“Education after Abu Ghraib” – Giroux


Back in 2004, Henry Giroux wrote a fascinating essay on the connections between education and the individual and collective ability to reject institutionalised violence. His argument draws on Theodor Adorno’s essay, ‘Education after Auschwitz’, but reviews Adorno’s principles through the more recent experience of Abu Ghraib. I only just found it, but consider it incredibly thought-provoking and still absolutely relevant nearly ten years on…

Giroux analyses the media portrayal and public reception of the Abu Ghraib abuses. He spends some time (space?) considering the political aspects of how the photos were read and it’s all worth quoting… anyway… Giroux, for example, asserts that:

What is often ignored in the debates about Abu Ghraib, both in terms of its causes and what can be done about it, are questions that foreground the relevance of critical education to the debate. Such questions would clearly focus, at the very least, on what pedagogical conditions need to be in place to enable people to view the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison not as part of a voyeuristic, even pornographic, reception but through a variety of discourses that enable them to ask critical and probing questions that get at the heart of how people learn to participate in sadistic acts of abuse and torture, internalize racist assumptions that make it easier to dehumanize people different from themselves, accept commands that violate basic human rights, become indifferent to the suffering and hardships of others, and view dissent as basically unpatriotic.” (p.792)

He goes on: “I am concerned about what the events of [-p.792] Abu Ghraib prison might suggest about education as both the subject and object of a democratic society and how we might engage it differently. What kind of education connects pedagogy and its diverse sites to the formation of a critical citizenry capable of challenging the ongoing quasi-militarization of everyday life, growing assault on secular democracy, the collapse of politics into a permanent war against terrorism, and a growing culture of fear that increasingly is used by political extremists to sanction the unaccountable exercise of presidential power? What kinds of educational practices can provide the conditions for a culture of questioning and engaged civic action? What might it mean to rethink the educational foundation of politics so as to reclaim not only the crucial traditions of dialogue and dissent but also critical modes of agency and those public spaces that enable collectively engaged struggle? How might education be understood both as a task of translation but also as a foundation for enabling civic engagement? What new forms of education might be called forth to resist the conditions and complicities that have allowed most people to submit ‘so willingly to a new political order organized around fear?’ (Greider 2004, p. 14). What does it mean to imagine a future beyond ‘permanent war’, a culture of fear and the triumphalism that promotes the sordid demands of empire? How might education be used to question the common sense of the war on terrorism or to rouse citizens to challenge the social, political, and cultural conditions that lead to the horrible events of Abu Ghraib? Just as crucially, we must ponder the limits of education. Is there a point where extreme conditions short-circuit our moral instincts and ability to think and act rationally? If this is the case, what responsibility do we have to challenge the reckless violence-as-first-resort-ethos of the Bush administration?
Such questions extend beyond the events of Abu Ghraib, but at the same time, Abu Ghraib provides an opportunity to connect the sadistic treatment of Iraqi prisoners to the task of redefining pedagogy as an ethical practice, the sites in which it takes place, and the consequences it has for rethinking the meaning of politics in the twenty-first century.” (pp.792-793)

Explaining the essay by Adorno that he draws on in this essay, Giroux writes, “Adorno’s plea for education as a moral and political force against human injustice is just as relevant today as it was following the revelations about Auschwitz after World War II.” (p.794)

Implicit in Adorno’s argument is the recognition that education as a critical practice could provide the means for disconnecting common sense learning from the narrowly ideological impact of mass media, the regressive tendencies associated with hyper-masculinity, the rituals of everyday violence, the inability to identify with others, as well as from the pervasive ideologies of state repression and its illusions of empire. Adorno’s response to retrograde ideologies and practices was to emphasize the role of autonomous individuals and the force of self-determination that he saw as the outcome of a moral and political project that rescued education from the narrow language of skills, unproblematized authority and the seduction of common sense. Self-reflection, the ability to call things into question, and the willingness to resist the material and symbolic forces of domination were central to an education that refused to repeat the horrors of the past and engaged the possibilities of the future. Adorno urged educators to teach students how to be critical, to learn how to resist those ideologies, needs, social relations, and discourses that lead back to a politics where authority is simply obeyed and the totally administered society reproduces itself through a mixture of state force and often orchestrated consensus. Freedom in this instance meant being able to think critically and act courageously, even when confronted with the limits of one’s knowledge. Without such thinking critical debate and dialogue degenerates into slogans, and politics, disassociated from the search for justice becomes a power grab. Within the realm of education, Adorno glimpsed the possibility of knowledge for self and social formation as well as the importance of pedagogical practices capable of ‘influencing the next generation of Germans so that they would not repeat what their parents or grandparents had done’ (Hohendahl 1995, p. 51).” (p.795)

Human autonomy through self-reflection and social critique became for Adorno the basis for developing forms of critical agency as a means of resisting and overcoming both fascist ideology and identification with what he calls the fascist collective. According to Adorno, fascism as a form of barbarism defies all educational attempts at self-formation, engaged critique, self-determination, and transformative engagement. He writes: ‘The only true force against the principle of Auschwitz would be human autonomy . . . that is, the force of reflection and of self-determination, the will to refuse participation’ (Hohendahl 1995, p. 58).” (p.796)

So much of what Giroux writes here seems to advocate for the kind of critical literacy that educational theorists and leaders desire, but struggle to push through in terms of actual assessment systems and educational organisation. It also had me thinking of any number of ways that popular literature could be developed for discussion in the classroom (spy fiction, for example…)… still thinking it all through – definitely worth a read or two.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Henry A. Giroux (2004): Education after Abu Ghraib, Cultural Studies, 18:6, 779-815

Reference is to: Greider, W. (2004) ‘Under the banner of the ‘‘war’’ on terror’, The Nation, 21 June, p. 14.
Hohendahl, P. U. (1995) Prismatic Thought: Theodor Adorno, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.


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