Henry A. Giroux | The Vital Role of Education in Authoritarian Times

(Photo: SSP)(Photo: SSP)

For decades, I have challenged the notion that schools are simply black boxes mired in structures of domination. While the early leftist criticism of schooling was correct in challenging the idea that schools were agencies of meritocracy and equal opportunity removed from larger structures of capitalist domination, it lacked, with few exceptions (such as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour), any sense of resistance, and as such lacked any notion of hope. Resistance and hope, coupled with a comprehensive understanding of theory, politics and education, have played a crucial role in my later work, particularly in my later analysis of the war on youth, the centrality of pedagogy to cultural studies, neoliberalism’s assault on higher education and other related issues.

In July 2017, I was fortunate to participate in an interview that attempted to look at the totality of my work on education, cultural studies, pedagogy, youth studies and a range of other topics. The interview, captured here in a just-released film debuting on Truthout, begins with an analysis of the historical conditions that produced one of my most important books, Theory and Resistance in Education, and that had a formative influence it had on much of my of my later work.

The interview also deals with the challenges of resistance today, given the power of modes of pedagogy that exist outside of schools, particularly under the toxic regime of neoliberalism. Not only have the sites or modes of pedagogy expanded in a range of cultural apparatuses extending from digital and print culture to screen culture, but the very spaces for sustained and critical thought have been shrinking.

At the same time, new spaces of resistance have opened up in light of the emergence of new technologies, the increasing radicalization of young people and the search for a new understanding of politics, one that makes sense of the relationship between local politics and global power formations. The interview explores these new sites of hope. It also explores how both public schools and higher education have come under assault by a range of ideological, cultural and economic forces tied to a variety of right-wing and conservative ideologies and fundamentalisms — religious, market-based, military-oriented, racist and sexist. Due to all of these forces, there is an urgent need to retheorize matters of education, power and politics itself.

Capitalism no longer simply exploits as its main engine of domination; it now renders increasing numbers of people disposable.

One of the central elements of discussion in the interview is the issue of border crossing and the politics of disposability. This politics points to not only new forms of domination, but also suggests rethinking politics beyond simply questions of exploitation. In other words, capitalism no longer simply exploits as its main engine of domination; it now renders increasing numbers of people disposable — whether we are talking about Muslims, workers, youth of color, poor Black communities such as Flint, Michigan, or an increasing number of other groups. Disposability is the register of a new politics of oppression central to the emergence of financial capital, and it must be addressed as part of a new mode of politics and global resistance. Disposability points to distinct economic, political and cultural contexts in which new forms of exclusion are entangled with emerging modes of authoritarianism that are reshaping matters of ideology, knowledge and power. The logic of disposability has become the driving force of a powerful machinery of social death.

Also vital to address in these oppressive times is a narrow notion of dystopia, which is now attached to almost any form of criticism. Rather than opening a window to the need for real struggles, this notion of dystopia collapses into the discourse of cynicism. In the interview, I reject this view by making clear that criticism is the precondition for not only changing consciousness, but also making visible new forms of domination and power that have to be confronted if people are going to be able to understand the oppressive conditions in which they find themselves. Rather than insert criticism, dialogue and the social imagination within the toxic charge of a distorted and reactionary notion dystopia, the interview addresses criticism and the existing conditions of oppression as a starting point for individual and collective forms of struggle. The engagement with dystopia in this case is a precondition for developing a discourse of both critique and hope, not despair.

It is crucial for us to address this question head on: What is the role of public and higher education, especially in a time of tyranny? What does critical pedagogy look like and how is it put into play so as to make a viable and lasting connection between learning and critical thought, engaged agency and social responsibility, learning and social change? Central to this interview is the point that education is crucial to politics itself, and that any viable sense of theory, politics and resistance will have to address this issue.

In Conversation with Henry Giroux from UWS Artist Teacher Programme on Vimeo.