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Henry Giroux: Rethinking the Promise of Critical Education Under an Obama Regime

By Chronis Polychroniu  Posted by martin weiss (about the submitter)     Permalink
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President-elect Barack Obama has expressed interest in improving public education. (Photo: Reuters)


    Academic Chronis Polychroniou interviews Henry Giroux, a professor in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

    Chronis Polychroniou: I'd like to begin by asking you to give us a brief account of your conceptualization and understanding of education.

    In the most general sense, I understand education as a moral and political practice whose purpose is not only to introduce students to the great reservoir of diverse intellectual ideas and traditions, but also to engage those inherited bodies of knowledge thorough critical dialogue, analysis and comprehension. At the same time, education is a set of social experiences and an ethical space through which it becomes possible to rethink what Jacques Derrida once called the concepts of the "possible and the impossible," and to enable what Jacques Rancière calls loosening the coordinates of the sensible through a constant reexamination of the boundaries that distinguish the sensible from the subversive. Both theorists are concerned with how the boundaries of knowledge and everyday life are constructed in ways that seem unquestionable, making it necessary not only to interrogate commonsense assumptions, but also to ask what it means to question such assumptions and see beyond them. As a political and moral practice, education always presupposes a vision of the future in its introduction to, preparation for and legitimization of particular forms of social life, demanding answers to the questions of whose future is affected by these forms. For what ends and to what purposes do they endure?

    What separates an authoritarian from an emancipatory notion of education is whether or not education encourages and enables students to deepen their commitments to social justice, equality and individual and social autonomy, while at the same time expanding their capacities to assume public responsibility and actively participate in the very process of governing. As a condition of individual and social autonomy, education introduces democracy to students as a way of life - an ethical ideal that demands constant attention - and, as such, takes seriously the responsibility for providing the conditions for people to exercise critical judgment, reflexiveness, deliberation and socially responsible action.

    Education is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. As a political project, education should illuminate the relationships among knowledge, authority and power. It should also draw attention to questions concerning who has control over the production of knowledge, values and skills, and it should illuminate how knowledge, identities and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations. In my view, education is a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations.

    Ethically, education stresses the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding what knowledge is of most worth, in what direction should one desire and what does it mean to know something. Most importantly, education should take seriously what it means to understand the relationship between how we learn and how we act as individual and social agents; that is, it should be concerned with teaching students not only how to think, but how to come to grips with a sense of their own individual and social responsibility and to be responsible for their actions as part of a broader attempt to be engaged citizens, who can participate in Democratic public life.

    Finally, what has to be acknowledged is that critical education is not about an a priori method that can simply be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of the community ties, available resources and the histories that students bring with them to the classroom, as well as the diverse experiences and identities they inhabit. I would like to conceptualize education as a form of provocation and challenge, a practice rooted in an ethical-political vision that attempts to take people beyond the world they already know in a way that does not insist on a fixed set of altered meanings, but instead provokes an expansion of the range of human possibilities and provides the conditions for the development of an informed, critical citizenry capable of actively participating and governing in a Democratic society. This suggests forms of knowledge and pedagogy that enable rather than subvert the potential of a Democratic culture.

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    Chronis Polychroniou: In describing the role you envision yourself as playing for students, one commentator of your work has written that your classes "are comparable to Bob Dylan's first electric outing at the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan not only provoked the traditionalists and reformists alike by going electric, but also disturbed them." That's a great compliment and a perfect elaboration of the role of the true teacher. What are the challenges you face as an educator in viewing the classroom as a space of dialogue, critical investigation and interpretation?

    It is worth noting that the challenges we face as educators in the classroom are intricately related to larger issues impacting higher education. While recognizing that higher education inhabits a diverse and complex landscape, I do think it is fair to say that in the United States, higher education faces a number of challenges in terms of its overall purpose: how it defines the role of faculty and students, and how it determines the meaning of pedagogy itself. Simply put, higher education appears to be suffering from both a crisis of politics and a crisis of legitimacy. Politically, higher education is increasingly being influenced by larger economic, military and ideological forces that consistently attempt to narrow its purview as a Democratic public sphere.

    In economic terms, higher education is increasingly subjected to a neoliberal disciplinary apparatus of power and a regime of market values that put structures of governance largely into the hands and interests of an administrative-managerial elite. Under this disciplinary apparatus, the calculating logic of cost-benefit analyses prioritizes instrumental knowledge, the discourse of efficiency and the accumulation of capital. This means that it becomes more difficult for educators to have any control over the production of their own academic labor. Moreover, under the leadership of these university CEOs, academic disciplines, teaching and research are valued primarily in terms of market outcomes and measurable standards. Under such conditions, the most valued academic subjects are those that have a certain exchange value in the market, enabling students to shore up their credentials for jobs. In a world in which youth have been unearthed not simply as another expansive and profitable market, but as the primary source of redemption for the future of capitalism, many young people are now constructed as consuming and salable objects. They often come to the university with no language for defining themselves or citizenship itself outside of the demands of a consumerist society, making it all the more difficult for them to challenge the university as an adjunct of corporate values and interests. This means that those of us teaching in the humanities not only inhabit classrooms with dwindling resources, but increasingly face students who do not value knowledge that does not immediately translate into a job opportunity or seems at odds with simple translations offered by an utterly commodified popular culture. Moreover, as the humanities and liberal arts are increasingly relegated to an ornamental function within the university, faculty are teaching more courses; new hires are put on part-time tracks; and the increased workload makes it more difficult to teach effectively.

    Another obstacle to quality teaching and research lies in the fact that the increasing loss of public funding is pushing more universities to align themselves with the national security state, which then faithfully rewards them with billions of dollars in research funds largely dedicated to militarizing knowledge and providing the deadly weapons needed by an ever-expanding warfare state. As a result, faculty find themselves locked into an academic world dominated by military and corporate values, engaging in pedagogical practices that more closely approximate training students than educating them, and being rewarded less for their scholarship and teaching than for their ability to secure outside funding. In this instance, there is an ongoing transformation among faculty in which they become deskilled as intellectuals, reduced to the status of academic entrepreneurs and functioning as unquestioning employees of the military-industrial-academic complex.

    There are also additional forces at work in the undermining of the Democratic ethos of higher education. These include very powerful right-wing, corporate-financed groups and foundations in the United States that are waging a battle to eliminate any vestige of critical education from the classroom on the grounds that such teaching is either propagandistic or unpatriotic. All of these groups view the university either as an adjunct to the corporation and security state or as a citadel of patriotic correctness, or, even worse, as all three of these things. Under such conditions, not only does the university default on its role as a Democratic public sphere, but it also suppresses dissent, critical thought and the pedagogical conditions necessary for students to become critically engaged actors. In a similar manner, public intellectuals are now replaced by privatized intellectuals, often working in secrecy, conducting research that serves either the warfare state or the corporate state, and feeling too intimidated to engage in critical teaching. Under such circumstances, the accelerating process of deskilling teachers undercuts the possibility of critical dialogue, the development of a culture of questioning, and the desire of educators to challenge and provoke students beyond the world they already know in a way that does not insist on a fixed set of meanings.

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    Intellectuals, no longer positioned in a vibrant relationship to public life, now labor under the influence of managerial modes of governance and market values that mimic the logic of Wall Street. Consequently, higher education appears increasingly decoupled from its historical legacy as a crucial public sphere, responsible for both educating students for the workplace and providing them with the modes of critical discourse, interpretation, judgment, imagination and experiences that deepen and expand democracy. Unable to legitimate its purpose and meaning according to such important Democratic practices and principles, higher education now narrates itself in terms that are more instrumental, commercial and practical, having a detrimental impact on the classroom. As universities adopt the ideology of transnational corporations and become subordinated to the needs of capital, the war industries and the Pentagon, they become less concerned with how they might educate students regarding the ideology and civic practices of Democratic governance and the particular necessity of using knowledge to address the challenges of public life. Higher education instead functions as part of the post-9/11 military-industrial-academic complex, becoming increasingly conjoined with military interests and market values, identities and social relations, while John Dewey's once-vaunted claim that "democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife" is either willfully ignored, forgotten or becomes an object of scorn. Education now seems to be measured by the degree to which it can escape any vestige of political, ethical and moral responsibility.

    Chronis Polychroniou: Violence and social anomie are widespread problems in America's public school system and in many other public school systems in the Western world. In fact, these types of behavior seem in our own times to cross class lines and to form a distinctive display of aggressive behavior that is very much ingrained in the overall culture of Western society. Under these conditions, what can school administrators and teachers do to construct a learning environment that is geared to self-development, respect for others and responsibility for one's actions, and form social bonds around the values of democracy, freedom and civic virtue?

    Learning environments cannot be removed from the larger political, economic and social forces that shape them. If education is going to be responsive to the larger problems that erupt in its classrooms, it has to become a force for addressing the deepest conflicts of our time, and this not only means reclaiming the university as a Democratic public sphere, but also putting in place those pedagogical conditions that make knowledge meaningful in order for it to become critical and transformative. For knowledge to become meaningful, it must connect with the histories, values and understandings that shape students' everyday lives. This is knowledge that not only tries to connect with what students already know, but also challenges the limits of such knowledge by questioning both the histories and context in which such knowledge is produced, appropriated and internalized. Pedagogy in this instance takes matters of context seriously, but does not limit its articulation of knowledge to the immediacy of experience; rather, experiential contexts become a starting point for moving into the larger world of knowledge, ideas, theories and social relations.

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