America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics
reviewed by Decoteau Irby - November 15, 2013
Title: America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics
Author(s): Henry A. Giroux
Publisher: Monthly Review Press, New York
ISBN: 158367344X, Pages: 224, Year: 2013
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In his most recent book, Americas Education Deficit and the War on Youth, social critic and author Henry A. Giroux examines neoliberal and neoconservative attacks on public education and youth in the United States of America. His central argument is that schools are becoming less capable of preparing citizens with the critical minds, willingness to challenge authority, and hope to fulfill their social commitments to advancing a democratic society. Instead, rising tides of market, religious, educational, and military fundamentalisms contribute to a growing political and cultural illiteracy (p. 29) that reflects among other things an inability, on the part of the public, to understand the mutually informing relationship between private problems and broader public issues. These growing illiteracies constitute what he refers to throughout the book as an education deficit. Throughout, he emphasizes the ways these fundamentalisms disproportionately target societys most vulnerable populationits youth. Giroux uses the roughly 240-page book to both analyze the roots of the education deficit and challenge it by linking education to social change and protecting and creating public spheres where critical pedagogy can thrive.
Chapter One opens with an explanation of the Big Lie. Giroux elaborates on the education deficit, its roots, and its tendency toward market authoritarianism. He describes the education deficit as a crowning achievement of neoliberal capitalism that reframes democracy and freedom as an individuals ability to consume in a natural free-market, be competitive, and act in ones individual interest. A market-based framing of democracy, he argues, usurps concepts of the public good. It undermines rights to challenge authority, refusal to conform, and dissent (p. 34). The ideas Giroux presents in Chapter One, including explanations of the four fundamentalisms, provide conceptual grounding for the subsequent chapters. The following chapters cover a broad range of topics from the pervasive racism and violence that plagues the U.S., media and the role of so-called intellectual right-wing pundits, the politics of the school curriculum, to the critical need for teachers, academics, and activist to be public intellectuals, and the militarism that characterizes U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
Because each subsequent chapter is more than capable of standing alone, Americas Education Deficit and the War on Youth reads like a collection of essays. The books coherence comes from his use of common critiques, recurring themes, and occasional chapter cross-references. Throughout, he frames guiding questions about specific topics so that readers better understand whats at stake for U.S. democracy. For those familiar with Girouxs work, Americas Education Deficit is by most measures a continuation of the central arguments and ideas advanced in his previous writings. But several chapters do make this volume stand apart from his previous texts.
Chapters that analyze recent events such as the shooting deaths of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin (Chapter Four: Hoodie Politics) and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School (Chapter Nine: Neoliberals War Against Teachers in Dark Times) provide social analysis of recent events. In the chapters, Giroux informs readers that complex issues get lost when spectacular events are taken over by a media frenzy (p. 91) and moves to a discussion of deeper questions regarding these events. Instead of asking the media fixated question Who is George Zimmerman and why did he shoot this young man [Trayvon Martin], (p. 95), Giroux asks readers to consider the more purposeful question What kind of society creates a George Zimmerman? He points out how ironic it is that since the 1980s teachers have been denigrated by right-wing conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and centrist democrats and that it took the shocking tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary for these same teachers to be celebrated in ways that justly acknowledge the role they play every day in both protecting and educating our children (p. 160).
Giroux weaves these sorts of questions and reasoned analysis throughout the text. The extent to which these strategies are present vary from chapter to chapter. For example, Chapters Four (Hoodie Politics) and Seven (Gated Intellectuals and Fortress America) offer concrete examples of how ordinary people from teachers to Occupiers might rethink and respond to the education deficit. On the other hand, Chapter Eight, which explores the Occupy Movement, draws on few of the analytical strategies employed in the other chapters. Instead, Giroux uses the chapter to elaborate on the purpose and need for hope in critical pedagogical projects. The chapter reads differently because unlike many topics addressed in the book, the Occupy Movement is still emerging and its possibilities are yet to be fully realized. Giroux writes about the Occupy Movements accomplishments and projects its possible contributions and offers little of the critical analysis that characterizes other chapters in the book. The book is strongest when it provides readers with concrete examples of dangerous distractions, poses new questions, and points to contradictions as exemplified above.
The book is intended for those who are interested in ideology, cultural politics, and ultimately challenging the continued attacks on public schools, teachers, and young people. It is a call for public engagement and because of this, the Occupy Movements relevance is front and center, weaved throughout the text as an example of how critical pedagogical spheres can force the U.S. public to take seriously questions such as what happens to democracy when banks become more powerful than political institutions (p. 188)? He observes that in a society ailed by an education deficit such questions wane too quickly from the public discourse. And this waning is exactly why this book is important. It reminds us of what is at stake and what is required to ensure democracy works for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. Giroux calls for young people, parents, community workers, educators, artists, and others who want to revive democracy to its rightful place in U.S. society to (re)commit not only to critical pedagogy, but to fight for and invest in democratic public spheres that facilitate critical pedagogical inquiry and practice. Failing to do so will ensure, in the words of one of Girouxs refrains that things will get worse.