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Education, Globalization, and the State in the Age of Terrorism

reviewed by Andrew Hartman - September 29, 2006

coverTitle: Education, Globalization, and the State in the Age of Terrorism
Author(s): Michael Peters (Ed)
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594510733, Pages: 275, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

The idea that the criminal attacks of September 11, 2001 forever transformed our world has taken on the properties of a truism: it is obvious to the point of meaninglessness.  As such, we should seek to unmask, rather than occupy ourselves with the conventional wisdom regarding 9-11.  However, when enough smart people are drawn to such semi-defeatist forms of analysis, resistance becomes futile, even for the most dissonant of minds.  It is in this spirit that I review the collection of essays titled Education, Globalization, and the State in the Age of Terrorism, edited by University of Glasgow Professor of Education Michael Peters, who writes in his introduction: “The world has changed since 9-11.”  Indeed.

Perhaps the most important post-9-11 change is that the United States now occupies Iraq.  The occupation has fundamentally altered political and pedagogical landscapes across the globe.  The Bush administration’s ill-conceived war on Iraq, falsely rationalized as a response to 9-11, weighs heavily on Peters and his colleagues, who make their sympathies known by dedicating the book to “the many thousands of Iraqi children–those would-be citizens to come–who were killed, orphaned, and traumatized by the U.S.-U.K.-led war against Iraq.”  

Tina Besley, in a provocative essay on the politicization of youth in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, argues that the latest global communications technologies allow youth to “construct the self” in new ways.  Whereas a staid, conservative adult society in Britain defines itself in opposition to the “Other”–Muslims, Arabs, dark-skinned people, etc.–radicalized British youth comprehend their existence according to sub-cultural “aesthetics of difference.”  Rather than viewing themselves as different from Arabs, these British teenagers see themselves as different from adults, particularly since they associate adulthood with hypocrisy.  Besley points out that students recognize “the incongruency between what is taught in schools”–that violence does not solve problems–“and the behavior that the adults who hold powerful political leadership positions display in relation to other countries”–that violence in fact does solve problems (p. 137).

Although Besley’s argument is valuable in that it accentuates the need for pedagogy more consistent with the cosmopolitan vision of the world embodied by the youthful anti-war movement, it suffers from two problems.  First, its claims to novelty are ahistorical, as if a distinct youth sub-culture were somehow a new or “postmodern” phenomenon.  What Besley describes as “postmodern” in this context is what critics have for decades described as “mass culture,” more often than not used as a term of derision.  Adults have long lamented that teenagers tend to ignore them and instead behave in accordance with the norms and expectations of the “masses”–their peers.  As historian James Gilbert has shown with regard to the 1950s, the fear of a subversive teenage sub-culture was so fierce in the United States that it sparked a juvenile delinquency scare, despite the fact that rising juvenile crime was only a matter of perception, not reality.  

Of course, Besley’s youth sub-culture is more political than the hipster-delinquent culture that so frightened adults in the 1950s; but, the second problem of her essay is that she overstates the potential of such politicization.  Besley’s analysis is weakened by her failure to conceptualize the anti-war movement systematically, which leads to an unhelpful optimism.  She seems to think that postmodern forms of inter-communication can take the place of “modern” forms of organizing.  In this view, text messaging replaces the Young Communist League (or, for that matter, Students for a Democratic Society) as an effective manifestation of youthful dissent.

New technologies are unlikely to replace older forms of political organization, such as unions, as successful agents of social change.  Of course, the youth are not to blame here for the relative weakness of their movement.  Quite the opposite.  Besley describes how the British teachers unions favored suspending those students who walked out of class to demonstrate their opposition to the war.  One union representative even advocated jailing the parents of such “truants.”  Long gone are the days of militant unions–such as the New York City Teachers Union Local 5–that acted as the vanguard of class struggle.  Few unions now comprehend the importance of inculcating in the young values necessary to continue the struggle against the oppressive class.  Of course, because the British teachers unions are a force for conservatism in the context of the anti-war movement, Besley might argue that the youth are better off disconnected from modern organizations and better off forging their own postmodern way.  And she might be correct.  But this does not change the fact that, as the anti-war movement is currently constituted, brave direct action taken by youthful dissidents will have little lasting impact.

Overestimating the power and efficacy of new technologies is endemic to many on the left, particularly critical pedagogues.  For example, in an essay on the dialectic of globalization, Douglass Kellner argues that more egalitarian forms of political life have the potential to spring from the technological interconnectivity wrought by the globalization of capital.  “In opposition to the globalization of corporate and state capitalism,” Kellner “advocate[s] an oppositional democratic, pedagogical, and cosmopolitan globalization, which supports individuals and groups using information and multimedia technologies to create a more multicultural, egalitarian, democratic, and ecological globalization” (pp. 20-21).

To his credit, Kellner recognizes that a better globalization is only one possible alternative.  The dialectic he describes is similar to Marx’s as laid out in The Communist Manifesto: to paraphrase Marx in contemporary terminology, the corporate globalizers are creating their own gravediggers.  But whereas Marx’s use of the gravedigger concept was metaphoric–he envisioned the burial of a class system, not of specific individuals–Kellner’s gravediggers are literal.  Terrorists turn the technologies of the global capitalist empire inwards, as horrifically demonstrated when the 9-11 hijackers plowed corporate jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  In this dystopian depiction, greed and corruption breed a cycle of death and destruction in which no shelter exists.  We are all victims of the Bush and bin Laden world.  

Thankfully, the future is not entirely determined for us by this Bush-bin Laden dialectic.  However, unfortunately, Peters and his colleagues, despite the best of intentions, point us in the wrong direction in our search for non-barbaric alternatives.  The authors are intent upon demonstrating what should already be known: that the left has always been pro-globalization.  After all, wasn’t the socialist movement also known as “the international”?  The authors correctly address the inaccuracies of the “anti-globalization” label, a popular pejorative used in the mainstream media to describe those who oppose NAFTA and other such policies foisted onto the world by the WTO, IMF, and World Bank.  What Peters and his colleagues offer is not anti-globalization, but rather, counter-globalization.  On the surface, this seems like the correct approach.  However, perhaps the Hippocratic Oath–“first, do no harm”–would be a better guiding principle for any counter-globalization movement within the imperialist West.   

The question that needs to be posed, even for us tenure-track radicals: Can we be good globalizers?  In accordance with the process that Arundhati Roy describes as “the hazards of the NGOization of resistance,” such a prospect is unlikely.  Roy writes: “NGOs form a sort of buffer between…Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators of the discourse–the secular missionaries of the modern world.  Although the authors of this book would likely agree with Roy’s assessment of the imperialist role of NGOs, they seem to miss the point that westerners of any political stripe cannot really speak for, or act with, the planet’s hyper-exploited–those who live in the massive slums growing across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Such a thing is about as probable as, in the clever words of Gayitri Spivak, “white men saving brown women from brown men.”

To be fair, the weaknesses of this book are the weaknesses of the left.  Peters and his fellow critical pedagogues, like so many on the left, are vehemently against state socialism and talk about a “Fifth International” that, in their eyes, might avoid the slippery slope to authoritarianism.  Although we should all hope for such a development, this position is morally easy yet politically escapist.  It rationalizes the sanctimonious critique of those in the poorer countries who have either taken or seek to take state power (see recent developments in Venezuela and Bolivia).

By way of conclusion, I should note that eight authors contributed to this book and by no means are they monolithic in their approaches.  Due to the constraints of space, I limited my review to some of what I saw as the overarching themes and narratives, but certainly my criticisms do not necessarily apply to every essay.  Furthermore, if this review seems too harsh, it is because I agree with them on the most basic of points.  The stakes are high.  We are spiraling into a barbarism from which there is no return.  Educators have a role to play in halting this disastrous slide.  The redeeming virtue of this book is that Peters and his colleagues emphasize Paulo Freire’s dictum: All politics are pedagogical, and all pedagogy is political.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 29, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12746, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:27:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Andrew Hartman
    Illinois State University
    E-mail Author
    ANDREW HARTMAN is an assistant professor of history and history education at Illinois State University, and is broadly interested in helping to break down the boundaries between educational history and the larger historical profession. He recently completed his dissertation, “Education as Cold War Experience: The Battle for the American School,” which is an intellectual and political history of the “school wars” that took place during the early Cold War. He is working on turning it into a book.
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