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.