Skip to content Skip to footer

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere

Public Intellectual Henry Giroux speaks with Truthout about his new book and its exploration of how neoliberalism forces students into an intellectual and moral dead zone devoid of imagination.

Henry A. Giroux. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

This story wasn’t funded by corporate advertising, but by readers like you. Can you help sustain our work with a tax-deductible donation?

Public Intellectual Henry Giroux speaks with Truthout about his new book and its exploration of how neoliberalism makes it harder for poor children to attend college and forces debt-ridden students into an intellectual and moral dead zone devoid of imagination.

Truthout contributor, director of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project and Truthout Board member Henry A. Giroux responds to questions about how the excesses of neoliberal politics have reshaped and subverted the democratic mission of higher education, as expressed in his new book.

Henry A. Giroux | Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education Haymarket Books (March 18, 2014) Chicago, Illinois, 240 pages

Victoria Harper: Welcome, Henry. In your latest book, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, neoliberalism is a central organizing idea in shaping your view of education. Can you provide a general working definition of what it is and how it threatens higher education?

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism has many forms, but these forms share a number of characteristics. Not only is it the latest stage of predatory capitalism, but it is also part of a broader project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital, particularly financial capital. More specifically, it is a political, economic and political project that constitutes an ideology, mode of governance, policy and form of public pedagogy. As an ideology, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but serve as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, individual responsibility and is purposely blind to inequalities in power, wealth and income and how they bear down on the fate of individuals and groups. As such, it supports a theater of cruelty that is scornful of any notion of compassion and concern for others. As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social costs.

Under neoliberalism, desire is wedded to commodities and the private addictions of the market. As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, the dismantling of the connection of private issues and public problems, the selling off of state functions, the elimination of government regulation of financial institutions and corporations, the elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society.

As a form of public pedagogy, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that as a form of casino capitalism it legitimates a culture of harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

What is new about neoliberalism, especially in the United States is that it has abandoned the social contract and any viable notion of long-term investments in social goods. It is indifferent to human fragility and suffering, and remakes everything into commodified objects or reified financial transactions. It creates emotionally bleak landscapes for the 99% and excessive fantasies of greed and power for the 1%. Its vision of the future is dystopian, and it is driven by machineries of social and civil death. Given the scope and power of neoliberalism, the book attempts to illustrate how it works politically, economically and pedagogically.

In what ways does neoliberalism threaten higher education?

Higher education is one of the few public spheres left where students can learn to think, engage in critical dialogue, be self-reflective about their relationship to themselves, others and the larger world, all the while steeping themselves in the best ideas, values and skills that various modes of science, history, culture, literature and other traditions can teach them. Under neoliberalism, any public sphere that educates young people to be critical and engaged citizens is seen as dangerous to the established order. This is one of the reasons that the right hates the legacy of the ’60s, because it reminds them of the power of students to question the established order and make power accountable while demanding that education function as a democratic public sphere. Moreover, education provides opportunities for those multiracial and working-class individuals previously unable to get a decent education. This is viewed as a threat to a largely white dominated public sphere.

These are some of the reasons why education is being massively defunded while students are trapped into tuition increases that decrease the possibility of poor students from going to college, while forcing existing students into a intellectual and morally dead zone that robs them of their imagination and forces them to think about their lives and careers solely in terms of survival tactics – how to pay off their loans as quickly as possible in order to be free of debt. The current assault threatening higher education and the humanities in particular, cannot be understood outside of the crisis of disposability, public values, ethics, youth, and democracy itself. What is also important to recognize is that since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, a new model for running the university emerged that relied on corporate management styles, values, and institutional formations. This marked the rise of the corporate university which now defines all aspects of governing, curriculum, financial matters, and a host of other academic policies. The corporate university is the ultimate expression of neoliberal values and social relations, which are defined by a top-down authoritarian style of power.

What is distinct about the current threat to higher education and the humanities in particular is the increasing pace of the corporatization and militarization of the university, the squelching of academic freedom, the rise of an ever-increasing contingent of part-time faculty, the use of violence to squelch peaceful student dissent, and the view that students are basically consumers and faculty providers of a saleable commodity such as a credential or a set of workplace skills.

Particularly disturbing here is the war on faculty and the ongoing attempts to impose modes of governance based on a business model, one that reduces faculty to part-time help with no power or security. Faculty are being turned into a labor forces that mimics Walmart workers while the managerial class is expanding, draining off funds from faculty and students, and governing the university as if it were a branch of General Motors and Disneyland.

More striking still is the slow death of the university as a center of critique, vital source of civic education, and crucial public good. Many faculties are now demoralized as they increasingly lose their rights and power. Many now find themselves staring into an abyss, either unwilling to address the current attacks on the university or befuddled over how the language of specialization and professionalization has cut them off from not only connecting their work to larger civic issues and social problems but also developing any meaningful relationships to a larger democratic polity. As an adjunct of the academic-military-industrial complex, higher education has nothing to say about teaching students how to think for themselves in a democracy, how to think critically and engage with others, and how to address through the prism of democratic values the relationship between themselves and the larger world. Hence, students are treated like commodities and data to be ingested and spit out as potential job seekers for whom education has been reduced to a form of training.

Students are now taught to ignore human suffering and to focus mainly on their own self-interests and by doing so they are being educated to exist in a political and moral vacuum. Education under neoliberalism is a form of radical depoliticization, one that kills the radical imagination and the hope for a world that is more just equal, and democratic society.

You write that academics have an important role to play as public intellectuals in higher education. Can you elaborate on that role?

I tried to stress in the book that not only were many academics under siege as a result of the increased corporatization and militarization of higher education, but that many had succumbed to the seductions of power, while a minority took a very different role and were attempting with great difficulty to engage in modes of teaching and scholarship that addressed wider civic values and crucial social problems.

In the first instance, I write about what I called gated intellectuals. That is, academics who have become comfortable with the rewards of power and in doing so buy into defining themselves as servants of established power, accepting the transformation of the university in an appendage of the marketplace, and doing what they can to legitimate such a poisonous vision of higher education. They generally are technicians who have no vision and expect very little for their students and are largely concerned about turning research and teaching into acts of commerce. Gated intellectuals have no interest in helping to construct a more just world or using their knowledge and skills to help students and others come to a better understanding of how power works and what it means to inhabit a discourse of rigor, morality, and responsibility.

On the other hand, there are those academics who are both clever and frivolous, anti-political and often indifferent to the growing plight of human suffering. Their academic work is often utterly privatized and unconnected to important social issues and always haughty – and they were quite unaware of the caricatures they had become. And while they are not directly complicit with the workings of the corporate university, they have become irrelevant by virtue of their jargonized language, cerebral convolutions, and their refusal, as James Baldwin once put it, “to disturb the peace.” There is also the issue of careerism and the powerful force it exercises in undermining intellectual courage, which has given way to the comfortable space of accommodation. In this instance, the notion of the public intellectual has given way to the “public relations intellectual,” the overheated talking head spewing out sound bites to various media outlets.

In the second instance, there are also a number of academics who are public intellectuals who model what it means to be to connect their scholarship to important public issues, work across a number of disciplines, address a variety of audiences, and refuse a notion of education that is compatible with the vision of accountants. Such intellectuals assume the role of public intellectuals, wakeful and mindful of their responsibilities to bear testimony to human suffering and the pedagogical possibilities at work in educating students to be autonomous, self-reflective, and socially responsible. In this case, I argue in the book for intellectuals who not only teach students how to be critical, to search for the truth, but also to understand education as the practice of freedom.

At a time of rising authoritarianism and state and corporate violence in the United States and elsewhere, academics have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus, and challenge common sense. The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition. Put simply, I argue in the book that academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, and making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view. Too many intellectuals focus on how something can be done efficiently rather than ask if it is right or wrong, if it benefits human kind and the planet rather than simply being reduced to an empty form of neoliberal instrumentality.

What I find particularly interesting in this book is that you do not simply focus on the language of critique but also what you have called a politics of educated hope, and you do so by pointing to the inspiring role that students in Quebec and New York City have played in both resisting the corporatization of the university and connecting their struggles over higher education to broader social, political and economic issues.

Students get a bad rap in the dominant media, and this was particularly true for the protesters in Quebec and for the Occupy Movement in the US. And, of course, they have not only been demonized but have also been the subject of indiscriminate state violence, especially by the police on and off college campuses. What I tried to do was illustrate the nature of the struggles they were addressing in the academy and how those struggles related to larger social issues. For instance, in Quebec, the students organized for two years to change the ideas that people had about the necessity of raising tuition, allowing the university to be defined in utterly market-driven terms, and what it meant politically to connect the raising of tuition to the attack on the social state in general. This was an amazing display of the radical imagination at work that went far beyond simply demonstrations and single-issue politics. Not only did they inspire students across the globe but reinforced and broadened the political struggles being waged by students in the United States. Together these movements, coupled with other student movements in Chile, France, and Greece, created a crisis of legitimacy for casino capitalism and broadened the debate about what a real democracy might look like if fashioned by the 99 percent rather than by the 1 percent. I wanted to stress that both of these movements understood fully not only that democracy, as hijacked by the established austerity-pushing traditional political parties, was an attack on the very nature of democracy itself, but that education was central to politics as part of the struggle to change the way people think and act in the face of oppressive powers. This generation of young people represent the best hope we have for refusing a life ruled by debt collection agencies, reclaiming education as the practice of freedom, and a recognition that the majority of commanding institutions under neoliberalism no longer serve the needs of most young people or the larger public. Most importantly, I wanted to make clear that these various movements brought the issue of class power and the importance of the radical imagination back into political debates across the globe.

This book concludes with an interview with Michael A. Peters in which you merge the political and the personal in ways that speak to the conditions that many academics are facing as well as what it means to be a working-class intellectual in the US. Can you elaborate?

I wanted to conclude with an interview that provides a historical context for much of the work on critical pedagogy, youth studies, social justice, cultural politics and higher education that I address in this book. For me, this work has not been easy. As a working-class intellectual, I found myself for much of my career in universities that were largely hostile to my experiences, cultural capital, and the critical scholarship that informed my work. This was particularly true of my experiences at Boston University, where I was denied tenure by the right-wing fundamentalist, John Silber, who was the president of the university. And this was after going through the entire tenure process at all levels with unanimous votes for tenure. It was also true of my time at Penn State, where I had to endure a couple of deans who lacked any vision, were mean-spirited, and intellectually vacuous. Fortunately, these dreadful experiences were not true for my time at Miami University and not true for my current position at McMaster University, in which both institutions generously provided the conditions and support for me to do my work and continue my role as a public intellectual. I believe that such narratives and struggles need to be made visible in order to articulate the broader pressures that many academics, marginalized by their backgrounds, experience when they push against the grain or find themselves under assault as part of a hidden curriculum that has a powerful and invisible order of politics. At the same time, my own struggle is not meant to reaffirm the often dystopian nature of the university but to make clear that such spaces are not without their contradictions and that power is never absolute – social and political change is always possible.

The university is not a prison or simply neoliberal factory. It is a site of contradictions and struggles and in my mind one of the most important struggles taking place in the United States. I wanted to use the interview to explore a number of layers at work in the structuring of the university, while at the same time arguing that intellectuals and students need to fight for higher education as a crucial public good. Moreover, the interview provides a glimpse into how the interaction between the private and the public have informed my role of as a public intellectual in higher education and my attempts to develop an understanding of critical pedagogy as central to the very nature of agency, politics and democracy itself.

Amid the pressures of an institution that is rife with the legacy of cultural elitism, class structures, racism and repression, the interview provides an archive and a narrative of critique and possibility, despair and hope, and a glimpse into a particular kind of memory work that illuminates past struggles and the problems of a new historical conjuncture as well as what it means to address them. This interview was particularly aimed at those working-class academics and young people who are presently struggling within higher education, unsure of their role, refusing to be defined by their deficits, and trying to find the courage to make a difference in their roles as scholars, teachers and researchers.

What can educators and others concerned about the future of higher education do to make sure it is not colonized by corporate and other antidemocratic interests?

First, educators and others need to figure out how to defend more vigorously higher education as a public good and how central it is in producing the formative culture necessary to educate young people to be critical and engaged agents willing to fight to deepen and expand the promises of a substantive democracy.

Second, we need to address what the optimum conditions are for educators, artists, activists, etc., to perform their work in an autonomous and critical fashion. In other words, we need to think through the conditions that make academic labor fruitful, engaging and relevant.

Third, we need to turn the growing army of temporary workers now swelling the ranks of the academy into full-time, permanent staff. The presence of so many part-time employees is scandalous and both weakens the power of the faculty and exploits them.

Fourth, we need to educate students to be critical agents, to learn how to take risks, engage in thoughtful dialogue and address what it means to be socially responsible.

Fifth, educators and others must address pedagogy as the practice of freedom. Pedagogy is not about training; it is about educating people to be self-reflective, critical and self-conscious about their relationship with others and to know something about their relationship with the larger world. Pedagogy in this sense not only provides important thoughtful and intellectual competencies; it also enables people to act effectively upon the societies in which they live.

Sixth, educators and others need a new political language with broader narratives that address the totality of society rather than focus on single-based issue politics. I am not against identity politics or single-based issues, but we need to find ways to connect these issues to more encompassing, global narratives about democracy so we can recognize their strengths and limitations in building broad-based social movements. In short, it is imperative that as educators and socially responsible intellectuals, artists, parents and concerned citizens, we must act for justice and against injustice. And such a call to pursue the truth with a small “t” must be shaped by informed judgments, self-reflection, searing forms of critique, civic courage and a deep commitment to education as central to the struggle for democracy and social change. Needless to say, we need to find new ways to connect education to the struggle for a democratic future, which is now being undermined in ways that were unimaginable 30 years ago.

Opposing the forces of domination is important, but it does not go far enough. We must move beyond a language of pointless denunciations and offer instead a language that moves forward with the knowledge, skills, and social relations necessary for the creation of new modes of agency, social movements, and democratic economic and social policies. We need to open up the realm of human possibility, recognize that history is open, that justice is never complete, and that democracy can never be fully settled. I fervently believe in the need for both critique and hope, and have faith that the left can develop the public spheres that make such possibilities possible, whether they be schools, classrooms, workshops, newspapers, online journals, community colleges or other spaces where knowledge, power, ethics, and justice merge to create new subjectivities, new modes of civic courage, and new hope for the future.

Thank you, Henry.

Also see:

Henry A. Giroux | From Penn State to JPMorgan Chase and Barclays: Destroying Higher Education, Savaging Children and Extinguishing Democracy

Henry A. Giroux | Beyond the Swindle of the Corporate University: Higher Education in the Service of Democracy

Henry A. Giroux | The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

Henry A. Giroux | Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability

Henry A. Giroux | Beyond Neoliberal Miseducation

Countdown is on: We have 8 days to raise $46,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.