The Courage of Hopelessness: Democratic Education in the Age of Empire


E. Wayne Ross I Education I Analysis I February 2nd, 2016



The post-911 world is depressing for anyone who values freedom and equality. In the wake the heinous 911 attacks, we have experienced assaults on civil liberties and human rights in the name of protecting freedom. The Patriot Act in the United States significantly expanded the authority of government to enhance surveillance of individual behavior and communication, seize assets, conduct warrantless and secret searches, and detain individuals indefinitely without charge. The "war on terror" has produced horrors such as the extraordinary rendition program (e.g., the case of Maher Arar), the Guantanamo Bay Detainment Camp, U.S. citizens held as "enemy combatants," criminalization of refugees, etc. In a recent MSNBC interview, retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark even called for the revival of internment camps for "disloyal Americans," advocating for a return to one of the most shameful chapters in American history, the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens.

Post-911 policy shifts are not limited to the United States. Canada's Anti-terrorism Act of 2015 (aka Bill C-51) follows in the Patriot Act's footsteps, by drastically expanding the definition of "security" originally outlined in Ottawa's 2001 anti-terror law. The bill also lowers the threshold for preventative arrest and detention of citizens; criminalizes speech acts that have no connection to acts of violence; provides new, sweeping powers to police and prosecutors; turns the national intelligence agency, CSIS, into a police force; engages in domestic spying on citizen groups who oppose resource extraction and then turns the information over to the energy industry; allows secret court proceedings to use secret evidence to compile secret no-fly lists; and allows federal courts to limit the Charter rights of Canadian citizens, including the right to return to Canada after traveling abroad.

The human, social, environmental, and economic costs of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001 are astronomical. Nearly 400,000 people (including over 200,000 civilians) have died due to direct war violence. One million U.S. veterans have been disabled. Veterans also suffer from psychological and cognitive at an astronomical rate, including what as been described as an epidemic of PTSD-induced suicides , nearly 8,000 per year. Indirect deaths of people in war zones, related to malnutrition, damaged health infrastructure, and environmental degradation, are likely many times more. Eight million people have been displaced and are living in inadequate conditions, and Iraq's health and education systems are devastated. These wars have produced major human rights and civil liberties violations including "a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values."

The environment is another casualty of the U.S. wars in Iraq. Radiation from the depleted uranium in hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and other ordinance dropped on Iraq has created a toxic environment, poisoning soil and water, making the environment carcinogenic, and creating abnormally high cancer rates. The toxic legacy of the U.S. assault on Fallujah has been described as "worse than Hiroshima." After the "shock and awe" bombing campaign in Iraq, a fourfold increase in the levels of depleted uranium was measured in the atmosphere in Europe, transported on air currents from the Middle East and Central Asia.

Estimates suggest these wars have cost $4.4 trillion, a figure that will double in the next 40 years as a result of government borrowing to finance wars that not only failed to bring democracy to these countries, but has produced even more death and destruction as wars spread to Syria and Yemen. No expense is spared when it comes to the war front. Meanwhile, income and wage inequality continues to grow with the 1% leaving everyone else in the dust. We are now in a new Gilded Age, with massive concentrations of wealth at the top, while on the people in the bottom 40% are becoming poorer (Economic Policy Institute, 2014; OECD, 2014; Piketty, 2014). The gap between the rich and poor in developed countries is at its highest level in three decades. In the United States, the wealthiest 0.1% is worth as much as the bottom 90 per cent (Saez & Zucman, 2014). Oxfam reported this month that the 62 richest people in the world are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world . Sixty-two individuals hold wealth equal to the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world and that's down from 85 just last year.

A 2014 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report confirms what the rest of have long known, trickle-down and austerity economics only makes the rich richer. The OECD reports data that neoliberal economic policies have not only failed to create economic growth, they have "curbed economic growth significantly." OECD argues that inequality matters because it undermines education opportunities, lowers social mobility, and hampers skill development for the disadvantaged. (It is interesting to note this OECD report also argues that tackling inequality through tax and transfer policies does not harm economic growth; that redistribution of wealth should focus on families with children and youth and promotes skills development and learning across people's lives. OECD's perspective is one of enhancing human capital, these are decidedly not the recommendations of a left wing, socialist outfit.)

Oxfam points out that the concentration of economic resources presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems, specifically that "people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown." Obviously, world is at a crisis point we have never seen the likes of before (and this survey does not begin to encompass all of the concerns we face. For example, there is the climate crisis; serial police violence, especially against people of color; and an apathetic electorate, of which 82 per cent disapprove of Congress).

The French theorist Guy Debord, to whom I will return later, often cited a letter written by Karl Marx in which he says: the hopeless conditions of the society in which I live fill me with hope. Philosopher Giorgio Agambem adds :

Any radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation. Simone Weil said 'I do not like those people who warm their hearts with empty hopes.' Thought, for me, is just that: the courage of hopelessness. And is that not the height of optimism? We certainly have plenty of fuel for our hopes. The challenge we faces as social studies educators is to not warm our students' hearts with empty hopes, but rather confront what are seemingly hopeless times for freedom and equality with a pedagogy and curriculum that come from a courage of hopelessness.


Democracy in Crisis

In Brave New World Revisited (1958) Aldous Huxley wrote:

… by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms - elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest - will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial - but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit. (Chapter 12, What Can Be Done?)


From Democracy to Plutocracy

Huxley was prescient. His description accurately captures the landscape of post-9/11 politics. A landscape where democracy as a concept and as a thing, has less to do with its actual content as an egalitarian system of political-economic values than it does with the neglect of this content for its mere form. "More simply put, the concept of democracy in the West is the mere distillate remaining after the actual content (equality, egalitarianism, justice, rights, etc.) has been boiled away."

In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord argues, "in societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation." That is, our democratic experiences have degraded from being, to having, to merely appearing to have. The lofty, Deweyan ideal of democracy as a social phenomenon, what he called an "associated way of living," which he understood as an end-in-view, something to be striven for, is first reduced to a political phenomenon (e.g., weak conceptions of democracy, such as representative government). Then is degraded further to a spectator democracy, where a specialized class of experts identifies what our common interests are then acts accordingly, leaving the rest us spectators, rather than participants in democracy.

Today the U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy. As Noam Chomsky explains,

"Roughly 70% of the population - the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale -have no influence on policy whatsoever. They're effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it's plutocracy."

In 2014, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page reported an empirical study in the highly respected journal Perspectives on Politics that attempts to answer the questions: Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?

This work is particularly significant because, despite a large body of empirical research on the policy influence of one or another set of actors, until recently it has not been possible to test contrasting theoretical predictions against each other in a single statistical model. Using a unique data set that included measures of key variables for 1,779 policy issues, Gilens and Page (2014) were able to accomplish this task. Their multivariate analysis indicates economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

Overall, evidence strongly favored political theories of Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism (that is where corporations, business associations and professional groups dominate), but there was little evidence to support descriptions of the U.S. as a Majoritarian Electoral Democracy. These findings contradict the central tenet of the social studies curriculum in North America. The evidence confirms the United States not a functioning democracy, rather it is a plutocracy as Chomsky has claimed. Do we need statistical analysis to tell us this? For example, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court rulingCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission cemented the false doctrine of "Money = Speech" that allows the richest to buy government influence and set policy agendas. Citizens United is merely the latest way in which the United States protects itself from too much democracy.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were keenly aware of the threat of democracy. According to James Madison, the primary responsibility of government was "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." Madison believed the threat of democracy was likely to increase as "the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessing." In crafting a system giving primacy to property over people, Madison and the framers were guarding against the increased influence of the unpropertied masses. As expressed by John Jay, first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, "the people who own the country ought to govern it." ( Donald Trump updated this principle in the August 2015 Republican Presidential Debate when, in his two minute exchange with Fox News' Brett Baier, he said the rich own the political process:

Baier: "And when you give [money to politicians], they do whatever the hell you want them to do."…

TRUMP: "You'd better believe it."

As Paul Street argues in They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy Washington runs on corporate and financial cash, connections, reach, and propaganda, not public opinion. The "unelected dictatorship of money" is not interested in crafting policy that responds to public opinion polls that show:

• Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.

• 61% of Americans believe that in today's economy it is mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.

• 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.

• 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.

• 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.

• Almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.

• 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year.

• 50% of Americans support limits on money earned by top executives at large corporations. (Street, 2015)

The disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of democracy (and equality, justice, rights, etc.) in North America is a direct challenge to our work as social studies educators. We can no longer rely on the old tropes of democracy and freedom that have dominated the curriculum and classroom discourse; to do so to sell students a lie about history and contemporary life.


Dangerous Citizenship

Yes, citizenship-above all in a society like ours, of such authoritarian and racially, sexually, and class-based discriminatory traditions-is really an invention, a political production. In this sense, one who suffers any [or all] of the discriminations…does not enjoy the full exercise of citizenship as a peaceful and recognized right. On the contrary, it is a right to be reached and whose conquest makes democracy grow substantively. Citizenship implies freedom … Citizenship is not obtained by chance: It is a construction that, never finished, demands we fight for it. It demands commitment, political clarity, coherence, decision. (Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers, 1998, p. 90)

Our challenge, particularly in a time of standardized curriculum and heightened surveillance of teachers' work is to have the courage to re-imagine our roles as teachers and find ways to create opportunities for students to create meaningful personal understandings of the world. What we understand about the world is determined by what the world is, who we are, and how we conduct our inquiries. Education is not about showing life to people, but bringing them to life. The aim is not getting students to listen to convincing lectures by experts, but getting them to speak for themselves in order to achieve, or at least strive for an equal degree of participation and a more democratic, equitable, and justice future. This requires a new mindset, something I call dangerous citizenship.

The practice of critical, or dangerous, citizenship requires that people, individually and collectively, take on actions and behaviors that bring with them certain necessary dangers; it transcends traditional maneuvers such as voting and signing petitions, etc. Citizenship today, from this perspective, requires a praxis-inspired mindset of opposition and resistance, an acceptance of a certain strategic and tactical stance. The implication is that dangerous citizenship is dangerous to an oppressive and socially unjust status quo, to existing hierarchical structures of power. In a post-9/11 world, however, it is also a risky practice for teachers, students, and citizens.

For me, dangerous citizenship is a radical critique of schooling as social control and a collection of strategies used to disrupt and resist the conforming, anti-democratic, anti-collective, and oppressive potentialities of society and schooling that includes:

· Political (non)participation

· Critical awareness, what Freire called conscientization and class consciousness, which is something to be achieved ( Lukács, 1971)

· Intentional action-behaviors designed to instigate human connection, the true engagement with everyday life, meaningful experience, communication, and change.

Philosopher Michel Foucault argued that a critique is not merely a matter of saying that things are not right as they are:

It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought, the practices that we accept rest. Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult. (Politics, Philosophy and Culture, p. 154)

Dangerous citizenship challenges assumptions about the state of the world and requires exploration of questions that make some uncomfortable: Given what we know about the lack of democracy in the United States and world today, is it even possible to teach for a democracy that is not dominated by capital? Do we want to teach for capitalist democracy? Is there an alternative? Is the concept of democracy bankrupt? Is democracy as a concept and practice even salvageable? If democracy is salvageable then it seems to me that teaching about and for democracy in contemporary times cannot be done without engaging the complexities and contradictions that have come to define what really existing (or non-existing) democracy is. It is a practice that must be understood as difficult, risky, and even dangerous.


Premises of Dangerous Citizenship

How do we break free of the tropes that have come to dominate our conceptions of democracy and define what it means to be a democratic citizen? Four fundamental premises inform dangerous citizenship. First, democracy and capitalism are incompatible. There is a fundamental contradiction between the ideals of democracy (people rule) and what capitalist democracy actually delivers (rule of the rich). Too often democracy and capitalism are conflated in our discussions of and teaching of both. In short, democracy does not dominate capital; it submits to capital. Many people work to make capitalism less hostile to democracy (social democrats, for example), but as the history of the United States illustrates capital will always trump democracy. [1]

The second premise is teachers and curriculum have both been subject to ever intensifying policy regimes that attack academic freedom and discourage critical social analysis. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are U.S. variations on a worldwide phenomenon that includes:

∙ Marketization and privatization of education

∙ Human capital policies for teachers

∙ Regulation of what people know and how they come to know it

The third premise is that schools in capitalist societies are capitalist schools aimed at social control. That is winning over children to be loyal, obedient, dutiful, and useful, to the ruling classes under a variety of lies:

§ We are all in this together;

§ This is a multicultural society;

§ Democracy trumps inequality, we all can be President / Prime Minister, etc.

The fourth premise is neatly captured in the words of historian Howard Zinn:

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem.

Lastly, dangerous citizenship is meant to call attention to the need for new pedagogical imaginaries for teaching because traditional conceptions of democratic citizenship are bankrupt, perverted by capitalism's triumph over interests of the public(s). Before I sketch out some of these possibilities for dangerous citizenship in the classroom, let me address most predictable objection to what I am proposing.


Ideology of Neutrality, or What Exactly Are We Protecting Students From?

Educators often eschew openly political or ideological agendas for teaching and schools as inappropriate or "unprofessional." The question, however, is not whether to allow political discourse in schools or to encourage particular social visions in the classroom, but rather what kind of social visions will be taught?

There is a misguided and unfortunate tendency in our society to believe that activities that strengthen or maintain the status quo are neutral or at least non-political, while activities that critique or challenge the status quo are "political" and inappropriate. For example, for a company to advertise its product as a good thing, something consumers should buy, is not viewed as a political act. But, if a consumer group takes out an advertisement charging that the company's product is not good, perhaps even harmful, this is often understood as political action.

This type of thinking permeates our society, particularly when it comes to schooling and teaching. "Stick to the facts." "Guard against bias." "Maintain neutrality." These are admonitions or goals expressed by some teachers when asked to identify the keys to successful teaching. Many of these same teachers (and teacher educators) conceive of their roles as designing and teaching courses to ensure that students are prepared to function non-disruptively in society as it exist. This is thought to be a desirable goal, in part, because it strengthens the status quo, and is seen as being an "unbiased" or "neutral" position. Many of these same teachers view their work in school as apolitical, a matter of effectively covering the curriculum, imparting academic skills, and preparing students for whatever high-stakes tests they might face. Often these teachers have attended teacher education programs designed to ensure that they were prepared to adapt to the status quo in schools. The irony is that teacher education programs like our own repeated teach future teachers the importance of maintaining neutrality while waving the flag of "social justice education."

Anyone who has paid attention to the debates on curriculum and school reform knows that schooling is a decidedly political enterprise. The question in teaching (as well as teacher education and school reform) is not whether to allow political discourse in schools or whether to advocate or not, but the nature and extent of political discourse and advocacy.

It is widely believed that neutrality, objectivity, and unbiasedness are largely the same thing and always good when it comes to schools and teaching. But, consider the following. Neutrality is a political category-that is-not supporting any factions in a dispute. Holding a neutral stance in a conflict is no more likely to ensure rightness or objectivity than any other and may be a sign of ignorance of the issues. Philosopher Michael Scriven puts it this way, "being neutral is often a sign of error in a given dispute and can be a sign of bias; more often it is a sign of ignorance, sometimes of culpable or disabling ignorance." Demanding neutrality of schools and teachers comes at a cost. As Scriven points out there are "clearly situations in which one wants to say that being neutral is a sign of bias." For example, being neutral in the debate on the occurrence of the Holocaust; a debate on atomic theory with Christian Scientists; or a debate with fundamentalist Christians over the origins of life and evolution. To rephrase Scriven, it seems better not to require that schools include only neutral teachers at the cost of including ignoramuses or cowards and getting superficial teaching and curriculum.

Absence of bias is not absence of convictions in an area, thus neutrality is not objectivity. To be objective is to be unbiased or unprejudiced. People are often misled to think that anyone who comes into a discussion with strong views about an issue cannot be unprejudiced. The key question, however, is whether and how the views are justified.

A knowledge claim gains objectivity as a result of exposure to the fullest range of criticisms. Or as John Dewey argued, thoughts and beliefs that depend upon authority (e.g., tradition, instruction, imitation) and are not based on a survey of evidence are prejudices, prejudgments. Thus, achieving objectivity in teaching and the curriculum requires that we take seriously alternative perspectives and criticisms of any particular knowledge claim. How is it possible to have or strive for objectivity in schools where political discourse is circumscribed and neutrality is demanded? Achieving pedagogical objectivity is no easy task. The objective teacher considers the most persuasive arguments for different points of view on a given issue; demonstrates evenhandedness; focuses on positions that are supported by evidence, etc.

This kind of approach is not easy, and often requires significant quantities of time, discipline, and imagination. In this light, it is not surprising that objectivity is sometimes regarded as impossible, particularly with contemporary social issues in which the subject matter is often controversial and seemingly more open to multiple perspectives than in the natural sciences. However, to borrow a phrase from Karl Popper, objectivity in teaching can be considered a "regulative principle," something toward which one should strive but which one can never attain.

The "ideology of neutrality" that dominates current thought and practices in schools (and in teacher education) is sustained by theories of knowledge and conceptions of democracy that constrain rather than widen civic participation in our society and functions to obscure political and ideological consequences of so-called "neutral" schooling, teaching, and curriculum. These consequences include conceptions of the learner as passive; democratic citizenship as a spectator project; and ultimately the maintenance of status quo inequalities in society.


Making Trouble: Creative Disruption of Everyday Life in the Classroom

I have long been intrigued by the public pedagogy of politically inspired performance artists who aim to creatively disrupt everyday life through creative resistance (see for example Thompson & Scholette's The Interventionists: User's Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life; Andrew Boyd's Beautiful Trouble). In this section I briefly present some theories and tactics relevant to teaching social studies that can serve as imaginaries for a pedagogy of dangerous citizenship.


Tactics of Everyday Life

French scholar Michel de Certeau is a great place to start when thinking about the creative disruption of everyday life in the classroom. de Certeau argued that developing strategy (grand designs) is the purview of power; strategy assumes some measure of control (e.g., management, administration, governmental authorities). Tactics on the other hand are the purview of the non-powerful (e.g., teachers, students, etc.), an adaptation to the environment that has been created by strategies of the powerful. The practice of everyday life is about responding to the immediate situation with tactical agility, not long-term transformation of circumstances. (And here I'm departing from the standard line of many critical pedagogues.)

There is no reason to wait for the "the revolution" or for "better" colleagues or more supportive circumstances before you take action. Observe your surroundings, orient the most important developments in the environment, decide on a course of action, and repeat. This is the OODA-Loop; it is a way to take advantage of unpredictable situations and destroy obstacles to meaningful learning while creating spaces that are responsive to the interests and desires of students instead of external imposed goals.

Consider what de Certeau called la perruque (trans: wig), the diversionary practice of using the employer's resources for personal use. In other words, the workers own work is disguised as work for the employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of value is stolen. The worker who indulges in la perruque diverts time from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit. de Certeau's illustrations include the secretary who uses company time and equipment to write a love letter and the cabinet maker who "borrows" a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room.

La perruque is a subversive mode of resistance in which schooling can be seen as "our time" and not simply a managed or enculturating time, unquestioned labor-work, controlled by authorities. The rationale for enacting la perruque ought to be consistent with promoting democracy, collectivity, and authenticity and opposed to oppression. Lastly, la perruque should be about capabilities and solidarity, that is, it should empower teachers and students to chase their interests, desires, skills, and abilities while simultaneously encouraging them to connect and form communities with one another-within and across classrooms and within and across schools. How can we use the resources (time and materials) of the school to teach social studies in ways that are directed toward interests and desires of students and local communities, rather than privileging the narrow and often exploitative interests of the elite, which are embedded standardized curriculum, corporate textbooks, and examinations that regulate what students learn which restricting teachers' autonomy as decision-makers?


Temporary Autonomous Zones

The idea of Temporary Autonomous Zones (T.A.Z.), created by Hakim Bey, is closely related to de Certeau's conception of tactics. T.A.Z. are an alternative to traditional models of revolution. T.A.Z. are not a revolutionary moment; they are an uprising that creates free, ephemeral enclaves of autonomy in the here-and-now, avoiding direct confrontation with the state or authorities. Bey describes T.A.Z. as mobile and stealthy--appearing, disappearing, then reappearing.

While the physical classroom may be fixed, we can think about creating temporary "liberated" spaces within (and beyond) the classroom. T.A.Z. are " an eruption of free culture where life is experienced at maximum intensity. It should feel like an exceptional party where for a brief moment our desires are made manifest and we all become the creators of the art of everyday life." What can we learn, pedagogically, from liberated spaces like Occupy, Burning Man, Fiume, or Freetown Christiania?

Society of the Spectacle

Debord's theory of the spectacle is at the heart of the idea of dangerous citizenship and much of my thinking about education and schooling. The key idea is that capitalism exercises social control through images, mass media that turn us into spectators.

What we feel, what we believe, how we express desire, what we believe is possible - all are filtered through, and constrained by, the media we consume and produce.

If you are familiar with Adbusters' style culture jamming, you already know one of the tactics Debord and his colleagues in the Situationist International created, détournement. Détournement involves capturing images and turning them around in a new presentation to subvert the authority of the sign and the significations it sets in order.

In other words, détournement is a variation on a previous media work, in which the newly created one has a meaning that is antagonistic or antithetical to the original. What would happen if you taught a lesson or two using what has been called "the most dangerous social studies textbook in America," Jon Stewart's (2004) America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide To Inaction? What images, artifacts, objet d'art, and texts might be rerouted, misappropriated, hijacked or otherwise put to something beside its normal purpose in order to raise questions, or disrupt conventional ways of thinking about social issues? For example, how might a concept such as war (or empire, freedom, capitalism, etc.) be explored through the detourned image below?


The Propaganda Model

Developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to examine the behavior of corporate media, the propaganda model explains how the mass media consistently produces content that reflects the interests of economic and political elites.

The basic hypothesis of the propaganda model is that corporate media will generally produce news content that serves elite interests. Corporate media serve these interests not as a result of direct control or censorship of the media, but as the result of filters existing within the institutional structure of corporate media organizations. The model proposes five filters through which the "raw material of the news" passes:

1. Concentration of media ownership and the profit-seeking imperative of the dominant media corporations.

2. Advertising as the primary source of income.

3. Sourcing of news relies on "expert" and official sources (the "moral division of labor" where officials give the facts and the reporters merely get them).

4. Negative commentary to a news story (flak) disciplines journalists and news organizations.

5. An external enemy or threat creates fear. (e.g., anti-communism, anti-terrorism, anti-Islam).

By measuring the volume, sourcing, and tone of news output the model attempts to empirically demonstrate how the political economy of the mass media generally serves the centers of power that own and control the media and related interests. The propaganda model predicts that media coverage will favor the U.S. and its allies, while hiding or downplaying their crimes and emphasizing their plights, while doing the opposite for states or regimes seen as U.S. enemies. The model has been a valuable contribution to media studies and has helped scholars better understand the propaganda function of the media.

The propaganda model argues that corporate media functions to "manufacture consent." It allows us understand, in part, how diverse societies can be dominated by a ruling class, how beliefs, explanations, perceptions and values are manipulated to justify the social, political, and economic status quo, what Chomsky has called "thought control in democratic societies."

The propaganda model in and of itself is an excellent way to engage students in critical media analysis of current issues (e.g., wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria). The model is also a useful framework for analyzing official curriculum documents, textbooks, and the entire enterprise of schooling, exposing hegemonic curriculum that serves the same centers of power and interests as corporate media. Consider how students might employ the propaganda model to reveal the political economy of textbooks or government-mandated curriculum.

How might the propaganda model reveal the political economy of education reform? Examples of existing studies that employ the analytic spirit if not the rigid application of the model include Montaño and Aoki 's analysis of charter schools in Latino/a communities; Alan Singer's ongoing critique of educational publisher Pearson; Susan Ohanian's deconstruction of education reform discourse in The New York Times; the Critical Education article series "The Media and the Neoliberal Privatization of Education"; as well as a series of articles I wrote in Z Magazine from 1999-2003 (with Kevin D. Vinson), deconstructing the creation and impact of the corporate-driven education reform in the U.S.


The Alienation Effect

Teaching and drama/acting certainly share some commonalities. Dramatist Bertolt Brecht's idea of making the familiar strange has great potential as a strategy for disrupting the alienating routines that can dominate classroom experiences. As teachers we are almost always engaged in an efforts to provoke responses from students. Brecht's criticism of theatre was that it took the audience on " an uncritical emotional roller coaster ride, crying when the main character cried, laughing when s/he laughed - identifying with him/her even when the character had nothing in common with them or their interests ."

The alienation effect aims to disrupt emotional manipulation with a "surprising jolt" such as when actors break down the imaginary "fourth wall" by speaking directly to the audience (now commonly seen in film and television, e.g., Frank Underwood in House of Cards). Another technique is social gest, described by L. M. Bogad as "an exaggerated gesture or action that is not to be taken literally, but which critically demonstrates a social relationship or power imbalance. For example, workers in a corporate office may suddenly and quickly drop to the floor and kowtow to the CEO, or the women in a household may suddenly start to move in fast-motion, cleaning the house, while the men slowly yawn and loaf around."

This tactic can be used to illustrate how the social studies education (and schooling in general) functions less as an democratizing influence and more as means of social control. Imagine interrupting your own civics lesson to inform students that what they have learned about democratic citizenship is merely an attempt to convince them to be loyal, obedient, dutiful, and useful servants to the ruling class under a variety of lies such as:

· "we all in this together;"

· "this is a multicultural society;"

· "democracy trumps inequality (e.g. anyone can be president or prime minister)".

Making the familiar strange to opens the door for students (and teachers) to confront the emotional manipulation that is part and parcel of traditional narratives presented in social studies curriculum (e.g., democracy trumps capitalism and inequality) and at the same time create a classroom that is surprising, critical, and appealing to students. What happens when the familiar social studies narrative of American exceptionalism-national policy guided by an interest in protecting freedom, democracy and justice worldwide-is exposed as policies of advancing empire and global domination economically and militarily? In most cases, I think its fair to say students would experience Brecht's "surprising jolt." Brecht's challenge as dramatist, as described by Bogad, has pedagogical implications too: how do we confront emotional manipulation while creating a stimulating, surprising, radically critical, and appealing social studies classroom?


The Ethical Spectacle

Andrew Boyd, the editor of Beautiful Trouble, and Stephen Duncombe argue that to be politically effective we need to engage in spectacles that are ethical, emancipatory, and faithful to reality. Sounds like an excellent social studies class to me. Drawing inspiration from Debord and the Situationists as well as Zapatistas, Yes Men, and Iraq Veterans Against the War, Boyd describes the ethical spectacle as striving to be:

· Participatory: Seeking to empower participants and spectators alike, with organizers as facilitators.

· Open: Responsive and adaptive to shifting contexts and the ideas of participants.

· Transparent: Engaging the imagination of spectators with out seeking to trick or deceive.

· Realistic: Using fantasy to illuminate and dramatize real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise remains hidden in plain sight.

· Utopian: Celebrating the impossible - and therefore helping to make the impossible possible.

According to Debord, boredom is always counter-revolutionary. A classroom that incorporates the ethical spectacle should then have revolutionary potential. Imagine what a social studies classroom looks like when it is participatory, open, transparent, realistic, and utopian. What principles, tactics, and strategies would be necessary to achieve the ethical spectacle in a classroom? What would go by the wayside? What risks are involved in striving for an ethical and spectacular social studies curriculum? Is it worth the risk? Is the safe alternative worth pursing?


Being Hopeful in Hopeless Times

The post-9/11 world does much to encourage hopelessness. It is crucial for social studies educators to engage students in learning about our world in ways that are realistic, but that also fashion hope. Yet, this hope should not take the form of the false hope that is embedded in the tired tropes of democracy and freedom that only exist in social studies textbooks and other propaganda outlets.

In his latest book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Chris Hedges argues we are in a revolutionary moment, and while the status quo is doomed, it is unclear whether the future will be progressive or reactionary. The one certainty in this world is things change. Finding courage in hopelessness means teaching and acting in ways that support participatory democracy, freedom, and equality even when the opposition is ruthless.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness ... And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. (Howard Zinn, A Power The Governments Cannot Supress, 2006, p. 270)

To teach now as we think we should teach, in defiance of all that is bad in society (and schools) is to be courageous in the face of hopelessness.



E. Wayne Ross is Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is co-director of theInstitute for Critical Education Studies and co-editor of the journalsCritical Education,Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, and Cultural Logic. His latest book, Working for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom, was published in January 2016 by Peter Lang.