The common spaces traditionally provided for the public are slowly being eroded in the name of economic efficiency, victim to the ideology of pervasive market fundamentalism that serves as the scourge of our age. On the front edge of post industrialism, those in Detroit are experiencing this first hand. A non-elected, state appointed Emergency Manager is slowly selling off city services, cutting what were constitutionally guaranteed pensions, and ignoring an emasculated, but fairly elected city council. Shea Howell calls this a “state of siege.” With Detroit now under emergency management, half the blacks in the state of Michigan are now without a say in their local government.
All of this parallels a privatization of public education that is occurring simultaneously. Major urban cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and others have had their public spaces of education privatized into for profit charter schools. School closings have run rampant, decimating disproportionately communities of color, a process that Kristen Buras calls “accumulation by dispossession,” in which people of privilege dispossess what was once commonly held, as a means of accumulating for their own benefit.
So what? What does this loss of the common good as expressed through “the public” matter? Why not let the market allow for so-called better options? What are we losing?
Henry Giroux correctly connects the loss of the “radical imagination” to the conversion of public spaces, including schools, into “forces of consumption.” He suggests that a privatized form of education is an education of acquisition. That is, learning is reduced to the process of acquiring content knowledge, what Paulo Freire names the “banking concept.” Such a way of imagining learning fails to consider the place of imagination, and of what Ron Ritchhart and others call “thinking dispositions,” and it fails to acknowledge connections between individuals and their broader community. Under this conscripted view of learning, the purpose of an education is to individually attain greater status, which will thus allow for greater consumption.
By way of example, Neil Gaiman connects the privatization of the public, and the bias of utilitarian information over fiction, in the same way in Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming. Libraries have historically been valued in a democracy as a public space that protected the common good of literacy. As literacy is a commonly held foundation of democracy, libraries have been protected institutions. Now they are disappearing. Gaiman connects the need to protect libraries to the need to protect the reading of fiction, and overtly links the growing privatization of prisons to the need for literacy. I also argue that he alludes to the “slack” provided through the imagination vs. a world of cold, hard, utilitarian “grit” and economic efficiency . (For more on “slack vs. grit,” please see the important writings of Paul Thomas and Ira Socol.)
“I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.”
The closing of libraries closes access to literature to those who don’t have the privilege of creating their own libraries. The closing of libraries, the public commons of literacy, reduces the space allowed for anyone to read- and reading becomes a privatized act of pleasure only available to those with the privilege of access to their own private store of books. But reading, and particularly reading fiction, is more than an act of pleasure. It is an act that develops literacy, and that, as Gaiman writes, allows us to learn that, “…the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.” This knowledge that things can be different is an affront to the status quo. We begin to see why who has access to this knowledge matters.
In this world of increasing privatization, Giroux’s radical imagination becomes an act of privilege rather than a right of democracy. Are fewer libraries more efficient? When reducing efficiency to a short term economic value- yes. Are we better off with fewer libraries? I think Gaiman provides a convincing argument that we are all far poorer without them.
This is one example of the loss incurred through privatization. And it also provides an example of the kinds of questions we need to be asking in addition to the all too simple one of, is it more efficient? (And efficiency is always code for market fundamentalism.)
All of this is a way for me to the lay ground for an extended excerpt from Henry Giroux’s article, Reclaiming the Radical Imagination. Here he connects the privatization movement to our culture of consumption as a one-dimensional, purely economic way of imagining what it means to be human together.
“When civic literacy declines and the attacks on civic values intensify, the commanding institutions of society are divorced from matters of ethics, social responsibility and civic engagement. One consequence is the emergence of a kind of anti-politics in which the discourses of privatization, possessive individualism and crass materialism inundate every aspect of social life, making it easy for people to lose their faith in the critical function of civic education and the culture of an open and substantive democracy. The very essence of politics has been emptied of any substantive meaning and is now largely employed as a form of anti-politics legitimating a range of anti-democratic policies and practices ranging from attacks on women’s reproduction rights and the voting rights act to a war on unions, public servants, public school teachers, young people immigrants and poor minorities. As public spaces are transformed into spaces of consumption, the formative cultures that provide the preconditions for critical thought and agency crucial to any viable notion of democracy are eviscerated. The conditions for encouraging the radical imagination has been transformed into the spectacle of illiteracy, repression, state violence, massive surveillance, the end of privacy, and the ruthless consolidation of power by the ultrarich and powerful financial interest. The imagination is under intense assault and increasingly is relegated to the dead zone of casino capitalism, where social and civil death has become the norm. Under such circumstances, civil society along with critical thought cannot be sustained and become short-lived, fickle and ephemeral. At the same time, it becomes more difficult for individuals to comprehend what they have in common with others and what it means to be held together by shared responsibilities rather than shared fears and competitive struggles…” (Emphasis added.)
The movement towards privatization, and the correlating loss of public spaces, means that we lose access to both imagining how we are to live together, and to the means of developing a life together. It fundamentally shifts the purpose education away from the civic foundation of democracy, towards a privatized notion of individual acquisition and consumption. It privileges the value of economic efficiency, a value that economically (but not in any other way) benefits those most well placed to take advantage of their wealth, over the value of a democratic way of imagining life together.
As I have often argued, the educational force of the wider culture, and the sites where it is delivered to the public, demand a radical rethinking of modes of civic education, if not politics itself. Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres in which civic values, public scholarship and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of the promise of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good.”