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  • Recognizing Identity
  • David A. Brenner (bio)
Radical Pedagogy: Identity, Generativity, and Social Transformation. By Mark Bracher. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2006.

The corporate transformation of the university is proceeding apace. As of a decade ago, colleges in the United States were already spending as much on advertising, public relations, and fundraising as on teaching, financial aid, and libraries. In accordance with national trends of cost efficiency, down-sizing, and strategic positioning, institutions of higher education seem more than ever to be in the business of providing what university managers might term "efficient and excellent delivery of instruction."

These are all reasons, in the current environment, to be suspicious of a book claiming to have a paradigm for reinvigorating teaching. Yet Radical Pedagogy is a chef d'oeuvre that provides sensible alternatives to the constraining normativities of an increasingly corporatized academy. Moreover, it grounds the questioning of such norms in a compelling theory of human development, arguing that an identity-centered approach is necessary in order to reconceptualize pedagogy in the American university. According to its author, Mark Bracher, improvements in teaching will remain illusory as long as the identity issues faced by students and teachers go unexamined.

A professor of English and director of a center for the psychoanalysis of culture, Bracher begins by illustrating how restructuring students' identity [End Page 177] components can ultimately alter the conditions under which learning takes place. In addition, his approach enacts a democratic-ethical imperative, requiring that educators reflect upon the factors that motivate antisocial behaviors. The purpose of the Palgrave/Macmillan series Psychoanalysis, Education and Social Transformation, in which Radical Pedagogy appears, is to "develop and disseminate psychoanalytic knowledge that can help educators" (ii). The book focuses on revealing the emotional and cognitive capacities needed by students to learn, develop, and engage in prosocial behavior. In addition to synthesizing Lacanian psychoanalysis, social psychology, and cognitive science, Bracher's book attempts to explicate the root (hence the term radical) causes of crime, violence, substance abuse, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Bracher's previous work ranges from reader-response theory and cultural criticism to rhetoric and composition (in his last book, The Writing Cure: Psychoanalysis, Composition, and the Aims of Education). Such scholarship has prepared him well for his latest book, a systematic proposal for transforming pedagogy and society. Lest one read Radical Pedagogy with an allergy to theory in general and psychoanalysis in particular, Bracher recalls at the outset the seminal insight of (Harvard psychologist) James Gilligan that people "will sacrifice anything to prevent the death and disintegration of their individual or group identity" (2). Put differently, humans are more willing to risk biological than "ideological" death —that is, the demise of their sense of self. Yet at the same time, this sense of self is destabilized whenever we make out of "criminals," "addicts," and "terrorists" externalized receptacles for our own aggressive or antisocial impulses. The senseless pursuit of identity-protecting scapegoats can lead us to seek the punishment of "not only violent offenders but also individuals and groups who are themselves the victims of misfortune and injustice, such as the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured, and racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities" (6).

Whenever they are denied recognition, members of these groups are denied a fundamental human need and a crucial motivation for learning and development. To Bracher, such recognition more than compensates for the identity support we lose "when we give up demonizing violent Others and externalizing our own disowned violent impulses onto them" (137). To have a secure, well-structured identity means that we must integrate rather than exclude even those elements of the self that are harmful when enacted in different contexts. Of the forms of recognition available, Bracher distinguishes between three: (1) the public self, that is, "those parts of oneself [End Page 178] that one acknowledges and freely displays to others in hopes of their being recognized"; (2) the private self, that is, "elements that one . . . yearns to have others recognize and accept but that one hides from others"; and (3) the unconscious elements of one's self "that one is unaware of possessing because one has disowned them" (164). While teachers also have a desire...


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pp. 177-183
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