An Interview with Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest
Henry Giroux is currently the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and the Paulo Freire distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy in the Department of English and Cultural Studies. He has written and lectured extensively about US public and higher education.
The Politic: How do you define education? When you discuss how education is going to create the next generation of active citizens, you place a lot of the onus on schools to create this change. Does your definition of education also include the family and society more generally?
Professor Giroux: My understanding of higher education is that it should be a democratic public sphere, a place that basically educates individuals not only to know something historically and to be able to think in sociological and relational terms, but also to learn how to be responsible citizens, to have some understanding of the relationship between themselves, others, and the world, and basically what it means to be a critically engaged agent.
The key issue here for me around education is that if you don’t have a formative institution creating informed citizens, you don’t have a democracy. So I think education is a foundational place where students should be educated not just how to learn how to occupy jobs or be entrepreneurs, but also how to be actively engaged, critical citizens.
The Politic: How should schools create more actively engaged and critical citizens?
Professor Giroux: There are a number of things schools can do. First off, students have to learn to think outside of disciplines. They have to find themselves under those pedagogical conditions where their imaginations can roam. I think increasingly we find that too many students are utterly specialized, have no sense of the larger connections they can make with the world, and seem to think knowledge is so isolated that you can actually survive in the world by only learning how to be an accountant.
I think that many students are not learning how to translate personal issues into larger public considerations. I think this question of translation is absolutely central to what students should be learning. I mean, how do they take isolated issues and, rather than privatize or personalize them, learn how to set them in a larger set of social, economic, and political conditions?
I think students need to learn to be theoretically rigorous. I think we need to understand theory less as a form of theoreticism in itself but basically as a resource. I get too many graduate students who just want to cite Foucault, and that is what they do. Their papers are filled with citations. I think we are not teaching students enough about what theory is and what these intellectual traditions mean in terms of being able to use them in ways to address social problems that have some relevance to our lives.
Among other things, students need to learn to take risks. I think they need to learn how to hold power accountable. I think they need to learn how to question in ways that are not terrifying for them. The assumption lately that anything that unsettles us is basically something they have to be wary of is antithetical to any notion of critical thinking.
I think we maybe need to move away from critical thinking to something called critical consciousness, meaning that I’m not really concerned about students being smart in the way I described – I think that’s important – but I also think they need to be socially responsible. They need to be able to learn that the issues of economic and political justice should not be separated from the issues they are talking about, because it seems to me that if we want to reclaim the social sphere, we need to suggest to students that they live in a society where they have to exercise their compassion for other people and be able to mediate relationships between themselves and others in ways that are just.
Questions of justice have to be central to a curriculum, as do questions of compassion, and questions of what it means to be able to learn under conditions in which one is able to exercise the notion of self and social agency in ways that really make a difference. We need to educate kids to learn how to govern better, rather than simply teaching them how to be governed.
The Politic: You’ve laid out what a student should be learning. However, how are they taught these skills? What is your ideal classroom? What are the students doing?
Professor Giroux: One of the things that is very important for me is to make sure that students have a sense of what it means to narrate themselves, to be able to speak in a way in which their ideas are elevated to the public realm where they can engage in conversations with others in ways that are both critical and affirmative. I do that by having them write two page papers on the topics we are talking about, which always have something to do with the world in which we live, and making them take a position. We exchange the papers, we read the papers, and we talk about them.
I think that there are two qualifications here. One is that rather than separate ethics out as some sort of isolated issue in itself, we are always talking about what the consequences are of the positions that we are taking. How do they affect other people? How do they filter in and become part of a larger fabric in which we can understand the ravages of inequality? How do we understand what it means to be related to the earth ecologically? How do we define our public agency within a whole range of issues that we are now taking up in the text? I don’t believe there is any text that can be addressed even in the terms of the most narrow kinds of scientific discourses that cannot, in some way, be related to the larger world. I want my students to understand those texts with a sense of their own imaginations, their own sense of justice, and their sense of possibility.
For me, the issue pedagogically of being in a classroom with students is that we are unfinished. We are constantly learning. We are trying to understand a world in ways which we recognize what we need to unlearn and what we need to continue to learn. The question of ethics is really central to the pedagogical process itself because you cannot talk about knowledge without talking about power, without talking about morality, without talking about translation.
The Politic: To switch gears, you are a very strong critic of standardized testing. One of the reasons standardized testing came about is because the US government wanted to have an efficient way to understand and compare how public schools were doing in order to improve the system. If you’re against standardized testing, how do you think we should be holding schools accountable and getting the necessary data needed to improve them?
Professor Giroux: There are all kinds of ways. Accountability is not synonymous with standardization. Students can write essays. Students can be engaged in analytic modes of evaluations in which they have to talk, in which they have to write, in which they have to put things together, in which they can create and generate all kinds of projects that cut across the disciplines, whether these projects are art projects, whether they are writing essays, or whether they are working in the community.
I think standardization flattens out the imagination. I don’t think it has anything to do with the teaching that matters, since it’s just about teaching to the test. I think that it is a systemic attempt to make schools dumb. I don’t think standardization is simply something someone pulled out of a hat and said, “Oh jee, lets try this because it is easy!”
I think standardization feeds the corporations. It feeds the testing industry. It also is a kind of corporate logic that can’t imagine schools in any fundamental way to be places where students actually learn how to think, to be rigorous, to be socially responsible, imaginative, and creative.
I think schools are dangerous. That’s why we have standardized testing. Not because somebody is being stupid about how to evaluate people.
The Politic: Why do you think corporate involvement and good education, or imagination more specifically, are so mutually exclusive?
Professor Giroux: When we talk about the market and market driven values, and when we talk about corporations, one of the things we want to make clear is that something happened in the 1970s. All of a sudden we moved from what we might call a market economy to a market society. And what that means is that all of a sudden economics began to drive politics. All of a sudden the market became a template not just for defining economics, but for defining all of social life.
You basically have a switch to a finance capital. You have a switch that basically breaks the social contract. The social contract now no longer matters. All that really matters is self-interest. All that really matters is seeing the government as the enemy of everybody except the corporations.
What you see is that in the 80s there is a war on the public goods, a war on the public sector, beginning with Reagan and Thatcher. I think that from this point on all of a sudden you have the emergence of corporations that really see schools as dangerous places, because people can learn how to hold power accountable in them. Or, you begin to see schools as sources of profit that need to be privatized. The notion of the university and the notion of public education as a public good was being thrown out the window in the interest of this onslaught of deregulation and privatization, which now seems to suggest that what schools are really good for is making a hell of a lot of money by turning them over to investors.
I think that you have to begin to understand the antithesis between corporations, particularly big corporations in the billionaires club. You know, people like the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family. These people want to privatize schools. They see these schools as places for the accumulation of capital and I think that is the great division we now see.
We have no language for the public good. Corporations cannot even imagine schools as places where the imagination can roam free. They see them as places – like the university you’re at – where they train the financial elite. Or, they see them as basically community colleges, which are high schools with ashtrays that will train workers to be servile and accept the fact that for the rest of their lives they will probably live with their parents and be engaged in low skill jobs.
The Politic: How is the Gates Foundation trying to privatize schools?
Professor Giroux: The Gates Foundation, among others, pumps millions and millions of dollars into charter schools, is a strong supporter of standardized testing, and basically is part of an educational reform movement of which they are a central player, in which questions of accountability are basically reduced to questions of metrics. They deskill teachers. They really don’t believe that public schools work and they do everything they can to undermine them.
Diane Ravitch has been writing about this for ten years. She is probably one of the most important critics in the United States, talking about the role these foundations are playing, undermining public education particularly in the attempt to promote charter schools and attack unions, and basically to provide teachers with the lack of educational background and experience that matter in schools.
The classic example of this is New Orleans. They love the New Orleans school system because it is entirely privatized after Katrina.
The Politic: One of the reasons the charter school movement came about is because of the failures of the public school system. If not through charter schools, how do you then think these schools should be reformed?
Professor Giroux: One of the first things we can do is to fund them. The funding methods around public and higher education are abominable. Look at the way the right wing governors all over the US have essentially attempted to do a number of things: a) to defund education, b) to eliminate tenure (look at Wisconsin) and c) to do everything they can to break the power of unions.
I think there are four things that need to be done:
Firstly, we need to reclaim public and higher education as a public good, as a democratic public sphere that is absolutely vital for educating students to be engaged and critical citizens. That should be as important as national defense.
Secondly, schools have to be funded. Schools cannot survive when teachers do not have resources and when young people don’t have decent meals.
Thirdly, we need to address the issue of inequality of wealth and power. It is just so extreme when 400 families in the United States own half of the wealth in the United States. It seems to me that they are now setting policies that are utterly detrimental to the promotion of a civically critical, democratically inspired public school system.
Fourthly, we need to make the education of teachers more rigorous. I would abolish schools of education and I would put them in the liberal arts. I think that we really need to take seriously the notion of teachers as intellectuals, because that is exactly what they are. We need to do what they do in other countries. We need to give them high salaries comparable to the most important professionals in the country. We need to give them a decent education. We need to make it free. And, we need to make sure that they find themselves in conditions where it is not impossible to teach, where the poverty and inequality and the human suffering is not so overwhelming that the schools simply become a refuge, a day care center, a containment center, or even worse, a school to prison pipeline.
The Politic: I’m looking at statistics right now from ed.gov, and the US does spend an incredible amount of money on education and has increased funding substantially in the past 20 years. However, changes in the educational system in general have not matched the increase the spending. Do you think we just need to be spending more, or are there other issues besides funding that are important?
Professor Giroux: I think that we need to rethink the very nature of education itself and ask ourselves what is the purpose of education, what it’s for and what works. I mean if you really want to know what works in education, go to your best prep schools: small classes, more than adequate resources, lots of extra curricular activities, and teachers who are well educated. This should be the model for every school.
It seems to me that we have the models for what works. What doesn’t work is basically creating a three tier system in which you have schools for the ultra elite, you have schools for the middle class, which is shrinking, and then you have a vast majority of schools that are underfunded and basically serve as disciplinary centers. Education can’t work with that kind of inequality.
Next, you have a tax system for supporting schools, particularly public education, that is almost entirely class-based. I mean, it’s based on property taxes. You know what the schools are like in Gross Point Michigan as opposed to what the schools are like in East Harlem. There is a reason for that. The reason is based around money. Any educated person who tells you that money doesn’t matter is basically an idiot.
Look at the people in the Senate and Congress, ask them where they send their kids to schools. Do they send their kids to public schools? Absolutely not. They send their kids to private schools because they are well funded.
It’s not just about money. It’s about how you want to imagine schools should look like and what has to be implemented to make them work. I think it is a complex question, and it doesn’t just involve the schools. It involves questions of ideology. It involves questions of policy. And, it involves questions of practice.
The Politic: I think you answered this when you were talking about what happened in the 1970s. However, in your Chapman University address, you argue that things have gotten worse in our education system – when specifically were they better and why has that changed?
Professor Giroux: I’ll give you an example of when they were better. In that period from the 1950s up until 1977, public education was considered a public good. People supported education. There was a sense that it mattered. You had the 60s where all of a sudden there was an enormous attempt on the part of students to democratize education, to make it more inclusive. A really wonderful time, at least I thought, in which education was all of a sudden really a center of critical thought. Whether you agreed with particular positions or not, it was a center in which people were really talking about important issues. What kind of knowledge mattered. How could education be linked to questions of democracy.
All of a sudden, in the 80s, this gets shut down. All of a sudden you see on the West Coast the emergence of Ronald Regan, who, with respect to higher education, wants to root out allegedly the communists. On the East Coast, you have John Silber of Boston University, who makes a speech to his board of trustees, in which there was a reporter present, in which he said that one of the great things about Boston University is that that have at last eradicated the radical educators, the people who do critical theory, the Frankfort school. He basically mentioned every important movement. And so, you have this enormous backlash.
I think one of the things we failed to recognize is that in 1971 you have the emergence of the Powell memo, which said that we have to take back education from the left. The Chamber of Commerce was so frightened of this that they actually drew up a plan. And, if you look it up, you will see what the plan is. The plan is that we basically need to create our own public intellectuals. We need to push the free market as propaganda in schools. They had the money and they echoed what the Trilateral Commission had said in 1961, that democracy is in excess and it is dangerous. We have borne the burden of that view of education and that conservative backlash now since the 1980s. It has been dreadful for American education.
The Politic: What do you think about the Common Core?
Professor Giroux: I think it is awful. It’s basically an attempt of the right to make an appeal to standards, to make an appeal to quality, but at the same time, they do it once again through the process of standardization. The teachers who I talk to who are teaching the Common Core say they hate it. It’s just another way to dictate what students should know in ways that deprive teachers of the working conditions they need to be able to take education seriously.
One of the questions I always ask when these reforms emerge is who benefits financially? Ask yourself that and follow the money, and you see what the Common Core is about: every major hedge fund manager, every major corporation. This is all backed by big money and you got to ask yourself what that means.
The Politic: The Common Core was a response to No Child Left Behind. They were trying to add a more critical, active way for students to be tested and taught that was not just about learning facts. Could you see a possibility where you have a push to have a change that comes from a powerful organization that does have money, which is what we already discussed the education system needs, that is not bad? Just because powerful people have the power to make these reforms does not automatically mean they are bad, right?
Professor Giroux: I don’t mean to suggest that people who have power are, by default, corrupt. What I’m suggesting is that you have to understand what they believe education is for and what that means. And if they want to put money into reforms that basically expand the possibility of public and higher education as democratic higher spheres, support teachers, allow for diversity, and take seriously the notion that education is always a struggle over agency, I’m for it. I’m not a political purist as some people on the left are in the relationship of higher education to corporations or whether or not the corporations should be able to sit at the table and offer advice about how they feel the direction of the country should go in light of what education means.
What I am against is the notion that the culture of education is the culture of business. What I am against is removing the autonomy of teachers from the process. Any movement that doesn’t involve teachers, in terms of how to define what education means, is a movement that is dead in the water.
The Politic: What’s on your mind right now? What are you the most excited by or concerned about?
Professor Giroux: Like anybody my age, what I’m most concerned about is the collapse of the public into the private. I think that in a society so highly corporatized and commoditized, we are losing our ability to understand what it means to be able to, in some ways, engage, affirm, and struggle over the commons, the public good, the planet, our relationship to others, and addressing increasingly social problems.
If you look at my work on Truthout, I think that the United States is moving towards what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times.” You have an anti-intellectualism. You have Republican candidates who basically strike me as ignorant and stupid, people who believe in creationism, who claim that human beings were on the planet with dinosaurs six thousand years ago, and who don’t believe in climate change. This stuff couldn’t be made up by Mark Twain. I think the level of anti-intellectualism in the culture, the way money has corrupted politics, the way in which democracy is broken, and the way in which young people are being written out of democracy, are all very concerning.
A third of you will end up living with your parents. The future looks bleak in terms of what it might be to live a life better than your parents. The debt issue is like an exploding time bomb that young people have to face.
I guess there are a few things that really concern me:
Firstly, the fate of young people in a world, which no longer takes them seriously and who have been written out of the discourse of democracy.
Secondly, politically, I think the power is now so concentrated in the hands of so relatively few people that we no longer live in a democracy. Princeton did a study recently claiming that because most of the policies that have been set in the last 50 years are basically set by the one percent, we live in an oligarchy.
Thirdly, the potential for an ecological and nuclear disasters. These are serious issues. You barely ever see the press addressing them, so we now live in a political and intellectual vacuum in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to mount sophisticated critical arguments that matter.
The fourth answer is that the public spheres that my generation once had access to are simply being corporatized and shriveled up. My sense is that the only hope we have is that more and more young people will become cultural producers and not just simply cultural critics and create these alternative public spheres that will basically create a new language, a new sense of hope, a new way of understanding the world. Then, we can think politically in ways that would raise the questions: What does politics look like in a democracy? What does education look like in a democracy? What is its role? What role do the young people play in a democracy?
The Politic: Any advice for Yale students?
Professor Giroux: Yale students, given the privileges they have, have an enormous responsibility to do a number of things.
Firstly, to become enormously self reflective about the role they can play in the world, given the positions of leadership that many of them will occupy. To use the wonderful resources they have to make a difference in peoples lives, I think, matters a lot.
Secondly, I think they need to organize to not only change the mission of the university, at least to make it more just, but they need to organize in ways in which they can cut across state and natural boundaries and link up with other young people so that basically they can start a movement for the defense of public goods. Then, they can begin to talk seriously as a generation that can talk to other people at other institutions, talk to labor unions, and begin to grasp that there is not much time left.