Youth in a Suspect Society: A Review

In a radical free-market culture, when hope is precarious and bound to commodities and a corrupt financial system, young people are no longer at risk: they are the risk.

— Henry Giroux, p. x.

If youth once constituted a social investment in the future and symbolized the promise of a better world, they are now entering another stage in the construction of a global social order in which children are increasingly demonized and criminalized… p. 29.

As the politics of the social state gives way to the biopolitics of disposability, the prison becomes a preeminently valued institution whose disciplinary practices become a model for dealing with the increasing number of young people who are considered to be the waste products of a market-mediated society. p. 82.

GirouxYouth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?
By Henry A. Giroux
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (2009)
ISBN: 978-0-230-61329-4
ISBN10: 0-230-61329-2

It need not be said, though I find it necessary to restate, that Henry Giroux is one of the most important public servants the last 100 years have produced. In his expansive three decade plus academic career, Giroux has written over 35 books, contributed to countless scholarly journals, and received numerous educational honors.

But perhaps what most makes this former high school basketball star distinct is his tireless advocacy on behalf of the frail, the vulnerable, the disposable.

Giroux has focused much of his writing over the fragile existence disenfranchised populations are largely relegated to. Giroux’s “critical sympathy” to the often forgotten, as Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson once mentioned, is what pushes him time after time to engage issues many of his peers would rather stay far away from — for fear of sanction, resentment, or job loss.

In that spirit of deep moral determination and fervent conviction, comes his latest work: Youth in a Suspect Society, which, above all else, is an attempt to interrogate the increasingly hostile future our society is preparing, with no sense of shame or irony, for its next tenants — young people.

Giroux wastes no time condemning the “assault against youth” being waged by all those blind to the radical realities of reproof youth, and especially those of color, are being confined to by way of policy and legislation. An example of this is provided in the case of Deamonte Driver, a seventh grader from Prince George’s County, Maryland, who “died because his mother did not have the health insurance to cover an $80 tooth extraction.”

Under the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration, Giroux writes, there was at least a “willingness to fight for the rights of children, enact reforms that invested in their future, and provide the educational conditions necessary for them to be critical citizens.” But all advancements made in that era were rolled over as one neo-conservative administration after the other found its way into the White House. And the most devastating of them, in theory and practice, Giroux insists, was the 43rd one.

But government alone isn’t responsible, he notes, because anti-Youth legislations couldn’t be established as law without a media complex that has “habitually” reinforced representations, however false, of young people as “variously lazy, stupid, self-indulgent, volatile, dangerous, and manipulative.” It’s important to note that these suggestions “do more than degrade young people and resonate with their underlying marginality and disposability”; they also “legitimate the passage of draconian measures, policies, and laws at the highest levels of government.”

So, it then makes sense when schools become transformed into secondary stations for police officers, military personnel, and other agents of the State.

The message: Kids and, especially, Youth are a threat to society — a threat which must be watched with close scrutiny, dealt with diabolically, and, when necessary, punished with the power of the law.

Students are, as a result, targeted and treated as potential criminals, paving way for a society in which “children who commit a rule violation as minor as a dress code infraction or slightly act out in class can be handcuffed, booked, and put in a jail cell.”

In Youth in a Suspect Society, Giroux also takes special time out to dive deeper into the challenges confronting children, as they try to navigate a world where giant corporations see them as nothing but disposable commodities – to be bought and sold.

Children, Dr. Giroux writes, “constitute the primary index through which a society registers its own meaning, vision, and politics.” And today’s children are having to become more accustomed to a speed-driven society; a society that treasures punctuality over poignancy, and impatience over incandescence. Thus, kids are being encouraged to revel in “the suspension of judgment, the inability to think critically, [and] the avoidance of responsibility.” (Never mind that these very kids are still ultimately barraged with blame for low test scores or poor performance on state standardized tests.)

Kids would also have to get used to “a society that measures its success and failure solely through the economic lens of the Gross National Product (GNP)”; a society unable to “define youth outside of market principles determined largely by … market growth and the accumulation of capital.”

This society, children should be aware, sees them not only as an “expansive and profitable market but as the primary source of redemption for the future of capitalism.”

Examples of such thinking abound in Youth in a Suspect Society. Giroux’s meticulous research unearths numerous reports of kids being selected by toy companies to act as representatives (unpaid employees), such as a GIA-sponsored event, Slumber Party in a Box, which enlists “agents” to “invite their friends to an overnight party, hand out free products to them, and then provide ‘feedback through quizzes’ to GIA headquarters.” Corporations have found kids and pre-teens great resources – peer pressure power — to use in expanding their brand — even if it commodifies the non-market value of friendship.

Giroux also turns a sharp gaze on pro athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who, he says, appear more interested in inflating their bank account figures than “using their celebrity status for educating young people about character, hard work, the value of sportsmanship, and the sheer joy of athleticism.”

But there’s another angle to this, which hasn’t gotten as much press among progressive circles. As Giroux writes:

More and more youth have been defined and understood within a war on terror that provides an expansive, antidemocratic framework for referencing how they are represented, talked about, and inserted within a growing network of disciplinary relations that responds to the problems they face by criminalizing their behaviors and subjecting them to punitive modes of conduct.

The war on terror and drugs, Giroux asserts, has added a new target: Youth.

This war, unlike the more glamorous cross-national disputes, doesn’t necessarily involve two sides in contentious combat. This war is characterized by “4th grade reading scores and graduation rates [being] used to determine how many prison cells will be built.” This war is against the growing population of “pint-size nihilists” amongst us. Extinguish them!

And so,

Instead of being viewed as impoverished, minority youth are seen as lazy and shiftless; instead of being recognized as badly served by failing schools, they are labeled uneducable and pushed out of schools; instead of being provided with decent work skills and jobs, they are either sent to prison or conscripted to fight in wars abroad; instead of being given decent health care and a place to live, they are placed in foster care or pushed into the swelling ranks of the homeless.

These enemies of our peace are then rightfully placed in schools where the squeaking sound of metal detectors is omnipresent, where police forces are dominant, where arrests, suspensions, and expulsions are as commonplace as being frisked, cussed-out, or strip-searched by security officers on your way to class. These enemies of our peace might be too young to legally “marry, drive a car, get a tattoo, or go to scary movies, but not too young to be put in prisons for the rest of their lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s make sure they’re excluded from “various forms of student aid,” post-conviction, including but not limited to “welfare payments, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, food stamps, and… public housing.”

Isn’t it so heartwarming to know that young people growing up have such a splendid future awaiting them?

Giroux calls on “intellectuals” of great courage to “take a stand” against these “collective problems” putting at risk “not only young people and adults… but the very possibility of deepening and expanding democracy itself.” But how many of these intellectuals wouldn’t have to be summoned from the dead?

As he rightly notes, the university has witnessed a radical shift in vision this past decade. Through hysteria whipped up by right-wingers following 9/11, many liberal or left-leaning professors have been silenced or fired to quell the paranoia expressed by some students that they’re being brainwashed. Their professors tried to force upon them “Marxist” and “Socialist” values – values that go by such scary prospects as critical thinking, intellectual freedom, and independent reasoning.

These young people, Giroux writes, have been bamboozled by the likes of David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of popular culture, who’ve “hijacked political power and waged a focused campaign against the principles of academic freedom, sacrificing the quality of education made available to youth in the name of patriotic correctness.”

Cheated out of an enlightening educational experience, Giroux contends, are young people, who, in exchange for being provided the tools to “critically engage what they know and to recognize the limits of their own knowledge,” are infantilized by appeasing academics. They are denied “opportunities to engage knowledge critically… [and] assume responsibility for what it means to know something.”

Giroux’s hopes are for a “larger public dialogue about how to imagine a democratic future,” in the context of a Youth-centered pedagogy. Unfortunately, “We have entered a period in which the war against youth, especially poor youth of color, offers no apologies because it is too arrogant and ruthless to imagine any resistance.” Nonetheless, this ambassador of hope reassures: “… [P]ower as a form of domination is never absolute, and oppression always produces some form of resistance.”

And though the laborious work of resistance must engage all sectors of society, Giroux’s call to young people is direct: “[G]o out into the world and actively try to change it.”

Youth in a Suspect Society is an unnerving prophetic call to action. Through tedious research and meditation, Giroux has provided a blueprint that all concerned can use in restoring the faith Youth once had in society — faith planted in the soils of non-privatized, non-corporatized values.

This faith, however, has been uprooted by years of indifference and antipathy, callousness and bellicosity.

Children are now much too aware of the degree of disregard society disses them with. And they respond to it in ways that anger some and amuse others.

But the concrete work of restoring this faith has hardly been addressed, let alone acted upon, before the publication of Youth in a Suspect Society.

I recommend it with inestimable gratitude to Dr. Giroux for his moral vigor and matchless vitality.

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Tolu.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on September 18th, 2009 at 2:03pm #

    Good article on an important topic. The solution to the social problem you describe is not an easy one. The answer would require a complete change from top to bottom in how we do things.

    The medical system is a big problem The case of Deamonte Driver is important. How many other children suffer and die needlessly like he did. How many in the US never heard of Deamonte? Most people in the US would rather watch junk TV shows or celebrate some star athlete than work for social change. The values and priorities in the US have led to a nation on the brink. I don’t think that the solution to the school problem is a lot more money. A change in values and priorities would make a step forward. For one thing, schools should be much smaller. The push toward very large school districts has not benefited students.

    The way we try to educate in the school system, as it now exists, is sometimes worse than not sending children to school at all. Text books lie. Teachers, many (but not all) of them, are misinformed and pass that misinformation down to students. If a teacher is enlightened he/she would probably be fired for teaching the truth.

    Worse than that is the culture in some schools. Drugs, violence, and bullying are major problems. In the cases where young people kill, bullying is often the root of the problem.

    Violence is glorified on football fields and during wrestling matches. Children are taught competition, but rarely are they taught cooperation. The “my team is better that your team” type thinking eventually leads to the view that our country can do no wrong.

    I could go on and on. Your article struck a nerve for me. I started teaching in 1956 and founded the “Justice for Children” in the 1970s. That was the first organization of that name. It was dedicated to advocating for the legal/economic rights of children.

  2. lichen said on September 18th, 2009 at 2:06pm #

    “Giroux calls on “intellectuals” of great courage to “take a stand” against these “collective problems” putting at risk “not only young people and adults… but the very possibility of deepening and expanding democracy itself.””

    To do so, such intellectuals would perhaps have to take a critical eye to the time when they were children, and what was also very wrong about that period, instead of just reacting through paternalism, and claiming that things were better when they were young, and that all decisions and increased freedoms that young people have gained since them are just the tools of corporate manipulation, and how dare they have sex or use the internet or play video games (when we didn’t do those things, so they must be creepy)!

    I agree that we need a great expansion of the rights of young people; schools need to be reformed into democratic, creative, free institutions, instead of schools of punishment, some of which still allow criminal violence to be acted out on students by the staff. It is also a big issue how college has been turned into such a for-profit, privitized charade in the past thirty years that most students who aren’t rich end up tens of thousands of crippling student loan debt, that isn’t even dischargable through bankruptcy due to t lobbyist-inspired legislating.

  3. rosemarie jackowski said on September 18th, 2009 at 2:20pm #

    lichen…About the value of a college education – I”m not so sure that it is all that many think it is. The paper chase is encouraged in this culture for the same reason that war is encouraged. It makes money for some. Many of the most intelligent, productive people I have known had no diplomas. Being self-educated should be a source of pride and accomplishment.

  4. lichen said on September 18th, 2009 at 2:34pm #

    No, the value of a college education is not necessarily very great at all–and definitely not in step with the almost mortgage proportion debt some young people are forced into as a result of it. Being self-educated is indeed a great accomplishment, but society needs to support that, to support a wide variety of options for letting young people get a high school diploma or a degree–not just demand they got a job and hurl insults at them if they are not fully enmeshed inside an institution, but are reading, exploring, etc in a more independent way.

  5. rosemarie jackowski said on September 18th, 2009 at 2:59pm #

    lichen…I agree that there should be more choice in education. Charter schools, home schools, and a FAIR voucher system would all be improvements over what we have. It is a political issue opposed by the dems and the teachers’ unions.

    And about colleges – many have become just businesses. And the student loan program is a disgrace. Too many students have been misled, lied to, and will be ‘indentured’ to the unfair loan system for most of their lives. I favor a Single Payer, K thru grad school educational system that would be free and supported by broad based taxes. If med school was free, medical care would not be so costly.

    Also, a new way of learning that includes internships would be less costly. But most important we must end the worship of the ‘paper’. I envision a day when we would have a president who was a plumber, carpenter, or auto mechanic. Can anyone deny that we have too many lawyers and not enough real people in power.

  6. rosemarie jackowski said on September 18th, 2009 at 3:03pm #

    P.S. President Obama is coming to my area on Monday. He will be at a Community College in Troy, NY. Of course, it is a “By invitation ONLY” event. No normal people will be allowed to see him even from a distance. I bet a blue collar worker as president would identify with us common folk a bit more.

  7. Deadbeat said on September 18th, 2009 at 5:26pm #

    Ms. Jackowski writes …

    Charter schools, home schools, and a FAIR voucher system would all be improvements over what we have. It is a political issue opposed by the dems and the teachers’ unions.

    Followed by …

    I favor a Single Payer, K thru grad school educational system that would be free and supported by broad based taxes. If med school was free, medical care would not be so costly.

    I actually like the second comment but I think the system should remain free. It should be funded via taxes and I do think money IS a problem. Since the Reagan years education has been cut in real terms and housing patterns has lead to inequality of funding. When I lived in Texas there was a lawsuit by poorer districts to demand equalization of funding. There were schools with classroom with holes in the roofs and no text books. You may remember in 2004 Ralph Nader made as part of his campaigning the dilapidated condition of the nations schools and how for one little African American girl just having soap in the bathroom was special.

    But even before we can get to a free and equal educational system there has to be a radical re-thinking about Capitalism. Until that time I’d rather keep the teacher union’s in place than see privatization of the current system via vouchers or other types of payment schemes.

    Regarding college. College today is also a “weed out” system because many of the jobs today especially required by the FIRE sector just do not require a large labor force. If young people want to be considered for these higher paying jobs they require that paper and with a de-emphasis of the trade young people are seeking these kinds of careers. Unfortunately they are falling prey to the unscrupulousness of debt peonage in order to pursue these degrees. Thus there needs to be a restructuring of the economy such that FIRE sector type jobs are de-emphasized building up other sectors including the arts whereby there are broader and greater career choices for young people.

  8. lichen said on September 18th, 2009 at 5:48pm #

    Rosemarie, I, too, favor a single-payer system, K-PHD, with options for everyone–homeschooling, unschooling, professional training, academic subjects… I think privatization via charter schools has posed many problems, however. The elitist same-old same-old policies of Obama are ridiculous, and I think the solution is to try for real democracy, so we can all be president, all make collective decisions as opposed to succumbing to tv advertising and electing a celebrity to destroy our world.

  9. rosemarie jackowski said on September 20th, 2009 at 9:21am #

    Deadbeat and lichen, I agree that medical care should be free to the patient.

    I support unions. The problem is that the educational system as it now is organized does not work. Also, sometimes the teachers union does not work. I spent many years in school systems in many States across the US. It was the teachers union that prevented many from getting a livable wage. This was done by the NJEA as a tactic to ‘protect’ professional salaries at the expense of other workers. I argued against that elitist stance, but lost.

    There is now pending legislation that would provide for pre-school education of very young toddlers. Sounds like a good idea, BUT it disrespects parents. Maybe some of the money used to fund programs such as that would be better used to allow a parent to stay home and school their own child. I oppose the unnecessary ‘institutionalization’ of children (and the elderly), which is what day care centers do. Yes, I have heard all of the arguments against my proposal – some parents are not fit to educate – but many are.

  10. bozh said on September 20th, 2009 at 12:44pm #

    once right not to be lied to and thus not to be deceived wld be instituationalized or included in constitution, all othe humna rights wld emanate from that right.
    For no one once one is educated or informed wld reject a basic right such as heatlth care, higher education, etc.
    Unless ruling class wld use cia, fbi, other aggencies to violently prevent people from getting back the rights that have been stolen from us since at least 10K yrs ago.

    However, if 80-90% of americans evaluate that the right to be informed/educated is not a basic human right, then the ruling class [002-5% of people] has nothing to worry about.
    Democracy, at least as it pertains to rights [or priveleges, meritocracy], wld have prevailed.