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

The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.

This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Rancière and the role of education in political conformity/contestation

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?

Freedom of thought and the future American citizen

In my Modern Political Theory class, I am reading John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote about utilitarianism – a concept he and Jeremy Bentham forged in the 19th century – and the idea that freedom of thought, not just freedom from a despotical leader, was necessary for human beings to achieve their full intellectual potential. Really interesting stuff, and very applicable to the world of today. Mill felt that the tyranny of the majority (see Tocqueville, who coined the phrase) could serve to oppress us, and even the loss of a single voice represented a tragedy of humanity to be avoided.


Concurrent to these ideas, my studies of late include reading about the privatization of education in America and the world over by multinational education corporations (“edu-businesses”) in “Global Education Inc.: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary” by Stephen Ball. The book documents the influence of the neoliberal ideology in education management – meaning that priorities include measurements, outcomes, and that key term so often used, accountability. Education, according to Ball, is becoming a product rather than a process, supported by the belief that America is and should continue to be the preeminent economic (and military and political and cultural) force in the world, a position which can be consolidated only by maintaining that our children must be able to compete – and win – on the world stage. The Executive Summary for the Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology (2010) initiative by the U.S. Department of Education says it all:

Education is the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy. It is the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans…The challenging and rapidly changing demands of our global economy tell us what people need to know and who needs to learn. (7-8) (emphasis added)

So this means, in essence, that the goals, priorities, design, and philosophy of education should be defined according to the global economy. Let’s just be clear about that. It may not seem like a big deal, but consider the fact that what we’re talking about here is preparing children to perform as future contributors to an economy above all else. Of course, as citizens in this country it’s hoped that part of their lives would encompass their participation in commerce at some level, whether this be as a worker or an owner, and certainly important nowadays, a consumer. However, read the last line carefully: both what students need to learn, as well as who needs to learn in the first place, are defined by economic outcomes. The critical eye will pick up that this is a political agenda as well as an economic one, and a sinister one at that.

The reason why I mentioned Mill in the beginning of this post is that his work is relevant to such a conversation about the purpose of education. If the greater good is served by the freedom of every individual to have his/her beliefs, rather than acquiesce to the dominance of one kind of thinking which trains the creative mind into a position of servitude – by this I mean that education in such a context would serve to develop workers, rather than free thinkers – then the model proposed in the “Transforming American Education” document represents a form, albeit seemingly logical and even necessary, of enslavement. It could be argued that we are always forced to adapt to social norms as we grow up, either through schooling or other processes of learning acceptable behavior and beliefs in various contexts. However, it has not always been the case that education has become a prescribed form of mental training to serve the economic goals of a country, at least not to the detriment of the development of creativity, curiosity, the capacity for abstract thought, and the ability to consider oneself a democratic subject. John Dewey, an American educational philosopher in the early 20th century, argued strenuously for the responsibility of education to do just this, when powerful socioeconomic forces resulting from the Industrial Revolution brought into question the purpose of education: creating workers, or democratic subjects?

I vote for the latter in all moments of history. I don’t think we need to worry nearly as much about economic dominance as we do about our children’s right to free thought, exposure to different ideas than the most commonly valued ones, and support and care from educators and their community not as units of human capital growing to feed the economic machine, but as future members of a society we have founded and claim to uphold as democratic.

The tyranny of common sense

“We may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtle and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy…”

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

We are reading John Stuart Mill (1806—1873) in my political philosophy class now, a walk in the park after finishing Hegel’s Philosophy of Right not too long ago. Mill’s work includes Utilitarianism – a philosophy concerned with the idea that contribution to the greatest common good defines the fundamental ethic principles by which all people should live, even as they pursue their own individual happiness – as well as On Liberty, which, up to the point where I’ve read it, explores the concept of social or civil freedom granted in a political society in which the freedom to have and express one’s opinions is valued. Mill argues that the “tyranny of the majority,” a concept he borrowed from Tocqueville, can act to oppress even a single person’s beliefs, thus robbing humanity of its right to a rich exploration of all possibilities in human thought.

Mill’s move away from the despotism of a political regime is meaningful first in his challenge to the definition of a ruler’s power, which he says derives directly from the people – not as a mandate as in the case of Locke’s or Hegel’s view of political authority, but rather as “the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient of exercise.” (7) Mill then identifies the continuation of political control over the masses which, rather than through the system of government, occurs via the fear of “social stigma” (32), causing even the most powerful inchoate intellect to quail and withdraw into territory safe from recrimination by others. The human mind can only be expanded, Mill argues, through questioning, challenging the existing dogma, an exercise that can lead to greater understandings and truths for our species; however, it is this universal “battle of conscience and reason with orthodoxy” (33) that can defeat the prospects of the intellect.


An overused word in grad school is hegemony, and yet in this case, it makes sense to refer to this idea now, especially in light of the applicability of Mill’s ideas of how morality serves to limit the intellect of anyone not belonging to the “ascendant classes” as he calls the elites. The web page I linked to the above term “hegemony,” developed by Gramsci, contains a meaningful quote:

“’[Cultural] hegemony’…means the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.”

The tyranny of common sense seems to tie in easily with what Mill was trying to express; when the masses are no longer dominated by an autocratic force in the form of a monarch, societal forces in the form of a coherent and widely accepted worldview – a dominant ideology – continues to maintain control over behavior, values, and perceptions. It is in fact no longer necessary to require external political force in this case, except perhaps to bear out the legalistic requirements of the ruling classes, once social controls are put in place to govern people’s actions and self-view in the day-to-day, thus fulfilling society’s imperative to replicate itself.

So then how does freedom exist in such a prescriptive social environment where one’s liberty to act and believe in certain ways is subject to controls that are in fact internalized in most members of society? Such a relevant question to today’s world, and one for which I hope to find a bit more of the answer through Mill’s insights.