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Henry Giroux: The Necessity of Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times

(Photo: Luca Melette / Flickr)

José María Barroso Tristán: You’re considered as the father of a critical pedagogy. What is critical pedagogy for you?

Henry Giroux: Actually, I am not the father of critical pedagogy. While I may have played a prominent role in its development, critical pedagogy emerged out of long series of educational struggles that extend from the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil to the work on critical pedagogy advanced by myself and Roger Simon, David Livingstone, and later Joe Kincheloe in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical pedagogy is a movement and an ongoing struggle taking place in a number of different social formations and places. To argue that there is such a thing as “the father of critical pedagogy” devalues those struggles and the collective efforts that have been made to develop and build upon the diverse archives that make up critical pedagogy in all of its different formations. As Roger Simon once pointed out, the attempt to define a set of “founding fathers” for critical pedagogy suggests that “an authentic version could somehow be found in a patriarchal vanishing point.”

To read more articles by Henry Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

First, I think it is best to think of critical pedagogy as an ongoing project instead of a fixed set of references or prescriptive set of practices–put bluntly, it is not a method. One way of thinking about critical pedagogy in these terms is to think of it as both a way of understanding education as well as a way of highlighting the performative nature of agency as an act of participating in shaping the world in which we live. But I think the best place to begin to answer this question is to recognize the distinction between a conservative notion of teaching and the more progressive meaning of critical pedagogy. Teaching for many conservatives is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, teaching becomes synonymous with a method, technique, or the practice of a craft—like skill training. On the other hand, critical pedagogy must be seen as a political and moral project and not a technique. Pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. As a political project, critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, and skills, and it illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations. Similarly, it draws attention to the fact that pedagogy is a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. Ethically, critical pedagogy stresses the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding what knowledge is of most worth, in what direction should one desire, and what it means to know something. Most importantly, it takes seriously what it means to understand the relationship between how we learn and how we act as individual and social agents; that is, it is concerned with teaching students how not only to think but to come to grips with a sense of individual and social responsibility, and what it means to be responsible for one’s actions as part of a broader attempt to be an engaged citizen who can expand and deepen the possibilities of democratic public life. Finally, what has to be acknowledged is that critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, available resources, the histories that students bring with them to the classroom, and the diverse experiences and identities they inhabit.

JMBT: You note that critical pedagogy “…draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, and skills, and it illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations”. Who, actually, has control over the production of knowledge?

HG: What this questions registers is how do power, politics and knowledge connect in creating the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, subjectivities, and social relations in both the school and the classroom. While power is never uniform either in its constellations or effects, it is true that within particular historical formations some modes of power dominate over others and often constrain the types of struggles and modes of governance involved in decisions regarding what counts as knowledge. At the current moment, it is fair to say that the dominant mode of power shaping what counts as knowledge takes its cue from what can be called neoliberalism or what can be called unfettered free-market capitalism. Market fundamentalism that not only trivializes democratic values and public concerns, but also enshrines a rabid individualism, an all-embracing quest for profits, and a social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and a Hobbesian “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. Free market fundamentalists now wage a full-fledged attack on the social contract, the welfare state, any notion of the common good, and those public spheres not yet defined by commercial interests. Within neoliberal ideology, the market becomes the template for organizing the rest of society. Everyone is now a customer or client, and every relationship is ultimately judged in bottom-line, cost-effective terms. Freedom is no longer about equality, social justice, or the public welfare, but about the trade in goods, financial capital, and commodities. The production of knowledge at the heart of this market driven regime is a form of instrumental rationality that quantifies all forms of meaning, privatizes social relations, dehistoricizes memory, and substitutes training for education while reducing the obligations of citizenship to the act of consuming. The production of knowledge in schools today is instrumental, wedded to objective outcomes, privatized, and is largely geared to produce consuming subjects. The organizational structures that make such knowledge possible enact serious costs on any viable notion of critical education and critical pedagogy. Teachers are deskilled, largely reduced to teaching for the test, business culture organizes the governance structures of schooling, knowledge is viewed as a commodity, and students are treated reductively as both consumers and workers. Knowledge is the new privileged form of capital and at least in the schools is increasing coming under the control of policies set by the ultra-rich, religious fundamentalists, and major corporate elites.

JMBT: Your opinion on an actual teacher´s development is very interesting. Can you further explain the meaning of “Teachers are deskilled”?

HG: Since the 1980s, right wing and conservative educational theorists have both attacked colleges of education and called for alternative routes to teacher certification. They have emphasized the practical and experiential, seeking to gut the critical nature of theory, pedagogy, and knowledge taught in colleges of education as well as in public schools and university classrooms. In effect, there is an attempt to deskill teaches by removing matters of conception from implementation. Teachers are no longer asked to be creative, to think critically, or to be creative. On the contrary, they have been reduced to the keeper of methods, implementers of an audit culture, and removed from assuming autonomy in their classrooms. According to conservatives, the great sin teachers colleges have committed in the past few decades is that they have focused too much on theory and not enough on clinical practice—and by “theory,” they mean critical pedagogy and other theories that enable prospective teachers to situate school knowledge, practices, and modes of governance within wider historical, social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. Conservatives wants public schools and colleges to focus on “practical” methods in order to prepare teachers for an “outcome-based” education system, which is code for pedagogical methods that are as anti-intellectual as they are politically conservative. This is a pedagogy useful for creating armies of number crunchers and for downgrading teachers to supervising the administration of standardized tests, but not much more. Reducing pedagogy to the teaching of methods and data-driven performance indicators that allegedly measure scholastic ability and improve student achievement is nothing short of scandalous. Rather than provide the best means for confronting “difficult truths about the inequality of America’s political economy,” such a pedagogy produces the swindle of “blaming inequalities on individuals and groups with low test scores.” The conservative call for practicality must be understood as an attempt to sabotage the forms of teacher and student self-reflection required for a quality education, all the while providing an excuse for a prolonged moral coma and flight from responsibility.

By espousing empirically based standards as a fix for educational problems, advocates of these measures do more than oversimplify complex issues. More crucially, this technocratic agenda also removes the classroom from larger social, political, and economic forces, while offering anti-intellectual and ethically debased technical and punitive solutions to school and classroom problems. In addition, the insistence on banishing theory from teacher education programs, if not classrooms in general, while promoting narrowly defined skills and practices is a precursor to positioning teachers as a subaltern class that believes the only purpose of education is to train students to compete successfully in a global economy. The model of teaching being celebrated here is one in which teachers are constructed as clerks and technicians who have no need for a public vision in which to imagine the democratic role and social responsibility that schools, teachers, or pedagogy might assume for the world and the future they offer to young people. Drew Gilpin Faust, the current president of Harvard University, is right in insisting that “even as we as a nation have embraced education as critical to economic growth and opportunity, we should remember that [public schools], colleges and universities are about a great deal more than measurable utility. Unlike perhaps any other institutions in the world, they embrace the long view and nurture the kind of critical perspectives that look far beyond the present.”

JMBT: There is considerable criticism, which we share, of technocratic teacher development that fails to recognize the individual processes for each student and situation. This extends to critical thinking and is inclusive of education as a human right. Are school texts edited by corporate enterprise promoting the dissociation between teachers and the reality of society?

HG: In authoritarian societies, control over the production, distribution, and circulation is generally in the hands of the government, or what might be termed traditional modes of political sovereignty. But in neoliberal societies, sovereignty is often in the hands of major corporations that now have power over not only the production of knowledge but also over the implementation of policies that bear down on matters of life and death, living and surviving. In the U.S. major corporations have a huge impact on what gets published, how it is distributed, and exercises an enormous influence over what type of knowledge is legitimated. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists also exercise an enormous influence over what text will be distributed in schools and have a significant impact on corporate controlled book publishing because if such texts are adopted for classroom use, there are enormous profits to be made. The end result of this controlling regime of finance capital and religious and conservative fundamentalism is an all-out cleansing of critical thinking from most educational books now being used in the schools, especially the public schools. Add to this the push for standardized testing, standardized knowledge, and standardized texts and teacher proof text books and it becomes clear that such books are also an attack on the autonomy and creativity of teachers. In authoritarian societies the logic of routine, conformity, and standardization eliminates the need for critical thinking, historical analyses, and critical memory work. Dialogue disappears from such texts and teachers are reduced to mere clerks teaching what is misrepresented as objective facts.

JMBT: In your opinion, has education been devalued in mass-media and the capitalist-culture?

HG: The role of democratic education has been devalued in favor of a pedagogy of commodification and repression. At the same time, education has been refigured both ideologically and structurally. The educational force of the wider culture is now the primary site where education takes place, what I have called public pedagogy—modes of education largely produced, mediated, and circulated through a range of educational spheres extending from the new media and old broadcast media to films, newspapers, television programs, cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, and other commercial sites. Ideologically, the knowledge, values, identities, and social relations produced and legitimated in these sites are driven by the imperatives of commodification, privatization, consuming, and deregulation. At stake here is the creation of a human being that views him or herself as a commodity, shopper, autonomous, and largely free from any social obligations. This is a human being without ethics, a concern for others, and indifferent to human suffering. And the pedagogy that promotes these values and produces this subject is authoritarian and ruthless in its production of savage economic relations, a culture of cruelty, and its deformation of democratic social bonds. One could say that capitalist culture has produced a predatory culture of control and cruelty that promotes vast forms of suffering and repression and it does this increasingly through cultural apparatuses that promote widespread symbolic violence.

JMBT: What are the first steps for education based on a respect for human rights, freedom, and a philanthropic vision?

HG: The first step would be to see education as a crucial foundation for creating the agents necessary to live in, govern, and struggle for a radical democracy. Another task would be to recognize how education and pedagogy are connected to and implicated in the production not only of specific agents, a particular view of the present and future, but also how knowledge, values and desires, and social relations are always implicated in power. Education as a democratic project always presupposes a vision of the future in its introduction to, preparation for, and legitimation of particular forms of social life. It is utopian in its goal of expanding and deepening the ideological and material conditions that make a democracy possible. As a moral and political practice, education produces the modes of literacy, critique, sense of social responsibility, and civic courage necessary to imbue young people with the knowledge and skills needed to enable them to be engaged critical citizens willing to fight for a sustainable and just society.

JMBT: Global Education Magazine promotes an educationally-conscious social reality and strives to eliminate the tremendous inequalities in the world. Do you have any advice for us in these missions?

HG: First, it must be acknowledged that such inequalities undermine every aspect of democratization and that education plays a crucial role in any viable politics willing to confront such global inequities. Second, the problems facing us today are global and not merely local. Power is global and politics is local. That must change. We need a new language for understanding new global power formations as well as new international modes of politics to fight them. Social movements must move outside of national boundaries and join with others across the globe to fight the savagery of neoliberal global politics and central to such a task is the work of intellectuals, artists, cultural workers, and other educators who can fashion new tools and social movements in the fight against the current anti-democratic threats being imposed all over the globe in the name of austerity and market driven values. Finally, we need a language that is both critical and hopeful, a language of critique and possibility.

JMBT: And finally, do you have any additional comments for our readers?

HG: I just want to thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak to such an informed and critical audience. Our struggles cannot be separated and we must open up as many channels of communication as possible to talk, connect, and share with each other our thoughts and strategies for change and social and economic justice.

JMBT: Thank you very much Henry.

Henry A. Giroux is amember of Truthout’s Board of Directors.

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