The following is excerpted from America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, out today from Broadside Books.
The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin raised his glass to a group of artists assembled at the home of famed writer Maxim Gorky in 1932. “The ‘production’ of souls is more important than the production of tanks,” he said, explaining that the communists desired not only to remake the world of politics and economics, but to reshape human nature according to the dictates of left-wing ideology. “And so,” he continued, “I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.”
This concept—the ruthless application of politics to the most intimate recesses of the human spirit—would drive the communist regimes for the middle part of the twentieth century. The Soviets had their artists. The Chinese had their propagandists. The Third World armies had their pedagogists. All were committed to the creation of the New Man.
The Marxists in the West, such as Paulo Freire, held the same philosophy. Freire and his disciples believed that the critical pedagogies could reengineer the human soul and inspire a revolution from the bottom up. But in contradiction to their counterparts in the East, the dividing line between oppressor and oppressed in the West was not social class, but racial identity.
“Although [Freire]’s early work was understandably rooted in an almost exclusive concern with class, many of us realized that it had theoretical shortcomings in dealing with the central issues shaping the multicultural debate,” explained Freire’s closest American collaborator, Henry Giroux. “Many of us began to expand the notion of social justice to include a discourse about racial justice. That is, justice could not be taken up solely in terms of the ownership of the means of production, or strictly around questions of labor or the division of wealth. These were very important issues, but they excluded fundamental questions about racism, colonialism, and the workings of the racial state.”
Echoing Marcuse’s redefinition of the proletariat—the white intellectuals united with the black underclass—Freire’s American disciples developed an elaborate framework for categorization and subversion of the ruling order. Their primary pedagogical strategy was to pathologize white identity, which was deemed inherently oppressive, and radicalize black identity, which was deemed inherently oppressed. In the academic literature, this technique is sometimes referred to as “revolutionary pedagogy,” “critical multiculturalism,” or “decolonization,” which entails ridding the education system of the repressive influence of “whiteness” and infusing it with the liberating influence of “blackness.”
Peter McLaren, another Freire disciple who worked in tandem with Henry Giroux, laid out the mechanics of how this new pedagogy of revolution would work in practice. American teachers and students, McLaren argued, must “[break] the imaginary power of commodified identities within capitalism” and “construct sites—provisional sites—in which new structured mobilities and tendential lines of forces can be made to suture identity to the larger problematic of social justice.”
Appealing directly to figures such as Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin, McLaren contended that the ultimate end of critical pedagogy was to use the power of identity politics in order to “gain control of the production of meaning” and to usher in a “democratic socialist society” that combined the identity-based “struggle over cultural meanings” with the traditional Marxist “redistribution of material resources.” For McLaren and the critical pedagogists, this movement of decolonization was already gathering at the margins in the 1990s as the influence of Freire’s theories began to expand in academia and school administration. “Decolonized spaces are forming in the borderlands,” McLaren predicted a quarter century ago. “And these will affect the classrooms of the future.”
That future has already arrived. Public school districts across the country have begun to apply the principles of critical pedagogy in the classroom. The practice follows a recurring pattern: Teachers set an emotional anchor by framing the United States as an oppressive society, separate individual students into the categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and direct the group toward prearranged political conclusions. As the diversity czar and activist teachers at Buffalo Public Schools recently explained, school districts that follow the “pedagogy of liberation” begin “preparing [students] at four years old,” train them to achieve “critical consciousness,” and transform them into “activists for antiracism.”
And just as it was for the revolutionaries in the Third World, the goal for Giroux, McLaren, and the second-generation critical pedagogists is always the same: dismantling the criminal justice system, disrupting the nuclear family, overthrowing the system of capitalism, and, in the words of Freire, turning the schools into “an extraordinary instrument to help build a new society and a new man.”
The critical pedagogists of today have combined that long-standing vision with the latest techniques of the social and behavioral sciences. Freire’s techniques have been adapted, merged, and combined with a range of other educational approaches, including critical social justice, critical ethnic studies, critical whiteness studies, culturally responsive teaching, anti-racist pedagogy, and social-emotional learning. The theoreticians divide the world into identity hierarchies; the teachers engage in the work of decolonization; the students become entries in sprawling databases; the bureaucracies process human data into social change.
“It’s important to recognize that now is the time to brush hard against the grain of teaching until the full range of revolutionary pedagogical options are made available in the public schools of the nation,” says the pedagogist McLaren. “Part of the task is ethical: to make liberation and the abolition of human suffering the goal of the educative enterprise itself. Part of the task is political: to create a democratic socialist society in which democracy will be called upon daily to live up to its promise.”
When Stalin toasted the artists of postrevolutionary Russia as “engineers of the human soul,” he was speaking metaphorically, imagining the day that artists could create new men with scientific precision. That time, the critical pedagogists believe, has now come. The cherished goal of liberation through education, emblazoned in the sky by Guevara and implanted in the soul by Freire, might finally be within reach. After students are primed emotionally, categorized individually, and mobilized collectively, they can set about doing the work of revolution.
Christopher F. Rufo is a senior fellow and director of the initiative on critical race theory at the Manhattan Institute.
From the book America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything by Christopher F. Rufo. Copyright © 2023 by Christopher F. Rufo. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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