Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Schooling for Critical Citizenship

by Henry A. Giroux, Penn State University, University Park

I believe that the purpose and meaning of public schooling presupposes narratives of leadership that both deepen and extend the basis of democratic life through the creation of an informed and thoughtful citizenry. At the outset, I want to emphasize the fundamental importance of recognizing that democracy is not simply a lifeless tradition or disciplinary subject that is merely passed on from one generation to the next. Neither is democracy an empty set of regulations and procedures that can be subsumed in the language of proficiency, efficiency, and accountability. Nor is it an outmoded moral and political referent that simply makes governing more difficult in light of the rise of new rights and entitlements demanded by emerging social movements and groups.

Put simply, democracy is both a discourse and a practice that produces particular narratives and identities in-the-making, informed by the principles of freedom, equality, and social justice. It is expressed not in moral platitudes but in concrete struggles and practices that find expression in classroom social relations, everyday life, and memories of resistance and struggle. When wedded to its most emancipatory possibilities, democracy encourages all citizens to actively construct and share power over those institutions that govern their lives.

At the same time the challenge of democracy resides in the necessary recognition that educators, parents, and others will have to work hard to insure that future generations will view the idea and practice of a multicultural and multiracial democracy as a goal worth believing in and struggling for.

Democracy, in this case, is linked to citizenship understood as a form of self-management constituted in all major economic, social, and cultural spheres of society. That is, it takes up the political and pedagogical issue of transferring power from elites and executive authorities, who control the economic and cultural apparatuses of society, to those producers who wield power at the local level. At stake here is making democracy concrete through the organization and exercise of horizontal power in which knowledge must be widely shared, through education and free information flows, so that scientific and technological decisions are not made exclusively by people who possess capital or credentials; moreover, the basis of productive activity must be radically dispersed, not only to facilitate control but also to provide the necessary conditions for the achievement of a grassroots-generated society and ecological relations that improve the quality of life.

I believe that the question of democracy and citizenship occupies the center of an emancipatory project designed to provide a significant restructuring of social relations, so that horizontal and vertical power flows from the base of society and representative institutions, to the extent that they are a necessary outgrowth of popular assemblies which are delegated and not constituted by elites who derive a mandate from electoral victories or alliances. In my view, strong democracy places the issue of power, politics, and struggle at the heart of the debate over schooling and public life.

At the same time the challenge of democracy resides in the necessary recognition that educators, parents, and others will have to work hard to insure that future generations will view the idea and practice of a multicultural and multiracial democracy as a goal worth believing in and struggling for. In part, this means that cultural workers and other educational leaders will have to address the demands and imperatives of a democracy that acknowledges the particular, the heterogeneous, and the multiple. That is, a strong conception of democratic life and leadership must meet the challenges posed by the various social movements that are redefining the cultural cartography of national identity and culture. Modern citizenship must become both a referent and a means for expanding a critical and pluralistic conception of schooling and democratic life. Central to such a concern is the need to make cultural diversity and social justice the basis for creating within and outside of schools new forms of power sharing and for re-allocating the resources necessary to create forms of self and social determination for those who live in a society where their histories and voices have been systematically excluded, under represented, or marginalized.

Educators and other cultural workers need to develop a notion of leadership as both a vision and a practice within rather than outside of history, semiotics, culture, and ethics. I believe that in order to expand the possibilities of leadership, educators need to address the relationship between authority and ethics, politics and power, ideology and culture. In this perspective, pedagogy as a form of cultural politics presupposes the ability of educators to engage in the practice of representation and in the representation of practices. In the first instance, educators need to be self conscious about how they construe conditions which portray specific visions of what it means for teachers and students to be political, moral, and aesthetic agents. In the second instance, they need to be made aware of the consequences of their actions in terms of their effects on other students, parents, the community, and the larger society. Schooling for citizenship is a form of political and ethical address that is self-conscious and attentive to the ways in which pedagogical practices address deep-seated social problems such as sexism, class discrimination, racial hatred, and ecological abuse.

The quality of democratic life must be seen as part of a broader reconstruction of democratic public life. In this instance, schooling for citizenship means organizing schools and other cultural sites in ways that enable students to make judgments about how society is historically and socially constructed, to understand how existing social relations are organized around racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, and to struggle for critical public cultures that both challenge and transform those configurations of power that characterize the existing system of education and larger social structure.

At the very least this means organizing schooling around a vision that links the ethical and political to the demands of a public life. It also means providing the conditions for students to link their own voices to the material and ideological conditions necessary for them to become agents who think critically, take risks, and understand how power works in the interests of both domination and possibility. In addition, it means making the curriculum and its attendant social practices compatible with the central principles of equality, freedom, and justice. In short, schooling for citizenship suggests asking what it means to conceive of education as a process and democracy as a goal that entails a never-ending struggle.

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