I think I am done with Henry Giroux, founder of modern Critical Pedagogy.
Had a chance to read another of his essays today, “Neoliberalism and the Politics of Public Pedagogy” and I think it turned me off to Giroux for good.
The reason? This essay really seemed to be the moment when Giroux was facing up to both what his actual vision of a good society is, and when he seems to confront the “liberal” challenge to his critical pedagogy. On both fronts, I was highly disappointed.
For starters, Giroux, despite pages and pages of ultra-dense, jargon-heavy prose, simply does not offer any sort of comprehensive vision of what his “substantive” or “radical” democracy looks like. I really had no clearer idea after this essay, which is ostensibly devoted to this topic, than I did before. Again, he continues to criticize existing political arrangements (“neoliberalism”) and even existing methods of pedagogy — particularly “liberal educators” who simply “raise questions” or teach students “argumentation” and who believe their work “neutral.” Instead, Giroux believes that teaching should be “directive and interventionist on the side of reproducing a democratic society” (170).
It is interesting that Giroux, at a fundamental level, seems to agree with the idea that education is reproductive. I think, in a way, I agree with this statement, but there are two problems that I see:
1. How do you define “democracy”?
2. To what extent should education be in service of a specific political goal in this way?
3. To what extent should the political purposes of education be more important than other goals of education?
Let’s start with the fact that Giroux can’t even seem to imagine, from what I have read of him, even asking questions 2 and 3, much less answering them. He simply presupposes that all education should be “critical” . . . and can’t really seem to conceive of questioning that. I was really struck by the difference between a writer like Phillip Jackson, with his slow, careful, methodical steps toward arriving at even some basic level of truth — patient reading, “with doors left open” as Nietzsche would say — and Giroux’s fire hose activist / protest writing that hardly slows down at all.
As for question, #1 above, Giroux simply refuses to flesh his answer out. Again, this would be one thing if he was arguing against fascism or oligarchy or some other form of government, but he clearly means to draw careful lines between what we have now and what he has in his head. He is clearly critiquing the existing democracy hard, and seems to have some normative conception of — as he puts it — “inclusive and radical democracy” . . . But he simply cannot articulate it. It is as though he simply does not wish to engage with political philosophy, with the hard questions of what it means to govern a vast, multi-ethnic, multi-everything democracy in the United States, and to compare his own ideas with those of existing philosophers or practitioners. When he does allow himself to flesh out his ideas a little, they — surprise, surprise — sounds suspiciously like what he might derisively call “common sense” or every day conceptions of liberal democracy. He talks about how educators need to using “modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough.” Or that, “democracy [is] a promise, a possibility rooting in an ongoing struggle.”
What is hard for me is that I am very curious about alternative forms of democracy — whatever he means — and how those work in reality. But it’s as though Giroux has some normative idea in his head, and he’s going to take swings at the existing system from a partisan position. It’s very clear, reading him, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, but it’s as though he is never clear what he is aspiring toward.
Every time Giroux was mentioning a “radical project” that all educators should be undertaking, I found myself thinking about how, actually, so much of our liberal democracy really *is* a radical project. For instance, the idea of free speech — of allowing your enemies to speak, of even protecting that, even when they say something that you consider beyond the pale. Same for us living in such a multi-everything democracy and exercising self-governance in a country so large and diverse. It really is quite a radical project. Does Giroux appreciate this or understand this?
All this hedging on Giroux’s part about what his vision is seems especially ironic in light of the way he criticizes traditional teachers who simply “teach the conflicts” or “repeatedly open up a culture of questioning.” He is not satisfied with this because, “these positions fail to make clear the larger political, normative, and ideological considerations that inform such views of education, teaching, and visions of the future.” How ironic, given his own oblique position. Again, it’s hard not to feel as though every time he takes someone to task it is because they are not being “critical” educators, placing the analysis of power among societal groups first and foremost in their concerns.
Again he criticizes traditional educators for failing to be critical theorists when they “emphasize argumentation and dialogue” because “there is a disquieting refusal in such discourses to raise broader questions about the social, economic, and political forces shaping the very terrain of higher education.” He also adds a Marxian dig at these teachers, saying the do not consider “what it might mean to engage pedagogy as a basis not merely for understanding but also for participating in the larger world” — which Giroux specifically pegs as, “how to encourage students pedagogically to enter the sphere of the political, enabling them to think about how they might participate in a democracy . . .”
This is a tough question — to what extent should teachers encourage students to engage directly with political life beyond the classroom, in what ways, and for what causes. For example, to what extent is it meaningful for students in college to engage in political issues? Is it more important to live a just, compassionate, private life? Is it better to be someone bent on changing “the system” via activism than it is to be empathetic and charitable on a local, civic, or even interpersonal level? What about the ways that students should be engaging in political life? Surely many students in high school or college are uninterested in some of the hard, incremental, low-profile work — slow persuasion, consensus-building — that often creates real change . . . and are more interested in the flashy, good-versus-evil confrontations that often provide more heat than light. How is it best for teachers to instruct them in meaningful participation?
These are hard questions, but Giroux mostly steamrolls through them, setting up a classic straw man (educators who teach students to argue and debate without teaching them why this is important), giving space to a counterargument for all of about a single paragraph before bowling over it with pages of prose, and, as always, making the presupposition that all pedagogy should “giv[e] students the tools they need to fight oppressive forms of power.” It’s amazing how Giroux, to my eye, can’t even fight off this brief counterargument (by someone named Gerald Graff) that critical pedagogy is “indoctrinating” students. He can’t seem to beat this back, for me, because he doesn’t really pay it much attention in the first place. He writes, “While no pedagogical intervention should fall to the level of propaganda, a pedagogy that attempts to empower critical citizens can’t and shouldn’t avoid politics.” Again, he is assuming that the goal should be getting students to be “critical,” and he makes the straw man argument that liberal teachers who teach argumentation are merely “avoiding politics,” “teaching methodology,” or have no “language” for teaching students how to enter the political arena. Again, teaching students *how* to change the world is tricky stuff, and what Giroux can’t seem to imagine is that many teachers think that there is a very fine line between encouraging political involvement and using the power of an educator’s position to indoctrinate or manipulate students, or, at the very least, to make students reluctant to speak frankly about their political beliefs for fear of running afoul of the teacher’s chosen affiliation.
And again, this is to say nothing of the deeper questions of to what extent must education be aimed at not just understanding, but taking political action. One gets the sense that one will not even hear such a perennial question entertained in Giroux. Toward the end of the piece he is still going strong, indefatigable, writing about the imperative to use education specifically for social reform: “We need to link knowing with action, learning with social engagement . . . to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy.” In fact, he writes, “education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding, however critical, but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it.”
Again, this is that “normative” dimension that critical theory seems to way everything against. The idea that education should be focused on making the world a better place is one thing; there are many ways to do that, as I alluded to. You could say, for instance, that the world is better served by some students becoming good accountants, or good plumbers — both because society needs those, and because society is better served when people do what they enjoy or are good at. But the idea that education should be focused on political change, on unmasking oppression, or alleviating “human misery” is quite a different idea. As I noted when I wrote about Paolo Freire, it’s a very righteous way to view the world, to start from such a moral understanding of society — that there are “oppressors” and “oppressed.” This is especially questionable when you are teaching young people, whose every impulse already is to group the world into black-and-white categories, without stopping to slow down to ask what is really going on.
But Giroux is not the writer to encourage you to slow down and take a careful look at reality. He is endlessly prolific; he has written no fewer than 67 books and I can see why. His writing seems to come from a place of passion and strong conviction, but it is not the passion of inquiry; it’s the passion of activism, of protest. No doubt he is a great speaker, too, but he is really a polemicist. It really struck me, as I said, that the one brief, obscurely quoted counterargument he allows to slip into his prose is never really answers because he never really slows down to confront it and so seems to stand even more insistently, waiting back among those thickets of unyielding prose. It’s that same unyielding, totally-certain-of-itself, humorless protest writing that George Packer critiqued in late Coates, as I mentioned in a previous post. It cannot fathom that it would be wrong.
It’s endlessly proficient, but ultimately it’s not clear about its own vision, insists that its own methods are the only option, it’s causes the only options. It’s certainly a lot of things, but in the end, even though it may be Critical, it’s sure not critical.