Henry Giroux is one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States and a close friend of the late Paulo Freire. He and Freire coedited a very influential series on education and cultural politics for Bergin and Garvey. Giroux has made groundbreaking contributions to numerous fields, including education, critical theory, youth studies, cultural studies, media studies, higher education and public pedagogy. A leading cultural critic in the United States and Canada, he has held positions at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, and Penn State, and currently occupies the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. He is a public intellectual and has written over 50 books, while also collaborating with eminent scholars such as David Purple, Stanley Aronowitz and Peter McLaren. His first book was Ideology, Culture and the Process of Schooling (1981), and he subsequently authored such classics as Theory and Resistance in Education (2001, 2nd ed); Border Crossing: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (2005, 2nd ed.); Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture (1994); and The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, co-authored with Grace Pollock (2010; rev. ed.).
Youth, the state of America and neoliberalism are constant themes in his work. He has written on film and the new media in Breaking In to the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics (2002) and Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism: Global Uncertainty and the Challenge of the New Media (2006). He has also written on democracy and the commercialization of public schools and higher education in Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life (2005; 2nd ed); The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (2004); and Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era, with Susan Searls Giroux (2008). His most recent books continue to elucidate the connections between a formative culture based in critical education and the conditions required for substantive democracy, including Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Beyond the Politics of Greed (2008), Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (2009); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (2010); On Critical Pedagogy (2011); and Education and the Crisis of Public Values (2011). His work has been anthologized in The Giroux Reader (2006); American on the Edge: Henry Giroux on Politics, Culture, and Education (2006); and Reading and Teaching Henry Giroux (2006). Many of his articles and books have been translated into Spanish, Chinese and a number of other languages.
He has won many awards, given many interviews and his work has been warmly received by the academic community. He is without doubt one of the foremost critical educators of his time.
Get our free emails
Henry Giroux’s personal web site.
Interview on YouTube.
Entry on critical pedagogy on the web.
Michael Peters: Henry it is a great pleasure to do this interview with you, as a colleague and friend I have much admired over the years and someone who helped me enormously to develop my work and professional self when I was a young academic. As a young New Zealand academic, I remember reading your work in the 1980s. I was a graduate fresh from a philosophy department, hungry for material that took a critical look at the world. I discovered your early work on postmodern criticism and used the book you wrote with Stanley Aronowitz, Education Under Siege, as a text in one of the classes I was teaching. You expressed eloquently many ideas that I was currently grappling with and led the way I suspect for a generation when you developed as a public intellectual and cultural critic concerned for the fate of young people. In particular, you generously offered, mentored and supported me in publishing my first book, Education and the Postmodern Condition (foreword by Lyotard) in your Bergin and Garvey series co-edited with Paulo Freire. The experience really kick-started my academic career and, through your auspices, I went on to publish some six books in your series. This was a generous and collegial act for which I am very grateful. I know there must be many other scholars whom you mentored and helped along the way. And this speaks to your role as a public intellectual located increasingly in a networked environment that transforms the concept of intellectual collaboration and enhances the notions of collegiality and the public space of knowledge development.
Let me start this interview by asking you to reflect on your childhood, upbringing and undergraduate experience. What was it in your background that predisposed you to issues of social justice? Tell us when and under what circumstances you felt outraged at social injustice and became determined to do something about it.
Henry Giroux: I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s that was marked by an ongoing juxtaposition of violence, loyalty and solidarity. On the one hand, it was a neighborhood where people defined themselves in terms of specific communities, places and spaces. The notion of the detached individual going it alone and defining his or her existence in mostly individualistic and competitive terms was an anomaly in such a neighborhood. People helped each other in times of need, socialized together and looked out for each other. At the same time, there was a lot of violence in the neighborhood, often inflicted by the police and other repressive institutions such as the schools. One could not survive in that neighborhood without friends, without recognizing that the protections that offered one a sense of agency and freedom came from the group, not the isolated uncommitted individual so celebrated today. Social justice for me was forged in the bonds of solidarity, and the need to recognize both some notion of the common good and the importance of the social.
As a working-class male in a neighborhood where masculinity was a shifting marker of courage, brutality and identity, the body became the most resourceful tool I had. It was the ultimate source of agency, required in order to survive, ensure respect and provide a framing mechanism to mediate between oneself and the larger world. Violence in that neighborhood was both personal and institutional. People were poor, many unemployed and their lives were often lost before they had any chance of maturing. Young people existed in a kind of dead time, waiting to graduate from high school and hoping to get a job, perhaps as a priest, firefighter, or police officer and eventually go on disability. Gender was a dividing line and the violence that permeated our relations with women was rarely ever physical as much as it was ideological and political. Women just didn’t matter much outside of very traditional roles. I saw a lot of hardship and love in that neighborhood, and it affected me deeply. On a personal level, my family was very poor, and my father struggled tirelessly to feed us and make sure we had the basic necessities, though he was not always successful. We usually ran out of food by Thursday, one day before my dad got paid. But at least we were not homeless, and we managed to survive less as victims than as a family fighting against larger systemic forces that we were not in a position to control. Such hardship created enormous problems, but they also strengthened our resolve to struggle, embrace the warmth of others, and develop a sense of both humility and outrage in the face of such unnecessary and systemically determined deprivations. But poverty does not just build character, it also produces tensions, injustices, and violence. Surviving was not a made for Reality TV, it was an effort that put one on guard constantly; it turned time into a deprivation rather than a luxury; and it redefined the parameters of agency, learning, and survival. Justice came quickly in that neighborhood, and it was not always on the side of the angels. Much of my youth until I went to high school was based on getting by, surviving in a world in which my biggest strength was talking fast rather than proving myself as a neighborhood fighter. At six feet and 145 lbs, that wasn’t a viable option.
What I lacked at that time was a language to mediate the inequalities, suffering and modes of solidarity I saw all around me. I got a glimpse of the need for such a discourse when I went to high school, which ironically was named Hope High School. At the time, Hope High School was segregated along class and racial lines. Poor white and black kids were in what was labeled as the “junk” courses, played sports and were seen for the most part as both deficit-ridden and delinquent. Most of us entered the school through the back entrance; wealthy white kids came through the front door. It was hard for me to miss the class and racial dimensions of all of this, especially as I was a basketball player and hung out with many of the black kids on my team. Visiting their neighborhood and playing in gyms on their turf was relatively easy, but they could not come into my neighborhood without suffering the indignities of racial slurs or much worse.
My sense of social justice began at that moment when the lived experience of solidarity and loyalty rubbed up against my own unquestioned racism and sexism, which had a long history in the daily encounters of my youth. Sometimes the contradictions that characterize the “common sense” of racism and sexism were challenged and became unraveled. Treating people as objects or understanding them through established stereotypes was being constantly tested as I moved through high school, and met black men and women who refused those stereotypes and had the kindness and intelligence to open my eyes through both their own lived experiences and their access to a critical language that I lacked.
Everything changed when I went to college, at least on my second attempt. The first time I left for college, I attended a junior college on a basketball scholarship but I was not ready for the cultural shift. I felt terribly insecure in that space, did not know how to navigate the cultural capital of middle-class kids and within a short time dropped out. After working for two years in odd jobs, I got another basketball scholarship to a small school in Maine. This all took place in the sixties—a time in which language, social relations and culture itself were changing at an accelerated rate. It was hard to miss the changes, ignore the civil rights struggles and not feel the collective hope that was driving student protests against the Vietnam War and middle-class mores. I got caught up in it very quickly. Knowledge took on a new register for me, just as the changing cultural mores deeply affected my sense of both the present and the future. As a result, knowledge was not just powerful, but sexy; language became my weapon of choice. Social justice as a means to live in a better world was the pre-eminent issue touching the lives of most of the people around me at the time. In college, I read avidly, moving between Marx and James Baldwin, immersing myself in Beat literature and trying to figure out how all of this made sense in terms of my own critical agency and what role I might play in shaping a better world.
Enrolling in a teacher education program was enormously important for me because I quickly realized the ethical and political dimensions of teaching and how important the issue of developing a critical consciousness and formative culture was to any viable democratic society. After graduating, I went to Appalachian State University for an M.A. in history and became a research assistant for a young assistant professor named Bob Sandels. Bob was an incredibly sharp leftist intellectual, and he did more than anyone at the time to connect the dots for me around a number of domestic and foreign policy issues in which social and economic justice were central. Once I graduated, I ended up teaching at the high school level for a several years and started reading Paulo Freire and Howard Zinn, both of whom eventually became close friends. From that point, I was on fire, and fortunately the fire never went out.
MP: So your working-class credentials have stayed with you. I’m interested in the tensions and contradictions of those born into the working class who become professors. May I hear your reflections on your own experience of education as self-transformation? I suspect the reason that Paulo Freire and Howard Zinn resonated with you was in part because of your background. Perhaps, you could also detail the nature of your relationships with these two thinkers.
HG: Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics. When I first started teaching at Boston University I did not have the knowledge, theoretical tools or the experience to move into a world largely dominated by middle- and ruling-class cultural capital. I was constantly confronted with faculty and students who assumed a god-given right of privilege and power, especially with regards to their academic credentials, middle-class language skills and lifelong experience in which people like myself were defined through our deficits, and largely as outsiders. Or, even worse, our very presence in the academy meant that we had to assimilate mentally to the middle class, or at least act as if we were. This often meant dressing a particular way, speaking in elaborate code and immersing oneself into the cultural circuits that middle-class people enjoyed.
All of these requisite changes were brought home to me during my second semester. My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.
I was also lucky in that before I became an academic, I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and took advantage of the many free lectures Brown University offered. Watching the radical lawyer William Kunstler and scholar-activist Stanley Aronowitz in many ways saved my life. Here were two working-class intellectuals whose cultural capital was unmistakable. And they knew much more than most of the Ivy-League types who invited them. They were passionate, brilliant and spoke directly to public issues. Of course, I had a certain familiarity with the discourses of radical education, history and the civil rights movement having read Paulo Freire, Howard Zinn and James Baldwin, but it was the existential grounding of such work that quickened in me a willingness to fight for social justice that changed my life. I had been told all my life that the body should not connect with one’s head, that passion was a liability in making an argument or taking a position. These figures uprooted that myth very quickly, and I never let go of my working-class sensibility, even though I had to learn middle-class skills and knowledge in order to be a border crosser—to cross over into a middle-class institution such as academia without burning the bridges that enabled me to get there.
I also remember having a conversation with Joe Kincheloe who had a similar background. Joe was always such a pleasure to be around because we shared a cultural capital that defined us both within and outside of the academy as outsiders: we were working-class and allegedly deficient, unsanctified by Ivy-League degrees and harboring a pedigree that connected the body and mind in a way that was often defined by the overly scrubbed and passionless as lacking civility. Of course, it was this shared space that allowed us not only to reject an easy and unproductive sense of resentment but also to interrogate the strengths of the resources hard-wired into our working-class backgrounds, along with what it meant to develop a more expansive and democratic politics. We got along with many different kinds of people, but we were especially sensitive to poor white and minority kids who shared our background and sometimes found a model in what we represented that changed their lives and prepared them for the long struggle ahead.
The starting point for my politics began with questioning what the middle- and ruling-class types alleged were working class “deficiencies.” It was necessary to flip the script on this type of stereotyping aimed at working-class kids. I began to see that my cultural capital could not be reduced to deficits or lack. In fact, I had learned some time back that while my background was problematic in terms of a range of issues extending from violence to sexism, it also provided me with a deep commitment to solidarity and a humility that recognized that people had different capacities and intellectual strengths. My sense of what constitutes a crisis is generally different from my peers. I never bought the arrogance and I never bought the notion that if one were educated in an Ivy-League school that guaranteed superior knowledge and set of skills. In due time, the university seemed with some exceptions, of course, to produce academics who were uptight, conservative politically and personally arrogant. When accompanied by rigorous modes of reflection and discrimination, these alleged lacks became for me a formidable resource and source of strength for a more viable sense of critical agency and democratic political commitment. Neither Joe nor I ever faltered on this issue, and I think it served us and our working-class students well.
I have often laughed over the seeming incongruity of being a working-class intellectual, and how such a term often rubbed against the grain of many colleagues whose cultural capital seemed to mark them less by what they knew than by how much they had to unlearn. It was often difficult to listen to, experience, and tolerate the pompous self-flattery, the impenetrable discourses, the rigid specializations, the flat affect and the decidedly anti-political posturing that characterized so many in the academy. These were academics who were both clever and frivolous, anti-political and often indifferent to the growing plight of human suffering. Their academic work was often utterly privatized and unconnected to important social issues and always haughty—and they were quite unaware of the caricatures they had become. For others, intellectual courage had given way to the comfortable space of accommodation, and the notion of the public intellectual had been replaced by the “public relations intellectual,” the overheated talking head spewing out sound bites and providing “scholarshit” to various media outlets. I increasingly came to believe that I was in an educational setting where most academics had withdrawn into a world in which the measure of theoretical prowess was determined by the degree to which it escaped from any sense of responsibility, or for that matter any notion of consequential thinking.
Being in the academy for me was a form of soft exile. I have always felt as if I did not belong there, though I was far from alienated over the issue. I simply did my work, published, taught and used the academy as a site from which to do what I was thought was important educational and democratically inspired political work. I realized early that coming from a working-class background gave me at least a couple of advantages in academia. Because I did not have to unlearn all of the cultural junk that came with middle- and ruling-class ideologies, I had more time to be reflective about my own work, politics and the role I would play in furthering the discourses of critical agency, education, pedagogy, politics and hope.
I have felt isolated, but not alone, in the academy. Fortunately, a number of friends, including Joe Kincheloe, Richard Quantz, Paulo Freire, Stanley Aronowitz, Roger Simon, Peter McLaren and Donaldo Macedo, helped me to find solidarity in often dark places. These spaces are no longer as dark for me as they were when I was first teaching at Boston University, and I believe being an outsider in the academy offers both the possibility for developing an opening to consider critical insights forged within a working-class sensibility and the never ending challenge presented by class lines.
MP: Thanks, this is exactly the kind of reflection and autobiographical detail I was hoping would emerge. There is a need for those traditionally excluded from the academy to be able to identify with those who have negotiated the class experience so successfully as you have. I am also interested in your remarks about privilege and the way in which many professors simply take class position for granted. To what extent is the university a class-based institution? One other aspect that you allude to in your experience is the way university administrations are often out of sync with the professoriat. I know that you have been targeted because of your beliefs. I know also that you have theorized the institution and its development under the conditions of neoliberalism. Please share with us your thoughts on the neoliberal and neoconservative attacks of the left and the rise of the neoliberal university.
HG: Higher education in the United States has the appearance of a meritocracy, but that belies the ways in which wealth and power shape the hierarchical nature of the system. Working-class kids in the U.S., if they have aspirations of getting a college diploma, generally do not have the funds to support such an endeavor, particularly given the spiralling tuition rates of the last few decades. And when they do go on to some form of higher education, many of them wind up in community colleges or technical schools. Of course, in the past we had programs like the GI Bill that made access easier, but those days are over. Economic inequality is now hardwired into the central core and structure of the university thanks to neoliberalization, though mass access to higher education has always been a kind of Holy Grail. So access is largely a class issue, but also a racial issue. The culture of much of higher education has little to do with the histories, experiences, languages, and cultural backgrounds of many working-class and minority kids. Middle and upper class cultural capital tends to crush these kids, and the damage is inflicted more heavily when there are no remedial programs available to compensate for the poor education they often receive in underfunded and neglected schools that largely serve to contain and criminalize the behaviors of the disenfranchised. For many working-class youth, time is a burden, not a luxury, and they have to often work while trying to take classes and make the requisite grades. College for these kids is an uphill battle. They often compete with middle-class kids who can spend most of their time studying or attending classes.
In terms of the university itself, the attack on higher education by right-wing ideologues and corporate power has been going on for a long time, but at the current historical conjuncture it has gotten much worse. Higher education is being targeted by conservative politicians and governments because it embodies, at least ideally, a sphere in which students learn that democracy, as Jacques Rancière suggests, is a rupture—a relentless critique and dialogue about official power, its institutions and its never ending attempts to silence dissent. As Ellen Schrecker points out, “Today the entire enterprise of higher education, not just its dissident professors, is under attack, both internally and externally.”
In the United States, England, and a number of other European countries, universities and businesses are forming stronger ties; the humanities are being underfunded; student tuition is rising at astronomical rates; knowledge is being commodified; and research is valued through the lens of an audit culture. Economic Darwinism is now undermining the civic and intellectual promises that make higher education a public good. The reach and influence of corporate-based models of education can be seen in the rise of modes of governance, financing and evaluation that for all intents and purposes make higher education an adjunct of corporate values and interests. Moreover, the most important value of higher education is now tied to the need for credentials. Delivering improved employability has reshaped the connection between knowledge and power, while rendering faculty and students as professional entrepreneurs and budding customers. In the search for adopting market values and cutting costs, classes have ballooned in size, and there is an increased emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing. Disciplines and subjects that do not fall within the purview of mathematical utility and economic rationality are now seen as dispensable. The notion of the university as a center of critique and a democratic public sphere vitally necessary in providing the knowledge, skills and values necessary for the health of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of neoliberal subjects. Like most neoliberal models of education, higher education only matters to the extent that it promotes national prosperity and drives economic growth, technical innovation, and market transformation.
In the United States, this neoliberal model can be understood through a number of corporatizing tendencies. Under the call for austerity, states have begun the process of massively defunding public universities, while they simultaneously provide massive tax breaks for corporations and the rich. At the same time, higher education in its search for funding has, as Stanley Aronowitz points out, “adopted the organizational trappings of medium-sized or large corporations.” University presidents are now viewed as C.E.O.s, faculty as entrepreneurs and students as consumers. Similarly, many college presidents not only align themselves with business values, but willingly and openly associate themselves with corporate interests. As business culture permeates higher education, all manner of school practices from food services to specific modes of instruction and the hiring temporary faculty is now outsourced to private contractors. It gets worse. In some universities, new college deans are shifting their focus outside of the campus in order to take on fundraising, strategic planning and industry partnerships that were once the job of the university president. Academic leadership is now defined in part through one’s ability to raise funds, engage in strategic planning and partner up with corporate donors. Burdened by a lack of state funding, many deans are increasingly viewed as the heads of complex businesses, and their job performance ratings are dependent on their fundraising performances. This is not meant to wholeheartedly condemn the necessity for fundraising, which can also be productive, as much as it is to insist that it cannot take priority over modes of leadership rooted in more democratic, emancipatory and non-commodified values.
One of the most serious consequences facing higher education in the United States under the reign of neoliberal austerity and disciplinary measures is the increased casualization of academic labor and the ongoing attacks on tenure and academic freedom. As universities adopt models of corporate governance, they are aggressively eliminating tenure positions, increasing part-time positions and attacking faculty unions. In a number of states such as Ohio and Utah, legislatures have passed bills outlawing tenure, while in Wisconsin the governor has abrogated the bargaining rights of state’s university faculty. At a time when higher education is becoming increasingly vocationalized, the ranks of tenure track faculty are being drastically depleted, furthering the loss of faculty as stakeholders. Currently, only 27 percent of faculty either occupy a tenure position or are on a tenure track. Consequently, many faculty have been demoted to contingent forms of labor, losing not only their power to influence the conditions of their work, but rendering them powerless as their workloads increase, their salaries stagnate or decrease, they are deprived of office space and supplies, they are refused travel money and they are subjected to policies that allow them to be fired at will. The latter is particularly egregious because, when coupled with an ongoing series of attacks by right-wing ideologues against left-oriented and progressive academics, many non-tenured faculty feel they must censor themselves in their classes. At a time when critics within the academy can be fired for their political beliefs, have their names posted on right-wing web sites, are forced to turn over their email correspondence to right-wing groups and are harassed in the conservative press, it is all the more crucial that protections be put in place that safeguard faculty positions and the rights of academics to exercise academic freedom.
If it is viewed as simply a training ground for the corporate order and the national security state, then higher education will default on its promise of a democratic future for young people and its investment in a social state. The anti-public social formation that has emerged with neoliberalism has no interest in fostering the educational conditions in which it becomes possible for young people to imagine another world outside of the economic Darwinism that now bears down on every aspect of their lives. While the complexity of such struggles cannot be exaggerated, it is time to develop a new political language that connects the dots between the wars abroad and the war happening at home. The consequences of such an egregious assault on the university will be the destruction of any vestige of higher education as a public good and democratic public sphere. Clearly, there is more at stake here than the abrogation of worker’s bargaining rights and skyrocketing university tuition rates. There is also the question of what kind of society we want to become, and what is going to have to be done to stop the arrogant and formidable assault on all aspects of democratic life now being waged by the financial elite, corporations, conservatives, reactionary think tanks, authoritarian politicians and a right-wing media that ignores every principle of honor, decency and truth.
Of course, the point is for intellectuals and others to make it clear that neoliberal and neoconservative forces are transforming the university into an anti-democratic public sphere and to provide a discourse of possibility that challenges this terrible refiguration of higher education. Let me mention a few possibilities informed by my own work on the neoliberalization of the university.
First, we need to figure out how to defend more vigorously higher education as a public good. If we can’t do that, we’re in trouble. Secondly, 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 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 these workers. 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. 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.
Pedagogy also takes on a new dimension and impact with the rise of digital technologies and the endlessly multiplying forms of screen culture, each attempting to win over new and larger audiences and more often than not mark them as potential consumers. These new technologies and the proliferating sites in which they are appearing constitute powerful configurations of what C. Wright Mills termed cultural apparatuses engaged in modes of popular education. They represent more specifically pervasive forms of public pedagogy that increasingly function to divorce learning from any vestige of critical thought. These powerful forms of public pedagogy need to be addressed, both for how they deform and for how they can create important new spaces for emancipatory forms of pedagogy. Not only do we need to understand who controls these cultural apparatuses and how they mobilize new desires, needs, modes of identity, and social relations. We also need to challenge the new media in terms of their power, what they represent and how they present it. Public pedagogy is a site of struggle in which critically engaged intellectuals can address broader audiences and raise in the public domain a number of important social and political issues. The articulation of knowledge to experience, the construction of new modes of agency, the production of critical knowledge, the recovery of critical histories and the possibility of linking knowledge to social change cannot be limited to influencing students in the classroom. Everyone, but especially those working in education, have to extend our roles as public intellectuals to other pedagogical sites, audiences and institutions. It is politically imperative to organize a whole range of people outside of the academy. For this, as I mentioned above, we need a new political language with broader narratives. 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 informed by informed judgments, self-reflection, searing forms of critique, civic courage and a deem 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 thirty years ago.
MP: Thanks Henry, I appreciate the way in which your analysis proceeds from a combination of personal experience and critical theory. Your works have sustained us for many decades now and the thrust of in your work in terms of critical pedagogy, cultural studies, youth culture and global studies in communication provides both a powerful theoretical lens and a practical critique of contemporary neoliberal society. I know these interests did not develop chronologically and there are many overlapping characteristics. It would be interesting to hear of the evolution of your thought in terms of these perspectives and what you think is required to be a critical thinker today, in an age of global media.
HG: My interest in critical pedagogy grew out of my experience as a secondary school teacher. I came of age in the 1960s as a teacher, and there was a great deal of latitude in what we were allowed to teach then. I taught a couple of seminars in social studies and focused on feminist studies, theories of alienation and a range of other important social issues. While I had no trouble finding critical content, including progressive films I used to rent from the Quakers (Society of Friends), I did not know how to theorize the various approaches to teaching I tried in the classroom. This all came to a head when an assistant principle confronted me after class once and demanded that I not put the students in a circle while teaching the class. I really could not defend my position theoretically. Fortunately, I was introduced to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and from then on my interest in radical pedagogy began to develop. My interest in young people also developed during that time, though I don’t believe I had any idea that it would later become a serious object of scholarship and political intervention for me. After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1977, I became deeply involved with the work being produced around the sociology of education in England, the work of Bowles and Gintis on the political economy of schooling as well as the Marxist ethnographic work developed by Paul Willis at the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies. All of this scholarship was heavily influenced by various shades of Marxism and while I learned a great deal from it, I felt that it erred on the side of political economy and did not say enough about either resistance, pedagogy or the importance of cultural politics. The structural nature of this work was gloomy, over determined and left little room for seizing upon contradictions, developing a theory of power that did not collapse into domination or imagining a language of struggle and hope.
I began to look elsewhere for theoretical models to develop a more comprehensive understanding of schooling and its relationship to larger social, economic and cultural forces and found it in the work of contemporary critical theorists, especially those of the Frankfurt School. I drew upon critical theory to challenge the then-dominant culture of positivism as well as the overemphasis on the political economy of schooling. Theory and Resistance in Education was the most well-known outcome of that investigation. And while it is considered a classic in some quarters, I must say that I had a hard time publishing my work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Work in educational theory and practice in the United States was dominated by Routledge press, which was rather insular in its refusal to publish scholarship that moved outside of the parameters of Marxism and political economy. I was fortunate at that time to meet Roger Simon who not only published my work in Curriculum Inquiry but also taught me a great deal about how to theorize matters of pedagogy and schooling. Roger was and is brilliant, and his work in my estimation far exceeded anything being published on critical education at the time, especially his book Teaching Against the Grain. I believe that Theory and Resistance in Education would never have been written if it had not been for my ongoing conversations with Roger.
In the 1970s and 80s, I developed a friendship with Donaldo Macedo and Paulo Freire, and we soon started an education series with Bergin and Garvey that later became the Greenwood series. It opened up a new space for publishing a variety of work from theorists dealing with critical pedagogy and educational theory more broadly. Crucial to my own conception of pedagogy is that I saw it as a moral and political practice that was about more than analyzing classrooms and schools. Pedagogy for me was central to proclaiming the power and necessity of ideas, knowledge and culture as central to any viable definition of politics, and the goal of living in a just world with others. Pedagogy remains a crucial political resource in theorizing the importance of establishing a formative culture conducive to creating subjects and values that can sustain a substantive democracy.
I was also deeply influenced in the 1980s by the cultural studies movement in the U.S. and England, particularly the work of Larry Grossberg, Meaghan Morris, Paul Gilroy, Paul Willis, Angela McRobbie, Richard Johnson and Stuart Hall. The early work in cultural studies on education and youth was very important to my own theoretical development. Not only did it emphasize the importance of pedagogy inside of the academy, but Raymond Williams opened up the concept with an exploration of what he called “permanent education” and offered the beginning of a theoretical framework for taking seriously the educational force of the wider culture. At that point, I attempted to revive the centrality of pedagogy for cultural studies, particularly given that many of the theorists who followed Williams seem either to display little interest in it or to assume that it meant teaching cultural studies in schools. Pedagogy in this case had become the present absence in cultural studies, just as youth had become the present absence among left theorizing in general. While there was considerable talk about class, race and gender, there were very few people writing in the U.S. about the plight of young people and the transformation from a society of production to a society of consumption, or as Zygmunt Bauman points out, the move from solid modernity to liquid modernity. Young people, especially minorities of class and color, were under siege in a particularly harsh way at the beginning of the 1980s, and there were very few people addressing what I called the “war on youth.” I argued then and continue to insist that since the 1980s we have seen a series of political, economic and cultural shifts that mark the beginning of a form of economic Darwinism, on the one hand, and the rise of the punishing state, on the other. And one consequence of the merging of these two movements is this war on youth. I have attempted to chart and engage the shifting parameters of the war on youth in a number of books, with the recent and perhaps most definitive being Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?
In the age of Reagan and Thatcher, neoliberalism was becoming normalized all over the globe. This was particularly evident to me by the early 1990s as neoliberal capitalism became more ruthless, consolidated and poisonous in its ever expanding support for a culture of cruelty and a survival-of-the-fittest ethic in which market-driven values and relations acted as the template for judging all aspects of social life. By transforming society into the image of the market, the space and conditions for thinking outside of market values and relations became more difficult, and one particularly grim consequence was the demolition of non-market values, public spheres, and forms of community. As democratic social forms diminished, so did social values, the public good, social responsibility and the very nature of politics. This was a very destructive moment for both the U.S. and the rest of the world. Just as corporate sovereignty replaced or weakened political sovereignty, the attack on the social state intensified, the power of capital became detached from the traditional politics of the nation state, the punishing state was on the rise and there emerged a new set of economic and social formations in which social protections were weakened, social problems were increasingly criminalized and all public spheres were subjected to the forces of privatization and commodification, especially public and higher education.
Under neoliberalism, we have witnessed the rise of an unfettered free-market ideology and economic Darwinism in which market values supplant civic values. Everything is for sale. A hyper-individualism is celebrated. Profit-making is seen as the essence of democracy, and the obligations of citizenship are reduced to the practice of consuming. This is a system in which a dehumanizing mode of consumerism and the unencumbered concentration of capital are matched by the endless disposing of goods, rendering even people now redundant and extraneous. This is also a system in which everything is privatized, with one grave consequence being that the public collapses into the private. It becomes increasingly difficult to translate private concerns into public issues. My work in the last decade has aimed at connecting neoliberal forms of public pedagogy and authoritarian disciplinary practices with the rise of new modes of individualism and what it means to make such forces visible in order to collectively resist them. This project has been deeply influenced by the work of diverse figures such as Pierre Bourdieu, Edward Said, Zygmunt Bauman, Hannah Arendt, Nancy Fraser, C. Wright Mills, Stanley Aronowitz and more recently David L. Clark.
Bourdieu’s work on neoliberalism and Bauman’s work on liquid modernity and the transformation of the public sphere are treasure troves of insight regarding the changing conditions of modernity, the politics of consumerism and the call for new modes of ethical responsibility. Arendt’s work on authoritarianism and its potentially recurring conditions, albeit in new forms, along with Nancy Fraser’s brilliant work on feminist public spheres provided me with a new language to think about the institutions and spaces necessary for a formative culture that makes democratic modes of agency and subjectivity possible. Said’s and Bourdieu’s work on the responsibility of academics as public intellectuals had a profound effect on my scholarship. Similarly, C. Wright Mills deeply influenced me on the importance of connecting private issues to public considerations, the centrality of cultural apparatuses in the transformation of political culture and the role public intellectuals might play as agents of change.
Stanley Aronowitz is arguably the most brilliant public intellectual in North America. His broad understanding of various domains of knowledge and his ability to bring vastly different issues together and to engage them in relation to a larger totality is a model for how to do scholarship that is public, rigorous and dialectical. Finally, I would be remiss to not underscore the more recent influence of my colleague, David L. Clark. His brilliance—which never fails to astound me—has been instrumental in fine tuning my knowledge of critical theory, Derrida, and a range of other theoretical traditions that he engages and writes about in ways that are as insightful as they are poetic. David’s sense of solidarity and commitment is remarkable in an academy that increasingly seems addicted to the insularities of careerism, cronyism and the need to comfort students—now viewed as customers with rights rather than obligations—rather than prepare them intellectually for a world that needs to be engaged, not merely enjoyed.
To be an intellectual in the current historical juncture is not only to rethink the profound changes wrought by the rise and power of the new media and the ways in which it has transformed the very concept of the social, communal, and political, but to redefine what it means to be a public intellectual capable of working across a number of disciplines and speaking to a variety of audiences. The old model of the intellectual writing and speaking in a narrow and obtuse theoretical language seems unproductive at this particular point in history. Theory needs to be rigorous and accessible, and it needs to address not merely the outer limits of disciplinary scholarship but also important social problems. Equally important, it needs to include and engage people who are not versed in the specialized disciplinary vocabularies of the academy. Theory is neither a metaphor for scholasticism and formalism nor is it politically irrelevant. Nor can it be dismissed as something distinctly American (Terry Eagleton) or French, or a thing exotic or foreign. Theory is essential and inescapable and cannot be so neatly abstracted from the responsibilities of political criticism, but how we do it and for what reason is a more problematic and troubling issue. What does it mean to use theory rather than simply apply it as many graduate students and professors tend to do?
Theory is the enemy of “common sense,” and hence hated by many of our newly minted anti-intellectual authoritarian populists now running against Obama in the 2012 elections. Of course, there is another important question regarding when theory becomes toxic, an immunity against immunity, turning in on itself, functioning, to use Derrida’s term, as kind of autoimmunity. Given the bankruptcy of the current anti-intellectual politics of the “self-evident,” theory is all we have left and functions as a kind of tool box to be used to break the consensus of common sense, develop better forms of knowledge, and promote more just social relations. Theory is an indispensable resource in the task of thinking through and developing new modes agency, power, and action in the service of connecting knowledge and power, meaning and social relevance, and private troubles and public issues. Clearly, self-reflection, mastering broad bodies of knowledge, and engaging with the new technologies as a way to reach broader audiences all matter—just as it is only through theory that we can recover what survives of the defeated, the repressed, the marginalized, and those ideas relegated as obsolete, un-American, and indigestible. But there is also something more fundamental at work in this project. The global left doesn’t need to abandon theory; it needs to find a new language in order to move away from the kinds of fractured politics that have dominated Western societies since the 1980s.
In a similar manner, the politics of identity has to guard against becoming exclusionary and needs to be rethought as part of a much broader set of connections and projects. In the 1980s, I believe that a group of highly influential feminist theorists in education did a great deal of damage politically and ethically to the understanding of both critical pedagogy and radical education as a practice of transformation and freedom. Rather than build upon and critically engage the complex traditions out of which this work developed, interrogating both its strengths and weaknesses, treating it as a developing and ongoing theoretical discourse and practice, they falsely labeled critical pedagogy as the enemy of empowerment. Operating out of comforting absolutes on the model of us versus them, this rhetoric of simplistic oppositions furthered a manipulative discourse and a climate for political opportunism. A problematic type of essentialism and reductionism structured this work. Rather than engage a complex tradition of work, it simply demonized it, reducing it to one side of a binarism in which all doubt, mediation, complexity and nuance disappeared. What made this intervention even worse was that it was followed by an endless stream of endorsements by supine white male academics who cited this work to prove their own faux feminist credentials. This was truly as ideologically disingenuous as it was politically reactionary, or even worse, dangerous. Unaware of its own refusal to engage in nuanced and thoughtful analytic and deconstructive work, this type of feminist educational theory put forth its own mechanical and positivist calculations as if such work offered political guarantees, buttressed by the absolutism and vitriol in which it was sometimes delivered. This was a symptomatic of what a particular version of identity politics can become when it is driven by moralism, a politics of purity, a logic of certainty and a disregard for critical and scholarly exchange. There is more at work here than simply hubris and a denial of the complexity of the work under review; there is also a claim to moral and political clarity that actually produces its opposite. Fortunately, some of this work was offset by a smaller number of feminist scholars working in critical pedagogy who rejected this type of friend/enemy distinction. This was particularly evident at the time in work by Linda Brodkey, bell hooks, Deborah Britzman, Sharon Todd, Chandra Mohanty, Sharon Crowley, Lynn Worsham and later by Robin Truth Goodman and Susan Searls Giroux.
Rather than fire missiles at each other, public intellectuals need to address how we can effectively understand our differences as part of a broader and more powerful movement for engaging in critical exchanges, pushing the frontiers of transformative knowledge, extending democratic struggles and addressing the massive suffering and hardships, particularly for young people, now being caused by various fundamentalist and authoritarian institutions, policies and practices. As my partner, Susan Searls Giroux, has recently concluded with characteristic precision, “As a consequence of our devastatingly misguided priorities and our negligence we have, in short, produced smart bombs and explosive children.”
We need to make connections, build broad social movements, make pedagogy central to politics and dismantle the reactionary forms of neoliberalism, racism and media culture that have become normalized. We need to take up and develop more relational theories concerned with broader totalities and the ways in which the forces of difference, identity, local politics, cultural pedagogy and other social formations interact in ways that speak to new and more threatening forms of global politics. Power is now free floating; it has no allegiances except to the accumulation of capital and is not only much more destructive but also more difficult to contain. Any viable notion of politics has to be relational and connected; it has to think within and beyond the boundaries of nation states, invent new vocabularies, invest in more broad-based groups beyond simply workers, address the plight of young people and resurrect the power of the social state and democracy as a radical mode of governance and politics. This suggests taking matters of specificity and context seriously, while at the same time changing the level of magnification to a more global view.
One of the most important considerations necessary for a new vision of politics is incorporating economic rights and social protections into the political sphere. Political and personal rights become dysfunctional without social rights. As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, freedom of choice and the exercise of political and personal rights become a cruel joke in a society that does not provide social rights—that is, some form of collectively endorsed protections that provide the time and space for the poor and disenfranchised to participate in the political sphere and help shape modes of governance. In order to exercise any real sense of civic agency, people need protections from those misfortunes and hardships that are not of their own doing. At the same time, a movement for democracy must challenge the erosion of social bonds, the crumbling of communal cohesion and the withering of social responsibility that has taken place under a neoliberal apparatus that promotes deregulation, privatization and individualization. We also need to think in terms of what it means to create the formative cultures necessary to fight racism, celebrity culture, the culture and institutions of casino capitalism, the assault on the environment and the growing inequality in wealth and income that is destroying every vestige of democratic politics in the world. We need a language that takes both history and the current dangerous authoritarian period seriously, one that recognizes, as Bauman points out, that shared humanity is the lifeboat. Too many people on the left are acting as if they are living in the nineteenth century and are completely out of touch with the new technologies, modes of domination and emerging social formations that are taking shape all over the world.
A viable politics in the present has to take seriously the premise that knowledge must be meaningful in order to be critical, in order to be transformative. This is about more than reclaiming the virtues of dialogue, exchange and translation. It is about recovering a politics and inventing a language that can create democratic public spheres in which new subjects and identities can be produced that are capable of recognizing and addressing the plight of the other and struggling collectively to expand and deepen the ongoing struggle for justice, freedom and democratization. The global left needs to be thorough, accessible and rigorous in our critiques, especially amid the political and cultural illiteracy produced by neoliberalism’s cultural apparatuses. But we also need a language of hope, one that is realistic rather than romantic about the challenges the planet is facing, and yet electrified by a realization that things can be different, that possibilities can not only be imagined but engaged, fought for and realized in collective struggles.
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 social policies. We need to open up the realm of human possibility, recognize that history is not closed, 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 progressives can develop the public spheres, formative cultures, and social movements that make democratic convictions and dreams possible. Democratic ideals, social relations, and values need public spheres to nourish them. Such spaces can be found in schools, classrooms, workshops, newspapers, online journals, community colleges and other spaces where knowledge, power, ethics, and justice can merge to create new subjectivities, new modes of civic courage and new hope for the future. Our work has only just begun.
Full disclsoure: Henry Girioux is a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors.