On Wednesday January 27, 2010, Leslie Thatcher spoke over the phone with Henry Armand Giroux about his book, “Youth in a Suspect Society.” Public pedagogy and the war on democracy were also discussed.
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: First of all, Dr. Giroux, let me thank you. Your work has contextualized and influenced how I read not only the news and other literature, but life in general.
Henry Giroux: That’s so kind. I had a good friend a while back named Ellen Willis who wrote for the Village Voice and other publications and is now deceased. She used to say that she felt left out of the conversation. I’m just shocked by the degree to which so many alternative voices have been largely excluded from the conversation, erased from any “mainstream” discussion.
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But also there is an extraordinary degree of self-sabotage by the left and progressive community that takes place with amplifying the voices of left and progressive critics. There seems to be little understanding of how to publicize their work or take it up in ways that make it appealing to a larger public. “Youth in a Suspect Society” is a classic example in that it has hardly been reviewed by a number of left and progressive media outlets and I think that is largely because it is about youth. They just don’t seem interested in this kind of work.
In “Youth in a Suspect Society” and elsewhere, you focus on what you call the “war on youth.” How did youth become your primary focus and why should a war on youth concern everyone, including those who are older and childless?
I became interested in the issues around the question of youth somewhere in the middle of the 1990’s as I was going through the left and other progressive literature and found it talked about the environment, racism, sexism, colonialism, etc. and I noticed youth was the missing category. Wherever the concept of youth came up, it was taken up by educators and only from the angle of schools. I wondered what it is about youth that alienates or at least seems unimportant to people who write about racism, sexism, ecological damage and so forth.
To me, youth symbolized a way of talking about the future with an unquestionable ethical and moral referent, the social contract itself, the social state. I wanted to investigate our responsibilities to youth, not only for providing a future for them to inherit, but also in terms of preparing them to do so. It implies a framework for defining all adults’ obligations to all youth, not only those in their own family circle.
No category seems to me more central to democratic life – and the ethical and moral underpinnings required to support it. What kind of society will young people inherit? What are we doing to them now? How are we betraying them?
For me, that betrayal began under the Clinton administration when it began to further the criminalization of young people in 1996 with welfare “reform” and subsequently by further changes in the social and justice systems – especially the drug laws – that made youth offenders.
That was the beginning of the “hard war,” of the use of the criminal justice system as a model for the way to deal with kids
The “soft war” of commodification and commercialization got hyped up under Ronald Reagan in ways we had never seen before.
All this is critically important because the forces waging a war on youth also undermine democracy.
One of your signature themes is the role of public pedagogy in producing complicit and willing subjects of the corporate order, through hard and soft means. Lest some of our middle-class progressive readers imagine they are immune from this public pedagogy, can you describe some of the technologies and modalities that affect us all?
We’re awash in public pedagogy not only because of the inheritance of a kind of pedagogy that comes out of centralized broadcast technology, but also from all kinds of new sources. Technology is no longer just about distribution, but all about consumption: there’s almost nothing that is electronic that is not networked, plugged-in and connected to technologies of consumption. Every aspect of that technology is a teaching machine, especially as technology becomes a substitute for social relations. Did you see the new report that outside of the school day, almost eight to nine of kids’ hours are devoted to technology? Although we may choose what forms we use, we are all nonetheless immersed in a technology over which we have no control. The public pedagogy that emerges from it washes over us all and all the related pedagogical assumptions that shape our thinking and form our identities destroy any viable notion of community, of social responsibility, of ourselves as non-consumer agents.
And these technologies have created unprecedented corporate access to kids such as video games that won’t allow a kid to go to the next level until he’s provided personal information to the game-maker. School and family have been annihilated in this bombardment that teaches that the social state … that society doesn’t matter, that only individuals and their consumption choices are important.
This lack of access to democratic stories does not augur well for all of us.
If I say “schooling,” everyone knows what I mean, but if I say “public pedagogy,” nobody knows what I mean, even though the most important sites of education today are screen culture, are media, cell phones etc. which have introduced modes of subject/identity construction that almost make school obsolete.
Social sites are another of these new forms of education and are amazingly powerful and exclusionary, deepening the generational and technological divides. I’ll give you an example: my kids say, “Don’t send me emails anymore, I only use Facebook.” But I won’t use Facebook.
Video games have become the organizing principle for how you watch films and how they are structured.
Literacy is not about print culture anymore. The high and low culture divide no longer exists. And kids are communicating across borders in a way that destroys their home culture modalities.
All these forces are destroying political literacy.
The left doesn’t care about education. It views it in the same way as it views hierarchies of knowledge. For example, in the university, if you belong to the English department, you’re obviously intelligent, while the education department is for people who are not so intelligent. These hierarchies of knowledge have so affected left and progressive theorists that they think pedagogy is superfluous. But pedagogy is absolutely central to politics. “The Republic” is all about education. All early democratic theorists focused on the construction of democratic agents. John Dewey couldn’t talk about class or democracy without education.
Right now, we have a formative culture that produces angry mobs. My role is to constantly remind people pedagogy is not only central to politics, but central to our self-understanding. We need to find out how to create people who are thoughtful and literate and have a sense of responsibility to society and its future.
I am often disconcerted by people whom I consider thoughtful and progressive and literate, but who seem utterly unable to connect their own personal behavior to the theories and ideologies they espouse.
Yes, they may be theoretically smart and yet pedagogical terrorists. I cannot tell you how many left-leaning intellectuals I know who have no understanding of what it means to mimic the theory that they write about in their own social relationships, who are mean-spirited, and even hateful.
I sometimes see that in “comments” on leftist sites.
You can’t take some of the mean-spirited and stupid comments posted to leftist sites too seriously. For example, one will say, “this piece is full of grammatical errors” and then you’ll look for grammatical errors and there won’t be any. They make stuff up.
That’s the problem with a culture so hardened and indifferent to the consequences of what we do that we become personally inured to cruelty. The economic system has produced a kind of cultural Darwinism such that effectively we’re all on a kind of island. Personal morality comes down to doing what gets you ahead.
You have said that you wrote “Youth in a Suspect Society” out of a sense of outrage and hope; what is the basis for your hope?
The hope is that you can educate people to recognize that if these kinds of crimes can be perpetrated against kids, we need a change in the social order. I hope that the book offers a moral compass that may stimulate people to rethink our society’s direction.
For me, youth provides one of the few theoretical and political referents left that can’t be entirely commoditized and corporatized, that offers the opportunity for individual and collective reflection on what kind of society we want to have, that will take us beyond the so often fractionalized partisan discourses that characterize our present “politics.”
My hope is to offer a larger referent for connecting the dots between poverty, education, militarization, incarceration, higher education, jobs. All these problems that we have hurt youth the most. The jobless rate of poor minority youth is not only a moral and ethical scandal, but a social time bomb and a huge drain on the economy. Here we squander this enormous valuable resource. It’s like pouring oil down the drain.
At least during the last few decades, the carceral industry has been the “solution” of choice to that problem, as we “employ” some poor people as prisoners and others as guards.
One of the things that’s new, that we’ve never seen before revolves around the idea of “bare life.” A “bare pedagogy” has arisen making all issues about survival, literally about life and death. And we have determined that some people are dispensable and disposable. There is no social contract; there are no social services for them. The only form of income for over one million people in this country is food stamps. Over one-quarter of black children are on food stamps. There is no room for their narratives within such a hardened cruel culture so indifferent to social responsibility.
A perfect example of this is that South Carolina politician, Andre Bauer, suggesting poor children shouldn’t get school lunches because stray animals breed when fed.
Now, in this post civil rights, post-MLK world, we have politicians who know that using that kind of language will get them votes.
Anybody who is suffering from a misfortune, suffering from the impositions of this financially produced recession, no longer even has to be considered a human being. There are frightening echoes of Nazism here. I have never seen such disdain for democracy.
How does one escape the authoritarian public pedagogy, the militarization and corporatization of our society, and provide an alternative pedagogy? What are the elements of an alternative pedagogy? How may they be implemented?
People must be brought to think of things outside their own self-interest, to share community rather than sharing fears. Since Reagan, the war against democracy has included a war against language. The language of democracy is under siege, insulted and misused. “Freedom” is the most egregious example of a term that has been misappropriated.
This book is really a clarion call for revitalizing and recapturing an idea of democracy, an idea of the common good, of the need to subordinate private interests to public values.
You cannot shame people into becoming political activists. But if you can think differently, you can act differently. I am always amazed at the possibilities for resistance. That’s what public pedagogy is about and that’s why it’s central to politics. We need to treat people seriously as partners in the dialogue about the future.
Leslie Thatcher is Truthout’s French Language Editor and sometime book reviewer. Palgrave MacMillan provided a reviewer copy of “Youth in a Suspect Society.”