ABSTRACT

Surely this is one of the most startling historical junctures any of us in America can recall. It is a time when many feel that much of the collective work of the sixties, seventies, and eighties-to rid society of conformism and prejudice, to introduce progressive legislation into labor, to change the way in which people are educated and the content of their education-is being eroded daily. It is a backlash, a “counter counter-cultural backlash,” as the New York Times has called it, using words like “radical” and “revolutionary” to denote their opposite and reminding us that not even progressive lan­ guage is safe from appropriation. Those of us in the arts and education sus­ pect we might be seeing the end of the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities. We know we are expe­ riencing serious threats to these organizations-attacks that have little to do with budgetary necessities and everything to do with politics. We have for quite some time seen the decimation of the public school system in America; and we may well be witnessing the end of the concept of the public sector. Given this upheaval, where are the forums for serious debate? Certainly they are not to be found on talk shows, where all social issues are personalized, psychologized, and trivialized. Serious political debates are conceptually at the heart of a democratic society, yet we rarely experience them any longer. We are also seeing a return of the most reactionary use of the term “values” thrown at us with a vengeance. An issue of Newsweek magazine was devoted to “Shame: How Do We Bring Back a Sense of Right and Wrong?” On the

cover was a sepia-toned photo of what appeared to be a nineteenth-century child with a gigantic dunce cap on his or her head. What are we supposed to think? Is shame the way to gain control of inner-city youths, gang violence, drug lords?—to return America to its puritanical origins, the proud Hester Prynn with the bold letter A plastered to her chest? America must find a way to grapple with what it has become, the extremes to which it has fallen. But because these reactionary conditions and values are not confined to America alone, now is a crucial time to look closely at the relationship between the personal and political, to articulate where we are positioning ourselves, and to find a group with whom to work and to think through the complexity of this moment so as to be most effective-in other words, to take one’s life as a public citizen quite seriously. It is also necessary to evaluate our individual life goals against the pedagogical intentions of the institutions within which we study and work.