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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 189-198
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A Call to Arms in a Repressive Atmosphere of Educational Acquiescence
Among the more unsettling media spectacles that flitted across the cable networks during February 2005 was the virtual public stoning of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. His comparison of employees of the decimated World Trade Center and Pentagon to "little Eichmanns" in an essay titled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" created a backlash of hostility in, ironically, a piece largely about hostile political backlash. The incident figures as one more episode in a barrage of recent political attacks against progressive intellectuals that the current state of emergency in U.S. domestic and foreign policy has ratcheted up to feverish levels. Never mind that the incendiary comparison was part of a larger work devoted to and awarded for the treatment of human rights; or that Churchill is a Native American historian and educator; or that he is a Vietnam veteran; or that his intellectual work is part of a larger structural plea to examine the events of September 11 from the ethically responsible perch of human rather than nationalist viewpoints. Never mind that, within the context of the article, the metaphor carried a certain ethical imperative to think carefully through the history of U.S.-Arab relations in a precarious time of global [End Page 189] instability. According to his critics, Churchill was part of a "blame America first" syndrome infecting higher education. Under relentless fire, he stepped down as chair of the Ethnic Studies Department.1
In an Orwellian era of inversions in which the needs of freedom demand vigilant surveillance, democracy requires secrecy and repression, and national divisions create unity, the place of the public university is falling victim to the rising specters of privatization, corporatization, and marginalization. In addition, the deepening suspicion and anti-intellectualism that have superintended the production of a national security state are undermining the principles of reasoned dialogue and open debate that have historically given form to the mission of the humanities. In his newest manifesto, Henry Giroux collaborates with Susan Searls Giroux to sound these alarms for the perilous situation of education in a nation increasingly withdrawn from democratic values and community discourse. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Era emerges as a timely warning for educators as the university continues to foreclose on the values of democratic dissent that have traditionally given it political currency.
While the culture at large is undergoing a struggle to maintain open democratic channels for the functioning of citizenship, the contemporary classroom and attempts to maintain an American tradition of progressive pedagogy are taking a particularly difficult hit. As market imperatives demand more and more malleable, exchangeable types of citizens, the classroom is losing ground in its fight to sustain meaningful dialogues about democratic values and their connections to current political events. In a moment in which conservative forces press increasingly for student obedience, conformity, and blind, unquestioning nationalism, the authors contend that it is crucial for educators to struggle to secure a sense of the classroom as dedicated to a pedagogy of "critical practice" in the nurturing of "critically active citizens" (8). Rather than acquiesce to conservative notions that insist on a pedagogy "as an a priori method of a set of teaching skills," pedagogy should be viewed as "an object of struggle over assigned meanings, modes of expression, and directions of desire as these bear on the formation of the multiple and ever-contradictory versions of the 'self' and its relationship to the larger society" (8). Current educational prerogatives, the authors charge, corral students efficiently toward futures based on market principles and standards of corporate obedience. The need for educators to reverse trends aimed at social engineering and containment drives the urgency of their polemic and its desire to make forms of...