Agency and Social Transformation
Just another Mapping the Futures of Higher Education Sites site
Week 3 Feb 23
In our second class, we discussed hope and agency; I expressed an interest in better understanding their relationship to each other. I also wondered, “Does having hope with little agentive strategies, with little contextual support, or with no actual opportunities for action, render hope a futile condition? How do theorizing about oppression and imagining effective transgression extend the discourse and inform us about possibilities for action?”
The supplementary reading, Patrick Shannon’s ‘Reading Marxism’, is a point of entry for my inquiry into the nature of agency because, although Shannon offers a Marxist analysis of teachers’ positionality in reading education. Shannon’s deconstruction of the dynamics of domination in literacy education provides a template through which we may discuss additional theoretical concepts concerning dominance, agency, resistance and transgression from this week’s readings, even as we move beyond the scope of his piece. Here we can consider Giroux’s treatment of ‘ideology’ and push for a ‘theory of production’, Bourdieu’s deeper examination of social relations described by Emirbayer and Schneiderhan, Derrick Bell’s individual moral commitment as a manifestation of agency in Leonardo and Harris, and Biesta’s focus on a ‘logic of emancipation’ and demystification of the familiar for advancing the development of critical consciousness.
Shannon calls for development of a Marxist awareness in teachers so that they may address the power structures that thwart their ability to educate: “Marxism can help teachers understand the cognitive, social and physical structure of the past congealed in the present, opening teachers’ awareness to unsuspected aspects of their abilities to shape the future”. Shannon offers a clear example of oppressive practices in his description of the larger bureaucratic dynamics that “were intended to (and did) restore capitalist rationalization in schools, to support the reification of reading and learning as scripts and tests, and to promote the alienation of teachers from teaching and students form learning” in response to more democratic methods of education at the end of the 20th century. Shannon describes how literacy itself as become a commodified skill with ‘exchange value’ to be negotiated after graduation.
As a commodity becomes ‘fetishized’ (Marx’s idea), it demands exclusive focus and eclipses other valid processes or methodologies, which, in turn ‘prevents all opportunities of subversive interpretations of the system’. According to Shannon, the current rationalized system of reading education fetishizes programmed reading instruction, crediting the scripted program, not teachers, with developing literacy skills. In actuality, this type of program instills subordination and internalization of control as teachers become ‘deskilled’. Such scripted programs are characterized by predictability of outcomes (however narrow they must be to indicate success) under a ‘rational process that seems natural and inevitable’. Shannon notes how creative growth and democratic discourse are curtailed when the ‘human essence of reading, teaching and learning are lost from view’. He also explains how “the ‘efficiency model’ is part of capitalist logic: The confusion between social relations and the physical reality of production obscures the workings of capitalism from public view.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Shannon about the conditions in literacy education today because I have been a reading educator since the 1970s, throughout an era when teachers’ professional work was highly collegial and approaches to teaching and learning were democratic and child-centered. Since then, I have experienced a narrowing of learning in the field: Shannon’s selection of the ‘Open Court’ series provides an excellent example because it is one of the most highly contested programs criticized by holistic educators. I believe Shannon’s most important criticism is that literacy education now is ‘not presented as a way of engaging in civic life,’ eroding democratic discourse as it impacts both the public and private spheres. Shannon claims that this condition is a purposeful construction of power-brokering, bureaucratic alliances. In his work, we can appreciate the need for emancipation from this very real imposition of constrained, instrumentalized reading education policy of today. Shannon alludes to the need for expanded consciousness and critical action, but I find that we must extend beyond his discussion to our additional sources if we are to increase our conceptual understandings and construct viable prescriptions of agency as transgressive action.
The constellation of relations that Shannon describes in the creation of controlled reading systems and participants’ tendency toward complicity reveal several elements of Bourdieu’s framework, such as the ‘bureaucratic field’, a more process specific representation of Bourdieu’s ‘field of power’. When Shannon reports on the development of highly controlled, mass-applied reading programs, how they are rationalized, distributed and valued, he actually demonstrates several of Bourdieu’s concepts as described by Emirbayer and Schneiderhan, such as the existence of an ‘ensemble of bureaucratic fields’ that impact education, and the symbolic power of the state that has the ‘capacity to impose structures of thought, feeling and action’. Aligned with Emirbayer and Schneiderhan’s explication of Bourdieu’s concepts, Shannon presents the source and manners of oppressive social relations through his example of controlled reading education. He also describes the subject’s (teachers’) complicity in ‘symbolic violence’ when he likens the acceptance of such programs as the internalization of control (by teachers and impacting students). This closer examination of the process of domination characterizes it as ‘relational and transactional’ as explored and clarified by Bourdieu in Emirbayer and Schneider.
Still, we remain in need of a prescriptive guide for moving toward critical response that includes ways to conceptualize our situatedness in a system of domination/opportunity. Biesta reminds us that teachers indeed ‘operate within the power/knowledge constellation’ described by Foucault, within which emancipatory action is possible. Indeed, what Shannon calls for is Foucault’s ‘practical critique’, indicating the first step of emancipation: analysis driven by conscious realization. Once limits to freedom and boundaries of role and thought are illuminated, they then may be approached and challenged in what Biesta calls ‘the practical task of transgression’. This confronting is an essential step in the ‘undefined work of freedom’. It will be further developed and demonstrated through agency, the informed actions that can recapture the democratic and emancipatory purposes of education sought by critical educators. Both Shannon and Bourdieu stop short of clear directions for critical action. But Biesta furthers us along with concepts that link hope and agency – The notion of ‘transgression’, formed through critical consciousness, may be the/an essential link between hope and agency, and that is critical in actualizing emancipatory ends.
Like Giroux, Shannon suggests ‘projects of possibility’ achieved through alliances with others who contest rationalization of their work, but Giroux offers a much more comprehensive, multidimensional matrix through which we can understand the workings of ideology and the relationship between consciousness and structure. Giroux posits that we must consider ideology particularly because it has heuristic value in critical inquiry, and that to fully understand it we need more than the Marxist interpretation. Studying ideology, according to Giroux, requires consideration of deeply human psychological and agentive processes. By accessing what Giroux terms ideology’s ‘operational field’, we can begin to grapple with its complexity, with the naturalness that shrouds its deleterious purposes, and bring into consciousness what lays naively accepted in our unconscious.
The value of such deconstruction is in its illuminating function that reveals the relationship among power, meaning and interest. In the critique of ideology we explore both the subjective and objective forces of domination. We can unearth the taken for granted second nature of automatic exercises and discourse that has been pre-designed for our role as teachers. Giroux suggests that developing understanding of ideology enables us to reframe the contexts within which we exist, another essentiality of transgression. Giroux challenges us to interrogate our own histories and experiences in this process, both conscious and unconscious, advising, “For it is in the dialectical relations between conscious and unconsciousness on the one hand and experience and objective reality on the other that the basis for critical thought and action has to be grounded and developed.” Giroux’s concepts serve as a guide for teachers’ processes of critical response to oppressive policies and educational arrangements.
With all of the above, hope, and a goal of agentive action, I agree that if humans are active in their complicity that they can be active in their resistance and restructuring as well. By using insights garnered from ideological analysis, teachers can articulate and reframe their understandings and goals within a system of domination, and thereby, move toward greater control of emancipatory teaching. My question concerning the link(s) between hope and agency are in the process of being answered, as I construct my understanding from rich sources of theory and praxis.
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