Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots

Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots and Rick Santorum by Henry A. Giroux,  Truthout | Op-Ed, February 22, 2012

Right-wing fundamentalists such as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum hate public schools, which he suggests are government schools wedded to doing the work of Satan, dressed up in the garb of the Enlightenment. Santorum, true to his love affair with the very secular ideology of privatization, prefers home schooling, which is code for people taking responsibility for whatever social issues or problems they may face, whether it be finding the best education for their children or securing decent health care. Actually, Santorum and many of his allies dislike any public institution that enables people to think critically and act with a degree of responsibility toward the public. This is one reason why they hate any notion of public education, which harbors the promise, if not the threat, of actually educating students to be thoughtful, self-reflective and capable of questioning so-called common sense and holding power accountable.

Of course, some progressives see this as simply another example of how the right wing of the Republican Party seems to think that being stupid is in. But there is more going on here than the issue of whether right-wing fundamentalists are intellectually and politically challenged. What makes critical education, especially, so dangerous to radical Christian evangelicals, neoconservatives and right-wing nationalists in the United States today is that, central to its very definition, is the task of educating students to become critical agents who can actively question and negotiate the relationships between individual troubles and public issues. In other words, students who can lead rather than follow, embrace reasoned arguments over opinions and reject common sense as the engine of truth.

What Santorum and his allies realize is that democracy cannot function without an informed citizenry and that, in the absence of such a citizenry, we have a public disinvested from either thinking reflectively or acting responsibly. There is nothing more feared by this group of fundamentalists than individuals who can actually think critically and reflectively and are willing to invest in reason and freedom rather than a crude moralism and a reductionistic appeal to faith as the ultimate basis of agency and politics.

What Santorum and his appeal to theocracy longs for is a crowd of followers willing to lose themselves in causes and movements that trade in clichés and common sense. This is the Tea Party crowd with their overt racism, dislike for critical thought and longing for outlets through which they can vent their anger, moral panics and hatred for those who reject their rigid Manichean view of the world. This is a crowd that embraces the likes of Santorum and other fundamentalists because they provide the outlets in which such groups can fulfill their desire to be amused by what might be called the spectacle of anti-politics.

As the anti-public politicians and administrative incompetents in Arizona made clear in their banning ethnic studies and censoring books critical of a conflict-free version of American history, critical pedagogy is especially dangerous. Not only does it offer students a way of connecting education to social change, it also invokes those subordinated histories, narratives and modes of knowledge in an attempt to give students often rendered voiceless the capacities to both read the word and the world critically. But the religious fanatics and privatizing fundamentalists do more than censor critical thought; they also substitute a pedagogy of punishment for a pedagogy of critical learning. Too many children in America now attend schools modeled after prisons. Schools have become places where the challenge of teaching and learning has been replaced by an obsession with crime, punishment and humiliation. Too many young people are being charged with criminal misdemeanors for behaviors that are too trivial to criminalize.(1)

What are we to make of a incident in a Stockton school where a five-year-old was handcuffed and taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation? This hard-to-believe event happened because the child in question pushed away a police officer’s hand after he placed it on the child’s shoulder. What does it mean when young people are charged with assault for engaging in behaviors that, in the past, would have barely solicited a teacher’s attention? How do we defend a public schools system that warrants the pepper spraying of a child with an IQ well below 70 because “he didn’t understand what the police were saying?”(2) This is barbarism parading as sound educational and disciplinary practice. As is well known, zero tolerance laws have become a plague imposed on public schooling. In fact, they have become a shameless quick and easy fix for punishing young people. For example, Texas served more than a 1,000 primary school kids over a six-year period with tickets for misbehaving and, in some cases, fines ran as high as $500.(3) In Chicago, Noble Street schools, run by Michael Milkie, set up a dehumanizing discipline system that repeatedly issued demerits and fines to students “for ‘minor infractions’ ranging from not sitting up straight to openly carrying ‘flaming hot’ chips.”(4) In the course of three years, ten Noble schools netted $386,745.00 in fines. The Advancement project has called such disciplinary practices “pernicious and harmful to youth.”(5) No doubt, but they are also harmful to poor families who have to choose between buying food and paying school administrators for punishing and cruel fines. In many respects, this amounts to a tax on poor people, one that Matthew Mayer, a professor in the graduate school of education at Rutgers University, described as “almost medieval in nature. It’s a form a financial torture, for lack of a better term…. because it likely has no bearing on students’ academic performance and disproportionately hurts poor families.”(6) Clearly, this practice cannot be defended as a disciplinary measure, however stringent. On the contrary, it is a form of harassment, one that is aimed at both students and their parents. And what is the pedagogical rationale for this illogical and cruel practice? Students in this pedagogical scenario are reduced to Pavlovian dogs, while the anti-public privateers extend the reach of the punishing state into the school and make a large profit to boot.

What is it about critical schooling and pedagogy that is so dangerous to the religious and ideological fundamentalists?

The most obvious answer is that critical pedagogy believes in forms of governing that respect both teachers and administrators on the one hand, and students on the other. That is, it supports those institutional conditions that extend from decent pay to equitable modes of governance that make good teaching possible. Second, it argues for modes of education that extend the capacities of students to both critique existing social forms and institutions and transform them when necessary. Put bluntly, it insists that knowledge is crucial not merely to thinking critically, but also to acting responsibly in the service of civic courage. What the critics of critical pedagogy refuse to accept is that as a moral and political practice, rather than an empty and sterile method, critical pedagogy offers the promise of educating students to be able to reject the official lies of power and the utterly reductive notion of training as a substitute for an informed mode of education.

Paraphrasing Bill Moyers, critical pedagogy is, in part, part of a project whose purpose is to dignify “people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.”(7) In this instance, critical pedagogy opens up a space where students should be able to come to terms with their own power as critical agents; it provides a sphere where the unconditional freedom to question and assert one’s voice, however different, is central to the purpose of public education, if not democracy itself.(8) And as a political and moral practice, pedagogy should make clear both the multiplicity and complexity of history as a narrative in which students can engage as part of critical dialogue rather than accept unquestioningly. Similarly, such a pedagogy should cultivate in students a healthy skepticism about power, a “willingness to temper any reverence for authority with a sense of critical awareness.”(9) As a performative practice, pedagogy should provide the conditions for students to be able to reflectively frame their own relationship to the on-going project of an unfinished democracy. It is precisely this relationship between democracy and pedagogy that is so threatening to conservatives such as Santorum, Sarah Palin, and other religious advocates of the new theocracy as the only mode of political governance and learning.

Education as a critical moral and political project always represents a commitment to the future and it remains the task of educators to make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which the discourses of critique and possibility in conjunction with the values of reason, freedom and equality function to alter, as part of a broader democratic project, the grounds upon which life is lived.

This is hardly a prescription for political indoctrination, but it is a project that gives education its most valued purpose and meaning, which, in part, is “to encourage human agency, not mould it in the manner of Pygmalion.”(10) It is also a position that threatens right-wing private advocacy groups, neoconservative politicians and religious extremists because they recognize that such a pedagogical commitment goes to the very heart of what it means to address real inequalities of power at the social level, and to conceive of education as a project for democracy and critical citizenship while at the same time foregrounding a series of important and often ignored questions such as: “Why do we (as educators) do what we do the way we do it”? Whose interests does public education serve? How might it be possible to understand and engage the diverse contexts in which education takes place? In spite of the right-wing view that equates indoctrination with any suggestion of politics, critical pedagogy is not simply concerned with offering students new ways to think critically and act with authority as agents in the classroom; it is also concerned with providing students with the skills and knowledge necessary for them to expand their capacities both to question deep-seated assumptions and myths that legitimate the most archaic and disempowering social practices that structure every aspect of society and to take responsibility for intervening in the world they inhabit.

Education is not neutral, but that does not mean it is merely a form of indoctrination. On the contrary, as a practice that attempts to expand the capacities necessary for human agency and, hence, the possibilities for democracy itself, the public should nourish those pedagogical practices that promote “a concern with keeping the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unraveling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”(11) In other words, critical pedagogy forges both critique and agency through a language of skepticism and possibility and a culture of openness, debate and engagement, all elements that are now at risk in the latest and most dangerous attack on public education.

The attack on public schooling and critical pedagogy is, in part, an attempt to deskill teachers and dismantle teacher authority. Teachers can make a claim to being fair, but not to being either neutral or impartial. Teacher authority can never be neutral, nor can it be assessed in terms that are narrowly ideological. It is always broadly political and interventionist in terms of the knowledge-effects it produces, the classroom experiences it organizes  and the future it presupposes in the countless ways in which it addresses the world. Teacher authority at its best means taking a stand without standing still. It suggests that, as educators, we make a sincere effort to be self-reflective about the value-laden nature of our authority while taking on the fundamental task of educating students to take responsibility for the direction of society. Rather than shrink from our political responsibility as educators, we should embrace one of pedagogy’s most fundamental goals: to teach students to believe that democracy is desirable and possible. Connecting education to the possibility of a better world is not a prescription for indoctrination; rather, it marks the distinction between the academic as a technician and the teacher as a self-reflective educator who is more than the instrument of a safely approved and officially sanctioned worldview.

The authority that enables academics to teach emerges out of the education, knowledge, research, professional rituals and scholarly experiences that they bring to their field of expertise and classroom teaching. Such authority provides the space and experience in which pedagogy goes beyond providing the conditions for the simple acts of knowing and understanding and includes the cultivation of the very power of self-definition and critical agency. But teacher authority cannot be grounded exclusively in the rituals of professional academic standards. Learning occurs in a space in which commitment and passion provide students with a sense of what it means to link knowledge to a sense of direction.

Teaching is a practice rooted in an ethico-political vision that attempts to take students beyond the world they already know, in a way that does not insist on a particular fixed set of altered meanings. In this context, teacher authority rests on pedagogical practices that reject the role of students as passive recipients of familiar knowledge and view them instead as producers of knowledge, who not only critically engage diverse ideas, but also transform and act on them.(12) Pedagogy is the space that provides a moral and political referent for understanding how what we do in the classroom is linked to wider social, political and economic forces.

It is impossible to separate what we do in the classroom from the economic and political conditions that shape our work, and that means that pedagogy has to be understood as a form of academic labor in which questions of time, autonomy, freedom and power become as central to the classroom as what is taught. As a referent for engaging fundamental questions about democracy, pedagogy gestures to important questions about the political, institutional and structural conditions that allow teachers to produce curricula, collaborate with colleagues, engage in research and connect their work to broader public issues. Pedagogy is not about balance, a merely methodological consideration; on the contrary, as Cornelius Castoriadis reminds us, if education is not to become “the political equivalent of a religious ritual,”(13) it must do everything possible to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to learn how to deliberate, make judgments and exercise choice, particularly as the latter is brought to bear on critical activities that offer the possibility of democratic change. Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging and independent – qualities that are indispensable for students if they are going to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy. Hence, pedagogy becomes the cornerstone of democracy in that it provides the very foundation for students to learn not merely how to be governed, but also how to be capable of governing.

One gets the sense that right-wing pundits, politicians and religious bigots believe that there is no place in the classroom for politics, worldly concerns, social issues and questions about how to lessen human suffering. In this discourse, the classroom becomes an unworldly counterpart to the gated community, a space for conformity and punishment as a tool for perpetuating dominant market-driven values and white Christian religious values. This is not education; it is a flight from self and society.

As Eric Fromm has pointed out, this type of education embodies a flight from freedom, produces authoritarian personalities and punishes those who refuse to live in a society modeled as a fundamentalist theocracy. The outcome of this type of anti-enlightenment education is not a student who feels a responsibility to others and who feels that her/his presence in the world matters, but one who feels the presence of difference, if not thinking itself, as an unbearable burden to be contained or expelled. Santorum and his fundamentalist allies argue for a notion of education that supports the notion of the teacher as a police officer, clerk or pitchman for privatization rather than an understanding of educators as engaged public intellectuals. That is, as intellectuals and civic educators who work under conditions that enable them to embrace the authority, respect and autonomy necessary for making education worldly practice and critical pedagogy an empower experience.

The current assault on young people, public education and critical thinking is first and foremost an attack not only on the conditions that make critical education and pedagogy possible, but also on what it might mean to raise questions about the real problems facing public education today, which include the lack of adequate financing, the instrumentalization and commodification of knowledge, the increasing presence of the punishing state in the schools, the hijacking of public education by corporate interests, the substitution of testing for substantive forms of teaching and learning and the increasing attempts by right-wing extremists to turn education into job training or into an extended exercise in patriotic xenophobia and religious fundamentalism.

As the right-wing juggernaut destroys the social state, workers protections, unions and civil liberties, it is easy to forgot that a much less visible attack is being waged on young people and especially on public schools and the possibility of critical forms of teaching. Critical pedagogy, that arch enemy of fundamentalists everywhere, must be understood as central to any discourse about educating students to be informed, skilled and knowledgeable critical agents, but, more importantly, it must be understood as the most crucial referent we have for understanding politics and defending all aspects of public schooling as one of the very few remaining democratic public spheres remaining in the United States today.


1. I take up this issue in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010).
2. Chris McGreal, “The US Schools with their own police,” [5] The Guardian UK, (January 09, 2012)
3. Ibid.
4. Rosalind Rossi, “‘Flaming hot’ chips, gum, other ‘infractions’ costly at some schools,” [6] Sun Times (February 14, 2012).
5. Ibid.
6. The Associated Press, “Chicago School Draws Scrutiny over Student Fines,” [7] ABC News (February 20, 2012).
7. Bill Moyers, “Discovering What Democracy Means,” [8]TomPaine.Com (February 12, 007).
8. Jacques Derrida, “The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University,” p. 233.
9. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile and Other Essays” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 501.
10. Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp. 10-11.
11. Zygmunt Bauman and Keith Tester, “Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman” (Malden: Polity Press, 2001), p. 4.
12. Chandra Mohanty, “On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s,” Cultural Critique (Winter 1989-1990), p. 192.
13. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,” Constellations 4:1 (1997), p. 5.
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[3] http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/6183911107/
[4] http://www.truth-out.org/public-intellectual-project/1319676515
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/09/texas-police-schools
[6] http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/10626363-418/flaming-hot-chips-gum-other-infractions-costly-at-some-schools.html
[7] http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/chicago-school-draws-scrutiny-student-fines-15753004?page=2#.T0O3t_Egcsc
[8] http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2007/02/12/discovering_what_democracy_means.php
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