Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think)
By now Peter McLaren must be taken as more than a mere run-of-the-academy professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s at the very least a phenomenon—a phenomenon whose meaning is wildly contested from every side. To some, he’s a singular intellectual, a quasi-heroic figure standing up for a radical vision of critical pedagogy against the forces of reaction (as well as the fakers on the Left), while to others he’s an over-wrought blow-hard spouting slogans without much substance. To the Mexican educators who created La Fundación Peter McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica he’s something of a divine inspiration, while to the right-wing UCLA alumni who organized a campaign to drive him from the campus he’s more than a communist threat—he’s Satan himself, and they are determined to eliminate his devilish presence and the sulfur that surrounds him. He’s the philosopher prince of a political movement to some—the McLarenites?—and to others, the CEO of “Peter McLaren, Inc.,” protecting his patents through a steady stream of books that seem to appear from the sky, as regular as rain. Even his book jacket photo polarizes: is that the Dark Prince leering mischievously into the camera, Andy Warhol on drugs, or a dashing rebel smiling beneficently as he prepares to smash the state? It depends, I suppose, on your angle of regard.
I’ve known Peter casually for years, and have always thought of him as working for the good of all—socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and all the rest. I remember his early book, Life in Schools, as a wonderfully engaging work connecting the everyday experiences of students and teachers with larger political and social contexts. But I began to consider the McLaren phenomenon only recently, when I was invited by the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Marxist-oriented think-tank in Venezuela, to give a series of talks in October 2006 on critical pedagogy for the 21st Century, where one of my stops was the Universidad Bolivariano de Venezuela (UBV) where I was to deliver a named lecture. To my surprise, my talk was the Peter McLaren Lecture. With my curiosity piqued, I picked up one of his 2005 books, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, for the airplane ride home. It was quite a ride.
Peter McLaren is surely one of the good guys—he despises the Bush regime, for example, asserts his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiments repeatedly in his writings, and envisions a future society built on the principle of justice and the practice of human development. He’s right, of course, that capitalism is a vicious and destructive world system, and that a major obstacle to fundamental change is a wide-spread belief in the “inevitability of capital.” He counters that fatalism with a hopeful slogan borrowed from the activist World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.” Slogans are, of course, an anemic alternative to concrete analysis and action—more on this later—but the sentiment is certainly a right one. I still think McLaren is on the right side of both history and humanity.
But we owe it to ourselves—no less than to McLaren—to judge his work by the standards he himself sets and the aims he establishes. Even hedged, McLaren sets lofty and ambitious goals: “Given the urgent times we live in,” he writes, “we need to ratchet up the struggle ahead” (p. 10). This is the “singular challenge” of his book, he claims—to intensify and focus—and here are the questions he will take up:
How can we liberate the use value of human beings from their subordination to exchange value? How can we convert what is least functional about ourselves as far as the abstract utilitarian logic of capitalist society is concerned—our self-realizing, sensuous, species-being—into our major instrument of self-definition? How can we make what we represent to capital—replaceable commodities—subordinate to who we have also become as critical social agents of history? How can we make critical self-reflexivity a demarcating principle of who we are and critical global citizenship the substance of what we want to become? How can we make the cultivation of a politics of hope and possibility a radical end in itself? How can we de-commodify our subjectivities? How can we materialize our self-activity as a revolutionary force and struggle for the self-determination of free and equal citizens in a just system of appropriation and distribution of social wealth? How can we make and remake our own nature within historically specific conventions of capitalist society such that we can make this self-activity a revolutionary force to dismantle capitalism itself and create the conditions for the development of our full human potential? How can we confront our “producers” (i.e., social relations of production, the corporate media, cultural formations and institutional structures) as an independent power? Capitalists and Conquerors has been written both to provide at least partial answers to these questions and to formulate new ones. (p. 10)
And that’s not all:
Capitalists and Conquerors is one particular foray into the politics of critical pedagogy…I have tried to make a case for including Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism—in critical educational studies…(p.11)
OK, McLaren announces his intention to “ratchet up the struggle ahead,”—I’m all for that—“provide at least partial answers” to a daunting list of questions, and add “Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism” to the politics of critical pedagogy. Onward! Let’s do it!
But that’s pretty much as far as it goes, opening shot and endpoint rolled into one. The rhetoric is intermittently at a fever pitch or impenetrable, but the path to ratcheting things up turns out to be overgrown and still tangled; none of the questions raised is illuminated (I still want to know how to de-commodify my subjectivity, how to materialize my self-activity), and the rare attempts to actually undertake a Marxist analysis of U.S. or global society are disturbingly off.
This last failure seems particularly egregious, for McLaren announces from every angle that he is a revolutionary Marxist, and that he has, or that he will, or that we must develop a Marxist analysis in order to move forward:
My concern over the last decade has been to introduce Marxist scholarship into the field of critical pedagogy, since it (sic) has been taken over by postmodernists who have been attempting to suture together in recent decades the ontological tear in the universe of ideas that was first created when history was split in two by the dialectical wave of Marx’s pen in the Communist Manifesto and the subsequent development of the communist movement in the mid-1800s…(p. 35)
My work in critical pedagogy… constitutes in one sense the performative register for class struggle. While it sets as its goal the decolonization of subjectivity, it also targets the material basis of capitalist social relations…(p. 57)
I’m persuaded that his intention is to persistently push a humanistic Marxism and the need for class analysis into the conversation, and I think that that could be a most welcome and beneficial thing. For all I know he’s made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire oeuvre—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis. Exhortation is not argument, performance is not enlightenment, and hectoring is a far cry from a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If proclamation itself is action—Peter’s self-definition as a Marxist with every breath, his assertion that changes in the relations of production are central to a humane future, and the naming of socialism as a long-term goal—and if urging others to pledge their allegiance to the cause is all there is to organizing and mobilizing, well, this book does the job. But for political analysis and political theory—or for serious consideration of the demands of political work on the ground—the book falls short and the shortfall is fatal. There quite simply is no there there.
One of the few attempts in this book to contribute to a concrete analysis gets it terribly wrong:
In stating this we need to include an important caveat that differentiates revolutionary critical pedagogy from those who invoke the well-worn race/class/gender triplet which can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. It is not. Race, class, and gender, while they invariably intersect and interact, are not co-primary. This “triplet” approximates what the “philosophers might call a category mistake.” On the surface the triplet may be convincing—some people are oppressed because of their race, some as a result of their gender, others because of their class—but this “is grossly misleading” for it is not that “some individuals manifest certain characteristics known as ‘class’ which then results in their oppression; on the contrary, to be a member of a social class just is to be oppressed” and in this regard class is “a wholly social category”… Furthermore, even though “class” is usually invoked as part of the aforementioned and much vaunted triptych, it is usually gutted of its practical, social dimension or treated solely as a cultural phenomenon—as just another form of “difference.” In these instances, class is transformed from an economic and indeed, social category to an exclusively cultural or discursive one or one in which class merely signifies a “subject position.” (p. 100)
This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction. Again, there’s nothing easy about contributing to a further understanding of the peculiar intersection of race and class, of hierarchies of color mapped onto relations to production—particularly the murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change—but there is an important and relevant conversation underway from W.E.B. DuBois to James and Grace Lee Boggs, from Audre Lorde to Robin D.G. Kelley, Angela Davis, and bell hooks that could be acknowledged and engaged. Race and gender, gender and class, class and race—a lot has been done and there’s a lot left to do, but smart white male lefties like Peter naming and then dismissing the “triplet” seems more than a little glib. It seems to point toward a limiting white blind-spot and a severely pinched vision of social justice.
In an aside, McLaren manages to both accept and deflect two weaknesses often associated with his work: “While some criticism is substantive—including a welcomed critique of the enciphered language of some academics and a challenge to radical educators to come up with concrete possibilities—much of it is small-minded and petty…” (p. 30). Note the “some academics”—Not me! Not me!—and the active “enciphering” to boot. There is, in fact, a self-conscious performativeness on almost every page:
Through policies of increasing its military-industrial-financial interest, it continues to purse its quivering bourgeois lips, bare its imperialist fangs, and suck the lifeblood from the open veins of South America and other regions of the globe. (p. 23)
Watered by the tears of the poor and cultivated by working-class labor, the dreams that sprout from the unmolested soil of capital are those engineered by the ruling class. (p. 20)
One thing seems certain: this is not language that invites dialogue. It lacks nuance, complexity, and what Toni Morrison calls the propulsive “midwifery properties” of language. It descends instead into the “looted language” of “the bottomed-out mind,” which Morrison nails as the “proud but calcified language of the academy.” It’s all a bit reminiscent of a piece of satire circulated years ago aimed at the pretentious writings of critical educationists—the satire provides a connect-the-dots formula for sounding like (insert your favorite theorist here) by simply combining three words in sequence: Column A plus Column B plus Column C. Column A is a long list of favored qualifiers (critically, ethically, culturally, politically, historically and so on); Column B includes transformative, emancipatory, informed, grounded, empowering and more; Column C is the subject (discourse, pedagogy, language, ideology). Add A and B and C randomly and you’ll get the idea: critically grounded theory; culturally emancipatory pedagogy. It works! But as others have noted, if this is liberatory education, why, after reading this, do I not feel free?
Because Peter McLaren fails here to claim authority on the page based on argument or example (and note that authority on the page must be earned in the writing, while authoritarianism on the page is always simply asserted) there’s way too much “I maintain,” “I contend,” and “I agree with,” followed by extensive quotes from favorite authors. One could argue that McLaren is a “popularizer” except that this goes in the opposite direction: accessible writers like Gore Vidal or Arundati Roy are rendered more obscure.
There’s too much repetition ( “The construction of a new vision of human sociality has never been more urgent”…again and again; and “but a new vision of human sociality is precisely what is not on offer by progressive educators…” followed by “What is not on offer is an alternative social vision…” seventy pages later); too much self referencing (“The recent advance of contemporary Marxist educational scholarship… critical theory…and a re-materialized critical pedagogy…”—each citing mostly himself); and metaphors that cry out to be blocked (“Skimming the surface of critical pedagogy like a hovercraft navigating a swamp”—Wait! That’s our pool you’re calling a swamp!). There’s no utterance here that requires a response—all we hear is the Thud! Thud! Thud! of domineering language.
The Schoolboys of Barbiana, a classic text from decades ago that is being re-released now along with a contemporary essay by Marvin Hoffman, was initially a writing project organized by an Italian priest who practiced an authentic critical pedagogy without the vaunted title. In the book, a group of poor youth provides a devastating critique of capitalist schooling in the form of letters to the teachers who’d failed them and pushed them out of school. One boy said: “Have something important to say, something useful…Know for whom you are writing…Eliminate every useless word.” Content; audience; style: that’s excellent advice for anyone aspiring to contribute in a genuine way to the struggle for a decent future for all.
And on to the “concrete possibilities” critical educators might offer:
Enter critical pedagogy.
Critical pedagogy is secured by the most fecund of revolutionary talismans: critique… Critical revolutionary pedagogy begins with the following questions: Do we know whose hands ground the capitalist lenses through which we comprehend the world and do we know from whence (sic) came the bloodstains on the lens grinder’s workbench? Whether we know the answers to such questions, they must be followed by a further question: How and why is this so? If we know the answers, what are they? If we don’t know, why is this so? If there are better questions to be asked, what are they? (p. 9)
Capitalist schools, authoritarian schools of every stripe, are, it’s true, in the business of obedience and conformity. They sort and judge, create hierarchies of winners and losers, train people for predetermined slots in a competitive society. They are not the least bit interested in human development, self-actualization, or self-realization, and they rely on that disturbing but common half-language of labels—behavior disordered, attention deficit disorder, learning disabled, problems with impulse control—to justify the cruelest treatment of the rebels and the delinquents, and ultimately of all the students. Capitalist schooling submerges human development in its single-minded drive for profit, while in democratic schools the ultimate aim of production is not the production of things but the production of free human beings associated in terms of equality, folks capable of changing their lives as well as changing the world. A contradiction at the heart of teaching here and now is that while the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power—every human being is of infinite and incalculable value—the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social life and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy nourishes and challenges free people to act freely in a free society—in history—to right wrongs, repair damage, correct errors, and oppose all unnecessary suffering, and therefore fails as an adjunct to capitalism, just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—ultimately the schools or the system must die.
Classrooms and schools for democracy and freedom recognize each student as an entire universe, each capable of becoming an author, artist, and activist in his or her own life—teachers in these classrooms assume that every student is an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery and surprise. And the best teachers are themselves unruly sparks, also on a voyage, also awakening to the new and moving and in solidarity with, not in service to their students.
The most important lesson I learned in the earliest days of my teaching came from the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in the early 1960s. These schools were premised on the idea that while the black people of Mississippi had been denied many things—decent facilities, forward-looking curriculum, fully trained teachers—the fundamental injury was the denial of the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives, how they got to where they were, and how things might be changed. The curriculum for these schools was a curriculum of questions, of inquiry and dialogue, a curriculum of posing problems: why are we, students and teachers, in the Freedom Movement? What do we want to change? This is an example of critical pedagogy at its best. It invites people to engage, to participate, to transform their lives, and to change their world.
At its core, an education for freedom demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges; remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance; refuse to be an acolyte to power or to anyone. You must change. All of this, then, demands a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, school and society, education and justice.
Just as every practice embodies a theory, every lofty pronouncement or controlling principle must be able to be brought to life on the ground, but there’s no evidence of it at all in Capitalists and Conquerors. Theory is not grounded; the ground is not theorized.
An additional note: the failure to do the work—theoretical or practical—leads to a deeper pessimism embedded in a proclaimed optimism. There’s a long whine echoing throughout, and to claim, as Peter does, that his work is “silenced” in the U.S. stretches credulity:
These days it is far from fashionable to be a radical educator…To identify your politics as Marxist…is to invite derision and ridicule from many quarters, including many on the Left. It is to open one’s work to all species of dyspeptic criticism, from crude hectoring to sophisticated Philippics. Charges range from being a naïve leftist to being stuck in a time warp, to being hooked on an antediluvian patriarch, to giving in to cheap sentimentality or romantic utopianism. Marxists are accused with (sic) assuming an untenable political position that enables them to wear the mantle of the revolutionary without having to get their hands dirty in the day-to-day struggles of rank-and-file teachers who occupy the front lines in the schools of our major urban centers… Critics often make assumptions that you are guilty of being terminally removed from the lives of teachers and students until proven otherwise…(p.30)
What else can I say?
I met Peter and one of his talented students and current co-authors, one of the “traveling critics,” on my most recent trip to Venezuela. We spent some time together, and he’s not the stereotype that either his friends or his enemies make him out to be; he’s a regular person, of course, after a couple of minutes. When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors, he directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics, and books. While I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it, nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I’ve said here.
I return to Life in Schools, a participatory and communal exercise in critical pedagogy in which he listened attentively, inquired actively, engaged an audience in big ideas grounded in the mud and muck of the world as he’d found it. I wish he’d take a deep cleansing breath now, clear his head of all that clutter, consider an audience and a community to engage that’s both larger and more eager to participate than he’d ever imagined. Now, get in dialogue with that community, start to think and write more clearly and with much more urgency. You know: from the people, to the people.
A Response by Peter McLaren: Performing Bill Ayers: Criticism as a Disappearing Act or Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Me a Book Review?
Posted By: Peter McLaren on February 8, 2007
Bill Ayers begins his caustic defense of his critique of Capitalists and Conquerors with a compliment that my response was “clever and entertaining and erudite” in the vain hope that it will make his charge—that I fail “utterly to engage the substantive issues” he raised—stick. But all it does is make his rebuttal stick in one’s craw like a lump of stale lard that accidentally fell into the soup. Here I am tempted to ask: What substantive issues does Ayers think he raised?
Bill Ayers calls his response to my rebuttal of his non-critique, “Continuing the Conversation”, which really is just a disingenuous cover intended to give Ayers unbridled license to repeat his original accusations. If you hear them enough times, you might just believe them (isn’t this the same strategy employed by a certain government administration of which we’re all too familiar?). In reality, Bill Ayers does not seem interested in conversation at all, unless it’s a one-sided conversation with himself. Even though he cut his bloviations mercifully short this time around, he still managed to outdo himself. I guess he still is the baddest dude in the neighborhood. And since he’s only given me until sunset to get out of town, forgive me if my response is a bit hurried (Hey, Slim, where can I find a good blacksmith to get my horse shoed in a hurry?).
Ayers claims that he teaches “good theory” and proudly lists his sacred pantheon of good theorists—“Freire and DuBois and Marx and Lebowitz and Luxemberg [sic] and Dewey and Boggs”. For all I know Ayers has relief sculptures of their likenesses in alto-rilievo style over the portal of his seminar room, and I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s a terrific classroom teacher). Yet when I happen to recall a personal conversation with Paulo Freire (the most precious gem in Ayers’ theoretical diadem?) in relation to a topic absolutely relevant to Ayers’s critique of Capitalists and Conquerors as employing the barren language of the academy (how Ayers could miss this obvious connection does little to give me confidence in his ability to critique the not-so-obvious) I am chided for evoking Freire’s name as a litmus test for the legitimacy of my work. Following Ayer’s logic, I guess it’s okay to teach Freire as an example of a good theorist, but only on the condition that you haven’t had the opportunity to dialogue with him in person, or if you have, that you don’t dare employ any “remembered conversation” with him in your work, even if it is completely relevant to the issue at hand (again, in this case, the “thud” of what Ayers calls my “domineering language”). After all, nobody wants to be tempted to touch Freire’s “sacred garment” (unless, perhaps, it has the magical ability to teleport Bill Ayers to a distant planet where he’s forced to read at least one book each by Northrop Frye and Hugh Kenner).
In his non-review of my book, Ayers approvingly recalled a satire of the language of “critical educationalists” circulated decades ago, a satire in which he obviously still takes gleeful comfort. In my response to his review, I mentioned that I, too, had seen the same satire. Similar questions to those raised by that satire so dear to Ayers were also raised at a four day event held in 1991 at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which I had the opportunity to pose my questions about academic language directly to Freire. In fact, all participants at this conference had the opportunity to speak with Freire and to listen to each other. The outcome of this conference and several other related conferences led to the publication of the book, Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, edited by Paulo Freire, with the assistance of James W. Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon and William T. Stokes. But then again, by following Ayers’ logic, I guess all those participants who attended this conference should do their best not to recall their conversations with Freire to help them clarify a point that might come up in discussions of their work. Because as helpful and relevant as these dialogues with Freire might be, you share them at the risk of being accused by Bill Ayers of inflating your academic credentials by associating yourself with the man whom Ayers regards as God’s chosen pedagogue. Note to Bill: Sorry, compañero, but if any of Freire’s conversations with me over the years continue to prove useful to expand upon a point, I’ll continue to share them. Let me put myself at risk of incurring your wrath again by reminding you of something Freire wrote that I think would be worth considering before embarking on your next “comradely” book review:
Unfortunately, as a group, we academics and politicians alike expend much of our energy on unjustifiable “fights” among ourselves, provoked by adjectival or, even worse, by purely adverbial differences. While we wear ourselves thin in petty “harangues,” in which personal vanities are displayed and egos are scratched and bruised, we weaken ourselves for the real battle: the struggle against our antagonists. (1995, p. x)
In his original review, Ayers writes: “When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors he [McLaren] directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics and books…[but]…nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I have said here.” However, in his recent response to my rebuttal, he writes: “McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors …” Note to Bill: While this acknowledgement might ruffle your feathers a bit, I have to confess that I didn’t summarize my theoretical position just to suit you. There is nothing in my rebuttal that wasn’t right there in Capitalists and Conquerors and in the additional material that I sent you.
Of course an author can always work harder at giving her arguments a crispness and clarity. But readers also have a responsibility. And while Ayers makes no sense at all in claiming that my discussion of race and class is “one of my few attempts…to contribute to a concrete analysis” in Capitalists and Conquerors, I would be remiss if I failed to thank him for appreciating the summary I provided of my position. Note to Bill: But Bill, if you want to know what led to the summary, then please take my advice and read the book.
This, of course, leads me to question the integrity of Ayers’ criticism of my theory. My sending through the mail more of my work to help him better contextualize and situate Capitalists and Conquerors within the tradition of Marxist educational theory is interpreted by Ayers as a concession I am making to his critique of my book. In point of fact, what I am conceding is my disappointment in discovering that Ayers does not appear to be familiar with even the most rudimentary theoretical perspectives found throughout Capitalists and Conquerors. Despite his claim to being the serious teacher of theory, Ayers offers no substantive critique of the theoretical arguments advanced in the book. Ayers criticizes the tone of my work and what he abhors as the rhetorical embellishments of my writing, and he criticizes my work for not delivering any solid application on the ground. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But how much can Ayers exploit his critique of my language as a basis for his critique of the theoretical arguments in the book? He offers no solid foundation from which to mount his critique. He thinks he can provide an abyss and somehow convince us that it’s a mountain.
According to Ayers, my work “does not advance good theory.” But Ayers does not reference any of the theoretical arguments or identify any of the problematics dealt with in the book. Note to Bill: Okay, Bill, let’s start with some basic questions. Share with me, if you will, the limitations of my theory of capitalist globalization? Where have Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale and I gone wrong in our evaluation of Paul Willis’s work on class consciousness? What are the shortcomings of the theory that Glenn Rikowski, Paula Allman (arguably two of the most accomplished Marxist educational theorists writing today) and I have advanced on Marx’s labor-capital relation and its consequences for Marxist educational theory? Was there something wrong in our extended discussion of internal relations in Marxist dialectics? What are the problems with the theoretical advances Donna Houston and I put forward about ecosocialism and critical pedagogy? How can my essay with Gregory Martin on imperialism and war be improved? How effective were the arguments made in my essay with Nathalia Jaramillo on the topic of Christian fundamentalism, imperialism, fascism, and globalization? These are the topics of my book. Note to Bill: Read the titles. Better still, read the chapters. If you had answered these questions, even some of them, then your review would have repaid readers with some substantive contribution to the discussion of critical pedagogy.
I enjoy learning from my critics. That’s how we all grow, from a good, solid (and honest) critique of our work. But Ayers keeps his theoretical tools in his toolkit and pretends to be performing micro-surgery with them. While I am sure he does a good job of teaching his assortment of theorists to his students, he exhibits no theoretical grasp whatsoever of the debates taken up in Capitalists and Conquerors. If Ayers had provided any substantive theoretical discussion pertinent to the themes of my book or to the problematics that my co-authors and I were addressing I might take him seriously. His defense of his original critique does little more than hoist him by his own petard.
Ayers criticizes the performativity of my prose, and the rhetorical embellishments of my writing. And while I found nothing remotely illuminating in his critique of my language, at least it was a fair criticism. But if Ayers wants to criticize the arguments advanced in the book, then he needs to exhibit at least some familiarity with the theory that informs them. At the very least he needs to know what the arguments are about. For all I know, Ayers might have an impressive grasp of ecosocialism, neoliberal globalization, and Marx’s labor theory of value but his critique not only fails to engage these theories, it makes no mention of them. Note to Bill: I’ll defend my theory as soon as you are able to provide a credible critique of it. This is not to say you are not a consummate theorist. I have no idea. But how is anybody to judge what to make of your claims about my book when you don’t even address its basic theoretical/political premises and tensions? Or even the basic themes? That’s not to say watching you perform Bill Ayers isn’t entertaining. It certainly is. But it does get tiresome. Reading the same belabored points the second time around, no matter how self righteously you flog them, is a bit like getting whacked in the head with an iron frying pan. It wakes you up for a split second before your lights go out. And I prefer to stay alert. There’s too much work to be done (as I’m sure you know).
What was most pathetic about Ayers’ recent commentary was his gesture of admitting to a mistake about ignoring my co-authors then yanking his admission away in the same breath. Here Ayers admits he made a mistake, but no, not really. He suggests that if you want to fault somebody, fault the publishers who didn’t list the co-authors on the cover, and you can blame the library, too, who didn’t list the co-authors either. Note to Bill: I happen to have Capitalists and Conquerors right here beside me on my cluttered and coffee-stained desk. Get your copy (even if you have to hold your nose as you retrieve it from the trash can) and read the table of contents. All six of the co-authors are listed under their respective chapters. Now, Bill, turn to the first page of each chapter. The co-authors are all listed there. Not, mind you, by being identified by a tiny asterisk with names spelled in a tiny font and placed at the bottom of the title page or hidden away in the notes section. In the case of Capitalists and Conquerors, the co-authors’ names are right there at the beginning of each chapter, and in relatively large typeface. True, you quote my single-authored chapters, but the point is that you are reviewing an entire text. Bill, I would have had more respect for your gesture if you didn’t try to pass the blame along to the publisher and the library but swallowed your mistake whole, even if the effort temporarily affected your vocal chords. Speaking of vocal chords, here you sound more like the whiny, high-pitched Mr. Bill character of Saturday Night Live fame than Bill Ayers the famed radical educator.
Critics very often are able to make a stronger case for their assessment of a work on the second try (by qualifying their initial analysis and providing a more nuanced reading) but in this case Ayers’ attempt at defending his critique devolves from the ridiculous to the pitiful. The hole that Ayers initially dug for himself only gets deeper in his alleged attempt at “continuing the conversation”. And he wants me to revel with him in the muck. Note to Bill: Forgive me if I take a pass.
I am not interested in “continuing the conversation” with Bill Ayers if that means interviewing yourself, knee-deep in disingenuousness, with a coxcomb pulled down over your ears. I am much more interested in dialogue than conversation (and you’d think Ayers would know the difference). And for that, I’m afraid, I will have to go elsewhere. And yes, onwards.
I don’t know what plans Bill has made for the week, but I’m off to The Factory to crank out some prints of Campbell Soup cans. Just promise me, Bill, you won’t become an art critic.
Continuing the Conversation: Ayers Replies
Posted By: Bill Ayers on February 6, 2007
Peter McLaren’s response to my review of Capitalists and Conquerors—alternately clever and entertaining and erudite, always interesting—fails utterly to engage the substantive issues I raised. For example, he launches a spirited defense of theory and philosophy as “important tools to help us understand the world and sharpen our praxis,” because, he speculates, I’m “apparently disturbed” by a book of theory. But I’m not disturbed by a book of theory, I’m in favor of theoretical discussion and debate, and I never criticized theorizing or the importance of philosophy. I did criticize Capitalists and Conquerors for failing to deliver on its promise to develop concrete strategies toward a socialist alternative, or to go beyond exhortation and proclamation, or to engage any of the lengthy list of questions it posits at the start, and that criticism remains unanswered. Good theory is essential—every year I teach Freire and DuBois and Marx and Gramsci and Lebowitz and Luxemberg and Dewey and Boggs, as well as their critics—but Capitalists and Conquerors does not advance good theory.
Again, McLaren defends the language of dialectics, and a dialectical approach to writing and teaching. But I never attacked dialectical thinking or writing, nor did I say that Capitalists and Conquerors was “too academic” or “too theoretical.” I said Capitalists and Conquerors was infused with a showy language of posing and performance, that it was a lot of glitter without the gold. I offered a couple of examples—out of hundreds I might have chosen—of sentences and paragraphs that huffed and puffed and went exactly nowhere. And I concluded that it was not a language that invited dialogue or development.
McLaren defends his self-described “engaging, somewhat experimental style” by citing a conversation with Paulo Freire, whom he describes as “my mentor.” In a remembered conversation McLaren cites Freire’s defense, in general, of McLaren’s work. The relevance to my critique of Capitalists and Conquerors eludes me, except to say, in effect, “I touched the sacred garment, believe me.”
McLaren’s brief discussion of race and class in his response is much better than anything in Capitalists and Conquerors, where he brushes aside any serious engagement, referring to “the well-worn race/class/gender triplet,” and “the much vaunted triptych.” He notes that if I’d read more of his work I would “know better than to make such a glib and opportunistic claim.” Perhaps. But my criticism was not about McLaren’s work in general; it was, rather, about Capitalists and Conquerors specifically. Again, he appears to concede the point.
Finally, the pop-psychologizing and silly attribution of motives aside, I did indeed fail to mention the co-authors who worked on various chapters with McLaren. My mistake. On the other hand, the cover of the book, the title page, the listing in the library make the same omission, so perhaps that criticism should more productively be taken up with the publisher. The text that I quote is similarly first-person singular—”my concern”, “my work”, “I have tried”, and so on.
So, yes, onward.
Here is my original rebuttal of Bill Ayers’s Non-Review
* Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity
Posted By: Peter McLaren on January 22, 2007
Peter McLaren Responds to Bill Ayers: Bad Faith Solidarity
By Peter McLaren
I met Bill Ayers recently in Caracas. We gave a joint seminar at the World Educational Forum (Bill, I might add, gave a rousing talk as an opening speaker) and we spent time with the wonderful researchers and activists of Centro International Miranda (CIM) where we work as algunos cooperantes internacionales. I was pleased to learn that Bill also delivered a lecture as part of the la Cátedra McLaren recently created by the Bolivarian University of Venezuela and CIM. It was, I thought, a good choice by the university administration to invite Bill to deliver the inaugural lecture (although it seems that it was more than his ‘curiosity’ that was piqued when he discovered, after the fact, that his lecture was called The Peter McLaren Lecture. I am sure he would have much rather delivered a lecture named after someone else). While in Caracas, Bill decided to purchase one of my books, Capitalists and Conquerors (one of my more theoretical works, I should add, which he claims to have read on the airplane ride back to Chicago), of which most of the chapters were co-authored, some by leading Marxist educational theorists.
When I returned to Los Angeles after my trip to Caracas, I found his review of Capitalists and Conquerors in an e-mail attachment that he sent me. I was a bit worried about reading the review since, back in the 1980s, I was told by colleagues that Bill didn’t much like my work, nor that of some of my colleagues, because he considered it to be too academic ( my Life in Schools being an obvious exception). But perhaps he no longer disliked my work, I thought, since a handful of years ago he very generously invited me to do a reflection on the work of Maxine Greene, as part of his edited collection on her work. I was wrong. After reading his review, it was obvious that Bill utterly despised my book, and in the event that he chose to publish his review somewhere, I sent him a handful of articles and a book, the contents of which I felt would easily undermine much of the general temper of his critique. Perhaps Bill could do a more nuanced reading of the book, and actually deal with the issues it raised if he became more familiar with the tradition of revolutionary critical pedagogy. As much as I would like to think Bill is motivated by honest debates among the left, my hunch is that Bill didn’t read them. He was on a roll, after all, and he didn’t want anything to derail his review, which recently appeared in Teachers College Record (December 12, 2006).
When I sat down to re-read Bill’s review more carefully, I was struck by his obsession with my “polarizing” physical appearance. That was odd, I thought, both of us wear loop earrings in both ears, and both of us sport lots of tattoos which we are only too happy to show to anyone who indicates even a passing interest. As far as I could see, we both gravitate towards jeans and T-shirts. So what is the big fascination with my appearance? I have to confess that I do look more like “Andy Warhol on drugs” than Bill, but since I don’t feel it appropriate to comment on an author’s physical appearance, I won’t make any comparisons of Bill with well-known icons, although I am tempted.
I was struck numb by how Bill discussed my reputation. Bill has obviously heard a lot about me over the years. To him, I am some kind of Manichean figure whom people love or love to hate. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when my name comes up among Bill and his colleagues. Perhaps if, instead of some articles and a book, I had sent Bill some recent photos of myself sporting an undersized plaid shirt and dual pocket protectors stuffed with pens, with my glasses held together with masking tape, he might have been more inclined to write something favorable. After all, there is only room for so many rebels in this here town known as Pedagogy Place.
While I felt Bill’s review took on serious issues I also was disappointed that Bill was either not serious in the way that he, himself, took them on or too impatient to get his initial points across—so much so that he failed to give sufficient attention to the actual arguments in the book. In other words, he didn’t provide any substantive commentary on the book’s contents. He seemed more interested in what he perceived to be my public image (Satan [the Dark Prince] “leering into the camera”, Andy Warhol, the dashing rebel) and speculating on whether or not I have a following of “McLarenites” on call to do my bidding [for all of those who might be interested, I instruct my followers in a nightly ritual in which I send out ESP messages from a secret tower hidden in the far reaches of the Hollywood Hills, so if you don’t want to become a McLarenite, wear a tinfoil hat on your head or read Bill Ayers).
Bill seemed relieved to report that I was not any one of the good or bad “stereotypes” of which he was familiar. Apparently I am just a “regular person after a couple of minutes”. I was glad to read this admission from Bill, since I was worried that people might begin crossing themselves for protection when they met me at a conference. And those tinfoil hats, well, that will definitely put you on the critical educator’s ‘worst dressed list’ for sure, and nobody wants that.
Bill is apparently disturbed by the fact that my book, Capitalists and Conquerors, is a book of theory. He wanted to see a book like my Life in Schools, the only work of mine of which he was familiar, and which he obviously appreciated. I am thankful for Bill’s kind words about Life in Schools. I think that book has probably more in common with the books that Bill writes.
Bill thinks that all books about education should include narratives about teaching and learning, and should be grounded in experiential, participatory events. Again, these are the kinds of books that Bill writes, and writes well. While I think such books are exceedingly important, there’s much more on the menu. Critical educators are more diverse than Bill would like, and perhaps Bill either regrets not following the developments in critical educational theory over the years, or he doesn’t really care.
Some of us actually believe that critical social theory and philosophy are too important to be left out of the educational literature. We believe that philosophy and theory are important tools to help us understand the world and sharpen our praxis. It seems as though most revolutionaries throughout history thought so, too. If Lenin, Che, Marx, Freire, and others took philosophy seriously, why shouldn’t radical educators?
Bill thinks he’s ‘been there and done that’ when it comes to issues of educational praxis. And he is never at a loss to share with readers his storied history as a radical educator in the 1960s. Surely, it’s a history to be proud of and a history from which all of us can learn. But there is also a tradition of writing in education that deals with the contradictions of capitalist society from a more theoretical lens. It is in his attempt to deal with substantive conceptual issues that Bill’s review crumbles into an under-nuanced, knee-jerk reaction. How, after all, could the author of Life in Schools, an award-winning book that chronicles a teacher’s classroom experiences in the 1970s, fall so low as to become a Marxist theorist interested in developing an obscure philosophy of praxis? How could an author who used to write more like Bill Ayers suddenly burden his readers with theoretical and philosophical concepts, ideas, and arguments?
One example should suffice. When it comes to the relationship of race to class Bill writes: “This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction.” If Bill read more about the debates on race and class (some of which I sent him), he would know better than to make such a glib and opportunistic claim about my work. He would know that I am not saying “class is everything” and “forget race.” That is a willful misreading of my work, but it puts him on the side of recognizing that there is a “white blind spot” that has historically afflicted white Marxists. Yes, Bill, we hear you. I agree that there is a white blind spot. Yes, I am aware of the “murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change”. In fact, I have written about these issues for years. Bill admits he hasn’t read much of my work, because if he did he would have come across numerous critiques that I have done of white supremacy that make Bill’s exact point.
In my more recent writings on the intersection of race and class, I do stress the explanatory primacy of class for analyzing the structural determinants of race, gender and class oppression. Not for analyzing their psychological aspects, or their phenomenological or cultural dimensions. But, and I will repeat this again, for analyzing their structural determinants. To reduce identity to the experience that people have of their race, class and gender location is to fail to acknowledge the objective structures of inequality produced by specific historical forces (such as capitalist production relations) that mediate the subjective understandings of both individuals and groups. While relations of oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender invariably intersect, their causes and determinations in capitalist societies can be effectively traced to the social relations of production (but not reduced to them). Most social relations constitutive of difference are considerably shaped by the relations of production and that there exists a racialized and gendered division of labor whose severity and function vary depending upon where one is located in the capitalist global economy is a commonplace assumption within various schools of Marxism. I don’t think it has eluded Bill that contemporary capitalist formations (neo-colonialist, fascist, imperialist, sub-imperialist) are functional for various incarnations of racism, sexism and patriarchy. It’s also true that capitalism can survive in relations of relative racial and gender equality—capitalism has become multiculturalized, after all. These are issues that warrant serious discussion, more serious than the one Bill has provided in his review.
One thing is clear: Race-based or feminist traditions of struggle are no less important or urgent than class-based ones. What my work attempts to highlight is how class operates as a universal form of exploitation whose abolition is central to the abolition of all manifestations of oppression. Class includes a state apparatus whose conquests and regulations create races and shape gender relations. You have to abolish a class-defending state if you want to make real headway in eliminating racism and patriarchy. Clearly, constructions of race and ethnicity are implicated in the circulation and process of variable capital. My work takes the position that forms of oppression based on categories of difference do not possess relative autonomy from class relations but rather constitute the ways in which oppression is lived and experienced within a class-based system. My work attempts to specify how all forms of social oppression function within an overarching capitalist system. Class denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. This does not mean we reduce race to class, or gender to class. We need to see this relation dialectically.
Bill knows, but fails to mention, that my approach to social struggle is multi-pronged: I choose to organize against racism, sexism, class oppression and white supremacy simultaneously as part of a larger anti-imperialist project directed towards the struggle for socialism. My work on the topic of how race and racism are linked to capitalist social relations argues that forms of non-class domination such as racism must often be fought in advance of the class struggle. Certainly we cannot make headway in fighting class oppression without fighting racism and sexism. And clearly, racism and sexism must be fought against, and tirelessly so, despite whether or not we have traced their existence to capitalist relations of exploitation.
I argue for the explanatory primacy of class in examining all forms of domination and exploitation, but that in no way suggests that class struggle is more important than anti-racist struggle. Or struggles against patriarchy. It’s gratifying to see Bill signal his affiliation with the work of W.E.B. DuBois, James and Grace Lee Boggs, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelly, bell hooks, and others. These, of course, are authors that I have admired for years, many of whom have figured prominently in my own work. By arguing that the most powerful contradiction in capitalist society is that between labor and capital is in no way saying that all we need to do is to bring on the revolution and racism and sexism and homophobia will all melt away by themselves. If Bill would only stop being the pompous provocateur and read what is actually in my work, maybe he can write a review that actually advances the conversation rather than obscures the issues.
Clearly, it is important to meet people where they happen to be, to speak to them in a language of solidarity and struggle, as Bill suggests. And as my mentor, Paulo Freire, also emphasized in his work. But there is more to it than that. Once, in a conversation with Paulo, I remarked that many people were criticizing the philosophical language that he used in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I told him that they also were criticizing my language, and those of my more theoretical colleagues, and in some cases the language of critical educational theory in general. Should we, I asked Paulo, abandon our language? He answered that our language should not be abandoned. Too many radical theorists have paid a heavy price for their work, he said. He also cautioned that, as critical educators, we are also translators, and in discussing our work with teachers and students and workers we can help translate that work in relation to the contextual specificity of where they find themselves. This requires a dialectical approach. But for Bill, dialectical language is the language of obfuscation. Bill’s dismissal of the language of dialectics (and the language of ideology critique) simply reifies the experience of the here and now (okay, folks, let’s talk to each other and get mobilized!) in a teacherly paean to a yeasty pragmatism.
Freire understood something that seems to have eluded Bill. While it is important to dialogue with teachers and students and community workers, to relate to people wherever they happen to be, it is also important to understand why people are where they are, how the juggernaut of capitalism has positioned them in relations that are not always transparent. Freire, in other words, understood the importance of dialectics.
One of my greatest disappointments is that you can read Bill’s review and not learn anything about what my book is about. You don’t learn that one of the chapters is about ecosocialism and critical pedagogy, another about Christianity, globalization and the false prophets of imperialism, another about the work of Paul Willis , or that there are several chapters on dialectics and the labor-capital relation. You don’t learn that the book is an attempt to contribute to work on Marxist educational theory, as well as a commentary and analysis of contemporary political events such as the war in Iraq.
In his failure to mention any of my six co-authors — Nathalia Jaramillo, Paula Allman, Glenn Rikowski, Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, and Gregory Martin and Donna
Houston—Bill insults the whole idea of the collective scholarship behind this work (not a good move by the standards of any radical school) and dismisses the labor of all those involved in writing the book. In attacking a book composed of a majority of co-authored chapters, Bill is addressing, by implication, the work of my co-authors whom he fails to mention by name. What Bill did was make them invisible. Bill should know that such an exercise in silencing is anathema to the critical educator. Bill should have acknowledged all of my co-authors, unless, of course, he thinks the contributions of co-authors is merely window dressing. Or maybe in the case of Capitalists and Conquerors he believes that the co-authors are just ‘McLarenites’ anyway, and don’t really possess their own autonomous existence. Our brains are all somehow mystically attached—an easy task for the Dark Prince.
A note to Bill: Capitalists and Conquerors is not a critical ethnography. If you want an ethnography, read some of my other texts. Capitalists and Conquerors is a book that takes up theoretical issues and applies them to thorny questions involving anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle. If you are not interested in reading about critical perspectives on ecosocialism, or the work of Paul Willis, or what Marx’s labor theory of value has to contribute to our understanding of capitalist schooling, then I can direct you to plenty of studies of actual schools and communities written by excellent researchers, some of whom are mutual friends of ours. Those books are important, but that is not the type of book I chose to write.
Fed up with the language of the academy, I have tried over the years to craft an engaging, somewhat experimental style. Bill is obviously as interested in the craft of writing as I am. My own style has been described by various critics both in glowing and damning terms, and Bill obviously falls into the latter camp. So be it. Bill prefers Gore Vidal. I love Gore Vidal, too. There is a place for all types of educational work, Bill, and not all of it has to mirror your own.
Twenty years ago, my colleague Henry Giroux (with whom I was working at the time at Miami University of Ohio) and I would frequently come across criticisms of our language that were every bit as crude as Bill’s, that our vocabulary was too difficult and academic, and that if we were ‘real activists’ we would write in a more lean, accessible prose. In fact, I remember reading the “satire” of which Ayers speaks—I think it was called “how to write like Henry Giroux” or “how to write like a critical theorist” or something like that. Match the columns A to B, etc. We laughed out loud.
And while I surely recognized then, as I do now, the pretentious character of much academic writing, I felt that many people who passed that satire around at education conferences just didn’t have the time or opportunity to familiarize themselves with the specialized language of critical theory or to mine the richness of many of the arguments that critical theorists were making (which is not to say that critical theorists can’t be bad writers). I was thinking at the time of Herbert Marcuse and how his work influenced a whole generation of political activists in the 1960s. But I also found that some of the criticism of critical theory by self-proclaimed educational activists took on a distinctively mean-spirited and reactionary tone. I also found it curious that the critics who sounded the most self-righteous about avoiding dense tomes by philosophers while organizing on the streets would never direct the same arguments against theoretical language (at least publicly) against Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (a challenging dialectical text), or works by Foucault or Marx (not that I would ever compare myself to those thinkers). What I also discovered in those days was that many of the outspoken critics of the language of critical pedagogy characterized themselves as the ones who were participating in ‘real’ educational transformation, while those in the same field who wrote theoretically or philosophically driven work were relegated to the position of ivory tower intellectuals, big on rhetoric but little on action –despite what might have been their considerable educational activism and political work outside of the classroom. Those who veered from writing like a newspaper editorial were not considered serious participants in educational change. According to Bill, I guess Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist humanism, was misguided when she would go into factories to teach Hegel to the workers.
In his review, Bill acknowledges the activist work that I do outside of my writing, so I would not place Bill squarely in this camp. But his comments do echo some of the earlier historical ‘division’ between those who considered themselves the real activists in the classrooms and the streets and those who apparently chose to take up residence in the seminar room and barricade the door with copies of Das Kapital and Phenomenology of Mind.
Of course, I agree with Bill that we need to do class analysis and not just talk about it. But what are the tools that we use? Most of the language in education that deals with class is grounded in a Weberian analysis of class as a lifestyle choice dealing with relations of consumption, not production. Rarely do we see educators advance a Marxist language of class analysis. That was part of the motivation for putting together Capitalists and Conquerors. We need to do class analysis, yes, but we also need a language of critique, and to participate in the process of making such a language relevant to the conditions of the global present. Marxist humanist critique, as I have been trying to develop it in the context of creating a philosophy of praxis, isn’t enough to bring about the revolution but it can help clarify key faultlines and issues in relation to the struggle ahead. For instance, in asking the question of why so many revolutions have historically turned into their opposite, I think the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, especially her work on absolute negativity, is crucial if you believe, as I do, that developing a coherent philosophy of praxis is important (Dunayevskaya had a big falling out over the relevance of Marxism with Grace Lee Boggs, as I am sure Bill knows). Reading radical philosophy is but one of numerous activities that can help move the struggle forward; it can help to clarify our understanding of some of the major contradictions that drive capitalism and strengthen our resistance to it, along with helping us to formulate strategies and tactics necessary to engage in effective anti-capitalist work both locally and transnationally. That alone is a worthwhile endeavor, if it is a sincere attempt to make the world a place where socialism can take root. That Bill thinks developing a philosophy of praxis, or contributing to the debate over the Weberian analysis of class versus the Marxist humanist approach to class, is all about trivial polemics or academic rhetoric (rhetoric that is just fodder for the seminar room or for getting academics tenure) is a shocking admission. It is a disservice to those folks who would benefit from reading Marx, Hegel, and other thinkers and who might discover that reading these authors helps them become more coherent revolutionaries on the ground. If you read theory only for its own sake, and not in the context of developing a revolutionary project that has flesh and bones and advances social and economic justice, then yes, it can all be just a futile exercise.
Bill laments that after reading my book he did not “feel free”. Could that be that revolutionary critical pedagogy is not all about the pedagogy of “pleasure”, the pedagogy of “feeling good”. Bill makes the struggle against the universal exploitation of labor by capital to be simply a matter of populist pragmatism—of speaking to the affective consciousness of the individual. (“Hello, my name is Bill Ayers and I want to speak with you, not for you.”) It’s all in the discourse. In Bill’s view, my work, by contrast, becomes just an undifferentiated abstraction. Here, Bill’s voluntarism slides into reformism, obscuring my emphasis on transnational class struggle. Teaching suspicion of abstraction is a key component of bourgeois pedagogy. Marx, however, believed that it was through abstractions that we get a deeper grasp of the concrete. Does that mean our work should be deliberately obfuscating. Of course not. What is does mean is that we need many kinds of contributions, many guests at the banquet of social transformation.
I don’t fault Bill for wanting strategies for change. I don’t fault Bill for wanting more empirical work with teachers and students and communities. But that leaves out an entire universe of writings. Bill notes: “For all I know he’s [McLaren] made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire /oeuvre/—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis.” Yes, Bill, I have made the effort elsewhere. It’s a good thing that you haven’t read these other efforts because they might have undercut your criticism. Then again, you could always just dismiss these works, as well, as death by exhortation.
Tragically, Bill has recycled the tired and cranky old criticism of academic discourse that has been around for decades, and seems to have read my work in a way that is at least as under-nuanced as what he claims to be my own reading and writing practices. Bill’s “imprimatur-like” pronouncement on my book betrays an arrogance of presumption
that in my view undermines his credibility as a critic. But
in spite of his criticism, he still holds out hope that I am on the side of the good guys. No, Bill actually admits that I am “surely one of the good guys.” By that I guess he means I am not the Dark Prince. Thanks for letting prospective teachers know that if they read my work, they won’t break out in boils. Furthermore, he writes: “I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it.” I guess now is the time to thank Bill for his encouraging words, and for suggesting that while my theoretical work over the last thirty years has been mostly a waste of time, there is still hope for me if I listen to his seasoned advice. Okay. Thanks, Bill. I am sure you are one of the good guys, too.
I have admired Bill’s writings on teacher education for years (no, decades) and appreciated the opportunity to speak with him at length in Caracas and share our commitment to the Bolivarian revolution. I appreciate that he would consider to do a review of my work and demythologize the mysteries surrounding the “phenomenon” of Peter McLaren. But I am disappointed that his comments amount to little more than a caricature of the anti-academy writings that still tirelessly
circulate among those who privilege their reputations as the ‘real activists’.
This type of posturing was not useful twenty years ago, and it is even less useful today. To minimize the contributions of critical theory to the project of educational transformation because its scholarly language appears too removed from everyday life is to slide into a reactionary form of populism or ‘basism’ about which Paulo Freire warned us against decades ago.
I am sure that it is not lost on the astute reader of Bill’s review, that his commentary on me and my work are not without their own rhetoric. Bill’s review is dressed up in the language of the benevolent school teacher who assures us that he really likes the misbehaving child whom he beats mercilessly. I guess he wanted to wield the hatchet but hide the blood. All said, if Bill is really concerned about solidarity among the left, he would have read my book less selectively. Not generously, mind you, but less selectively. I think he had his mind made up after the first twenty pages, decided he could fit his comments into his preordained activist critique of critical pedagogy that he held twenty years ago, and then went to the garage to look for a hatchet. That’s the kind of action that Sartre called “bad faith.”
Peter McLaren is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.
AYERS ROCKED IN HIS OWN UNIVERSE
As one of the contributors to Peter McLaren’s “Capitalists and Conquerors” I have responded to this review on my web log, the Volumizer.
See: “Ayers Rocked In His Own Universe”, at: http://journals.aol.co.uk/rikowskigr/Volumizer
Glenn Rikowski, London