I loved this essay – it should be a must-read for all educational leaders, and perhaps especially for those in English departments as we come up to 2014 and the anniversary of WWI, which will no doubt spark renewed interest in such topics among younger readers…
Discussing the way Abu Ghraib (and the exposure of the torture taking place there) calls into question the role of education in democratic society – especially with regards to the ability and willingness to speak out, as it were, – Henry Giroux writes that:
“Questions of power and meaning are always central to any discussion of photographic images as forms of public pedagogy. Such images not only register the traces of cultural mythologies that must be critically mediated, they also represent ideological modes of address tied to the limits of human discourse and intelligibility and function as pedagogical practices regarding how agency should be organized and represented. The pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison gain their status as a form of public pedagogy by virtue of the spaces they create between the sites in which they become public and the forms of pedagogical address that both frame and mediate their meaning. As they circulate through various sites including talk radio, computer screens, television, newspapers, the Internet and alternative media, they initiate different forms of address, mobilize different cultural meanings, and offer up different sites of learning. The meanings that frame the images from Abu Ghraib prison are ‘contingent upon the pedagogical sites in which they are considered’ and their ability to limit or rule out certain questions, historical inquiries, and explanations (DiLeo et al . 2004). For example, news programs on the Fox Television Network systematically occlude any criticism of the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib that would call into question the American presence in Iraq. If such issues are raised, they are quickly dismissed as unpatriotic.
Attempts to defuse or rewrite images that treat people as things, as less than human have a long history. Commentators have invoked comparison to the images of lynching of black men and women in the American South and Jews in Nazi death camps. John Louis Lucaites and James P. McDaniel have documented how Life Magazine during World War II put a photograph on its cover of a woman gazing pensively at the skull of a Japanese solider sent to her by her boyfriend serving in the Pacific, a lieutenant who when he left to fight in the war ‘promised her a Jap’ (Lucaites & McDaniel 2004, p. 7). Far from reminding its readers of the barbarity of war, the magazine invoked the patriotic gaze in order to frame the barbaric image as part of a public ritual of mortification and a visual marker of humiliation. As forms of public pedagogy, photographic images must be engaged ethically as well as socio-politically because they are implicated in history and [-p.191] they often work to suppress the very conditions that produce them. Often framed within dominant forms of circulation and meaning, such images generally work to legitimate particular forms of recognition and meaning marked by disturbing forms of diversion and evasion. This position is evident in those politicians who believe that the photographs from Abu Ghraib are the real problem not the conditions that produced them. Or in the endless commentaries that view the abuses at Abu Ghraib as caused by a few ‘bad apples’. Subjecting such public pronouncements to critical inquiry can only emerge within those pedagogical sites and practices in which matters of critique and a culture of questioning are requisite to a vibrant and functioning democracy.” (pp.790-791)
“As part of a politics of representation, photographic images necessitate both the ability to read critically and utilize particular analytical skills that enable viewers to study the relations between images, discourses, everyday life and broader structures of power. As both the subject and object of public pedagogy, photographs both deploy power and are deployed by power and register the conditions under which people learn how to read texts and the world. Photographs demand an ability to read within and against the representations they present and to raise fundamental questions about how they work to secure particular meanings, desires, and investments. As a form of public pedagogy, photographic images have the potential, though by no means guaranteed, to call forth from readers modes of witnessing that connect meaning with compassion, a concern for others and a broader understanding of the historical and contemporary contexts and relations that frame meaning in particular ways. Critical reading demands pedagogical practices that shortcircuit common sense, resist easy assumptions, bracket how images are [-p.792] framed, engage meaning as a struggle over power and politics, and as such refuse to posit reading (especially images) exclusively as an aesthetic exercise but also as a political and moral practice.” (pp.791-792)
[Referring to Theodor Adorno’s writings on education, autonomy, and Auschwitz – and particularly his essay, Education After Auschwitz, which informs Giroux’s approach here,] Giroux asserts: “Recognizing how crucial education was in shaping everyday life and the conditions that made critique both possible and necessary, Adorno insisted that the desire for freedom and liberation was a function of pedagogy and could not be assumed a priori. At the same time, Adorno was acutely aware that education took place both in schools and in larger public spheres, especially in the realm of media. Democratic debate and the conditions for autonomy grounded in a critical notion of individual and social agency could only take place if the schools addressed their critical role in a democracy. Hence, Adorno argued that the critical education of teachers played a crucial role in preventing dominant power from eliminating the possibility of reflective thought and engaged social action. Such an insight appears particularly important at a time when public education is being utterly privatized, commercialized, and test-driven, or, if they serve underprivileged students of color, turned into disciplinary apparatuses that resemble prisons. Public schools are under attack precisely because they have the potential to become democratic public spheres instilling in students the skills, knowledge, and values necessary for them to be critical citizens capable of making power accountable and knowledge an intense object of dialogue and engagement.” (p.797)
“Within the boundaries of critical education, students have to learn the skills and knowledge to narrate their own stories, resist the fragmentation and seductions of market ideologies, and create shared pedagogical sites that extend the range of democratic politics. Ideas gain relevance in terms of whether and how they enable students to participate in both the worldly sphere of self-criticism and the publicness of everyday life. Theory and knowledge, in other words, become a force for autonomy and self-determination within the space of public engagement, and their significance is based less on a self-proclaimed activism than on their ability to make critical and thoughtful connections ‘beyond theory, within the space of politics itself’ (Couldry 2004, p. 15).” (p.804)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Henry A. Giroux (2004): Education after Abu Ghraib, Cultural Studies, 18:6, 779-815