Activist professors in the Age of Trump

By Ashley Stalnecker

Cultural critic Henry Giroux laid out the reformist professor’s duty in a lecture at the MacPherson Institute. Giroux said teaching should inspire a “radical democratic project” that rejects a society characterized by inequality, degradation to the environment and the elevation of war and militarization to national ideals.

“Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes, an audit culture of market values and an unreflected immersion in crude empiricism in a data obsessed, market-driven society,” Giroux said. “It provides the foundation for a world in which thoughtlessness prevails.”

Giroux described these qualities as laying the groundwork for the country’s submission to Donald Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism.

For progressive academics, the 2016 election was the harbinger of an anti-humanistic Trumpocalypse with a hatred for liberal arts not seen since the McCarthy era. Many take their cue from critical pedagogy and the writings of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire.

While teaching impoverished Brazilians to resist European imperialism in the 1960s, Freire wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, a manifesto to create an egalitarian model of education. Critical pedagogy calls for a radical re-thinking of the traditional learning dynamic between student and teacher.

The text describes a one-way “banking model” of teaching where the teacher deposits knowledge into the students’ minds which, Freire theorized, maintains the oppressive imperial conditions imposed by European colonialism. In its place, Freire advocates for equality between student and professor as adventurers achieving truth.

During the 1980s, Freire maintained correspondence with pioneering critical pedagogists, most notably Henry Giroux and bell hooks. Since then it has had enormous impact on training courses for teachers in the attempts by critical pedagogues to resist the neoliberal restructuring of the university, according to Melanie Lawrence in “Beyond the Neoliberal Imaginary.”

Neoliberalism refers to the marketization of public goods and services thought to exist for the good of society. In higher education professors call this the commodification of the university.

“Critical educators are advocating for change and the significance of challenging neoliberalism becomes our quest for the direction of an alternative logic; one that challenges the conservative neoliberal imaginary, treasures the narratives of all people as originally promised through democracy, and critically examines both how and for who quality education is organised,” Lawrence wrote in her abstract.

A study by David Steiner and Susan Rozen found critical Freire’s and Giroux’s work are among the most commonly required texts in education courses at 14 of the top ranked universities in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report.

In the United States, the book has been harshly criticized among conservative pundits as well as mainstream academics. In Gerald Graffe’s Radical Teacher, Graff said this pedagogy ironically confines students to thinking through a narrow neo-Marxist lens.

“What right do we have to be the self-appointed political conscious of our students?” Graff asked. “Given the inequality in power and experience between students and teacher (even teachers from disempowered groups) students are often justifiably afraid to challenge our political views even if we beg them to.”

Ithaca College’s own Sherry Deckman, professor in the department of education, has found new ways to engage students in her classes through Freire’s theories. In a blog post “Engaging Students as co-instructors”, Deckman wrote that involving the insights of her students has made for more enriching class sessions.

Just as Freire envisioned, critical pedagogy has moved countless academics to radical democratic activism. But professors at Ithaca College and Cornell University are not only dedicated to getting involved in the political turmoil of the time period; they are interested in getting the youth involved too.

Cornell historian Russell Rickford focuses his research on black radical tradition in the United States. Rickford is one of the founding members of the Ithaca chapter of Black Lives Matter. In an email he wrote that his political activism and scholarship go hand in hand.

“It is absurd to suggest that one’s own experiences and outlooks do not dramatically shape one’s pedagogical style, approaches, and priorities,” Rickford wrote. “Those who are able to claim such ‘objectivity’ are usually individuals who enjoy the greatest power and status under white supremacist patriarchy. The ‘objectivity’ of a white male classicist is rarely if ever questioned because Eurocentrism is hegemonic.”

Rickford views his responsibility as one to help move people toward engagement and activism. As Karl Marx suggested, intellectuals need to change the world, not just understand it, he said.

All the world’s a classroom

Michael Twomey retired from his job as an English professor at Ithaca College at the end of the Spring 2016 semester to pursue the path of becoming a climate lobbyist. As he works his way to becoming a full climate lobbyist, he has been doing small jobs to make a large impact with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.

“We have people who lobby in Congress by going to talk with congress-people but the local chapters like ours do a lot behind the scenes in terms of phone calling congress-people,” Twomey said. “We go to town meetings. We write letters to Congress people and we do all that we can to bring new members in, educate people about climate change.”

So far, Twomey has called congressman Tom Reed’s office to talk with his staffers and written a letter to the editor that was published in the Ithaca journal.

Citizen’s Climate Lobby has built a name for itself of bipartisanship, appealing to Republican economic interests and Democratic interests of sustainability. The group proposed a carbon fee on oil companies that produce carbon through importing, manufacturing and drilling.

The carbon fee would collect money from all of these producers of extractors or importers. Twomey said this is distinct from a tax in that the purpose of a tax is not to raise money for the government. Instead, the fee would then would be returned to taxpayers.

“The net cost of governing doesn’t increase because we’re using the IRS and so it’s economically efficient,” Twomey said.

Twomey said the second part of the lobby’s work is to convince congress-people to join an organization in the House that’s called the Climate Solutions Caucus, formed by Republicans and Democrats. Twomey said in order to join, a congress-person can only join with someone in the other party.

Twomey believes it’s important that people get involved in the near future as politics change and intensify.

“I’m concerned,” he said. “I think that it’s important for ordinary people to step up and do what they can because what I’m seeing is that the government is in a state of disarray.”

Meanwhile, politics Professor Patricia Rodriguez has been working with Tompkins County Immigrants Rights Coalition. Although largely inactive since 2005, the group has reinvigorated since the 2016 election.

The group was originally developed to pass a comprehensive immigration policy that creates a path for legalization for immigrants. When the policy failed, the group died down until the 2016 election and Trump’s discriminate travel ban.

Now, Rodriguez is working with the group to create a rapid response network to document the government’s search and deportation of immigrants. They are working on a hotline that will allow an immigrant to contact the coalition and have the group show up at their doorstep or wherever needed to document their arrest. The group does not have the power to stop the arrest but they come as a sign of support and solidarity as well as witnesses.

When the group is called, they will film, take photos, and write down information that might later be needed in legal proceedings. They serve as witnesses to make sure what is going on is verifiable and not imagined or based on assumptions.

Since the summer, the network has become a group of more than 50 people. The hotline is currently in the process of being tested and the number should be available by mid-September.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez is doing everything she can to get her students, and the youth in general, involved in activism.

“I think the youth are key to be involved in different groups, different organizations, that try to bring about change,” says Rodriguez. “The world is there for their grabbing.”

She thinks it is important that the youth pay attention to what is happening politically and socially to issues such as racism, bigotry and violence. She said that not only those issues are important, but the youth should be made aware of the different socio-economic classes and different styles of living that are unequal.

“I think that youth need to be confronted with that and just begin to think in ways that perhaps they never have about solutions to that,” Rodriguez said.

As a professor, she believes that her most influential work is giving students such information.

“To me I think that the influence of the work I do is to have a different type of thinking that is not individualistic, that is collective,” Rodriguez says. “And to bring students into that conversation as well, to get students out of the classroom, to be engaged in something that is real, that I feel like everyone can have an impact on.”

Despite all the negatives in politics lately, Rodriguez still has an optimistic view on the future.

“I’m involved in [activism] because I see a lot of hope,” she says. “I have a lot of hope for change to happen. I have a lot of hope that people in the end will think about other people more, rather than just themselves.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *