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Resisting Spectacle and Confronting Neoliberalism — notes for educators

I want you to pick up your favourite book about education right now and turn to the chapter about fighting racism, sexism, and oppression. Find the passages about raising critical consciousness, close reading, and resisting spectacle.

They should be there. Because those are the parts of our self-education as teachers that will help us do more than train kids for the marketplace and ‘future proof’ them.

If, like me, you are feeling numb and afraid after Trump’s victory, your favourite books should inspire your voice and courage and help you keep going in the classroom. I hope they do.

But if after looking through your favourite books, blogs, TED talks, and Twitter streams about education you realize that your hands have in fact been empty this whole time, then today’s the day to reflect.

In an essay about the importance of teachers, Henry Giroux argues that in our dark times, “the brain has migrated to the dark pit of the spectacle” and “the only discourse that matters is about business.” Unfortunately this is true not only of Trump and political discourse, but also true of the dominant neoliberal discourse about education. That pit of spectacle makes it difficult to find any real solace.

Giroux draws on Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle which he defines in his 1967 essay: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by image.” (4) Teachers have a role in pulling students out of the dark pit of spectacle by teaching them to look beyond the stream of images we are assaulted with every day to the ideology they embody. Obviously, Trump’s spectacle embodies the most virulent strains of racism and sexism.

Crucially for Debord, spectacle “is the opposite of dialog” and it demands “passive acceptance” in “manner of appearing without allowing any reply.” (18 & 12) In the most literal sense, this is true of Trump’s debate style.

It’s too easy to feel like we are in dialog when in fact we simply speaking in a pastiche of voices that repeat and reinforce the dominant neoliberal ideology.

The neoliberal agenda for education has so narrowly focused on preparing students to compete against each other in the global economy that we are at risk of missing the chance to build new relations of solidarity.

In education, the mainstream challenge to standardized testing has taken the form of the spectacle: ceaseless technological disruption embodied in creative entrepreneurs who compete in the ‘free’ market.

Trump and the neoliberal agenda in education are not the same thing. But as a walking spectacle, he embodies the highly individualist entrepreneurial ideology that dominates the so-called skills agenda to ‘reinvent’ education.

Neoliberalism sells us precarity and self-reliance as a kind of freedom — the freedom to constantly re-invent ourselves and flexibly manage our affect and self-presentation, which is densely mediated by our visual culture and social media. It’s the Tony Robbins self-help ideology that says you should work on yourself rather than create movements of resistance that confront social problems. And what’s Robbins if not pure spectacle? In what could could easily be part of a Robbins performance, Thomas Friedman proclaims, “The greatest economic competition going forward is going to be between you and your own imagination.”

If the neoliberal agenda to ‘future proof’ our kids even remotely seemed like a good idea before, preparing our kids so they can flexibly adapt to a Trump Presidency and the ensuing economic devastation should make you stop hard and fast. And that’s not even to mention the problems of racism, sexism, and climate injustice — which neoliberalism stokes and ignores.

Books that may have made us comfortable before because they demanded little more than educating kids for the economy obviously fail us now. That was, in fact, the least disruptive solution all along.

We need to teach students how to resist spectacle and confront neoliberal ideology, and that starts with what we read as educators.

Originally published at Identity, Education and Power

Image by Frank Okay

I footnotes