“The X Factor” a reader response by Suzanne Proulx

“The X Factor” a reader response by Suzanne Proulx

Reading section one, “Fashion, Demonization, and Youth Culture” brought about some thought provoking feelings as I contemplated what it means to be a member of  “generation x.” I wanted to understand how this connection can serve to inform, in meaningful ways, my disposition towards education. As I read on, my personal reflections continued to orient toward attempting to unpack the tensions between modernist educational agendas and postmodern realities facing today’s youth. These tensions seem to have dislocated the norms and values that once guided individuals through their formative years. Giroux (1998) makes clear that images in the media have constructed youth as lazy, stupid, sexualized bodies to be consumed. In turn, this has an impact on the way that society and adults respond to kids today. Loosely defined educational expectations and the absence of a clear normative structure to accompany some of life’s major transitions have cultivated a situation of ‘anomie’ among today’s youth. In essence, kids and young adults are ‘without norms.’ What emerged through my reading was an insightful glimpse into the challenges associated with negotiating a multitude of cultural representations of identities in the media. Such representations paint an outlook where hope for a job and a bright future seems to be just that. And, opportunities to participate in shaping the discourse that defines youth as a social category are limited. I am left wondering, what does this mean for educators operating within a postmodern framework? Here are some humbling autobiographical thoughts.

At fifteen I was caught shoplifting. Yes, stealing a lip balm at the pharmacy. There was no rhyme or reason for my actions. I just wanted to try it out, I guess. Or so I tell myself now. I can recall being shocked. Unbeknownst to me, a secret undercover shopper had been following me. I couldn’t believe it! Why did this woman follow me? Was I suspicious looking? I was fairly non-threatening, sporting my—Sarah Plain and Tall—teenager style. So why me? The only reason I can come up with was my age. And of course the fact that I did steal! I fit into that menacing category of youth whom in the past few decades have been subjected to increasing amounts of surveillance and monitoring. At one time, such surveillance was directed primarily at the “working class” as a social group responsible for crime and social deviance. Whereas in my generation, “youth” has emerged as a discursive category subjected to demonization, criminalization, and continuous surveillance and monitoring. Unfortunately, as Giroux points out, ‘youth’, as a population, do not get to participate in shaping the discourse surrounding who they are and what they know (Giroux, 1998).

Contrasting the social, political, and cultural realities facing today’s youth versus that of my mother’s generation highlights the unique challenges facing future generations of kids. In Giroux’s own account of his youth, he describes “a period when dreams of social and economic mobility did not appear out of reach, as they do for so many young people today” (Giroux, 1998 p. 5). To the extent that this statement is true, one might go as far as saying ‘Reality Bites’ for the new generation! One of my favourite movies of all time, if not for the soundtrack alone, stars Ethan Hawke, Wynona Ryder, Jeannine Gorofalo and Steve Zhan. “Reality Bites” touches on many of the themes outlined in Giroux’s book through the depiction of four recent ‘generation x’ college graduates forced to confront the obstacles associated with coming of age and trying to find their place in the work world. Ethan Hawke’s character, Troy, is as a bottle tokeing, hedonist slacker without a care in the world.  He moves from job to job void of direction or purpose, giving up willingly and cynically, it seems, on the prospect for a lucrative career. At one point in the film, Ben Stiller’s character asks Troy “what is your glitch?”, as if to insinuate it is he who is responsible for his troubles. Whereas Winona Ryder’s character, Lilena, having graduated valedictorian with aspirations to be a documentary film maker, naively faces her own struggle to figure out who she is, and what she wants to do. Fired from her internship on a talk show, she lives off of her father’s gas card. The youth in this particular film are caught in an all too familiar anomic transitional space between youth and adulthood, where life goals meet the grim reality of unemployment, financial dept and an overwhelming amount of choice for one’s identity and future trajectory.

To the extent that the experiences of youth manifest within postmodern contexts where the primary sources of learning, according to Giroux (1998), are located in mass media and electronic cultural forms, or ‘cultural pedagogy,’ it then becomes pertinent to question the implications for educators operating in this postmodern context. Within the framework of ‘modernity’, progress, advancement and the pursuit of an end goal, served as a primary motivating force for individuals. I sat down with my mom, and asked her about her educational experiences growing up in the 1960’s. In her time, schools represented a place of hope, where you could work hard, learn, and cash in on the promise of a bright future. Schools continue to operate within a modernist agenda, offering a false promise of cashing in on one’s hard work. Like Lilena, many of us struggle when met with the reality of unemployment, low paid jobs and the difficulties of navigating a career path in today’s economy. We do so with a naïveté characteristic of a generation raised in an era of false hope and broken promises.

Norms and values seem to be in a continuous state of flux in the postmodern generation. Difference is the norm, identities are slippery, racial, political, and cultural tensions are prominent. Identities are shaped and informed by global electronic forms, mass commodity markets, and a culture of consumerism. Representations surrounding the acquisition of ‘stuff’ provide the demarcation around how one develops their sense of individuality. Global culture supersedes traditional cultural forms, and what you consume seems to be how you identify yourself, as one’s identity is so intricately tied to what one has. In the middle of these tensions, sit schools and educators whom are no longer the primary source of children’s learning (Giroux, 1998).

As educators, we are confronted with a unique challenge of working with youth who are increasingly negotiating this slippery cultural terrain, void of having any voice in shaping how they are represented and understood. “Youth are increasingly defined” as Giroux (1998) makes clear, “through the lens of commodification, scorn, or criminality” (p. 2). “Demonized or trivialized” he continues, “young people increasingly are portrayed in Hollywood films as either a social menace or as groveling dimwits patterned after the anti-intellectuals”(p.2). Meanwhile the identities of youth are largely shaped by media representations. Their voices are not present in shaping the discourse that constructs their public image. And it becomes easy for us to internalize these representations of youth, to buy into the notion that they are passive consumers of ‘cultural pedagogy.’ We need to recognize that youth have agency and ask ourselves how we can creatively tap into it. In unique ways, youth are capable of challenging, contesting, negotiating and resisting. Mikael, in my own interpretation or reading of the documentary film presented in class, is a bright kid. His teacher asks him “why did you wait all year to talk like that?” after delivering a well articulated speech in class. The challenge is to channel that resistance into something meaningful, productive, and empowering. As Giroux points out, “young people need to be given the opportunity to narrate themselves; to speak from the actual places where their experiences and daily lives are shaped and mediated” (1998 p. 31). This can be achieved, he argues, through “alternative music spheres, neighborhood subcultures, mass mediated electronic cultures underground magazines and other sites (Giroux, 1998 p. 31).

It follows then, that schools represent sites for cultural negotiation, wherein educators have the unique opportunity to critically engage with youth. Yet, how can we facilitate resistance and tap into their agency in productive transformative ways? More importantly, how can we facilitate the transition from being a youth in the school system, to a young adult in the work world? We are in an era where change and uncertainty are the norm; however educational systems are still geared to this trajectory of modernity, which can be an alienating experience for some individuals.

I’m not a theorist. And, I’m not interested here in making assumptions or drawing any conclusions. However, as an educator, a reflective individual, and a public intellectual, the concept of anomie very much describes the social and cultural reality that youth are faced with today. Change is happening so rapidly, and things are continuously being re-defined. So what can I do then as an educator? I think the first step is to offer the tools and space for students to experiment with re-writing the discourse that shapes their lives. They are ready and willing to resist, they need to be given the tools and the language to shape the narratives driving the formation of their identities. To me, this seems like a frustrating, overwhelming and intimidating task.

The reality is I can’t save the world. I can’t snap my fingers and turn social justice on its head, I can’t eliminate poverty, and I can’t change the realities of my students. What I can do is raise awareness and attempt to foster a critical consciousness in the Freirian sense, through attempting to make learning meaningful. What I can do is give my students my loving resistance.

References

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the Destruction of Today’s Youth. Toronto: Canadian scholar