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Higher Education in a Time of Crisis:
Rethinking the Politics and Possibilities of Critical Pedagogy

Henry Giroux
Interview by Chronis Polychroniou

You are one of the world’s major theorists on critical pedagogy. Would you define the term and elaborate on its use?

Critical pedagogy refers to a set of particular theoretical principles that embrace the primacy of the political and the ethical as a central feature of educational theory and practice. In opposition to the conservative view that pedagogy is simply a set of strategies, methodologies, and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter, critical pedagogy is defined as a moral and political practice that represents a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge, values, and subjectivies are produced within particular sets of social relations. Pedagogy is understood in this context as political and moral practice that treats education as a project related to the ongoing struggle over an inclusive and substantive democracy. Critical pedagogy attempts to understand and engage schools as places where culture, power, knowledge, and experience come together to produce particular identities, narratives, and social practices that always presuppose a vision of the future. The critical question here, of course, is whose future, story, and interests does the public school, higher education, or any other educational site represent? Critical pedagogy argues that school practices should be informed by a public philosophy that addresses how to construct ideological and institutional conditions in which the lived experience of empowerment for the vast majority of students becomes the defining feature of education. In part, this suggest providing the conditions for students to engage in unlimited questioning and sustained dialogue so that teachers and students can experience themselves as critical agents and learn how to oppose dogmatic forms of education which not only limit critical thinking, but also close down the capacity for self-determination, agency, self-representation, and effective democracy. By viewing the classroom as a space of dialogue, critique, and translation, critical pedagogy offers educators a new language for enabling teachers and students come to terms with their own power as individual agents and critical citizens. Students, in particular through this approach, are taught about the relationship between knowledge and the power of self-definition, and what it means to use knowledge not only to understand the world, but to be able to influence those who are in power and help to mobilize those who are not. More specifically, critical pedagogy attempts: to reclaim those forms of knowledge that not only provide the range of capacities necessary for young people to function in an empowering way in every sphere of society, but also to create new forms of knowledge that engage the new modes of literacy necessary to understand, critically engaging, and transforming the changing conditions under which people experience their lives, especially with regard to the new media. Central here is the assumption that young people should be educated to not only have the skills necessary to be workers, policy makers, intellectuals, and other social roles, but also to be both cultural producers and critical intellectuals capable of producing and not merely carrying out particular types of social practices, roles, and forms of creative production. Critical pedagogy also places an emphasis on breaking down disciplines and creating interdisciplinary knowledge, especially knowledge that provides new ways to raise questions and enhance our role as individual and social agents in a global world; it also raises questions about the relationships between the margins and centers of power in schools and is concerned about how to provide a way of reading history as part of a larger project of reclaiming power and identity, particularly as these are shaped around the categories of race, gender, class, and ethnicity; critical pedagogy is also attentive to the context in which learning takes place and is concerned about making curriculum knowledge responsive to the everyday knowledge that constitutes peoples’ lived histories differently. Finally, critical pedagogy illuminates the primacy of the ethical and the political in defining the language that teachers and others use to produce particular cultural practices, especially as these link the challenge of providing the conditions of individual and social agency with the expanding and deepening of democratic public life.

What’s the social and intellectual role of the university?

I think there is something to be gleaned from the liberal tradition of higher education, but it does not go far enough. The liberal ideal of the university as a place to promote both the practical skills necessary to perform various economic roles and specialized jobs, while also providing pedagogical conditions in which young people are immersed in a vibrant intellectual culture of questioning, dialogue, and exchange still holds legitimacy as one of the main purposes of the university. In this regard, the university should teach young people how to think critically, value and engage diverse historical traditions, and make the wisdom of the vast array of cultures and traditions that mark the space of the global accessible and subject to critical inquiry. But I think the social and intellectual role of the university should exceed the liberal ideal.
I also think the university should define and defend its work as a vital democratic public sphere, because it is one of the few places where students can learn the power of questioning authority, recover the ideals of engaged citizenship, reaffirm the importance of the public good, learn how to identify those anti-democratic tendencies pushing the globe towards increased forms of exploitation and social exclusion, and expand the capacities of students to make a difference in promoting social and economic justice throughout the world. Clearly, it should educate students to think beyond getting a job and being adroit consumers. Higher education must not only be removed from its narrow corporate and militarized instrumental justifications by getting students to think critical and expand their sense of self and social development, it must also be engaged as a site that offers students the opportunity to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, skills, and ethical vocabularies necessary for modes of critical dialogue and forms of broadened civic participation. Here the academy can play in invaluable civic role in enabling students to come to terms with their own sense of power and public voice by enabling them to examine and frame critical what they learn in within the classroom in with a more political or social intellectual understanding of the interface between their lives and the world at large. In the more radical tradition, the university assumes the role of a democratic public sphere and in doing does more than educate students to think critically, it also connects learning to social change, translate private problems as public considerations, and reclaims the relationship between scholarship and the democratic politics of civic responsibility and civic courage.

You’ve also been one of the loudest voices against the imposition of market rules and market mentality in higher education. Can you specify how the mentality of the market alters the mission of the university?

One indication of how the mentality of the market influences higher education can be seen in the currently fashionable idea of the university as a “franchise” largely indifferent to deepening and expanding the possibilities of democratic public life and increasingly hostile to the important role the academy can play in addressing matters of public welfare and public service. As universities adopt the ideology of the corporation and become subordinated to the needs of capital they are less concerned about how they might educate students in the ideology and practice of governance, the political importance of democratic values, and the importance of using knowledge to address the challenges of public life. Operating as both a training ground for future employees and a store-front for business corporations, the university is now part of an unholy alliance that largely serves dominant state, military, and business policies while decoupling all aspects of academic knowledge production from democratic values and projects. The effects of the corporatization of higher education can be seen a number of ways. First, it alters the governing structure of the university by putting more and more power into the hands of administrators who now model themselves in the management styles of larger corporations such as IBM. Moreover, the corporate take-over of higher education not only affects the governing structure of the university, it also redefines faculty, students, and adjuncts as either entrepreneurs, customers, or clients. The result is a reshaping of the governance structure of the university, the content of courses, and the broader culture of higher education. As the university is stripped of its role as a democratic public sphere and viewed as a market niche, faculty are seen as contract employees, and students become important only in the logic of profit margins. Under this instrumentalized model of higher education, faculty are increasingly being stripped of their autonomy and transformed into academic entrepreneurs, reduced to either teaching large classes, burdened by excessive work loads, and often pressured to pursue grant money in order to get pay raises or promotions. Students, by extension, are now viewed as future employees or customers, increasingly indentured by financial debt and forced into careers that have less to do with public service than with providing the financial incentives to enable them to pay back student loans. Similarly, the entire knowledge structure, disciplines, and content of curricula are being reshaped and redrawn as those courses, modes of knowledge, and research that do not directly translate into serving the interests of the market place are either devalued – particularly courses in the humanities and arts – or are simply viewed as ornamental. In some cases, corporate interests are directly financing, shaping, and staffing particular university research projects and departments. As more corporate money comes into the university, the distinction between knowledge and the commodity is lost, and the result is that knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, biotech and computer oriented research has become privatized and commodified; moreover, collaborative relationships among faculty suffer as some firms insist that the results of corporate-sponsored research be kept secret. In some instances, faculty who have objected to or criticized research that is sponsored by corporations have been fired or punished by university administrators. This new corporate professionalism that is emerging in higher education positions and rewards educators as narrow specialists and unbridled entrepreneurs, unencumbered by matters of ethics, power, and ideology. No longer concerned with important social issues, democratic values, or the crucial task of educating students about important historical, cultural, social, and theoretical traditions, corporate-inspired notions of professionalism now shift the emphasis from the quality of academic work to a crude emphasis on quantity, from creativity and critical dialogue in the classroom to standardization and rote learning, from supporting full-time tenured positions to constructing an increasing army of contract workers, and from emphasizing rigorous scholarship and engagement with public issues to the push for grant writing and external funding. Such corporatization represents a debased notion of education and signifies a dire threat to the university as a democratic public sphere.

Career training and workforce development are concerns of many people in today’s global company. Shouldn’t universities also be preparing students for the “real world?”

One problem with this call for the university to orient itself towards jobs in the real world is that by the time students leave the university the skills needed to perform such jobs are outdated and not very useful. But more importantly, the “real world” in this context often means substituting training for education while at the same time depoliticizing education by stripping it of its critical and democratic functions. While the university should equip people to enter the workplace, it should also educate them to contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of work, and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and respect for all people who constitute the global public sphere. Higher education is about more than job preparation and the learning of practical skills; it is also about imagining different futures and politics as a form of intervention into public life. Democracy is about more than learning how to get a job. Citizens are more than workers, and the skills they need to live in the global world far exceed those associated with instrumental tasks such as job training. Students also need to learn the knowledge and skills that not only prepare them for the workplace, but also for what it means to live in a world in which they are prepared to govern and not just be governed, either by the dictates of the workplace or the larger social and political spheres. In short, education demands that citizens be able to negotiate the interface of private considerations and public issues, recognize those undemocratic forces that deny social, economic, and political justice, and be willing to give some thought to the nature and meaning of their experiences in struggling for a better world, and those challenges far exceed the needs of the workplace.

When you argue against the privatization of higher education because you consider the whole undertaking antithetical to civic life and democratic values, do you have something else in mind other than universities charging tuition and seeking research grants from private sources?

The privatization of higher education must be understood as part of a much broader attack on the very notion of the public good, dissent, the welfare state, and democracy itself. Neoliberal ideology along with the emerging national security state believes not only that the market offers the only template for organizing all aspects of society, it also argues that anything public, including the social state, and any other sphere not governed by market values represent a source of danger to neoliberalism and should be dismissed as wasteful, inefficient, considered a threat to the assumption that market freedom is synonymous with a market society – that capitalism and democracy are the same thing, or even worse that the space of the public embodies a kind of pathology. Universities have become dangerous not only because they are one of the few places left in the United States where dissent is expressed, authority can be questioned, and democratic ideals actually taken seriously, but also because they threaten the primacy of market fundamentalism, the reign of neoliberal ideology with its rabid individualism, its utterly privatized conception of the citizen as a consumer, its endless production of material and social inequalities, and its obscene belief that there is no other way to organize social relations – the end of thought thesis parading as the end of history discourse.

Higher education in the United States is also under attack, and not just from a market-based ideology, but from right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians. Yet perhaps nowhere else in the world does one find academic institutions where critical discourse and pedagogy are flourishing as extensively and as influentially as among America’s campuses. Still, you are very concerned about the future of universities in the US.

I am concerned precisely because of the seriousness and the gravity of the attack which is coming from some of the most powerful and reactionary groups in and outside of the government. In the early 1960s, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the growing threat of the military-industrial complex to American society. What many people do not know is that he had actually used the phrase «the military-industrial-academic complex» but later took it out of his talk. He recognized the seriousness of the threat 40 years ago. It is much worse today, because corporations, the national security state, the Pentagon, powerful Christian evangelical groups, non-government agencies, and enormously wealthy right wing individuals and institutions have created powerful alliances – the perfect storm so to speak – and are truly threatening the freedoms and autonomy of American universities. This is a very complex issue and I examine it in great detail in my newest book, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex[1].

Some educators around the world are also concerned about the heavy politicization of the university where in the name of equality academic standards become lax, student organizations have overwhelming influence into the selection of university officials, reforms are halted so as not to upset the status quo, and narrowly defined interests dictate the course of higher education rather than the pursuit for learning and the promotion of civic virtue and responsible citizenship. And a particular variant of the left seems to be associated with the heavy handed politicization of the university and its declining ethos. I don’t think the radical educators like Howard Zinn, Cornelius Castoriadis, Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky would applaud this! You agree?

I am against orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and dogmatism in all of its forms, even when it emerges from a so called left. But that said, I think it a bit far fetched to suggest that a dogmatic left poses any sort of serious threat to the democratic and intellectual values of the university. The left has no money, owns no corporations, is not in bed with the Pentagon, receives almost no outside funding from powerful corporate interests and conservative think tanks. So where is the threat? Those on the left citing Lenin and praising the virtues of a crude identity politics appear to be more of a threat to themselves than anyone else. Any discourse about the threat to the university has to be understood in terms of actual not imagined power relations and it is pretty clear that the anti-democratic forces bearing down on higher education have more to do with Exxon and the CIA than with the critical work of Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire.

You have written that «higher education represents one of the most important sites over which the battle for democracy is being waged.» Within the realm of possible, what measures do you advocate for a better future through the vision of emancipatory higher education?

First, I think the higher education has to be defended as a democratic public sphere capable of educating a critical citizenry capable of governing itself. I believe that if we are going to take higher education seriously it has to be available to all people, regardless of wealth and privilege. Put simply, higher education has to be democratized and cannot be tuition driven, which enforces differential opportunities for students based on their ability to pay. Central to any notion of educational reform is the question of power and to what degree it can be wrested away from administrators and corporations and appropriated by faculty. This will not happen if university faculty do not organize collectively with students and unions. Moreover, the increasing outsourcing of education to part-time faculty has got to stop and universities have to find ways to provide faculty with full time positions, decent salaries, and workable benefits. Any viable form of educational reform must expose students to a genuine intellectual culture, one that is both critically stimulating and pleasurable. At the very least, such a culture should provide students not only with a broad general education but also equip them with the habits of critical thought and a passion for social responsibility that enables them to take seriously their participation in public life. In this instance, universities should provide students with knowledge that is meaningful so that it can be come critical and pleasurable in order that it can become transformative. Besides making higher education accessible, giving faculty more power, ensuring the conditions that make empowering forms of academic labor possible, providing a alternative vision based on John Dewey notion of education for democracy and the university should honor its students by providing them not only with crucial skills and knowledge, but also giving them the opportunity to appropriate and exercise a language of critique and possibility as part of a broader effort to connect what they learn in the university to the larger world and the promise of an inclusive and substantive democracy. The university should be a place where imagining the unimaginable matters as part of an effort to not only get students to think otherwise but to act otherwise in the service of taking the promise of democracy seriously.

In your work, one encounters the view that every educational act is political and that every political act should be pedagogical. Aren’t there dangers behind this epistemology when it comes to teaching and research? And do you feel that it has applicability to the whole spectrum of knowledge, including the hard sciences?

I think this question needs to be unpacked a bit. The implication often is that there is a correlation between the primacy of the educational as political and a kind of ideological determinism that offer errs on the side of propaganda. That is, this position suggests that as soon as one draws attention to the political one is at the same time laying claim to what might be construed as a type of dogmatism or imposing a narrow form of ideology. While this can certainly happen, I am not using the notion of the political in such a narrow and restricted manner. Accentuating the political in the sphere of culture and human interaction is simply a theoretical or hermeneutic tool for being attentive to the interaction between the values both frame our educational practices and at the same time provide a rational for them. And, clearly such actions not only are value laden they also take place with particular relations of power. The political points to the directive nature of human interaction and makes visible that the interactions in which we engage in educational institutions always take place within the realm of power relations and can never escape the normative considerations that drive such actions, including something as simply as deciding what knowledge is worth teaching. Asserting the relationship between politics and education represents an important attempt to grasp how curriculum policies and pedagogical conditions are informed by the state, how different groups receive different allocation of knowledge and symbolic awards, and how schools and every educational act mediates the inseparable relation between culture and power. To suggest that education should not be political implies that such practices take place outside of normative considerations, free of power relations, removed from ideological practices and can be understood either as a neutral methodology, a normative free assertion, an objective intervention in the world, or, even wore, an act of divine intervention. All knowledge as well as pedagogical relations are governed by rules of order, exchange, and value. Such processes are never free of either power or politics and to think they are is to diminish the ideological context in which they take place, the ways in which they provide a rational for particular social relations, and order the sites in human beings confront each other.

Interview given on February 7, 2007


[1] The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, Paradigm Press, Kent (WA) 2007.
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