Taking Henry Giroux’s Borderless Pedagogy to Our Institutions of Higher Learning

In his article titled, “Gated Intellectuals and Ignorance in Political Life: Toward a Borderless Pedagogy in the Occupy Movement,” Henry Giroux tackles a plethora of social and political issues, but he specifically focuses on the transformation of public higher education from a “bordered” or “limited” enterprise to a “borderless,” socially and politically conscious sphere. Giroux begins with the neoliberal, capitalist context designed to show how public education actually operates in relation to that context, why higher education is failing us as a national community and what we can do to change it.

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

To better contextualize the state of education, as well as his ideas about bordered pedagogy and gated intellectuals, Giroux writes,

“Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters and its army of supporters cloak their interests in an appeal to ‘common sense,’ while doing everything possible to deny climate change, massive inequalities, a political system hijacked by big money and corporations, the militarization of everyday life and the corruption of civic culture by a consumerist and celebrity-driven advertising machine … They perform social magic by making the structures and power relations of racism, inequality, homelessness, poverty and environmental degradation disappear. And in doing so, they employ deception by seizing upon a stripped-down language of choice, freedom, enterprise and self-reliance – all of which works to personalize responsibility, collapse social problems into private troubles and reconfigure the claims for social and economic justice on the part of workers, poor minorities of color, women and young people as a species of individual complaint.”

Here, Giroux speaks of the specific ways in which systems of domination maintain and enhance themselves and he also alludes to the active hegemonic participation that all of us are complicit in when it comes to our relationship to the neoliberal, capitalist power structure. In a way, concepts of freedom and choice become defined for us on very specific neoliberal – and specious – terms, which in fact represent the ideology and the interests of the socially and financially privileged or elite (namely those who identify as white, male, Christian, capitalist and heterosexual). This becomes exceedingly problematic because the underprivileged or the marginalized (based on race, class, gender etc.) take part in a national rationale which frames their subordination as a phenomenon based on individual agency or deficiency. We are sent daily messages (through the media, through our interactions with others, through our relationships to our employers) which discourage us from taking any critical stance when it comes to assessing our own positions within existing power structures (which actually works as a means to keep human bodies under different forms of control).

One way in which the prevailing power structures maintain their dominance is through a sustained, limited pedagogy designed to control and define knowledge in very specific ways so that very particular dominant interests can be fulfilled. As Giroux has repeatedly emphasized in his work, pedagogical operation in contemporary America consists of multiple arenas where multiple types of pedagogies are fostered and can basically be described as the “rational” method of instruction that reflects hyper-capitalist ideology. Since all American institutions are really “learning” arenas (because human beings are constantly gathering data from outside themselves and forming particular images or perceptions about that data in their minds), it follows that different pedagogies occur in all facets of life. For instance, we tend to construct academic pedagogies, workplace pedagogies, household pedagogies and family pedagogies, just to name a few. While these pedagogies do typically reflect the “bordered” rationale behind the dominant systems of power, it is important to keep in mind that these pedagogies don’t necessarily need to be limited to one specific set of instructions dictated by market influences or dominant ideologies.

Giroux goes on to write,

“A gated or border pedagogy is one that establishes boundaries to protect the rich; isolates citizens from each other; excludes those populations considered disposable; and renders invisible young people, especially poor youth of color, along with others marginalized by class and race … The gated intellectual works hard to make thinking an act of stupidity, turn lies into truths, build a moat around oppositional ideas so they cannot be accessed and destroy those institutions and social protections that serve the common good.”

Essentially, many of our neoliberal apparatuses and institutions are designed to limit and distribute knowledge only on specific terms and in specific ways. For example, the media may overwhelmingly represent women in very docile or sexualized ways, thus severely limiting and controlling the concept of gender in the minds of everyone observing those images. Or schools may implement a plethora of standardized tests, implying that only specific sets of knowledge must be developed in young minds so as to prepare them for the social and systemic circumstances that will ensure their passive acceptance of subordination, and even worse, control their concept and definition of everything relevant in their lives (with regard to race, class, gender, identity, sense of self etc.). In other words, all of these apparatuses increasingly discourage “independent thought, critical agency and civic courage.”

Additionally, colleges and universities (both public and private) also exist as sites that are meant to primarily develop and train minds and bodies to maintain the dominant and structural status quo. One of the growing contradictions in American higher education today is the fact that institutions continue to adopt corporate models for themselves, while simultaneously claiming to be centers for equitable multiculturalism and student empowerment. Since universities exist as institutions – like any other American institution – they follow the neoliberal trend of “employing deception by seizing a stripped-down language of choice, freedom, [empowerment and equality].”

As Giroux puts it, “[Since] the educational force of the culture [has become] a powerful ideological tool for legitimating market-driven values and social relations, based on omissions, deceptions, lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods,” then we must assume that the goal of these institutions is not to produce critically thinking students who can expect structural equality within their schools. Rather, we can assume that institutions of higher education have a primary interest in increasing enrollment and retention rates for the purpose of developing a larger constituency of “trained” people who will uphold current power systems through “market driven values,” social relations and a fixed knowledge that is limited to the rationalization of the dominant structure that it serves.

So, how do we confront this reality?

We must move away from accepting the structural and ideological constraints that maintain current systems of domination. We must come to understand exactly how the gated pedagogical process works to limit our knowledge about ourselves and the world. We must make a transition toward a critical pedagogy that aims to always examine the environment in which we are being educated. As Giroux describes,

“There is a need to develop what I call a project of democratization and borderless pedagogy that moves across different sites – from schools to the alternative media – as part of a broader attempt to construct a critical formative culture in the United States that enables Americans to reclaim their voices, speak out, exhibit moral outrage and create the social movements, tactics and public spheres that will reverse the growing tide of authoritarianism in the United States.”

In particular, institutions of higher education can better serve their students if they were to philosophically and institutionally adopt the idea of borderless pedagogy. Instead of developing college students as “highly trained” wage laborers in different specific fields (and by making billions of dollars of profit in the process), why don’t colleges take the same amount of time and energy to develop college students who are highly educated in critical thinking and borderless thought? At all top administrative levels, colleges and universities need to actually make a commitment to student well-being (with “well-being” being defined by well-informed, conscious and analytic student thinkers themselves) and set the precedent for all staff and faculty members as well. Faculty members should be taught and shown just how race, class and gender are indeed playing out in their classrooms even if they don’t know it. Gated universities and gated intellectuals may need to take a step back and realize that a large period of time might need to be dedicated to deconstructing the pedagogy of their field (since many of their disciplines were created and developed through the influence of all sorts of social conditions). Faculty members themselves may want to critique dominant structures and ideologies in their classrooms, thus setting an example for their students. And lastly, if college administrations and faculty members are not willing to acknowledge their blatant failure in helping their students become self-thinking, conscious agents of action who have the capacity to realize their own borderless potential, then they must continue to be challenged on all fronts (through scholarly critique by professors, through vocal displeasure by all community members and by the continued attempt to raise the consciousness of everyone involved even without administrative support).

Note: Henry A. Giroux is a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors.