I shall lie,
and poisonous grass will start
to grow on my beautiful heart.

Translated by Thomas Kabdebo

I include this as the body of my post because I want to embrace the essence of being human-as-scholar and scholar-as-must-be-human, not thinker-in-spite-of-pumping-heart-and-pulsing-caprices. It speaks of poverty, of useless youth in a time when youth was wasted and given no place to spend its sharpness, of what becomes of the starvation of the human flicker on a landscape all dark with turned-away eyes.

This realizes in me the answer to my occasional question as a lonely student: what more? I think the answer is less a concrete or fixed prospect but rather a negation of the alternative, that is, more than less might be. The study might isolate, might unhook from more vibrant, frequented spaces, but it is nonetheless a purpose, a proposal of mind. And this is something between the seller and the devil, yet.


Scholarly enterprise

Full title for this post = Scholarly enterprise: quilting, loping, slutting it up casting my line

I just attended a graduate workshop/mini-conference at the GC entitled “Failure,” an annual event hosted by the Social and Political Theory Student Association. I was there for about 11 hours and when I left, the stimulating conversations were very much still going on. What an event! Young and burgeoning scholars from the fields of political science, English, sociology, feminist studies, critical race theory, education, etc., etc. The room was lively from the get-go and while I was intimidated at various points, the joy of the exchange, the interlacing of minds was beyond thrilling.

So much to say, but I will share what I presented on today and then some of the ideas I have bookmarked to look into (the plethora and thrum of which I could never fully encapsulate in a blog post).

My talk: “‘Low-status’ adult immigrant learners in non-profit education: Framing failure as a first step in pedagogy and academia.” The basic summary is this: The non-profit education of adult immigrants invisible-izes and dehumanizes these learners while serving neoliberal and societal interests in the United States. This form of education must be challenged for its reliance on the discursive construction of adult immigrants in the American narrative, the paternalistic ways in which non-profit education takes place in terms of pedagogy and programming, and the related myopia in the American academy of a monoculturalist, America-centric ideological tradition that reifies a theoretical regime premised on historically-constructed cultural categories (especially race, but also language, class, and other terms) as well as the paternalistic prescription of pedagogy as a unidirectional process.

Areas of interest for the future (in no particular order):

  • Ahmed, “The Promise of Happiness”
  • Bourdieu’s concepts of “field” and “habitus”
  • Ranciere, “The Hatred of Democracy”
  • Butler’s discussion of livability (and her discussion of the delegation of sovreignty)
  • The semantic confusion of the ethical and the economic in framing terrorism and violence
  • Halberstam
  • Securitization theory
  • J. Munoz
  • Fricker, “Epistemic Injustice”
  • Ambiguity as a challenge to binarisms in academic thinking
  • Linda Alcott
  • Bradotti, “Nomadic Subjects”
  • Jose Medina
  • “Anthropocine”
  • Tessman, “Moral Failure”
  • Postmodernist feminist literature on “everyday resistance”
  • Total Revolution

What a delightfully exhausting day!


Key lessons from my first semester as a PhD student

The list could go on for miles (as can academics, sheesh), but because this was a final paper due on Thursday, I limited my insights to those listed below…Hope it helps anyone out there considering doing or in the process of a PhD.

I would say that the key lessons I learned from interacting with faculty and students during my first semester include the following:

  1. Being an academic is a joy as well as hard work, a labor of love in every sense. Loving what you do in academia is a driving force of inspiration that will get you through the times when your work seems pointless, when no one seems to understand what you’re talking about, and when you’re not even sure what you’re talking about.
  2. Your colleagues can be just as inspiring and instructive as the most prestigious speaker or the most seasoned professor.
  3. There are all different ways to define the PhD process, and it is different for everyone. Trying to adhere to an external standard does a disservice to your growth as an individual and an intellectual; while we all must push ourselves at times, the priority must be also be on rigorous self-care, self-awareness, and self-love in such a transformative process.
  4. The more human we are, the more connected we can be to those around us. And the more laughter we have, the more we can bring it out in others! We can be Serious and Intellectual and Important but at the end of the day, we all live in the same achy, weird existence that is Humanity. Our colleagues around us share, consciously or not, their humanity with us, and I take this as advice which is paramount in becoming an academic: BE HUMAN, AND IN DOING SO, LOVE THE HUMANS AROUND YOU!!!
"School for the Gifted" by Gary Larson

“School for the Gifted”
by Gary Larson

Philosopher as…colonizer?


Over the course of modern history, it has seemed the case that philosophers seek to find answers for both the current and universal questions asked since ancient Greece and probably before. Such questions explore the nature of the universe and humankind’s place in it, the existence of a Supreme Being, the possibility of free will versus fate, the definitions and limitations of morality, the nature of happiness, and so on. An important philosophical question of similarly expansive application and implication is that of the relationship between the individual and the state, which has been of particular important in my Modern Political Thought class this fall at the Graduate Center at City University of New York; reading the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill requires one to explore such challenging territory through the lens of each thinker and to absorb his particular (and peculiar, at times) ways of establishing what is generally “true” within his social and historical context vis-à-vis political life within the nation where he lived as well the geopolitically complicated context within which his nation was situated. So it is no doubt true today with modern “public intellectuals,” as they tend to be called.

While reading these texts and attempting a thorough response to several guiding questions provided in the course syllabus by my professor, including “What do the various philosophers take to be the original motivation underlying the formation of political society?” and “How do these motivations conform to the normative prescriptions and institutional arrangements that are proposed?”, as well as questions regarding the limitations and potential for suspension of political power within those arrangements as suggested by the four philosophers above, I kept coming back to the notion that each writer, in his own time, wrote as much of the Truth as he could based both on what he saw around him and what he established within himself as a view of what society could be were it to become its best version of itself.


It is important to ask this question: What is the role of philosophers in society? Are they meant to be descriptive of the times, or prescriptive of how they could change for the better?

With another spin: do philosophers and other academics occupy a different tenet of control in human society, apart from that of political leaders? Are they colonizers of the mind through a superior sense of awareness, intellectual achievement, access to academic and/or dominant discourse and influence, perhaps even racial, gender, linguistic, or class-based (or religiously based, or geopolitical) authority?

The power of “I don’t know”         

We are supposed to have opinions, have things figured out. Taxes, gasoline, housing, transportation, diet, clothing, schooling. “You should do this…” “I read that…” “But you know, it’ really not about…” We respect people who speak with authority and affirmation. In PhD programs I think we are given a lot of latitude to be Authorities on Stuff. We get a special immunity from critique in the outside world because we’re supposed to know a lot of stuff and we’re ostensibly smart enough to become professional students. (Know, by the way, that this is the polar opposite within the towers of academia; there, unfortunately, people are also smart enough to smell bulls**t a mile off.)


At CUNY last night, we had an open house to host prospective students who wanted to learn about the program. I sat with different people and heard a wide range of impressive things: someone who had started his own mentoring program, another person who worked as an advocate for students with disabilities, a third who had created fashion videos for an online course for a friend who wanted to connect education and design. Of course very impressive, and for the billionth time already, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to be here? Everyone here is so sure of themselves!” But I remember one young woman sitting at a table with me and a couple of other people. She quietly listened, focused yet with a different motivation, it seemed, that many of the rest of the people there. I asked her what she was interested in, what she might want to do in a PhD program.

“You know…I don’t know.”

I loved that. How true, how real to say that to someone in a situation where most people are trying to seem casual about how amazing they are while also being mildly impressive with their perfectly crafted elevator speeches! I told her that that was where real learning started, and that she was in the perfect place to start to figure out her big questions.

Thinking about what is going on in today’s world, everyone is trying to have The Answer. With the no-indictment decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, bloggers and journalists are scrambling for their laptops to write the groundbreaking story on “the only way to end police violence.” This story in the Daily Beast, for example, does point to an important issue – the historical dehumanization of Black people in this country as a direct cause of both the violence and the ignorance/ignoring of this violence in the dominant White community in this country – but I’m taking issue with the headline.

Are we in an era when we need to act like we know, even when we don’t and can’t completely know? You could argue that a thoughtful, critical mind should be reading as many of the news sources of the moment to understand what’s going on in the world right now, and I think that’s a priority especially when our country is rupturing into a wild and heaving cry that we haven’t heard for eons about racial prejudice and oppression as a community issue rather than a sectarian, political, or academic one.

Yet it’s the weeping that keeps catching our ears even as we read, as we seek to disappear into the words of others about the deaths, the destruction of Black lives and Black families, rather than give this grief our full attention. Perhaps it cannot be until we truly listen – until we truly say, “I don’t know” – that we can begin to understand more fully. When we stop acting as though we with the pedigreed degrees and affirmative, wordy ways of speaking know what is true, and start listening, really listening, to what is going on, to the depth and rawness and madness and pain of our neighbors, our lovers, our strangers, our country…maybe that’s where real learning can start. It is a howl, a moan of grief that has been woven into our country’s voice for years. Let’s hope we – and I mean all of us, as Americans – haven’t forgotten how to listen.

La Guitarra
by Federico García Lorca

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil
Es imposible
Llora monótona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
Llora por cosas
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.


The weeping of the guitar
The goblets of dawn
are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar
to silence it.
to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
to silence it.
It weeps for distant
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.

Translation taken from