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

Migration is natural

On May 11th, PBS featured a fascinating story for its “Brief but Spectacular” segment that inspires thinking around (im)migration and identity. Jess X. Snow, a young first-generation Chinese-American artist illuminates her experiences as an immigrant, a child of immigrants, with force and insight:

Imagination is daring to love what is not in front of us. So what then, is immigration, if not imagination given a destination?

Jess describes the recounting of her family story as a young person with a stutter, an atypical way of being that produced unkind treatment by students around her. Jess found freedom in her poetry, in creating beauty in deep engagement with political philosophical questions related to what immigrant identity is under increasing surveillance as well as interrogating Westphalian notions of border drawing as “unnatural.” It’s not bravery that she exhibits, but rather honesty, loyalty to her family, her artistic community, and to her own vision, and the voice of a generation that asks important philosophical questions about political conservatism and nationalism through art and collective meaning-making.

Check out the artist’s work here.

Resist the punditry

A friend of mine shared a video of an interview between Gad Saad and Michael Rechtenwald, a professor at NYU who evidently has been “castigated for daring to criticize safe spaces and related thought policing, postmodernism, literary Darwinism, secularism in science, and the relationship between science and religion.” I’m including the video link here (I’d suggest watching 24:00-28:00ish) as well as my comments on YouTube. The point: The two speakers are hashing out the “bullshit” involved in postmodernism and the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and other poststructural scholars, stating that these thinkers are obscurantist and concern themselves with sounding intellectual rather than making salient and socially applicable points. What do you think?

The two speakers are aiming to be critics, which I can appreciate. However, to say simply that Butler is “full of shit” is to ignore her contributions to scholarly thought, which are valuable. She’s an important philosopher of language. One of the issues I think they’re conflating is the idea with the mode of expression. I agree that Butler’s sentence is abstruse and very very difficult to understand (weirdly, I understood it for the most part!) but I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’d look for a middle ground where we can still find ideas and assume that scholarly work can be exploratory and push the reader to think, even if at times it is hard to read.

I agree with the speaker on the left that literary/critical theory is often worshipped for the lofty and inaccessible (obscurantist) ways of speaking. For example, Derrida wrote a dissertation that was widely rejected for its meaninglessness. I read Derrida’s work for about 50 pages and it occurred to me that he could have said what he wanted to say in 5-6 pages. However, I think it’s facile to call it “bullshit” or a “false prophecy.” I agree with the gentleman on the right that literary/critical theory at times divorced itself from social reality…however, again, I think this is a reaction to the rock star-ness of French intellectualism in the 1960s and its social excesses and doesn’t justify a perspective that none of it contributes anything to scholarship and creative ways of resolving philosophical and political questions in society.

The moral of this story: READ FOR YOURSELF. We are in anti-intellectual times when we count on pundits to tell us how we feel. This temptation for the shorthand version of things is to be avoided at all costs.

My first publication: The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants

I’ve published my first solo article, “The limits of pedagogy: diaculturalist pedagogy as paradigm shift in the education of adult immigrants”! Please find the prepublication “Accepted Manuscript” version of “…” here. Enjoy, share, and give feedback!


PLEASE NOTE: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Pedagogy, Culture and Society on November 29, 2016, available online:…/10.1080/14681366.2016.1263678

Of the people, by the people, for the people

Watching a video of an interview with Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, fugitive and public intellectual living in Russia. I saw Citizen Four, the movie about his decision and actions to release information about the widespread NSA surveillance both in the United States and around the world, last night. The story impressed me, not in small part because it featured Snowden in his humility, his philosophical thinking, his challenge of the contradiction between the American value of the right to privacy — encoded in the Fourth Amendment — and the justification for gathering data about millions of Americans under the Patriot Act.

The video I’m watching contains a set of lines from Snowden that I love and resonate deeply with conversations I’m having with colleagues and friends about the question of government and governance (for they are not the same thing) and what it means to live in a democracy:

…We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear in the work of public officials. At the end of the day, this is just a president…If we want to see a change, we must force it through ourselves. If we want to have a better world, we can’t hope for an Obama, and we should not fear a Donald Trump. Rather, we should build it ourselves.

Can we have a people-powered movement, a change that flies in the face of corporatism and cronyism and doublespeak and corruption of not only democracy but also critical thinking? Can we have a government, again, of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln once mused?

Paciencia, then. Estamos plantando. Let’s start planting.


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?

The Philosopher and the Pragmatist: Common Sense, Nonsense, and Rightness in the Modern Conversation about Non-Profit Adult Education

Modern debates about American education have addressed important topics including the growth in public schools of standardized testing to monitor student progress, of value-added measurements designed to determine the “value” that teachers contribute to their students’ education (the term is placed in quotation marks to indicate the subjective nature of such a prospect), of the purchase of prepackaged materials and curriculum designed by “edu-business” (Ball, 2013), of private takeover of public schools and of the charter school boom. These new modes of analysis, delivery, and corporate involvement have been introduced via a relatively recent trend in education, that is, a market-based way of managing schooling. Such a trend stems in part from the Great Recession of 2008, though policy-making back in the 1970s, when globalization and technology expanded rapidly. The modern market-based response to social ills is nowadays considered a commonsensical way of resolving problems according to a capitalist viewpoint – often typified by the ethos a free market is necessary for a healthy economy and, thus, a healthy and free nation – and it attends to concerns at the highest level of our national existence, including that of education. Questions about the widely lamented “failure” of American schools, first documented in “A Nation at Risk” (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), in comparison to those in other countries vis-à-vis the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores are being discussed at all levels of governance, from local school districts up through the U.S. government, and it seems that at the core of this conversation is a strong desire to maintain American preeminence in economic and geopolitical terms in the face of rising global challenges to our empire. The messianic free-market proposition, which prioritizes competition, efficiency, accountability, and predictability, has thus been welcomed at the table of politicians and power players as a silent partner in negotiations across board rooms and budget meetings in the education world; such a viewpoint has, increasingly, seeped into common consciousness in the media through punditry, advertising and persuasive journalism on all channels. (McChesney, 2001)

This slow, yet powerful, sea change in thinking reflects the growing dominance of what is known as neoliberalism, an economically-based mode of thinking rooted in Milton Friedman’s work in the Chicago School in the 1950s, which has come to dominate conversations about a vast network of issues in American society, including the topic of education. (Lipman, 2006) A well-known progressive and public intellectual, Henry Giroux decries American neoliberalism as “the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; [and] the celebration of profitmaking as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship.” (Giroux, 2014) Critiques like this are often met with counterattacks from conservatives and corporatists claiming that such a perspective is “political” and even anti-American. (Guerlain, 2002) In the field of education, too, progressives are finding themselves faced with an American public increasingly blasé about the influence of corporate moneys and fiscally driven decision-making in schooling. Such resistance to perspectives that seek to interrogate the dominance of neoliberalism may be due to the fact that such widespread acquiescence occurs when an ideology is raised from the “supra-social” status of a hegemony – Gramsci’s (1971) term to describe a self-replicating set of morals defined by the powerful, which in turn act to establish social control over the functioning of the rest of society’s members – to the even-higher level of a doxa, that is, “an unquestionable orthodoxy that operates as if it were the objective truth” as described by Chopra (as cited in Patrick, 2013).

The fact that neoliberal solutions to putative problems in education and other industries have become the commonsensical response of an America stepping back from the precipice of the Great Recession indicates that those who seek to interrogate the logic, relevance, and ethical implications of “neoliberalism-as-savior” are suggesting an almost Sisyphean feat in challenging the public to see from a critical perspective what they assume is true and good. Such important critical thinking is often undertaken in philosophical circles; reflection, according to John Stuart Mill, is the means by which we avoid “intellectual pacification” and attempt at all times to think freely so as to break the “mental despotism” of whatever age we happen to be in. (Mill, 1860, pp. 36-37) It must be conceded, though, that this absence of vision among the hoi polloi is not without an understandable explanation due in part to membership in any particular society; Russell Means (1980), for example, might argue that because we are members of Western society, our views are necessarily restricted to the options that fall under the Western ideological superstructure (a cultural history perhaps deserving the term “doxa” as well). But in the face of many crises in modern American society, an unrecognized crisis might in fact be a general lack of philosophical thinking as a common activity among both leadership and its constituents. It often seems that our decision-making around issues of unemployment, poverty, crime, prejudice, and other problems has lacked vision, especially in the last decade, except insofar as the dollar is concerned; we’d rather simply aim at short-term economic targets than consider the long-term impacts of decision-making in social, cultural, educational, economic, and even historical terms. A prodigious question that is notably absent in these broad-based and widely impactful decisions made by our government in terms of the environment, the role of policing and prisons, taxation, democratic representation, social programs, and of course education is this: What sort of nation are we constructing?

The original prompt for this paper was to write about what we learned from doing the presentations of our findings and network charts in our class with Dr. Spring, especially as this learning could assist us as PhD candidates, academics, and/or professionals in the future. My network chart (see Appendix A) reflects the political and ideological connections between the power players – various funders, corporate partners, local governance, and educators – through my previous employer, Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, MA, and their potential impact on the coursework, pedagogy, program design, and outcomes provided to the low-status students who take classes there. In creating the chart, I sought to establish that not only was it important to consider the connections between these power players but also focus on their communication through the discourse of philanthropy (specifically charity and service work) and on the resulting prioritization of neoliberal outcomes over all others (e.g., democratic, advocacy/social activist-minded, etc.) in adult education in non-profit organizations like JVS. (The concept of discourse as mentioned above will not be further explored here; however, the concept as it is intended here is derived from Michel Foucault’s theories as outlined in his 1966 publication Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things, published in 1970 in English).

Two particular outcomes of this project held great significance for me. Firstly, I found myself resisting the simple drawing of connections between single entities in the chart, preferring to consider the discourses within which each entity was nested. The power circles of local, state, and federal government, the world of philanthropy, and the business world overlapped under the heading of mainstream American society, and I found that some actors could be placed into several categories at the same time (e.g., government and business, etc.). I suggest that these entities interact through the broader discourse of philanthropy, establishing relationships and influence over the educational projects within the non-profit organizations they support politically and/or financially. Further, I argue that because non-profit organizations like JVS have corporate partners that will potentially hire the low-status students – who are most often immigrants from north and central Africa, Latin America, and South and East Asia and who are low-income, have disabilities, may be living in a shelter or even homeless, and often have children to support – that study in these non-profit organizations, the form of education that takes place there prioritizes the market-driven need of these corporate partners for low-status workers (line cooks, retail workers, certified nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, etc.) over all other potential needs, goals, or potential these students might have.

As I write of this first outcome, it is important for me to recognize the ineluctable influence of the doxa of neoliberalism as it creeps into my mind. Why not help these students find a better job? such a voice asks, reminding me of the Platonic view that any progress should be embraced, that the improvement in the lives of struggling people is a good one. What harm is there in wanting to help them improve their lot? And if the byproduct of this is to help high-growth industries in our economy like health care, food service, and others meet their needs, why should this be seen as a negative thing? The chiding voice continues: Why do academics always have to critique, theorize, and break down what is working well?

In fact, when I presented this network chart to the rest of my class in Dr. Spring’s class, I feel I received a polite version of this very response, which leads me to my second significant outcome in doing this project. My classmates, who are often more pragmatic than I am, were certainly interested and appreciated both my work as an adult educator in non-profit organizations and on the project itself. However, I think many of them couldn’t see the point I was trying to make, a fact which I suggest stems from the very reason that the neoliberal doxa has made itself the objective lens via which we perceive our choices in education. This was my point, made more clear perhaps in written form: Why should the education of adults in the non-profit world contain less of the critical thinking we progressives are attempting to apply in addressing the consequences of rampant standardized testing, teacher evaluation through value-added measures, the charter school boom in public PreK-12 schooling, and other forms of privatization and corporate involvement? Why is it that non-profit adult education is perfectly acceptable as a form not only of training, but also of subordination, of preparation for low-status employment that largely benefits the wealthy? These questions spawn many more: Is this form of thinking due to the fact that we see adults as already fully formed, so to speak, socioculturally, emotionally and cognitively? Is it perhaps because of inherent biases that we may have against immigrants and other low-status groups, because we believe (perhaps unconsciously) that they are a burden on the social safety net and even take jobs from native-born Americans? (American Civil Liberties Union, 2008) I believe that these questions are of great significance in considering the relatively apolitical (or, better put, politically overlooked) world of adult education in non-profits; equally important is the fact that few have asked such questions because neoliberalism has taken such a firm hold on the American consciousness.

Thus, I will end this essay with a vow that I make for myself, for my fellow educators, and for my students: I promise to continue to think philosophically about the important and often overlooked field of non-profit adult education, all the while building my own fluency, my own form of “critical sociopolitical literacy,” for building bridges and better understandings with the pragmatists, while working to mediate and change the relationship between the power holders in society and those who are subject to their will. As academics we, too, belong to a powerful sociocultural group, able to act as bridge-builders and communicators as well as critics of the neoliberal status quo. I must understand that within the powerful hegemony/doxa of neoliberalism rest many enshrined “truths” that cannot be easily moved from their thrones, including the powerfully influential discourse of philanthropy as a form of apolitical good. I must be clear in my use of terminology and be willing to understand things from the other side; I must be clear, too, that in seeking to understand what education is and can be – no matter whether it be for children or adults, native-born people or immigrants – my role must be to remind my colleagues that our goal is educating within a democratic vision (if not a truly democratic version yet) of our society. Just as we progressives argue that American children are not simply future workers but future participants in a(n) (ostensibly) democratic nation, so too must we remember that immigrants – including some of the parents of these American children for whom we so passionately advocate – who come to live in our community, society, and country deserve more than a dehumanizing, prescribed, circumscribed version of a neoliberally defined future.

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. (2008, April 11). Immigration Myths and Facts. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from

Ball, S. J. (2013, June 19). Global Policy Networks, Social Enterprise and Edu-business: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary. (1st Edition). Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. London, U.K.: Tavistock/Routledge.

Giroux, H. (2014, October 19). Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism. (M. Nevradakis, Interviewer)

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Reprint ed.). (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Eds.) International Publishers Co.

Guerlain, P. (2002). Americanization and Globalization: The Power Behind the Words. Annales du monde anglophone , No 15.

Lipman, P. (2006). “No Child Left Behind”: Globalization, Privatization, and the Politics of Inequality. In E. W. Ross, & R. Gibson (Eds.), Neoliberalism and Education Reform (pp. 36-37). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

McChesney, R. (2001). Global media, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Monthly Review , 52 (10).

Means, R. (2012, October 22). For the World to Live, Europe Must Die. Mother Jones. San Francisco, CA.

Mill, J. S. (1860). On Liberty. Harvard Classics Volume 25. P.F. Collier & Son (Copyright 1909).

The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC.

Patrick, F. (2013). Neoliberalism, the Knowledge Economy, and the Learner: Challenging the Inevitability of the Commodified Self as an Outcome of Education. (T. A. Betts, T. Carvalho, & R. Pasnak, Eds.) ISRN Education , 2013.