The Radical Educational Imagination Of Stanley Aronowitz

by Eric J. Weiner

He was both a street fighter and a hard-boiled romantic for whom the radical imagination was at the heart of a politics that mattered, and he was one of few great intellectuals I knew who took education seriously as a political endeavor. —Henry Giroux

On August 16, 2021, Stanley Aronowitz, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Urban Education at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, labor organizer, educational theorist, author, and dissident public intellectual died. Essentially self-educated, he told me once that he began with Spinoza and just kept reading. He may have actually started with Kafka or Dostoevsky, but the order of things is less important than the central lesson. It’s because of him that I often find myself telling my students—who overwhelmingly come to Montclair State University for a credential or, in Aronowitz’s lexicon, to be “schooled”—that to be educated all they really need is a “library card” and intellectual curiosity.

Through his radical and relentless pursuit of knowledge and justice, Aronowitz provided a blueprint for living an intellectual life that matters to those of us who refuse to accept the status quo. He showed us through his dissident research and activism how to direct the imagination toward the utopic horizon of radical democratic freedom and economic justice. At the heart of Stanley’s intellectual project was his life-long rejection of fatalism; his revealing criticisms of the status quo always pointed to radical possibilities for social change. Aronowitz never feared freedom like so many “intellectuals” who camouflage their conservative bias within critiques overburdened by cynicism. His embrace of what Erich Fromm called “positive freedom” was amplified by his deep respect for working people and his willingness to get his hands dirty in the fight for a future that looked radically different than the past or present.

He was a trade unionist and Gramscian organic intellectual before he became a distinguished professor and he never forgot the lessons he learned from his work as a labor organizer. Indeed, even though he rose to the highest levels of the academy, had fistfuls of social and cultural capital, and lived comfortably, he never stopped being, in mind and body, a working-class person. To be working class, for Aronowitz, was to be part of a proud collective history of political and economic struggle, a member of a diverse class of men and women who built the material structures of modern life, yet collectively resisted the pressure to conform to the consumerist ethos and aesthetics of late capitalism. Their collective resistance helped protect them from what Ernst Bloch argued was capitalism’s “swindle of fulfilment;” that is, the false promises embedded in capitalism’s discourse of work, opportunity, economic mobility, and negative freedom.

He wrote in his book Against Schooling, “I came from a family of unschooled but highly educated members of the ‘labor aristocracy.’ That is, most were highly skilled craftsmen who worked in factories or were salaried employees and therefore lived in neighborhoods with more amenities than the communities dominated by semiskilled workers in mass production.” To be working-class was not only about one’s place on the economic index, but had its roots in memory, language, experience, and, most importantly, a value system—a public philosophy—that recognized the importance of community, collectivity, shared responsibility, skilled labor, and social fairness. These were vital aspects of the working-class culture that nurtured Aronowitz as a child and gave his work roots and routes until his death. Unschooled but highly educated, a turn of phrase typical in Aronowitz’s vast oeuvre of research and writing about education, labor, culture, and class, elegantly unveils the ideological underpinnings of modern schooling. Like Theodor Adorno and C. Wright Mills, Aronowitz’s dialectical historical and sociological analyses of ideological structures as they manifest in ideas, institutions, and the practices of work and everyday life is unmatched.

His oeuvre covers vast fields of knowledge, but he is most recognized for his work about Marxism, class, education, and labor history. He authored or edited more than twenty-five books including: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker’s Movement (2014); Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals (2012); Against Schooling: For an Education that Matters (2008); Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future (2006); Just Around Corner (2005); How Class Works (2003); The Last Good Job in America (2001); The Knowledge Factory (2000); The Jobless Future (1994, with William DiFazio); Education Still Under Siege (1993, with Henry Giroux; Postmodern Education (1990, with Henry Giroux); and False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (1973, 1992).

One of Aronowitz’s lasting contributions to our understanding of Marxism comes in the form of his critique of Marx’s economic reductionism. Thinking against the grain of commonsense in which income determines one’s place on the grid of social class, Aronowitz argued persuasively in his book How Class Works that the working class is distinguished neither by what it earns nor by its power to consume material goods, but rather by “its lack of relative power over the terms and conditions of employment, relative power because unions do make a difference” (p. 26). The importance of rewriting the narrative of class from the perspective of working class and democratic interests in our current conjunction is to disrupt the hegemonic narrative that on one hand erases class struggle and class formation as important social, political, and historical actors while on the other positions the interests of global finance as the same as working class and democratic interests. Rewriting these historical narratives from a materialist perspective helps to decouple truth from the contortions of neoliberalism, making knowledge more than an instrument of capitalist ideology. Radicalizing historical memory, in this context, is intimately connected to resurrecting the buried and erased “crude struggle” for material things that animates class struggle (p. 199).[1] History for Aronowitz, like knowledge for Michel Foucault, was for cutting; cutting open and cutting through the veil of power and ideology.

He celebrated working class culture without ever romanticizing it. He refused to let white, male working class culture off the hook for its masculinist ethos, racist history, and anti-intellectualism. He refused to accept certain conservatizing strains of feminism, particularly those that denied the erotic impulse and were reactionary in their reflex to “cancel” ideas because they arose from the minds and experiences of men. He was relentless in his immanent critique of capitalism’s failure to produce its promised utopian outcomes, yet he was just as rigorous in his critique of Marxism’s failures, absences, and contradictions. His engagement with “post-modernism” acknowledged its contributions to our understanding of disjuncture, identity, location/positionality, language, and representation, yet he never stopped asking questions about how class, work, and labor functioned in this supposedly new era. His questions always bring readers back into the material world of work, social relations, and historical geographies of space/time.

Aronowitz was cogently aware of the legacy of Leftist exclusions, pointing explicitly to the racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny that animated Labor’s discourse of the 20th century and early decades of the 21st century. By arguing that genuine social movements are struggles over class formations he was not ignoring the fact that many social movements are born out of our “bio-identities.” Rather, quoting Stuart Hall, he argued in How Class Works that “social movements are the modality in which class politics are enacted” (p. 141). Both worker and bio-identity movements, according to Aronowitz, “insist on their absolute separation from class politics” (p. 141). “Lacking the concept of the unity of social and cultural divisions around the axis of power, they cannot grasp the notion of modality and must present difference in terms of irreconcilable binaries” (p. 141). Binary thinking reinforces exclusionary thinking, just as it oversimplifies the complexity of class struggle and identity formation. To illustrate his point, Aronowitz argues that women’s suffrage was the result of labor recognizing that voting rights for women were, in fact, a class issue. “It was only when these apparently separate movements of labor and women joined, took to the streets, and, through intense direct action captured public opinion, that sections of the liberal middle class and intelligentsia became convinced it was in their interest to support these demands and the ruling bourgeoisie yielded” (p. 143).

Aronowitz also expressed dismay at Labor’s hostility to feminist movement, black liberation struggles, and the gay and lesbian fight for sexual justice. Arguing that Labor’s union with America’s global expansion seriously corrupted its institutional culture, he wrote that “the mainstream of American Labor either sat out the 1960s or actively sided with the government and corporations in promoting war aims and, in consequence, fought against protestors. Equally important, organized Labor remained a bastion of conventional morality in the face of the emergence of the visible demands for sexual freedom by women and gays” (p. 160). We see something similar happening today in the context of the pandemic and vaccination mandates. Labor, in many instances, has aligned itself with reactionary conservative forces in government through their resistance to adhere to vaccine mandates. Taken together, these critical interventions into Labor ideology and the ideology of postmodern theories of social movements suggests the need to take a more complex accounting of the relationship among and between class struggles and movements of identification.

Aronowitz noted that with all the success of feminist movement and civil rights,

joblessness among women remains higher than that of men; their living and working conditions tend, in growing numbers, to veer toward economic and social disaster…Similarly, legal rights to education and employment notwithstanding, the most basic program of the black freedom movement remains a distant shore even as the black professional, managerial, and technical fractions have grown…Unemployment among blacks remains twice that of whites, millions are stuck in deindustrialized urban areas where wages revolving around federal minimum wage still predominate and schools have become the institutional sites of the stigmata to ensure that most black youth will remain poor (How Class Works, p. 169-170).

The fact is bio-identity movements have “succeeded, to a degree, in changing the lives of millions…,” while they simultaneously have left millions behind. These fractions of the bio-identity movements will be forever left behind, he argued, unless “movements struggle on a class basis—which invariably entails playing the zero-sum game…” (p. 170).

As a sociologist, his natural reflex was to reject any construction of the individual outside her/his relation to social structures. At the same time, he recognized that empowerment of the individual was necessary for radical social change. Aronowitz’s radical imagination was released by being grounded in the everyday experiences of working people. Unlike so many of the “post-modern” thinkers of late capitalism that turned to language, or more accurately Discourse, to understand the mechanics of culture and power, Aronowitz always kept one foot on the shop floor. This is essentially what made his imagination radical; only at the roots could people discover routes that could help them overcome the denigration of their labor and the modalities of their marginalization.

Only by digging deep into the roots of our shared and violent histories could we hope to rewrite, rethink, and redraw the boundaries of possibility. Deep at the roots of human ecology, arising in part from his serious consideration of Freud, Aronowitz would return to the power of work, desire and love. We are most free when we have control over the work we do and the freedom to desire and love who we want without shame or guilt. Societal structures, cultural apparatuses, ideological formations, educational institutions, and linguistic codes create the architecture and political geography that supports this radical dream for freedom or turns it for too many into a nightmare.

An Education that Matters

Aronowitz’s radical imagination was unapologetically utopian. “It is a time for analysis and speculation as much as organization and protest, a time when people have a chance to theorize the new situations, to identify the coming agents of change without entertaining the illusion that they can predict with any certainty either what will occur or who the actors will be. It is a time to speak out about the future that is not yet probable, although eminently possible (How Class Works, p. 230).” His utopianism was grounded in a form of educated hope that saw possibility in critical education, within and arising out of organized class-based, social movements, and he believed in the power of the individual to self-govern. Firmly against the mechanics and technocratic structures of schooling because they leave people “deskilled,” critical education for Aronowitz was a key to creating a new human ecology, one in which work, love, nature, and freedom found meaning in democratic struggle.

Critical education is both a means for overcoming what he saw as a chronic “crisis of the intellect” as well as a social movement in and of itself.[2] This might help explain his life-long commitment to radical education. His work in radical education and critical pedagogy, some done in partnership with Henry Giroux, is notable not only for how it elucidates the working of ideology and power in schools, but how it articulates radical education and critical pedagogy with social movement. From the intellectual work with Giroux in books like Education Still Under Siege and Postmodern Education; his single-authored books about education (The Knowledge Factory and Against Schooling); numerous book chapters and articles about curriculum, pedagogy, and school governance; and his work on the ground in higher education and popular education movements, Aronowitz recognized the importance for critical education to evolve as a social movement in and out of formal educational institutions.

Some of his most directed work in the sociology of education, outside of his work with Giroux, took aim at the roles, responsibilities, broken promises, and possibilities of higher education in the United States. In his book The Knowledge Factory, Aronowitz’s trenchant historical account of higher education’s ideological relationship to the “corporate complex” is a critical exercise in innovative praxis; that is, he not only maps his dialectical analyses of the modern university in its historical evolution from an institution with critical capacities to one prostrate to corporate and military demands, but he provides curricular and pedagogical frameworks for how it might reclaim some of its autonomy, revitalize its role in supporting the development of intellectuals, and deepen its commitment to educating students to think critically and creatively about “glocal” issues.

Aronowitz maps the evolution of the contemporary university from the late 19th century to the present, showing how the move toward a “vocationalized” curriculum—that is, a set of curricular and pedagogical formations that encourage the “training” of students for jobs—cannot be understood outside of the development of the “university-corporate complex” (p. 16). The university-corporate complex can be understood as the incorporation of a business ethic within the university as well as a positioning of the university as a training facility for business (p. 17). Universities that position themselves as corporate “partners” function to provide businesses with a surplus of “human capital” that satisfies market demands while ripping at the fabric of civil society.

The marketplace can’t absorb the number of “educated” workers joining its forces and as such universities are helping to break the social contract. Aronowitz writes, “It no longer follows that successful completion of the associate’s or baccalaureate degree signifies entrance into the middle-class” (p. 9). What this means in terms of everyday life is a rapidly expanding, marginalized workforce of college educated part-time or contract/adjunct employees laboring at relatively boring jobs with no benefits and job security. “Conspiring, perhaps unwittingly with buyers,” Aronowitz argues, “the humanities and sciences disciplines continue to turn out more Ph.D.’s than the market can bear” (p. 75). This does not make for a well-adjusted citizenship, let alone a critical one. What it does provide is an environment of mistrust, confusion, anger, and resentment, fueling social and economic inequality while at the same time blaming the inequality on those most victimized by it. According to Aronowitz, the university and its CEO-type presidents and officers continue to enthusiastically invest in “Clark Kerr’s fundamental philosophy that the university is constituted and must remain a source of knowledge that serves the corporate order and, more broadly, the national interest in economic growth. The notion that the university has a critical as well as research function has disappeared from the discourse” (p. 50). There is no language in this conception of the university that bridges the private and public, thereby initiating an educational project of the sociological imagination. In short, without a “critical function” the university not only loses the ability to provide students with the tools for a politically and socially vibrant life, it sacrifices its own capacity for self-critique.

Within this corporate-university structure, academic freedom is also under assault. The most visible is the attack on tenure, but other dimensions are suffering as well. More and more, decisions that were once made by the faculty are made by administrators and boards of trustees. This creates a division characteristic of labor and management, exacerbating what is increasingly a fight over dignity and respect. Further aggravating this development is the policy of creating permanent administrators. No longer do professors appointed to administration positions automatically leave their posts to return as writing, teaching, and researching faculty members. Too often, faculty-turned-administrators lose touch with the daily struggles of academics and become the voice of technocratic administration.

Because unionization is an effective response to anti-democratic conditions, Aronowitz examined why the unionization of university faculty has not been more successful. He found that rather than seeing the power in solidarity, too many professors think of themselves as elite professionals, leading to the unfortunate conclusion that their best strategy is either reconciliation or accommodation. He showed how rebellion through collective action is rarely seen, and, as a consequence, divisions emerge among the hierarchy of faculty and adjuncts. Commenting on this state of professionalism, he argued,

The majority of the professorate, whether in or out of the unions, have not yet been convinced of the benefits of organization. Trained within professional ideology, most professors in research universities see themselves neither as intellectuals nor as teachers, which in either case would be a politicizing reflection on their social position. Consequently, many union members primarily identify with their professional associations and seek approval from disciplinary colleagues and, ultimately, from the university administration that retains the purse strings, rather than with the class of intellectuals to which they putatively belong. Culturally, they have interjected the values of their discipline; strategically, they tend to behave as the institution wants; and given their profound professional identification, they can never articulate these affiliations as forms of subordination. (p. 94)

Complicating this state of affairs, the unions have yet to define themselves as agents in the struggles around university life. This leaves little support for those professors who have not adopted an ideology of professionalism, while sending a message to administrators and university presidents that unions are not interested in their campus battles. Finally, what appears to be the largest obstacle is the faculty and students’ inability to “generate ideas for a plan that would not only not diminish access but also would radically improve the curriculum, pedagogy, and school governance. Even the most progressive unions have hesitated to propose anything innovative or even different, fearing that any change will only enhance the administration’s drive to further centralization” (p. 97). One of the strengths in Aronowitz’s critical interrogation of higher education is his unflinching attempt to not only organize people to action, but also to organize a set of theoretical and practical principles that translate into alternative educative systems and social and political formations. This is not a small matter at a time when the “liberals have become conservatives, staunch defenders of the status quo” (p. 97).

Aronowitz advocated for a space between the “either/or of protest and collaboration,” opting instead for a critical dialogue amongst “enemies”; that is, choosing to “broaden the approach in the context of the debate” while recognizing the limitations that a “discourse of crisis” presents to all involved in the struggle for a more just society (p. 99). In the end, the job for students, faculty, and unions is “to become agents of a new educational imagination; that is, to join with others in counter-planning that aims to retain mass higher education as a right and to suggest what education is in the post-welfare, post-regulation, post-expansion era” (p. 101).

Unlike so many radical and progressive educators who are paralyzed by relativistic thinking or reactive practices in relation to curriculum development and design, Aronowitz was not afraid to provide a blueprint for what he called an undergraduate education that matters. Surprising to many progressives and radicals, he drew on the work of Allan Bloom. Bloom’s analysis of undergraduate education is considered for what it has to say, in the context of the University of Chicago, about “liberal education” and its articulation with the “Great Books” and Western civilization. Although Aronowitz made it clear that he thinks Bloom is wrong in his reverence for the “Great Books,” he believed he is correct in arguing that the Western canon represents a legacy of power—politically, ideologically, culturally, and epistemologically. Pedagogically, to ignore the various texts of official power produced throughout Western civilization would not help produce a critical citizenry able and willing to self-govern. It would produce, argued Aronowitz, educated “idiots” whereas “idiot signifies a person [in the Greek meaning of the term] with only specialized knowledge, someone who, in all other respects, is ignorant” (p. 172).

For many radical and progressive educators, Bloom’s ideas are enough to shut down all dialogue and debate. For Aronowitz, the major issue Bloom’s work brings to the fore is not whether the “Great Books” are actually great, but rather how these books and authors are both situated within the matrix of power and pedagogy and are formative cultural artifacts of modernity. These texts, argued Aronowitz, should be studied as forms and functions of social and political ideologies that have had an immense influence on how the Western world thinks about itself and others. They have an aesthetic dimension that intersects in complex ways with the ideologies of which they articulate. Aronowitz explained,

My views converge with those of the conservative camp who would restore many of the so-called classical components to the college and university curricula. Like them I reject the idea that in our postmodern culture it is too late for intellectual rigor, least of all for a learning regime that offers the students the opportunity to grapple with writings that have shaped Western thinking. Where I depart (in two respects) from the conservative prescription is first on the scope of the canon and then on its intended constituency. My approach does not assume the superiority of the conventional over the alternative or oppositional canon, only its power. We must substitute critique for reverence. I am convinced that virtually all postsecondary students should encounter the crucial elements of the canon of Western thought, not only because it contains much of value, but because the knowledge provides the basis for any critique and transvaluation of that canon. (my emphasis, p. 169)

In specific terms, he suggested readings and various theoretical tools of critique and analyses that he believed would help undergraduates become intellectually adept at identifying relations of power as they are embedded and represented in the Western literary, art, science, and philosophical cannons. He received pushback from people across the ideological spectrum, but he respectfully stood by his recommendations.

In addition to his notable scholarship, he was also committed to participating in a vibrant community of intellectuals. He was not an isolated or academic intellectual, locked away in his office nor was he simply an activist. He drew energy from intellectual engagement, dialogue and debate. Aronowitz’s critical engagements with people like Frederic Jameson, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau were not only extraordinary for their theoretical complexity, but for how seriously he took up their arguments, even though, in many instances, he disagreed with them. Aronowitz exemplified the kind of intellectual who does not raise himself up by diminishing his interlocutors, but instead elevates their work through his critique of it. He was also a generous mentor and colleague who provided some notable introductions to some of the most important books being published at the time.

His “Introduction” to Paul Willis’s seminal work Learning to Labor on working class student rebellion in which he identifies and explains the reproductive mechanism inherent in the lads’ resistance to formal schooling is as important a contribution to our understanding of schooling and the theory of reproduction as the book itself. His “Introduction” to Paulo Freire’s posthumously published book Pedagogy of Freedom, in which he hones in on what he calls Freire’s radical humanism while critiquing well-meaning, self-identifying progressives for ignoring Freire’s economic project of social justice, is worth the price of admission. “Opportunity for what?” Aronowitz asks when observing a good-intentioned teacher trying to teach in the spirit of Freire while ignoring the cultural and economic systems of oppression that so obviously trouble the students who are being taught. His treatment of Giroux’s work on Disney in the Mouse that Roared hones in on one of Giroux’s central contributions to our understanding of how Disney uses pleasure as a mechanism of policing and discipline. Aronowitz’s contributions to these seminal texts shows his ability to capture the essence or essential issue that makes the text unique in a sea of work that covers similar ground.

Throughout his life, he was never afraid to engage in intellectual combat. He stared his critics, from the right and left, straight in the eye. His confidence and swagger grew from his enormous intellect, yet he would concede when he was wrong and, unlike so many imposing intellectuals, avoided the polemicist’s stance of arrogance. He was never “the one who knows” as much as he was the one who wanted to learn as much as he could. But he knew to learn anything new, you had to take a position, however contingent and temporary, from which to debate, dialogue, and discover. His commitment to the joys and demands of learning made him a provocative and impactful teacher. A common refrain I hear from almost everyone who had the privilege of speaking with him or hearing him lecture, regardless of their standing, is that they always learned something new from the encounter.

His curiosity was boundless. His intellect extraordinary. His outrage against injustice was morally consistent and contagious. His hope was grounded in social struggle. I was lucky to meet Stanley a few times and see him lecture on several occasions. The stories you may have heard are true of his trenchant historical accounts of social struggle, labor organizing, and collective bargaining—many of them first-hand—articulated with a bricolage of social, political, and cultural theories, all represented in a language that most people with an 8th grade education would understand and delivered casually with no notes. His commitment to justice was unbending but it wasn’t self-righteous or rigid. He understood the messiness of everyday life. Purity and fundamentalist thinking were the stuff of ideologues not intellectuals. We are all compromised and enmeshed in contradictions. We are imperfectly perfect, unfinished, and under-determined. Laughter, love, sexual desire, dancing, the pleasure of thinking, art, music, and the will to struggle collectively for a better future with people who are different than you will always require compassion, empathy, and a desire to fight for a future that looks and feels very different from the past and present. His sociological imagination—the ability to recognize our private troubles as public concerns—was matched by his radical imagination. His radical imagination was rooted in the struggles of the past, found a home in the study of labor movements and social class, but was released through his work in education.

[1] In How Class Works, Aronowitz begins with a radical theoretical reconceptualization of class theory. He argues that neo-Marxist and other functionalist theories of class formation failed to consider the historicity of social class. As such, social class was described and understood as the stratification of economic and social indicators. The actors of social class might (or might not) move around the board, but in all cases, whether Karl Marx’s concept of the base/superstructure in conjunction with the political function of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Talcott Parson’s “income grid,” or even Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of cultural capital, social class has been fixed theoretically in a pre-determined spatial reality, thereby ignoring the historicity of class formation and “class power”:

Many from Marxist and non-Marxist persuasions stipulate the power of the ruling class over economic, political, and ideological relations, but, in their practical activity engage in the same work of social cartography—their work is making maps—even if their maps differ in details. What is often supposedly Marxist or radical about these maps is that, unlike mainstream sociology, interlocking networks between the political and economic directorates are revealed, which explicitly or tacitly constitute a critique of the traditional liberal separation of corporate power and the state. But both become classifications and draw up charts that show where social groups are placed in atemporal social grids (How Class Works, p 48-49).

In contrast, Aronowitz’s radical theory of the “how” of class suggests that time should no longer be considered a function of space but instead “presupposes that space is produced by the activity of social formations and as a function of time” (p. 52). Time, or more accurately the movement of time, signals the possibility for change in class relations via social movements. Beyond a politics of hope, Aronowitz’s “diachronic” framing of class formation situates the activities of social movements as modalities of class struggle and class formation. The activity of these social formations, made up of the combined activity of social movements as they struggle over class formation, Aronowitz argues, have historically shaped political and cultural life through direct action, such as strikes, sit-ins, rallies, and, in extreme cases, violent uprising.

Class-based social movements arise out of shared concerns, common interests, and a feeling of solidarity across our bio-differences. In this vein, Aronowitz breaks with readings of class that reduce class interests to stereotypical working class jobs. The latter half of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st brings teachers, adjunct professors, graduate students, computer programmers, medical technicians, home health-aids, nurses, musicians, artists, cooks, writers, copyeditors, waiters, bartenders, and other workers not typically imagined as members of the working class into the shared and proud history of working class culture. Under the reign of neoliberalism, few of them have any control over the resources of their trades, nor over their time and the condition of their places of work. The caveat of their power, as Aronowitz points out, is tied to unionization and collective bargaining.

[2] “Genuine social movements are struggles over class formation when they pose new questions concerning the conduct of institutional and everyday life and entail new arrangements” (p. 52). From this perspective, groups that attempt to gain access and acquire social power within existing social structures should not be considered social movements. Only when “a new configuration of the power situation” is established through direct action can the entities be considered a genuine social movement (p. 53).