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Higher Education Under Attack: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux

War at home is matched by a war on youth.

Part of the Series

Johannsen: In 2005, you discussed the corporatizing of education in a televised interview with Allan Gregg, and at the beginning of that talk he mentioned that you left the U.S. You began to discuss how the University was taking on a more managerial style. Moreover, you mentioned Penn State, and its shift to a corporate model. For instance, there were more part-time faculty positions being added eliminating tenure-track openings. You were witnessing this at Penn State, and suggested a pattern was being set that is now widespread in universities and colleges across the U.S. I am, curious about your departure from the U.S.. It seems clear that you left the U.S. for professional reasons, but did you also leave the U.S. for political reasons?

Henry A. Giroux: Yes, it was for political and academic reasons. I was particularly upset over Bush being elected in 2004, and especially under circumstances that suggested that the election was stolen from Al Gore. Both the election and the growing suppression of dissent in the university, not to mention the attack on public education by corporate interests, suggested that democracy in the United States, however fragile, was being radically undermined.

It was also a period of galloping anti-intellectualism, and that anti-intellectualism was coming from various levels—in the popular media, among elements of the dominant press, the increasing commodification of everyday life, the rise of celebrity culture, and the widespread emergence of the ethos of privatization.

Moreover, the press and other elements of the dominant media by 2004 had become even more complicitous with the forces of political conformity and were reinforcing a form of intellectual banality, commodification, and privatization that both undermined political culture and reinforced a market driven embrace of selfishness and materialism that was sabotaging every vestige of public life. Education as it was deployed by the larger culture was becoming a powerful force for both political illiteracy and for exercising a depoliticizing influence on young people and the larger polity.

Cynicism, disillusionment, and a dispiriting sense of purposeless has cast a shadow over American society seriously draining it of any language or vision that might imagine a different sort of society from the dysfunctional, militarizing, and deeply unequal social order that marked the current historical period.

The propensity to avoid moral considerations was producing not simply a politically illiterate and authoritarian society, but one that was increasingly saturated in violence and a culture of cruelty. Needless to say, all of these forces intensified the increasing militarization and corporatization of higher education, along with the privatizing of everyday life.

I was also disturbed by the increasing political insularity of the academy and the growing refusal of many faculty to connect their work with larger social issues. Many faculty retreated into academic specializations and an arcane language that made them irrelevant to the task of defending the university as a public good, except for in some cases a very small audience. This has become more and more clear in the last few years as academics have become so insular, often unwilling or unable to defend the university as a public good, in spite of the widespread attacks on academic freedom, the role of the university as a democratic public sphere, and the increasing reduction of knowledge to a saleable commodity, and students to customers.

Of course, there are also faculty who are discouraged from speaking critically about social issues because of the increasing assumption in American society that any form of critique which calls official power into question is somehow un-American. This absurd attempt to define any critique of official power as unpatriotic has a chilling effect on faculty, especially when such views and the names of the people to whom they are ascribed are widely disseminated in right-wing and dominant media outlets. Witness the shameless firing of scholars such as Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein, among others in the last few years.

In all fairness, there are faculty who speak out against injustices, but there are too few, and when they do they often pay a price for it. One recent example centers around conservative groups in Wisconsin and Michigan using the Freedom of Information Act to request e-mails by a number of professors who have written about and are sympathetic to organized labor. All of these academics, including the renowned historian, Professor William Cronon—who wrote critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen about a conservative organization that was drafting radical bills for right-wing Republican politicians such as Scott Walker—were asked to provide any emails mentioning words such as “Scott Walker,” “Rachel Madow,” “Madison,” and “Wisconsin”. This is more than a cheap and transparent act of intimidation, it is also a strategy to shut down, constrain and neutralize any notion of dissent that emerges in the university. Clearly, this is symptomatic of a long historical tradition in the United States to undermine the university as a place to think, speak, and act critically, one that has been highly intensified since the events of 9/11.[1]

I also left the U.S. in 2004 because of the dean I worked under at Penn State University could not imagine schooling as having anything to do with the public good. He did not support my work on this matter [that the university is there for the public good], and he was entirely delighted to see me leave. He was fully immersed in an instrumental culture and had no wider vision of either the role of education or the public role of the university. His world was largely one dominated by mathematical utility and a narrow instrumentalist vision. My wife was also a professor at Penn State and was highly dissatisfied with her position. All of this was resolved after we received wonderful job offers from McMaster University in Canada and so we decided to relocate. Our experience at Penn State reinforced our present conviction that too many administrators in higher education in the United States have assumed the values and politics of a business culture that ironically produced the recession of 2008 with its labyrinth of corruption, greed, unbridled power, and indifference to either the public good or human life.

Johannsen: How is it teaching in Canada for the two of you?

Giroux: My work is supported and honored, whereas at Penn State, my work wasn’t appreciated at all. And the same is true for Susan’s work at McMaster. I have an endowed chair professorship and Susan has tenure and is strongly supported by the department and the university. We have terrific colleagues in the Department of English and Cultural Studies almost all of whom are rigorous scholars doing important work connecting the university to broader social issues.

The environment in Canada is much more conducive to doing critical work, though Canada has its own set of problems, but nothing like those emerging in the United States. Unlike Penn State which was a huge recipient of Pentagon funds, and was hostile to any criticism of its connection to the military and intelligence services, McMaster is a very open university that takes its commitment to a quality education and function as a democratic sphere very seriously. We have a wonderful Provost and President who live in the world of ideas, are rigorous scholars, and are heavily invested in connecting the university to major social considerations and important intellectual traditions.

What is distinctive about the U.S. is that higher education is under attack not because it is failing but because it is public. It is now considered dangerous because it has the potential to function as a site where a culture of questioning can operate, the imagination can blossom, and difficult questions can be openly debated and critically engaged. Hence, many conservatives see higher education as a threat to their reactionary and corporate oriented interests and would like to defund higher education, privatize it, eliminate tenure, and define the working conditions of faculty to something resembling the labor practices of Walmart workers. While the universities are increasingly corporatized and militarized, their governing structures are becoming more authoritarian, faculty are being devalued as public intellectuals, students are viewed as clients, academic fields are treated as economic domains for providing credentials, and work place skills, and academic freedom is under assault.

Johannsen: I recently wrote a piece about the privatization of public universities in the U.S., particularly UW-Madison. That flagship school is moving to privatize, and it seems the president of the Madison campus has been able to justify such a move because of what happened with Governor Walker recently and his budget cuts. I realize that this move to privatize public universities is nothing new.

Giroux: Yes, you’re right. It isn’t new, but it is more expansive, and it’s happening everywhere. With the corporatization and privatization of higher education, it is increasingly more difficult for colleges and universities to expand and deepen democratic public life, produce engaged critical citizens, and operate as democratic public spheres. Moreover, higher educating is defaulting on its obligations to offer young people a quality and broad-based education. This is true in part because the liberal arts and humanities have fallen out of favor in a culture that equates education with training. But the demise of higher education as a public good is also evident in light of the election of a number of right-wing politicians who are cutting funds for state universities and doing everything they can to turn them in training centers to fill the needs of corporations. This new and intense attack on both the social state and higher education completely undermines the public nature of what education is all about.

Many university presidents now assume the language and behavior of CEOs and in doing so they are completely reneging on the public mission of the universities. The state is radically defunding public universities and university presidents, for the most part, rather than defending higher education as a public good, are trying to privatize their institutions in order to remove them from the political control of state governments. This is not a worthy or productive strategy. They should be loud and forceful in defending the university as a social good, essential to the democratic culture and economy of a nation. They should be criticizing the prioritizing of funds for military and prison expenditures over funds for higher education. And this argument should be made as a defense of education, as a crucial public good, and it should be taken seriously. But they aren’t making these arguments.

You have a situation in which the U.S. is fighting three unjust wars and wasting trillions of dollars in public funds, all the while draining money from important social services and public and higher education. If the government were to invest that money in higher education and public services, these would be far better investments. But administrators and academics in the U.S. for the most part don’t make these arguments; instead they have retreated from defending the university as a citadel of public values and in doing so have abdicated any sense of social responsibility to the idea of the university as a site of inspired by the search for truth, justice, freedom, and dignity.

Of course, there are a few courageous university presidents who refuse to reduce higher education to an adjunct of corporate power and needs. Harvard university president Drew Gilpin Faust has both criticized the growing economic justification for higher education and the reduction of pedagogy to producing knowledge and social relations whose value ultimately resides in how closely they are aligned with measurable skills. More recently, Biddy Martin, the university chancellor at the University of Wisconsin in response to the conservative demand for the e-mails of dissenting professors not only bravely defended her faculty’s right to privacy but insisted that they

Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.[2]

These are the kind of administrators who both provide a sense of hope for higher education and simultaneously reveal how disengaged ethically and politically so many administrators have become as they define themselves within the gated and closed boundaries of a corporate managerial culture.

Johannsen: I am an advocate for student loan debtors. The fact that students are saddled with so much debt is another part of the problem.

Giroux: You are making an important point. War at home is matched by a war on youth. I wrote about this recently. Young people graduate with an average of $23,000 in student loan debt, and they are the ones saddled with it. Youth have become indentured servants and that turns them away from public service. The loan crisis and the increasing slashing of funds for students, coupled with the astronomical rise in tuition, represent an unparalleled attack on the social state. The hidden agenda here is that when students graduate with such high debts, they rarely choose a career in public service; instead, they are forced to go into the corporate sector, and I see these conditions, in some ways, as being very calculated and as part of a larger political strategy to disempower students.

Johannsen: I have written about the fact that many young people are unable to take part in public service. Moreover, I call us the indentured educated class. Did you know that by June of 2012, outstanding student loan debt will reach $1 trillion in the U.S.?

Giroux: That’s unbelievable! And it does not bode well for future generations of young people. But what must be stated is that this financial crisis has to be understood within a broader set of political and economic concerns. The current right-wing of the Republican Party will do anything to dismantle any social protections provided by the social state, and students are the most powerless when it comes to protecting themselves from such legislation. They are bearing the brunt of these attacks.

Of course, we also see evidence of such attacks in many states that are abrogating the bargaining rights of unions, cutting back on student grants and loans, eliminating child labor laws (Maine), and cutting back on taxes for the rich and corporations. Of course, in the Middle East and Europe, young people are protesting in massive numbers against this form of economic Darwinism, but rather than simply protesting against high tuition rates, they see the current attack on education as part of an attack on the public good. Moreover, faculty and students are protesting somewhat in the U.S. in the same way but on a much smaller scale. This looming gigantic debt that students are forced to carry is also indicative of the degree to which young people are no longer viewed as a positive symbol of the future and how society has defaulted on both its social, political, and economic obligations to youth and the conditions that would enable they to enter into a future that is better than they ones to which previous generations had access. All that young people are promised today are the rewards of a shallow materialism and a degree that is defined primarily as a job credential, one that ironically does not even live up to its own claims of guaranteeing either decent employment or a better way of life.

Johannsen: Absolutely. That is why the humanities are so important. They train people to think critically about things, and they allow us to be engaged citizens. That, however, as you have argued, is being eviscerated in this country. That sounds quite grim. Your work is clearly post-structuralist, and I see the influence of the Frankfurt School. I see the traditions upon which you rely, and it is clear that you want to demonstrate the way historical conditions inform the outcome of things. History does not ‘repeat itself.’ That assertion, allows people to marginalize the discipline. There are obviously historical conditions that have allowed for this new and frightening form of neoliberalism to emerge at this particular moment. I think, however, it is wrong to assume that your work is negative. I think the sense that there is hope and agency is clearest in an article you recently wrote entitled, “Left Behind? American Youth and the Global Fight for Democracy.”

Giroux: I am certainly influenced by certain post-structuralist traditions but also a number of other theoretical archives as well–including the brilliant work of Paulo Freire, Zygmunt Bauman, Loic Wacquant, Nancy Fraser, Tony Judt, and others. I am glad you have raised the question about critique and how it is often dismissed as negative. First, critique is far from negative. In fact, at its root is an affirmation of the noble democratic principle that people can hold ideas, social relations, institutions, and values accountable, and that individuals have distinct obligations to connect criticism with the ability to both think otherwise and act otherwise in a democracy that is never finished or complete. As John Dewey and many others have pointed out in a democracy, our first obligation is to question and our second obligation is our willingness to care for others. These obligations are not disconnected and mutually inform the other. Critique is a powerful resource against what Zygmunt Bauman calls “ethical tranquillization,” which now provides “a relief from responsibility.” [3]

Like C. Wright Mills, I believe in modes of analysis that are historical, biographical, and political. But I also believe that a discourse of critique demands more than criticism, it also needs to employ a discourse of possibility, one rooted in real opportunities to see that change is possible on an individual and collective level. Hence, my strong belief in the power of education as the practice of freedom and pedagogy as a crucial practice for the melding of reason and freedom. For instance, people are constantly struggling in the Middle East and Europe, and there is a new understanding among young people who want to be heard and given the power and rights they deserve. Critique is a resource that enables them to narrate their dismay, fears, and hopes for the future. Critique is a way of translating hope into a pressing reality. Young people in many parts of the world want to be treated differently from how they have been treated in the past.

Similar modes of protests exist in the U. S. but on a much smaller scale. The nature of the issues facing U.S. students is a bit more complicated in the U.S. because the assault on the social state, until recently, has been more incremental [i.e. the stripping of public services and so forth], whereas in Britain with the rise of the conservative-liberal government, it was immediate and bold in its assault on the social state and higher education. It has been difficult for [young people in the U.S.] to connect the dots between rising tuition costs and other assaults on their dignity with the ongoing assault on public life and its myriad democratic institutions. Today’s generation faces an enormous battle in turning back the current assaults on the social state, higher education, and the social good. That generation really has to fight for a new political language, social movements, and alliances with students from other countries. They have to convince labor, parents, and the general public that the fight over higher education is a fight that benefits everyone in a sustainable democracy and not just faculty and students. The future doesn’t have to mimic the worst parts of the present. There are new ways of sharing information, and as long as they don’t give up on the importance of politics, the future is certainly open.

Johannsen: I am glad you mentioned that a discourse of critique must include a discourse of possibility. It reminds me of your work on Benjamin’s Angel of History. The Angel of History illustrates that alternative pasts means there is the potential for alternative futures. You’ve already hinted at agency, but I think that this understanding of possibility is critical. Please expand more on your idea of agency and how it fits into your comments about a discourse of critique/discourse of possibility.

Giroux: All too often the worst thing that can happen to the young is to depoliticize them. When that happens, not only are young people told that they do not count – your agency is worthless, your experiences are worthless, and your voice should remain silent – but they are also told that there is no alternative to current state of affairs. Hence, problems become privatized and removed from larger social issues. This is one task, connecting the personal problems to larger social issues that progressive leftist intellectuals have failed to take on as a major political and educational project. That is why conversations like this, with you, are so important. It is hard to witness how irrelevant academics have become in fending off the current assaults on higher education and democracy.

Clearly, one does not have to give up being an academic, retreat from rigorous research, or renounce the importance of specialization in order to address major social issues. I don’t think you give up theoretical rigor by writing in a way that addresses major social concerns and is at the same time accessible to wider informed general audiences. Academics such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Stanley Aronowitz, etc. have done that. The academic world needs to be more responsible in communicating with a larger society. Journalists such as Chris Hedges, Bill Moyers, Laura Flanders, Amy Goodman, Dean Baker, Glenn Greenwald and others should be interacting with academics in order to form alliances and social movements dedicated to creating new public spheres, rebuking the conservative assaults on some of our most precious institutions and policies. Journalists, educators, labor, students, and various social movements need to find new ways to expose the individuals, power relations, ideologies, and modes of politics and economics that are gutting the welfare system, generating massive levels of poverty and inequality, promoting a poisonous cult of privatization, and generating a new and more powerful military-industrial complex that looks more and more like a punishing state. We need to communicate with one another more, and imagine a world in which it becomes possible to think and act otherwise.

Johannsen: What are your greatest concerns about higher education being under attack? How can we fight back?

Giroux: First, we need to figure how to defend 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 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 get rid of the growing army of temporary workers now filling the ranks of academy. This is scandalous; it weakens both 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 taking on the crucial issue what it means to be socially responsible. Pedagogy is not about training, it is about critically educating people to be self reflective, capable of critically address their relationship with others and with the larger world. Pedagogy in this sense provides not only important critical and intellectual competencies; it also enables people to intervene critically in the world.

Fifth, we need to educate young people to deal with new modes of education that are emerging with the new electronic technologies and we need to educate them to not only learn how to critically read this ubiquitous screen culture but also how to be cultural producers. With the rise of new technologies, media, and other cultural apparatuses as powerful forms of public pedagogy, students need to understand and address how these pedagogical cultural apparatuses work to diffuse learning from any vestige of critical thought. This is a form of public pedagogy that needs to be addressed both for how it deforms and for how it can create important new spaces for emancipatory forms of pedagogy.

Students need to learn how to unlearn those elements of a market driven society that deform their sense of agency, reducing them to simply consumers or even worse to elements of a disposable population. So we need to understand who controls the means of public education and the larger forms of what Raymond Williams called the cultural apparatuses of permanent education both in terms of the dangers they pose and the possibilities they harbor.

We need to take on the new media, and in terms of power and public pedagogy, we need to organize a whole range of people outside of the academy. Finally, but far from conclusive, is that we need a new political language with broader narratives. Such a language has to unravel the pervasive ideological, pedagogical, and economic dynamics of a form of economic Darwinism that now governs much of the world. This system must be demystified, politicized, and recognized for the ways in which it has come to pose a dire threat to democracy. We also need to find a language capable of defending government as an element of the common good, one that does not define itself as both a punishing and corporate state. This is not merely a matter of redefining sovereignty, but also rethinking what is distinctive about the social state, social responsibility, and the common good.

But we need more than a broader understanding of what is a good society or a moral and political critique of the existing market fundamentalism engulfing American society, we also need to create new forms of solidarity, new and broad based social movements that move beyond the isolated and fractured politics of the current historical moment. I am not against identity politics or single based issues; at the same time, we need to find ways to connect these singular modes of politics to broader political narratives about democracy so we can recognize their strengths and limitations in building broad-based social movements. In short, we need to find new ways to connect education to the struggle for democracy that is under assault in ways that were unimaginable forty years ago.

[1] See for example, Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education, (New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 2010) and Genry A. Giroux, The University in Chains (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

[2] Cited in Anthony Grafton, “Academic Freedom After the Cronon Controversy,” The New York Review of Books, (April 4, 2011).

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Consuming Life (London: Polity Press, 2007), p. 92.

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