An Educator’s Reflections on the Crisis in Education and
Democracy in the US: An Interview with Henry A. Giroux
According to Henry Giroux, critical pedagogy asks, “whose future, story and interests does the school represent? Critical pedagogy argues that school practices need to be informed by a public philosophy that addresses how to construct ideological and institutional conditions in which the lived experience of empowerment for the vast majority of students becomes the defining feature of schooling.”
In May of 2004 Henry Giroux reluctantly left Penn State University after 12 years as a distinguished Professor in the Education Department. Over the years Henry Giroux has been one of the leading advocates for young people, democracy and education in the United States and has arguably been responsible for creating the field of Critical Pedagogy itself. He is considered one of the world’s leading intellectuals and according to Fifty Modern Thinkers in Education and was recently named one of the top thinkers in Education of the 20th century. He is author of over 40 books covering education, cultural studies, political theory and media studies. Much of Giroux’s most stunning and revealing writings have dealt with his tireless work on the dangerous influence of Corporations in schools as well as higher education. In The Abandoned Generation he warned that, “No longer a space for relating the self to the obligations of public life, and social responsibility to the demands of critical and engaged citizenship, schools are viewed as an all encompassing horizon for producing market identities, values, and those privatizing pedagogies that inflate the importance of individual competition”(80). In Take Back Higher Education, co-authored with his wife Susan Searls Giroux, he presents an extensive critique of the corporatization of higher education.
The fact that Giroux was allowed to walk away from Penn State after so many years of service ironically coincided at the same time with the school investing untold amounts of money to retain Joe Paterno, Penn State’s football coach and apologist for the policies of George W. Bush. While Giroux did not feel the need to negotiate with Penn State once he decided to take a job at McMaster, his Dean at Penn State not only refused to make him a counter offer, he tried to undermine his taking a leave of absence by placing restrictions on the leave itself. In effect, the Dean of the College of Education allowed an endowed chair, who has an international reputation unmatched in the college, if not the university itself, and who has published more than any other faculty member in the College of Education, to walk away without the slightest attempt to convince him to stay at Penn State. Many faculty throughout the university believed that this failure on the part of the university to retain Giroux not only revealed the incompetency of the current dean but also the pervasive nature and depth of the corporate vision shaping the university. This example of higher education’s “priorities” seemed to cement Giroux’s insistence that education in the United States has been increasingly abandoning democratic values for the market values that are in the interests of a few in powerful, elite circles rather than the vast majority of students who sit in classrooms. This interview comes at a time when Henry Giroux is preparing for a new Fall semester this time at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.
Michael Pozo - Henry, you have been one of the loudest voices warning against the Corporatization of universities and the subsequent result of encouraging faculty, staff, students and administration to adopt corporate mentalities towards education. Do you think this was the case with your departure from Penn State University after 12 years?
Henry Giroux - My leaving Penn State certainly had a great deal to do with the increasing dumbing down and corporatization of the College of Education. The current environment of the college lacks vision regarding the democratic possibilities of higher education as well as the leadership ability to think beyond the most instrumentalized understanding of education. The new research agenda is grounded in “scientifically-based research,” a term that comes right out of the Bush administration, which used it as a euphemism to undercut any kind of research that connected education with viable social questions and issues, that linked education to the culture of questioning, or to the knowledge and skills that expanded the horizons of critical citizenship and social agency. Whatever sense of moral responsibility and democratic vision existed in the college was now either disregarded or simply undermined. Increasingly, the college has been reduced to a normal school, a relatively uncritical and boring replica of the worse caricature of how a college of education might be constructed. At the same time, the president of the university boasted in a recent publication that he was proud of what he had done for Penn State, which was to improve its bond rating. This is the type of so-called leadership that emerges under the corporatized university. Generally, universities are now hiring deans and presidents who are either narrow specialists with no connection to civic life or are business clones, accountants, or bean counters who impose market values and efficiency standards as the driving force of higher education. What I find particularly disturbing is how provincial and uncritical they tend to be-- unable to engage broader issues, reflect thoughtfully about the role of education, or exercise the courage to take risks and make a real difference in the moral lives and political sensibilities of their students. Money, profits, and the creation of particular products become the most important factors driving the hiring of faculty, the support of particular disciplines, the elimination of particular areas of study, and the definition of what constitutes educational leadership, if not vision. Moral and political questions about the relationship between education and democracy become mute as education is defined increasingly as an appendage of corporate values and power. Under such circumstances, academics are often invited to function less as critical intellectuals than as either technicians, resigned to grant writing, contract labor, or as apologists, rewarded to the degree, a Zygmunt Bauman puts it in another context “that they listen, take notes, or obey.”
MP- Is it safe to say that corporate influence on education in the United States is the most pressing issue that parents, students and even some teachers are not aware of? How would you encourage students, teachers and parents to wake up and recognize the dangers of Corporate influence in education?
HG- Not only are they not aware of it, they generally support corporate values and ideologies. Getting a good job, taking courses on the basis of their exchange value in the market, refusing to take courses or major in areas that embody non-commercialized values is a high priority for many parents, teachers, and students. Career training and workforce development are the top priorities of the corporate university and many parents, faculty, administrators and students support this view. This is not to suggest that students should not learn workplace skills, but they need to be educated not only as workers but also critical citizens. Democracy cannot function without educated citizens capable of being autonomous, making knowledgeable judgments, and bringing what they learn to bear on understanding and shaping civic culture. Evidence of what happens in a democracy when people are uninformed, misinformed, or not critically educated is on full display with the popular support being given to Bush, in spite of the lies, contradictions, and misrepresentations his administration perpetuates. Neoliberalism has a stake in uncritical education because it thrives on ignorance in order to proceed outside of democratic accountability. What has to be recognized is that neoliberalism is a very powerful ideology and in the face of a variety of public pedagogies in the media and elsewhere that both legitimate it and take it for granted, it is often difficult for students, parents, and educators to challenge its basic assumptions or to understand the pernicious influence it is having on public and higher education. At a time when politics is being depoliticized, everyday life is being militarized, and authoritarianism is once again on the rise, it is difficult for many people to get access to alternative views capable of challenging the privatized utopia espoused by corporate ideology. Of course, one doesn’t want to carry this position too far. Students are protesting the corporatization of the university in many forms and through a variety of issues extending from protesting sweatshop labor to the indentured servitude of teaching assistants and part time faculty.
MP- Have you had time since leaving the US to reflect on your accomplishments in the field of Critical Pedagogy over the years? In your opinion, where does Critical Pedagogy stand today in the U.S. compared to when you first began writing?
HG- I am not sure how much I have accomplished other than making clear as an educator that one has to continually fight for social justice and that this is as much a pedagogical as a political task. Hopefully, my work has played a small role in shaping some critical discourses on pedagogy, youth, cultural politics, education, and democracy. Certainly, my generation, which includes a number of theorists including Roger Simon, Donaldo Macedo, Lawrence Grossberg, Chandra Mohanty, Peter McLaren and too many others to name, has had a positive effect in extending the reach of critical pedagogy. It is very difficult to be in education today and not be at least aware of the field of critical pedagogy. Within the last two decades, many diverse groups and individuals have drawn upon its varied resources to challenge traditional forms of teaching and to provide an entirely new range of discourses for engaging how pedagogy works in shaping power, identities, social relations, and inequality in the classroom. Critical pedagogy has also become an invaluable theoretical tool for helping teachers and others understand how pedagogy operates outside of the schools in the production of knowledge, values, subject positions, and social experiences. Part of the legacy of critical pedagogy is to make clear that pedagogy is a moral and political practice rather than merely a technique or method. Against an instrumentalized notion of pedagogy, I have argued for years that pedagogy is the outcome of particular conflicts and struggles and cannot be approached as an a priori method or technique. Pedagogy is directive and is, in part, about the struggle over identities, values, and the future. It articulates and shapes the connection between knowledge and morality, how we get to know and what we know, and it alerts us to how power shapes and is reinvented in the interaction among texts, teachers, and students. At its best, it teaches students to think critically about the knowledge they gain, and what it means to recognize anti-democratic forms of power and how to fight substantive injustices in a world marked by deep inequalities. Critical pedagogy has produced an entire culture of journals, conferences, courses, research agendas, and an alternative set of pedagogical practices. This is not meant to suggest it has become some type of dominant paradigm among teachers and in the schools, but its presence is being increasing felt to the detriment of traditional educators and supporters of dominant modes of education.
MP- What do you still hope to achieve now that you are at McMaster University?
HG- I hope that together with my many gifted colleagues and an enlightened administrative leadership I can make a significant contribution to redefining the social and political possibilities of higher education, and especially the humanities at McMaster. McMaster is a very special university that is willing to define its role in public terms that address what it might mean to educate students to address the many problems associated with building of and fighting for a global democracy and utilizing the best theoretical resources available to do that. Programmatically, this means developing a number of interdisciplinary programs in cultural studies, communications, the arts, and globalization studies. But it also means redefining the goals of the university and especially the face of the humanities so as to deepen and expand not only the breadth and reach of theoretical resources available to students but also to enable them to function as engaged global citizens with a deep sense of the shared humanity and common culture that offers up a space for a substantive democracy. There is a real sense of vitality and energy at McMaster University, especially in the humanities, because of talented faculty, the incredible visionary leadership of Nasrin Rahimieh, a new Dean of the Humanities, and a number of very bright and committed students. There is a sense here that the role of the university as a democratic public sphere can actually materialize. I am very optimistic and utterly energised by what I see here.
MP- Yet, is there anything telling in that fact that a prominent university in the United States devalues such a strong proponent of critical thinking such as yourself, while Canada embraces it?
HG- The United States has become a country that appears to have lost its willingness to question itself. It is a country whose commanding governmental and economic institutions are caught in the grip of a group of extremists who are well organized, well funded, and absolutely zealous about undoing any vestige of democracy and the social contract. In many ways this is reflected in the rise of market fundamentalism, militarism, and religious extremism that now dominate the culture and politics. We live at a time when neoliberalism must be understood within the rising tide of authoritarianism on both a national and global level and how it puts into play a view of agency that is at odds with both a notion of the social endemic to democracy and a form of unbridled self interest that fits well with neofascism. Under the reign of neoliberalism, politics increasingly has become banal, education stripped of its critical functions, and conformity lauded as a patriotic act. It is very sad that the most powerful and richest country in the world has not only defaulted on its democratic possibilities, but also undermines those possibilities abroad as it extends its market based fundamentalism and imperial ambitions around the globe. At the same time, the United States is dominated by one of the most extensive and pervasive conservative propaganda machines the world has ever seen. The educational force of the culture is now mobilized through what I call sites of public pedagogy–radio, television, newspapers, Hollywood films. These powerful pedagogical sites are almost entirely dominated by corporate, conservative, and right wing discourses and values. Consequently, the spaces for critical information and resistance are shrinking dangerously in the United States and the result, if such a trend is not stopped, will be a new form of authoritarianism. Canada on the other hand is a much more liberal society with a strong social democratic tradition. It values democracy, difference, and diversity to a much greater degree than does the United States. While it has its own problems and inequalities, it still has at the center of its public discourse a social contract that respects public goods, human life, and democratic values. For instance, at the current moment the biggest issue facing the government is how much money is going to be allocated for a national health care system. Canada is light years away from the rigid market fundamentalism, militarism, and religious bigotry that now dominate the United States. Power is being massively configured in the U.S. toward the creation of an authoritarian state. Fortunately, that is not happening in Canada. The social visions that sustain a democracy still seem viable in Canada but this does not seem to be the case for the U.S.
MP- What did you think about the media coverage of the significant numbers of protesters in New York City and the subsequent police harassment during the Republican Convention?
HG- It was a coverage that imitated the worse ideological dimensions of the Fox Network view of the world. Protesters are viewed as violent and un-American–a sort of pathology invading the American psyche with its smug sense of triumphalism and arrogance of power. Rarely were the protesters allowed to speak for themselves or explain their positions on the national media. Instead, that side of American dissent was largely narrated through the talking heads bought and paid for by the conservative foundations. At the same time, the brutalizing treatment of the protesters not only says something about the increasing use of naked power to control dissent, but also about the growing militarizing of American society and its very dangerous slide into a carceral state. You can better understand how the protests were represented and how the protesters were handled by the police if you recognize the changing nature of the state in American society. As the state loses its power to corporations, the only power it seems capable of exercising is in producing a culture of fear and incarcerating as many of its citizens as it can. Fear, insecurity, control, and surveillance appear to be at the center of what passes for state power in the United States. We have become a punishing society, more concerned about containment than social investment, more inclined to model our schools after prisons than the Agora, more inclined to organize people around shared fears than shared responsibilities.
MP- I was also interested in the tremendous sense of urgency demonstrated by folks who planned months ahead to infiltrate the RNC, posing as Republicans so that they could demonstrate against speakers inside the convention or those who even attempted to disrupt the liberal and ultra white format of Chris Matthews’ show Hardball in Herald Square? It seems almost unreal if you watched how the Media and the so-called journalists on television dismiss the anger and desperation of our times, trying to have a “sensible” show, while the city behind them burns.
HG- This is a society that appears momentarily to have given up on democratic visions. It appears to detest dissent while embracing the rhetoric of hate and fear that comes out of the mouths of circus performers such as Chris Matthews and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. These people are largely ideological buffoons, fulfilling the demands of the spectacle that now parades as news and journalism. Of course, what they really symbolize is the merging of entertainment, public pedagogy, and corporate power. They substitute banality and ideological fundamentalism for wisdom and simply echo the unquestioning values of the privileged and corporate elite. They are so routinized that it is almost impossible not to decipher their responses before they even speak. They are high paid parrots parading as the new face of market freedom. On a more serious note, journalistic jingoists such as Matthews and O’Reilly play an important role in undermining any vision that embraces the possibilities of a real democracy just as they tend to support what any decent American would be most ashamed of–the presupposition that authority should not be accountable and power should largely serve the privileged and rich. People like Matthews and O’Reilly are symptomatic of the stranglehold that corporate power now has on the media, choking off dissent and undermining the media as one of the most essential public spheres in which the conditions for democracy should flourish. As ideas are restricted, knowledge is misrepresented, and public pedagogy largely becomes a giant advertisement for consumerism, militarism, and corporate fantasies about empire building; democracy becomes a mere shadow of itself and education as the foundation of a vibrant democratic public sphere becomes nothing more than a faint memory.
MP- The 1998 Higher Education Act was passed as a means to encourage young people to vote. According to the Higher Education Act, federally funded schools were required to make an effort to get young people to register to vote. But in a September 14, 2004 article in the LA Times, it was reported that a Harvard study by The Institute of Politics and the Chronicle of Higher Education found that, “only 17% of the schools surveyed were in complete compliance by requesting voter forms at least 120 days prior to the registration deadline.” Most of the administrators clearly believed that apathy coupled with the belief that registering kids to vote was not a “higher education priority” was the reason why the Higher Education Act had so little support on campuses. If we compare these numbers from the Harvard study with those of say, the protesters during the RNC or the anti-War protesters of February 2003 (many of whom were students) why is there a gap between activists and apathetic students, or, what are the reasons for the disparity amongst politically active young people and those who aren’t? Is it class? Is it racial? Is it a privileged education?
HG- I think there are a lot of complex factors involved in why young people largely refuse to participate in the political process, especially around voting. In some cases, they are too poor, overburdened with life’s hardships, and simply lack the resources to participate in the process. If they are poor black and brown, youth often lack decent jobs and live in a world riddled with fear and insecurity. These economic and social burdens generate a loss of agency and strike a deathblow to politics. In some cases, the state has simply disenfranchised large numbers of youth because of their criminal records. Barred from voting, they become depoliticized by law. In other cases, they are disenfranchised through the mechanisations of corrupt political practices and regulations as happened in the 2000 presidential elections in Florida. For others politics has become a transparent fraud, having little or nothing to do with democracy and they simply refuse to participate in the swindle that now passes for politics. Some kids participate through the cultural sphere building alternative spheres where they can narrate themselves through their music, poetry, writing, journals, clubs, Internet exchanges, etc. Others are caught in a consumerist fantasy produced by a society in which politics is largely about making money, getting rich, or simply buying goods. At another level, depoliticization among youth is the legacy of an educational system that is more about standardisation and testing than about learning about public life and civic engagement. At the same time, for those young people who have the time and resources, there is a tremendous moral outrage of what they see happening to democracy, the poor, other nations, and their own futures.
MP- Randall Robinson recently wrote in Quitting America that, “Three out of five Blacks oppose the War in Iraq, while only one out of five whites opposes the War. Blacks, however, are almost nowhere to be found in the ranks of the American anti-war demonstrations. Why the discrepancy? Oh we know…Know that Whites don’t give a shit what we think. Never did. Never will”(130). This is a sobering reminder I feel about how the Left, including the anti-war movement, has forgotten “minorities” and their role in all this. I am also reminded of Jorge Mariscal’s writings on the number of Latinos signing up for Military duty just to be able to afford a college education, not being aware of what a life-altering and often deadly decision it is. Do you think that so-called minorities have been uninvolved by the Left and therefore made easy prey by jingoisms or converted, ironically, into some of the staunchest cynics around of political and/or social change because they truly feel they have been left out, even by the progressives?
HG- Racial justice has become an invisible category in America camouflaged by the politics of color blindness and obliterated by a racist state that would rather incarcerate people of color than give them their rights as citizens. I think there are many people on the left who care about racial justice but lack either the language or the politics to do something about it. They often don’t know how to speak to a younger generation of black and brown youth; they wrap their politics in a discourse of academic jargon that either is uncomprehensible, or they fail to recognize race as one of the most powerful determinants in shaping American society. Race seems to get lost in the discourses of globalization, class, and postmodern aesthetics. In many ways, the left either has failed to tap into the culture of black and brown youth or they mimic the response of the right in considering blacks a disposable population with little political currency. The plight of poor black and brown youth and the left’s indifference to it says more about the failure of the left and the crisis of democracy than almost any other political issue. Until matters of race and racial justice become central to progressive politics, the struggle over democracy will have little valence for American progressives.
MP- In a recent article in Tikkun Magazine you and your wife wrote that, “Cynicism about politics and skepticism about education have become mutually reinforcing tendencies that to be understood must be analyzed in tandem.” But is it just this administration that has converted its citizens against education and political involvement or is it part of a fundamental aspect of our market driven values that makes it necessary for citizens to remain uninformed, uneducated, uncritical, and obedient to slogans, sound bites and catchy images, thereby making participation in two of the most important social forums, education and politics, not worth their time?
HG- Of course, neoliberalism thrives on conformity, uninformed citizens, and a privatized view of the world in which education must be disassociated from public participation in shaping democracy life. But we live at a time in which politics and economic fundamentalism have merged at the highest levels of government. Neoliberal ideology now drives public policy and part of the policy is dedicated to undermining critical education, allowing power to be unaccountable, and sowing the seeds of cynicism and conformity. Consumerism now seems to be the only obligation of citizenship and civic responsibility. Agency in this view is completely depoliticized and defines politics through a discourse of cynicism that suggests that there are no collective structures or agents to challenge existing relations of power. At the same time, neoliberalism offers no public spaces for developing a democratic discourse for education and promoting collective social agents committed to the reproduction of democratic values and institutions. Critical education and democratic politics have become disposable, unnecessary, if not threatening, to a society that privileges inequality over justice, profits over social needs, and short term gains over the future.
MP- So would a Kerry administration be any better for US education than a Bush administration?
HG- Are you kidding? The Bush administration is filled with zealots and represents the most dangerous threat to democracy we have seen in the United States in the last fifty years. Kerry is no social democrat, but he is not the extremist that Bush represents. Kerry at least holds on to some liberal social values while Bush is blatant about destroying any vestige of their presence in society. Matters of abortion rights, workers’ rights, increasing privatization, the destruction of the environment, dismantling social security, the attack on higher education, the undoing of the welfare state, the increasing imprisonment of minorities, the insidious attack on immigrants–all of these issues will worsen under Bush. With Kerry, there may be some moderation if not a reversal of some of these policies.
MP- But given the weak platform that John Kerry has been running on, do you believe that George W. Bush will be able to capitalize on the people’s fear of changing leaders during this so-called “war on terror” and win re-election this November?
HG- Judging from the current ratings, Bush is on the path of winning the election precisely because he has been successful in making fear and insecurity into the centerpieces of his campaign. By doing so, he does not have to answer for a disastrous economic record, the bankrupt foreign policy he has pursued, especially in Iraq, or his insidious attack on civil liberties.
MP- After reading and hearing so many progressives like yourself and others, I think many of us wonder just how one avoids falling into the hopelessness and/or cynicism that so many people feel and yet have no other recourse that guides them in another direction. How can one see beyond what appears to be the same recurrences of political abuse of power, the uncritical manner in which most citizens accept the actions of their leaders and country and the continued injustices with each passing generation?
HG- The problems we face in the United States and in the world today are too urgent to be either giving up on hope or accepting quietism. At the heart of politics and political agency is the necessity to imagine the impossible, to see beyond the given, and to propose concrete alternative visions. I think that without hope, moral outrage, and a culture of questioning and action, progressive politics becomes unthinkable. I think Alain Badiou is right in insisting that “emancipatory politics always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible.” At the same time, false hope is of no use whatsoever. Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination, and engaged participation. Without hope, even in the most dire of times, there is no possibility for resistance, dissent, and struggle. Agency is the condition of struggle, and hope is the condition of agency. Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognizing and naming the incomplete nature of the present. It also offers a way of overcoming this debilitating pessimism and manufactured cynicism of the times. Far from being a pipe dream, hope is one of the most important resources we have to promote social change and is the heartbeat of politics itself. Hope coupled with scepticism reclaims the possibility of ethics, knowledge, criticism, and social engagement, and democracy.
Henry Giroux holds the Global Television Network Chair in Communications at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books are The Terror of Neoliberalism (Paradigm Press, 2004); Take Back Higher Education (co-authored with Susan Searls, Palgrave, 2004), and The Abandoned Generation (Palgrave 2004). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at: www.henryagiroux.com.
Mike Alexander Pozo was a former Editor of The St. John’s University Humanities Review, He is now a doctoral student at the University of California, San Diego.
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