Education under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling

By Stanley Aronowitz; Henry Giroux | Go to book overview

THREE

Mass Culture and Critical Pedagogy

IN HIS BOOK The Eclipse of Reason, Max Horkheimer, founder of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, provided one of the most succinct formulations of the problem engendered by mass culture. According to Horkheimer, the significance of the challenge posed by the massified culture industry to civilization consisted in its assault on the capacity to engage in critical thought as a meaningful form of social discourse. Horkheimer cared deeply about the content of critical thought, but with the rise of fascism he became more concerned with the spectre of the end of reason itself. In his view, the capacity of humans to distance themselves from the object in order to gain critical perspective upon their social world can no longer be taken for granted. The restricted language and thought codes produced by the reduction of all thought to its technical dimensions reach far into the culture, encompassing schools as well as communications, the public as well as the private spheres of discourse. It is no longer a question of whether ordinary discourse is able to deal effectively with issues of specific ideological and social content. As Jürgen Habermas expressed it, the new situation raises the issue of the competence of people to effectively communicate ideational content. The issue is the capacity for theoretical or conceptual thought itself. When people lack such competence, social action that transcends the struggle for justice within the empirically given rules of social organization and discourse is impossible.

Marcuse asserted the fundamental transformation of the individual in late capitalist society. Using the metaphor of the relation between the gene and the soma, he argued that cultural commodities have not only produced a closed universe from which oppositional ideas are strictly excluded, but also that fundamental changes in the “genetic” structures of humans had occurred such that individuation is foreclosed within the terms set by the system. Within this grim paradigm, the truncated imagination now appears natural. We need not detain ourselves in debate about the “scientific” content of Marcuse’s argument, though empirical evidence for his assertions can be adduced from recent psychological

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