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Henry Giroux: Current “Reforms” Attempt to Drive Young People Out of Democracy
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Henry Giroux: Current “Reforms” Attempt to Drive Young People Out of Democracy

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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Henry Giroux teaches at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and has written several books about youth, democracy and public education. In this interview with Camilla Croso, coordinator of the Latin-American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE), Giroux talks about corporate interests in the privatization of education, attacks on the importance of schooling and the marginalization of youth under the current political and economic system.

Camilla Croso: Currently, the world is seeing the definition of both post-2015 development and education agendas, considering that 2015 is the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals as well as the Education for All goals. In this context, the Latin-American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE), the Global Campaign for Education and many other actors and movements, have been working hard to ensure a broader vision of education is taken into account, overcoming market-oriented, for-profit and reductionist approaches. A lot of what you write in your texts, in particular in the article, “When Schools Become Dead Zones of the Imagination: A Critical Pedagogy Manifesto,” we see reflected in what is currently happening in our continent and beyond. Our opening question is: How do you interpret the rise of corporate power in educational systems?

Henry Giroux: Every country has its own context, but I think that what we have seen since the 1980s is the recognition on the part of the right that the educative nature of politics is really crucial and important. They want to take control of those institutions that produce particular kinds of subjects, dispositions, attitudes, particular modes of desire that are compatible with market values and market social relationships. So the school becomes a reproductive tool that aligns itself with the belief that the market has the ability to govern all of social life.

Schools are public spaces and by default, they are at odds with a market rationality. The people who control corporate power globally, today, have no interest in the public, public values or public goods. Actually, the public as a democratic public sphere that encourages critical dialogue and an engaged citizenry is the enemy of the market for them because it’s a non-commoditized sphere that basically can produce all those things that are considered hazardous to corporate interests. That is, it produces people who can imagine otherwise and hence act otherwise; it can produce people who believe in thoughtfulness, critical exchange, civic courage [and] social responsibility, and are more than willing to hold power accountable. Public spheres are places in which thinking becomes dangerous and, in that sense, they have to be shut down.

Furthermore, there is an enormous effort on the part of the right, all over the globe, to privatize these public spheres and to turn them into risk-free investments for accumulating capital and profits for the relatively few, for the rich, for politicians, all of whom then can make enormous amounts of money off them. They can disempower faculty, they can treat students as consumers and they can basically use them as a way to accumulate capital.

How do you think corporate power can be constrained?

Right off, it is crucial to make corporate power and its effects visible. And that means not just material relations of power but also the ideologies that legitimate corporate power. This means that it is crucial to recognize that there is no correlation between corporate power and democracy. When corporate power speaks in the name of democracy, it basically lies and the ideological assumptions that drive corporate power have got to be challenged. Let’s talk about three of them. First of all, the notion that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism is morally bankrupt and politically reactionary. It is degrading to claim that people simply need to be shoppers to fulfill their role as citizens. This ideological monstrosity both undermines any viable notion of citizenship and makes a mockery of democracy.

Secondly, the apostles of neoliberalism argue that the only notion of agency that matters is a kind of extreme radical individualism in which self-interest and the ethos of unbridled competition are the only motives that drive people. Self-interest, carried to extremes, undermines modes of solidarity that are absolutely essential to any society that wants to survive. And extreme competition breeds a survival of the fittest way of life that generates a society that celebrates violence, war and a culture of cruelty. A society that does not care to exercise a certain kind of compassion for other people is in trouble. It is a society that not only kills the radical imagination; it promotes a form of civic and political death. Equally important, hyper individualism feeds the myth that people are responsible for all of the problems they face thus downplaying or making invisible the broader systemic and structural problems that plague neoliberal societies that extend from massive poverty, unemployment, and inequality in wealth and income to the defunding of the welfare state.

Thirdly, we need to recognize that corporate power benefits the 1% [of the world’s population]. It doesn’t benefit the vast majority of people. In benefitting the 1%, it not only produces a culture of neoliberal misery, but also eliminates unions and social provisions and destroys the social state. It also reinforces the “punishing state” which means that as people find themselves without homes, without jobs, without the most basic social provisions, their behavior become increasingly criminalized. As a result, more and more people are now being ushered into the criminal justice system and punished by virtue of the fact that their wealth is being stolen. For example, laws are passed to prevent the homeless from sleeping outside, [and] school children are arrested by the police for violating trivial rules such as a dress code.

In an event in New York promoted by the Global Business Coalition for Education, last September, an entrepreneur on one of the panels affirmed there is no ethical dilemma in profit making in education. Do you think profit making in education is compatible with the realization of education as a human right?

I think the issue that needs to be addressed is what have been the consequences of turning public institutions into profit-making institutions. Everywhere we look, what we see is that it promotes an enormous amount of misery for most students and a great deal of wealth for relatively few people. This is particularly true for for-profit colleges in the United States, which put thousands of students in debt and often provide inferior forms of education. For-profit enterprises believe that there is no room for equity, social justice and non-commodified values, such as trust in their governing structures, and this produces a kind of ethical tranquilization in these institutions. So I would argue that no, profit making is incompatible with the most basic institutions that people need in order to survive and exercise any sense of agency.

To take this argument a step further: I believe that profit making is incompatible with health care, because health care is not an entitlement; it’s a right. And as soon as we inject the notion of profit into the formula then we turn rights into entitlements, meaning that what should be a right becomes a privilege for people who have power, people who have money. It seems to me that’s an injustice. And should profits be used to drive public higher education? Absolutely not. Higher education should be free globally. A society cannot sustain itself democratically unless the social investments are made for society as a whole, and these institutions benefit everybody, and not just a privileged few. Under the regime of neoliberalism, wherever you see the profit motive, you have massive amounts of inequality; you see the redistribution of wealth from public goods to private goods. From the people to relatively few individuals. Therefore, I would say it’s completely incompatible.

Now, let’s talk about the issue of youth and secondary education. In the regional process that CLADE has been carrying out, one of the central issues that arises from the students, is the demise of the educational system toward youth identities and cultures. Systems tend to want to homogenize the students, denying their identities, their plurality and their diversities. Can you comment on this perception? What could be done for educational systems to recognize and dialogue with these different youth cultures?

When you see education becoming confused with training, collapsing into crude forms of instrumentalism, largely produced and orchestrated by [right-wing] and corporate interests, you end up with a pedagogy of repression, one that pushes for standardization, an obscene degree of testing and a deskilling of teachers. I would argue that the hidden curriculum here works through at least three important registers. First, they promote pedagogies of oppression that work to kill any vestige of the radical imagination, the ability to think critically and thoughtfully. Pedagogy as the practice of freedom should inspire and energize. Neoliberal pedagogies do neither.

Secondly, it seems to me that diversity is a threat to many people on the right, particularly in the North and South American systems. Ever since the 1960s, the right has been petrified by the democratizing possibilities of education, of allowing vast members of the middle class, for instance, to all of a sudden, with all their diverse identities, become educated. They see the expansion of education to diverse elements of the working and middle classes as a threat to a privileged, white colonial class. Market driven forms of education are intent on eliminating and holding back educational opportunities for the vast majority of the population, especially those groups considered disposable who haven’t been empowered in the past by virtue of access to education in general. This points to a class and racial issue.

Thirdly, the notion that we allow multiple identities to emerge in schools and to be celebrated, suggests not only a dialogue about the notion of identity and agency; it [also] suggests a dialogue about history. Neoliberal modes of education are scared to death of any form of oppositional history emerging, one that emerges from the voices of the excluded. What frightens them is the specter of the emergence of a critical public and historical memory, one that points to the necessity for a dialogue regarding the missing narratives of those voices that have often been excluded in the past, and in some way resurrect their own profound memories about what history has meant for them, about what it has meant to be oppressed, what it means to live in a colonial country, to take seriously a society that simply has not been democratized enough. I think all those questions are really quite political around the question of diversity.

The other issue is what can be done. First of all, we need to open schools up to the vast majority of people who have basically been excluded. In the United States, you not only have students laboring under debts, in ways that mean the vast majority of working-class students will no longer have access to higher education. If you really are going to talk about diversity in education and equal opportunity, then you have to say something about the economic inequalities as well as inequalities in wealth, income and power that make it very difficult for minorities of class, color and race to have access to higher education. So you can’t talk about diversity and access without talking about political economy and inequality. Poverty kills both dreams and the hope for a better future for most working-class students. Unless inequality is addressed and rectified so as to be compatible with a democracy, schooling will serve a containing function for most young people and an important credential for very few.

Also, you’ve got to have curriculums that are meaningful in order to be critical and transformative, meaning that students have to have points of identification; they have to be in places that somehow relate to their cultures, relate to their history, to their neighborhoods, to a sense of who they are and where they come from. It does not mean you have to stop there, but it certainly means that in some ways you have to connect to the students so they can make a connection between their own lives and what they are learning about the larger world.

The other point that has been raised in these processes that we’ve been carrying forward with the students is that of “adultcentrism,” meaning a world where adults are at the top of the hierarchy and the only legitimate actors. And youth, children, older people are just hierarchically inferior. They say they cannot participate in debates and decision-making. They are not seen and understood as legitimate interlocutors. Can you comment on this issue about “adultcentrism”? How do you think we can establish more horizontal intergenerational relationships?

I think in the most basic definition [of the term] you’re right. It means that adults have power in a way that is very exclusionary and often refuses to include the voices of young people. But, at another level, you have to ask yourself what is the economic, political and social framework that actually gives those adults power to deny an entire generation a future of dignity and hope? And I think that is the central question. In this case, we’ve seen since the 1970s in Latin America – particularly in Chile – a market-driven mode of casino capitalism that basically says that youth are no longer a social investment. The only investment that matters in these societies is economic in nature. Capital, not human needs, becomes the driving force of history. This is shameful, politically corrupt and provides the framework for totalitarian societies.

And this reinforces all those power relations that in many ways say that we are going to drive young people out of democracy. We don’t care about them; we don’t want to hear their voices and we’ll do everything we can to make them powerless. We don’t provide jobs for them; we don’t make social investments for them; we don’t provide work opportunities for them; we don’t push funds for education.

I think that young people are going to change that. And they are absolutely right about how they have been marginalized. They will have to challenge the system that produces it. The issue is not simply going after adults. The issue is going after a system that reinforces the power of adults, in ways that is enormously cruel and produces all kinds of misery for young people.

Now we want to focus a little bit more on these post-2015 agenda setting processes. One of the education targets within the current version of the Sustainable Development Goals calls for affordable higher education. And in Latin America, those public universities that are free – like University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, for example – are under pressure to start charging fees. Could you expand a little bit more on your perspective on charging for public higher education, instead of it being free?

What we have to ask ourselves is: “How does a society want to reinvest the funds that it has in order to sustain a future that is much better than the present?” When you move from free education to affordable education, what you’re really saying is that students are going to pay for a system in which the rich and the corporations are not really being taxed. This is really about the realigning of wealth. It’s not about whether students should simply pay or not. It’s about whether we are going to justify taking money that could be invested in young people, and instead invest it in the 1% or invest it in the military-industrial complex.

Why is a society trying to punish young people by claiming that they should pay for education that should be free in any democratic society? That’s the real issue. So the next question becomes: “Wait a minute, who is benefiting from charging students money?” Certainly the issue is not that schools will fail because they don’t charge. We can say: “Look, what percentage of the military-industrial complex is allocated in terms of gross national product? Do we really need to expand 25 percent on machineries of death or should we spend 10 percent or 5 percent? Is war more important than educating a generation of young people?” I don’t think so.

The real question here is where is money being allocated in ways that suggest deep ideological and structural injustices that are built into the very fabric of an unequal society. Whenever I hear that students need to pay more, what I’m really hearing is that we are talking about the redistribution of wealth away from students to the wealthy few. We’re not talking about the necessity for education to provide a good education by simply being able to offer more funds to students. We’re talking about taking money away from students in order to fund corporate interests that could care less about providing a quality education to every young person in the country.

Something that is really worrying us about this “affordability” issue is that this political posture is now being advocated by some international actors to offer what they call “low-fee private schools” for segments of society. And what sort of quality is going to be provided through such “low-fee private schools”? And what are the ethical implications of deepening segregation, with a two-tier society naturalizing the provision of expensive, high quality, elite schools and poor quality schools for the poorer segments of the population?

You’re absolutely right and I think what we are seeing is really the privatization of education in every level. It’s not just simply about charging people more money. I think we are seeing an enormous move toward a two-tier system, where most education that is free is of enormously poor quality because it lacks resources, lacks decent teachers and is often repressive in its pedagogies and modes of governance. This system will stand in contrast to another system maintained for the rich and the elite. But what also has to be said here are two things: One is that the research that we have on the relationship between private and public schools is that public schools are better on the whole than charter schools that eventually become privately owned and run. We know that. When all resources that are allocated are equaled out, they are not better; they’re actually in some cases worse.

The real issue about privatizing school is really about disempowering teachers, unions and, in the end, devaluing students. The move toward private education intends to suspend all those rights, all those provisions that have been put in place as a result of numerous struggles over years in which teachers have gained certain rights and have been able to bargain for improving the quality of education, teacher autonomy, smaller classrooms, meaningful curricula, the use of critical pedagogy, and also a call for a certain degree of power in negotiating the conditions of their own labor.

The attack on public education now is really an attack on the social state. It’s an attack on all those rights to public provisions and public unions that have been put into place around public education over the last century. We are talking about the consolidation of a class system, of a class power. These people are not reformers; they’re counter-revolutionaries. We need to change the language. This is not about reform. This is about going back to the 19th century when women and black people had no rights, when schools were basically for the elite, when private entrepreneurs had all power over entire towns, schools and institutions, unbothered by anything called ethics or justice or social considerations.

I want to point out the other concern that we have in this post-2015 agenda setting process: the obsession of some social actors around measurable learning outcomes and testing as a proxy for quality education. Can you comment on the long-term impacts of this approach toward education? How does this impede critical pedagogy to actually have a place in education?

This move toward education being affirmed only in terms of a certain kind of metrics that is measurable is really an assault on the radical imagination itself. It is part of what I would call a pedagogy of oppression that attempts to remove from education all the things that make education worthwhile: the ability to think critically, to be creative, to be thoughtful, to imagine other worlds, to be compassionate – all those kinds of things that simply can’t be measured in the most reductionist terms. The purpose of this movement to make education simply compatible with anything that is measurable has to be understood in terms of a larger system that considers the very notion of education as a critical endeavor, as a motive of critical inquiry, as being basically dangerous.

In political terms, you have a mode of education in this instance that is utterly reproductive in the interest of the narrowest kinds of economic considerations oriented for the production of narrowly defined agents. This movement is an attack, in the most unimaginable way possible, on the very notion of what schooling, as a site for critical learning and engaged citizenship, should represent. And if schooling is the ability to develop young people’s capacities to be both self-reflective and to have a critical and knowledgeable understanding of the relationship between themselves and the larger world, to have the capacity to learn how to govern and not simply be governed, this movement is an attack on all of those attributes. All over the globe, the neoliberal onslaught has created a political movement whose basic concern is to impose a culture of conformity on students by implementing a pedagogy of oppression. I think we need to name that for what it is. It’s not just simply a method or an educational reform. It is a mode of pedagogy that removes education from being a moral, political and intellectual practice.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), America’s Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), and The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (City Lights, 2014). The Toronto Star named Henry Giroux one of the 12 Canadians changing the way we think! Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His website is

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