Henry A. Giroux: The Age of Neoliberal Terrorism
Angelo Letizia, Figure/Ground Communication
By Angelo Letizia, Figure/Ground CommunicationThis piece first appeared at Figure/Ground Communication.
Henry Armand Giroux was born September 18, 1943, in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Armand and Alice Giroux. Giroux taught high school history in Barrington, Rhode Island from 1968 to 1975. Giroux received his Doctorate from Carnegie-Mellon in 1977. He then became professor of education at Boston University from 1977 to 1983. In 1983 he became professor of education and renowned scholar in residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he also served as Director at the Center for Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to Penn State University where he took up the Waterbury Chair Professorship at Penn State University from 1992 to May 2004. He also served as the Director of the Waterbury Forum in Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to McMaster University in May 2004, where he currently holds the Global Television Network Chair in Communication Studies. He currently lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada with his wife, Dr. Susan Searls-Giroux.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I was a high school teacher for six years and as a result of that experience I wanted to be able to teach future teachers rather than limit my teaching to high school students. Hence, I decided very consciously to go back to college and get my doctorate and work in the field of education.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I had a number of very important mentors early on in my graduate and post-graduate experience. I was a research assistant for Professor Robert Sandels at Appalachian University in North Carolina and learned from him a new vocabulary for engaging matters of politics and power. My most important mentor in college was Professor Tony Penna, who was a brilliant intellectual and my dissertation advisor at Carnegie Mellon University. Tony was very helpful in my understanding of the history of critical education. I also learned a great deal from Stanley Aronowitz about critical theory and educational theory. Two other mentors that soon followed were Paulo Freire and Howard Zinn, both of whom taught me something about the relationship between education and social change.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?
In my early years as a professor, the university was more indebted to a liberal vision of education and provided a broader range of theoretical and pedagogical opportunities to teach, interact with students, and define one’s work as a public intellectual. There was more autonomy for academics and there were more full-time tenure track jobs. Today, the university is governed by a business culture: students are viewed as customers, knowledge has become valued as a commodity, and faculty have largely been reduced to the ranks of part-time and non-tenured track positions. They have less autonomy, power, and are deeply constrained by the imposition of a corporate culture which now has become the dominant mode of university governance.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
First, I think a good teacher has to know something about what they are teaching. They have to be intellectuals, knowledgeable not just in their disciplinary specialties but also about a wide range of issues that connect to their subject matter, research agendas, and their students’ lives. A good teacher works in multiple literacies ranging from print to the visual and knows how to make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical in order to make it transformative. A good teacher also has to recognize that pedagogy is a project not a mechanistic set of rules and skills regardless of context. That is, a good teacher understands teaching as a moral and political practice that connects knowledge to power, ideas to the larger society, and understanding to the obligations of civic and social responsibility.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?
I would suggest that aspiring university professors learn how to take risks, inspire students to become informed, critical, and engaged global citizens. Organize to fight neoliberal disciplinary apparatuses and modes of governing and use theory and disciplinary knowledge as a resource to address important social issues. Read all of Stanley Aronowitz on public and higher education; also read Zygmunt Bauman to understand the mutations taking place under modernity as a result of the force of privatization, deregulation, commodification, and militarization. Read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom for the best primer on critical education and David Theo Goldberg for the best scholarship on racism.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in the information age?
The greatest challenges facing universities is not the consequence of the new technologies, though they are certainly altering how the academy views the production, consumption, and distribution of knowledge. The real threat comes from underfunding, raising tuition rates, the commercialization of all aspects of university life, and the growing instrumentality that corrupts all forms of critical thinking.In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?
This is a classic conservative position that views tenure as a threat to ideological orthodoxy. It undermines the safeguards to academic freedom, and refuses to create spaces for critical pedagogy and other modes of critical education. While the tenure system is not perfect, it is essential to protect dissident faculty from being fired as well as necessary in order to enable teachers to take risks, address crucial social issues, and create for students a culture of questioning. The attack on tenure has to be understood as part of a broader attack on all critical public spheres, public intellectuals, and the very conditions that make criticism, thoughtful dialogue, and informed judgment possible for students.
Your works speak about an attack on public institutions. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this attack? Why are public institutions being attacked?
Public institutions are being attacked because they are public, offer spaces for producing critical thought, emphasize human needs over economic needs, and because they are one of the few vital institutions left that can function as democratic public spheres.
You have described the phenomena of neo-liberalism as a “terror.” Could you briefly explain what neo-liberalism is and why you called it a terror?
Neoliberalism is a philosophy which construes profit making as the essence of democracy and consuming as the only operable form of citizenship. It also provides a rationale for a handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social, economic, and political life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is marked by a shift from the manufacturing to the service sector, the rise of temporary and part-time work, growth of the financial sphere and speculative activity, the spread of mass consumerism, the commodification of practically everything.
Neoliberalism combines free market ideology with the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of the social state and social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity. Core narratives of neoliberalism are: privatization, deregulation, commodification, and the selling off of state functions. Neoliberalism advocates lifting the government oversight of free enterprise/trade thereby not providing checks and balances to prevent or mitigate social damage that might occur as a result of the policy of “no governmental interference”; eliminating public funding of social services; deregulating governmental involvement in anything that could cut into the profits of private enterprise; privatizing such enterprises as schools, hospitals, community-based organizations, and other entities traditionally held in the public trust; and eradicating the concept of “the public good” or “community” in favor of “individual responsibility.”
It is a form of terrorism because it abstracts economics from ethics and social costs, makes a mockery of democracy, works to dismantle the welfare state, thrives on militarization, undermines any public sphere not governed by market values, and transforms people into commodities. Neoliberalism’s rigid emphasis on unfettered individualism, competitiveness and flexibility displaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the welfare of others. In doing so, it dissolves crucial social bonds and undermines the profound nature of social responsibility and its ensuing concern for others. In removing individuals from broader social obligations, it not only tears up social solidarities, it also promotes a kind of individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for public goods, community, social provisions, and public values. Given its tendency to instrumentalize knowledge, it exhibits mistrust for thoughtfulness, complexity, and critical dialogue and in doing so contributes to a culture of stupidity and cruelty in which the dominant ethic is organized around the discourse of war and a survival of the fittest mentality. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of democracy.
Do you believe that neo-liberalism is compatible with some of the more traditional civic and social ethos expounded by more traditional liberal advocates of higher education? If so how, if not, why not?
No, neoliberalism represents a break with older forms of liberalism because it completely abrogates the social contract and leaves no room for meaningful social relationships. Its project has nothing to do with education and everything to do with training.
You have described some strategies to resist neo-liberalism. Your main strategies include new more radical types of pedagogy. Could you explain some of your methods?
My strategies are organized around the need to make pedagogy central to politics itself and to help create the conditions necessary for the development of a formative culture that provides the foundation for developing critical citizens and a meaningful and substantive democracy.
What research projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on the emergence of vast and expansive forms of disposability in neoliberal societies.