Dangerous pedagogy

by Henry A. Giroux

All over the world, the forces of neoliberalism are on the march dismantling the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, defining profit making and market freedoms as the essence of democracy, while diminishing civil liberties as part of the alleged “war” against terrorism. Secure in its dystopian vision that there are no alternatives to a market society, free market fundamentalism eliminates issues of contingency, struggle, and social agency by celebrating the inevitability of economic laws in which the ethical ideal of intervening in the world gives way to the idea that we “have no choice but to adapt both our hopes and our abilities to the new global market.”[1] Coupled with an ever-expanding culture of fear, market freedoms seem securely grounded in a defense of national security and the institutions of finance capital. Under such circumstances, a neoliberal model now bears down on American society threatening to turn it into an authoritarian state. The script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for shaping all aspects of society; the free possessive individual has no obligations to anything but their self-interest; profit making is the essence of democracy; the government, and particularly the welfare state, is the arch enemy of freedom; private interests trump public values; consumerism is the essence of citizenship; privatization is the essence of freedom; law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities;  war is the new organizing principle for society and the economy; theocracy now becomes the legitimating code for punishing women, young people, the elderly, and those groups marginalized by class, race, and ethnicity when religious moralism is needed to shore up the war against all social order.[2]

Given this current crisis, educators need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control. If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional reach of politics from transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. This suggests developing forms of critical pedagogy capable of challenging neoliberalism and other anti-democratic traditions such as the emerging religious fundamentalism in the United States while resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond the “dream world” of capitalism.  Under such circumstances, education becomes more than testing, an obsession with accountability schemes, zero tolerance policies, and a site for simply training students for the workforce.  At stake here is recognizing the power of education in creating the formative culture necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the very idea of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres and formative cultures that offer alternative modes of identity, social relations, and politics.

The search for a new politics and a new critical language that crosses a range of theoretical divides must reinvigorate the relationship between democracy, ethics, and political agency by expanding both the meaning of the pedagogical as a political practice while at the same time making the political more pedagogical. In the first instance, it is crucial to recognize that pedagogy has less to do with the language of technique and methodology than it does with issues of politics and power. Pedagogy is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations and must be understood as a cultural politics that offers both a particular version and vision of civic life, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment.  As Roger Simon observes:

As an introduction to, preparation for, and legitimation of particular forms of social life, education always presupposes a vision of the future. In this respect a curriculum and its supporting pedagogy are a version of our own dreams for ourselves, our children, and our communities. But such dreams are never neutral; they are always someone’s dreams and to the degree that they are implicated in organizing the future for others they always have a moral and political dimension. It is in this respect that any discussion of pedagogy must begin with a discussion of educational practice as a form of cultural politics, as a particular way in which a sense of identity, place, worth, and above all value is informed by practices which organize knowledge and meaning.[3]

An oppositional cultural politics can take many forms, but given the current assault by neoliberalism on all aspects of democratic public life, it seems imperative that educators revitalise the struggles to create conditions in which learning would be linked to social change in a wide variety of social sites, and pedagogy would take on the task of regenerating both a renewed sense of social and political agency and a critical subversion of dominant power itself. Making the political more pedagogical  rests on the assumption that education takes place at a variety of  sites outside of the school.Under such circumstances, agency becomes the site through which power is not transcended but reworked, replayed, and restaged in productive ways.  Central to my argument is the assumption that politics is not only about power, but also, as Cornelius Castoriadis points out, “has to do with political judgements and value choices,”[4] indicating that questions of civic education and critical pedagogy (learning how to become a skilled citizen) are central to the struggle over political agency and democracy.  In this instance, critical pedagogy emphasizes critical reflexivity, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and knowledge, and extending democratic rights and identities by using the resources of history.  However, among many educators and social theorists, there is a widespread refusal to recognize that this form of education is not only the foundation for expanding and enabling political agency, but also that it takes place across a wide variety of public spheres mediated through the very force of culture itself.

One of the central tasks of any viable critical pedagogy would be to make visible alternative models of radical democratic relations in a wide variety of sites.  These spaces can make the pedagogical more political by raising fundamental questions such as: what is the relationship between social justice and the distribution of public resources and goods?  What are the conditions, knowledge and skills that are a prerequisite for civic literacy, political agency, and social change?  What kinds of identities, desires, and social relations are being produced and legitimated in diverse sites of teaching and learning? How might the latter prepare or undermine the ability of students to be self-reflective, exercise judgment, engage in critical dialogues, and assume some responsibility for addressing the challenges to democracy at a national and global level.  At the very least, such a project involves understanding and critically engaging dominant public transcripts and values within a broader set of historical and institutional contexts.  Making the political more pedagogical in this instance suggests producing modes of knowledge and social practices in a variety of sites that not only affirm oppositional thinking, dissent, and cultural work but also offer opportunities to mobilize instances of collective outrage and collective action.  Such mobilisation opposes glaring material inequities and the growing cynical belief that today’s culture of investment and finance makes it impossible to address many of the  major social problems facing both the USA and the larger world.  Most importantly, such work points to the link between civic education, critical pedagogy, and modes of oppositional political agency that are pivotal to creating a politics that promotes democratic values, relations, autonomy and social change. Hints of such a politics is already evident in the various approaches the Occupy Movement has taken in reclaiming the discourse of democracy and in collectively challenging the values and  practices of finance capital. Borrowing a line from Rachel Donadio, the Occupy Movement protestors are raising questions about “what happens to democracy when banks become more powerful than political institutions?”[5]  What kind of education does it take both in and out of schools to recognize the dissolution of democracy and the emergence of an authoritarian state?

In taking up these questions and the challenges they pose, critical pedagogy proposes that education is a form of political intervention in the world and is capable of creating the possibilities for social transformation.  Rather than viewing teaching as technical practice, pedagogy in the broadest critical sense is premised on the assumption that learning is not about processing received knowledge but actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice. This implies that any viable notion of pedagogy and resistance should illustrate how knowledge, values, desire, and social relations are always implicated in relations of power, and how such an understanding can be used pedagogically and politically by students to further expand and deepen the imperatives of economic and political democracy. The fundamental challenge facing educators within the current age of neoliberalism, militarism, and religious fundamentalism is to provide the conditions for students to address how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency. In part, this means providing students with the skills, knowledge, and authority  they need to inquire and act upon what it means to live in a substantive democracy, to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and to fight deeply rooted injustices in a society and world founded on systemic economic, racial, and gendered inequalities.

The Responsibility of Teachers as Public Intellectuals

In the age of irresponsible privatization, it is difficult to recognize that educators and other cultural workers bear an enormous responsibility in opposing the current threat to the planet and everyday life by bringing democratic political culture back to life. While liberal democracy offers an important discourse around issues of “rights, freedoms, participation, self-rule, and citizenship,” it has been mediated historically through the “damaged and burdened tradition” of racial and gender exclusions, economic injustice, and a formalistic, ritualized democracy, which substituted the swindle for the promise of democratic participation.[6]  At the same time, liberal and republican traditions of Western democratic thought have given rise to forms of social and political criticism that at least contained a “referent” for addressing the deep gap between the promise of a radical democracy and the existing reality. With the rise of neoliberalism, referents for imagining even a weak democracy, or for that matter understanding the tensions between capitalism and democracy, which animated political discourse for the first half of the twentieth century, appear to be overwhelmed by market discourses, identities, and practices, on the one hand, or a corrosive cynicism on the other. And, of course, at the present moment a kind of political lunacy that testifies to the rise of extremism in America. Democracy has now been reduced to a metaphor for the alleged “free” market and in some case to the image of a theocratic state. It is not that a genuine democratic public space once existed in some ideal form and has now been corrupted by the values of the market, but that these democratic public spheres, even in limited forms, seem to no longer be animating concepts for making visible the contradiction and tension between the reality of existing democracy and the promise of a more fully realized, substantive democracy. Part of the challenge of linking critical pedagogy with the process of democratization suggests constructing new locations of struggle, vocabularies, and subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations and, to give some thought to what it might mean to transform existing relations of subordination and oppression.

Critical Pedagogy as a Project of Intervention

If educators are to revitalize the language of civic education as part of a broader discourse of political agency and critical citizenship in a global world, they will have to consider grounding such a pedagogy in a defense of what I have called in the past educated hope.[7]  Such hope is built upon recognizing pedagogy as part of a broader attempt to revitalize the conditions for individual and social agency while simultaneously addressing critical pedagogy as a project informed by a democratic political vision while conscious of the diverse ways such a vision gets mediated in different contexts. Such a project also suggests recasting the relationship between the pedagogical and political as a project that is indeterminate, open to constant revision, and constantly in dialogue with its own assumptions. The concept of the project in this sense speaks to the directive nature of pedagogy, the recognition that any pedagogical practice presupposes some notion of the future, prioritises some forms of identification over others, and upholds selective modes of social relations. At the same time, the normative nature of such a pedagogy does not offer guarantees as much as it recognizes that its own position is grounded in modes of authority, values, and ethical considerations that must be constantly debated for the ways in which they both open up and close down democratic relations, values, and identities. Central to both keeping any notion of critical pedagogy alive is the recognition that it must address real social needs, be imbued with a passion for democracy, and provide the conditions for expanding democratic forms of political and social agency.

Critical Pedagogy as a Matter of Context, Ethics, and Politics

In opposition to the increasingly dominant views of education and cultural politics,  I want to argue for a transformative pedagogy–rooted in the project of resurgent democracy–one that relentlessly questions the kinds of labor, practices, and forms of production that are enacted in public and higher education. Such an analysis should be relational and contextual, as well as self-reflective and theoretically rigorous. By relational, I mean that the current crisis of schooling must be understood in relation to the broader assault that is being waged against all aspects of democratic public life. As Jeffrey Williams has recently pointed out, “the current restructuring of higher education is only one facet of the restructuring of civic life in the US whereby previously assured public entitlements such as healthcare, welfare, and social security have evaporated or been `privatized,’ so no solution can be separated from a larger vision of what it means to enfranchise citizens or our republic.”[8] But as important as such articulations are in understanding the challenges that public and higher education face in the current historical conjuncture, they do not go far enough. Any critical comprehension of those wider forces that shape public and higher education must also be supplemented by an attentiveness to the conditional nature of pedagogy itself. This suggests that pedagogy can never be treated as a fixed set of principles and practices that can be applied indiscriminately across a variety of pedagogical sites. Pedagogy is not some recipe that can be imposed on all classrooms. On the contrary, it must always be contextually defined, allowing it to respond specifically to the conditions, formations, and problems that arise in various sites in which education takes place. Schools differ in their financing, quality of teachers, resources, histories, and cultural capital.  Recognizing this, educators can both address the meaning and purpose that schools might play in their relationship to the demands of the broader society while simultaneously being sensitive to the distinctive nature of the issues educators address within the shifting contexts in which they interact with a diverse body of students, texts, and institutional formations.

Ethically, critical pedagogy requires an ongoing indictment “of those forms of truth-seeking which imagined themselves to be eternally and placelessly valid.” [9] Simply put, educators need to cast a critical eye on those forms of knowledge and social relations that define themselves through a conceptual purity and political innocence that clouds not only how they come into being but also ignores that the alleged neutrality on which they stand is already grounded in ethico-political choices. Neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. It does not exist outside of relations of power, values, and politics. Thomas Keenan rightly argues that ethics on the pedagogical front demands an openness to the other, a willingness to engage a “politics of possibility” through a continual critical engagement with texts, images, events, and other registers of meaning as they are transformed into public pedagogies.[10]  One consequence of linking pedagogy to the specificity of place is that it foregrounds the need for educators to rethink the cultural and political baggage they bring to each educational encounter; it also highlights the necessity of making educators ethically and politically accountable for the stories they produce, the claims they make upon public memory, and the images of the future they deem legitimate. Pedagogy is never innocent and if it is to be understood and problematized as a form of academic labor, educators must not only critically question and register their own subjective involvement in how and what they teach, they must also resist all calls to depoliticize pedagogy through appeals to either scientific objectivity or ideological dogmatism.  Far from being disinterested or ideologically frozen, critical pedagogy is concerned about the articulation of knowledge to social effects and succeeds to the degree in which educators encourage critical reflection and moral and civic agency rather than simply mold it. Crucial to the latter position is the necessity for critical educators to be attentive to the ethical dimensions of their own practice.

Critical Pedagogy and the Promise of Democratization

But as an act of intervention, critical pedagogy needs to be grounded in a project that not only problematizes its own location, mechanisms of transmission, and effects, but also functions as part of a larger project to contest various forms of domination and to help students think more critically about how existing social, political, and economic arrangements might be better suited to address the promise of a radical democracy as an anticipatory rather than messianic goal. The late Jacques Derrida suggested that the social function of intellectuals as well as any viable notion of education should be grounded in a vibrant politics which makes the promise of democracy a matter of concrete urgency. For Derrida, making visible a “democracy” which is to come as opposed to that which presents itself in its name provides a referent for both criticizing everywhere what parades as democracy–“the current state of all so-called democracy”–and for critically assessing the conditions and possibilities for democratic transformation.[11]  Derrida sees the promise of democracy as the proper articulation of a political ethics and by implication suggests that when higher education is engaged and articulated through the project of democratic social transformation it can function as a vital public sphere for critical learning, ethical deliberation, and civic engagement. Moreover, the utopian dimension of pedagogy articulated through the project of radical democracy offers the possibility of resistance to the increasing depoliticization of the citizenry, provides a language to challenge the politics of accommodation that connects education to the logic of privatization, commodification, religious dogma, and instrumental knowledge. Such a pedagogy refuses to define the citizen as simply a consuming subject, and actively opposes the view of teaching as market-driven practice and learning as a form of training. Utopianism in this sense is not an antidote to politics, a nostalgic yearning for a better time, or for some “inconceivably alternative future.” But, by contrast, it is an “attempt to find a bridge between the present and future in those forces within the present which are potentially able to transform it.”[12]

In opposition to dominant forms of education and pedagogy that simply reinvent the future in the interest of a present in which ethical principles are scorned and the essence of democracy is reduced to the imperatives of the bottom line, critical pedagogy must address the challenge of providing students with the competencies they need to cultivate the capacity for critical judgment, thoughtfully connect politics to social responsibility, and expand their own sense of agency in order to curb the excesses of dominant power, revitalize a sense of public commitment, and expand democratic relations. Animated by a sense of critique and possibility, critical pedagogy at its best attempts to provoke students to deliberate, resist, and cultivate a range of capacities that enable them to move beyond the world they already know without insisting on a fixed set of meanings.

Against the current onslaught to privatize public schools and corporatize higher education, educators need to defend public and higher education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation. Central to such a task is the challenge of academics, young people, the Occupy Movement, and labor unions to find ways to join together in broad-based social movements and oppose the transformation of the public schools and higher education into commercial spheres, to resist what Bill Readings has called a consumer-oriented corporation more concerned about accounting than accountability.[13]  The crisis of public schooling and higher education–while having  different registers–needs to be analyzed in terms of wider configurations of economic, political, and social forces that exacerbate tensions between those who value such institutions as public goods and those advocates of neoliberalism who see market culture as a master design for all human affairs. The threat corporate power poses can be seen in the ongoing attempts by  neoliberals and other hyper capitalists to subject all forms of public life, including public and higher education, to the dictates of the market while simultaneously working to empty democracy itself of  any vestige of ethical, political, and social considerations. What educators must challenge is the attempt on the part of neoliberals to either define democracy exclusively as a liability or to enervate its substantive ideals by reducing it to the imperatives and freedoms of the marketplace. This requires that educators consider the political and pedagogical importance of struggling over the meaning and definition of democracy and situate such a debate within an expansive notion of human rights, social provisions, civil liberties, equity, and economic justice. What must be challenged at all costs is the increasingly dominant view propagated by neoliberal gurus such as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman is that selfishness is the supreme value in shaping human agency, profit making is the most important practice in a democracy and accumulating material goods the essence of the good life.

Defending public and higher education as vital democratic spheres is necessary to develop and nourish the proper balance between public values and commercial power, between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, self-interested individualism that celebrate selfishness, profit making, and greed.  Educators also must reconsider the critical roles educators might take up within public and higher education so as to enable them to oppose those approaches to schooling that corporatize, privatize, and bureaucratize the teaching process.  A critical pedagogy should, in part, be premised on the assumption that educators vigorously resist any attempt on the part of liberals and conservatives to reduce their role in schools to either that of technicians or corporate pawns. Instead, educators might redefine their roles as engaged public intellectuals capable of teaching students the language of critique and possibility as a precondition for social agency. Such a redefinition of purpose, meaning, and politics suggests that educators critically interrogate the fundamental link between knowledge and power, pedagogical practices and social consequences, and authority and civic responsibility. It also means eliminating those modes of corporate governance in the public schools and higher education that reduce teachers to the status of clerks, technicians, and with respect to higher education a subaltern class of part-time workers, with little power, few benefits, and excessive teaching loads.

By redefining the purpose and meaning of schooling as part of a broader attempt to struggle for a radical democratic social order, educators can begin to vigorously challenge a number of dominant assumptions and policies currently structuring public and higher education including but not limited to: ongoing attempts by corporate culture to define educators as multinational operatives; escalating efforts by colleges and universities to deny students the loans, resources, and  public support they need to have access to a quality education; the mounting influence of corporate interests in pressuring universities to reward forms of scholarship that generate corporate profits; increasing attempts to deny women and students of color access to higher education through the reversal of affirmative action policies, the raising of tuition costs,  and a growing emphasis on classroom pedagogies designed  to creating marketable products and active consumers. Rather than providing students with  an opportunity to learn how to shape and govern public life, education is increasingly being vocationalized,  reduced to a commodity that provides privileges for a few students  and  low skill industrial training for the rest, especially those who are marginalized by reason of their  class and race. Republican Party presidential candidate Rick Santorum has recently argued that public education is a form of government intrusion and higher education is simply irrelevant because it is doing the work of Satan by allowing leftist educators to indoctrinate students.[14]That such ideological and political idiocy passes as a legitimate discourse in a presidential race tells us something about the devalued state of public and higher education, not to mention how vulnerable it is to the most extreme authoritarian pressures and policies.

What has become clear in this current climate of religious fundamentalism and casino capitalism is that the corporatization of education functions so as to cancel out the democratic values, impulses, and practices of a civil society by either devaluing or absorbing them within the logic of the market. Educators need a critical language to address these challenges to public and higher education. But they also need to join with other groups outside of the spheres of public and higher education in order to create a national movement that links the defense of non-commodified education with a broader struggle to deepen the imperatives of democratic public life. The quality of educational reform can, in part, be gauged by the caliber of public discourse concerning the role that education plays in furthering, not the market driven agenda of corporate interests, but the imperatives of critical agency, social justice, and an operational democracy. In this capacity, educators need to develop a language of possibility for both raising critical questions about the aim of schooling and the purpose and  meaning of what and how educators teach. In doing so, pedagogy draws attention to engaging classroom practice as moral and political consideration animated by a fierce sense of commitment to expanding the range of individual capacities that enable students to become critical agents capable of linking knowledge, responsibility, and democratic social transformation.

Approaching pedagogy as a critical and political practice suggests that educators refuse all attempts to reduce classroom teaching exclusively to matters of technique and method. In opposition to such approaches, educators can highlight the performative character of education as an act of intervention in the world–focusing on the work that pedagogy does as a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge and experiences are produced within particular sets of classroom relations. Within this perspective, critical pedagogy foregrounds the diverse conditions under which authority, knowledge, values, and subject positions are produced and interact within unequal relations of power; it also problematizes the ideologically laden and often contradictory roles and social functions that educators assume within the classroom. Pedagogy in this view can also be reclaimed as a form of academic labor that bridges the gap between individual considerations and public concerns, affirms bonds of sociality and reciprocity, and interrogates the relationship between individual freedom and  privatized notions of the good life and the social obligations and collective structures necessary to support a vibrant democracy.      

Classroom Authority and Pedagogy as the Outcome of Struggles

The question of what educators teach is inseparable from what it means to locate oneself in public discourses and invest in public commitments. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that the responsibility of critical educators cannot be separated from the consequences of the subject positions they have been assigned, the knowledge they produce, the social relations they legitimate, and the ideologies they disseminate to students. Educational work at its best represents a response to questions and issues posed by the tensions and contradictions of the broader society; it is an attempt to understand and intervene in specific problems that emanate from those sites that people concretely inhabit and actually live out their lives and everyday existence. Teaching in this sense becomes performative and contextual, and it highlights considerations of power, politics, and ethics fundamental to any form of teacher-student-text interaction.

It is crucial to reiterate that any pedagogy that is alive to its own democratic implications is always cautious of its need to resist totalizing certainties and answers. Refusing the pull of dogmatism, ideological purity, and imperious authority, educators must at the same time grasp the complexity and contradictions that inform the conditions under which they produce and disseminate knowledge. Recognizing that pedagogy is the outgrowth of struggles that are historically specific, as are the problems that govern the questions and issues that guide what and how we teach should not suggest that educators renounce their authority. On the contrary, it is precisely by recognizing that teaching is always an act of intervention inextricably mediated through particular forms of authority that teachers can offer students–for whatever use they wish to make of them–a variety of analytic tools, diverse historical traditions, and a wide ranging knowledge of dominant and subaltern cultures and how they influence each other.  This is a far cry from suggesting that critical pedagogy define itself either within the grip of a self-righteous mode of authority or completely remove itself from any sense of commitment whatsoever. On the contrary, at stake here is the need to insist on modes of authority that are directive but not imperious, linking knowledge to power in the service of self-production, and encouraging students to go beyond the world they already know to expand their range of human possibilities.

Academics must deliberate, make decisions, take positions, and in doing so recognize that authority “is the very condition for intellectual work” and pedagogical interventions.[15]  Authority in this perspective is not simply on the side of oppression, but is used to intervene and shape the space of teaching and learning to provide students with  a range of possibilities for challenging a society’s commonsense assumptions, and for analyzing the interface between their own everyday lives and those broader social formations that bear down on them. Authority, at best, becomes both a referent for legitimating a commitment to a particular vision of pedagogy and a critical referent for a kind of auto-critique. It demands consideration of how authority functions within specific relations of power regarding its own promise to provide students with a public space where they can learn, debate, and engage critical traditions in order to imagine otherwise and develop discourses that are crucial for defending vital social institutions as a public good.

While pedagogy can be understood performatively as an event where many things can happen in the service of learning, it is crucial to stress the importance of democratic classroom relations that encourage dialogue, deliberation, and the power of students to raise questions. Moreover, such relations don’t signal a retreat from teacher authority as much as they suggest using authority reflexively to provide the conditions for students to exercise intellectual rigor, theoretical competence, and informed judgments.  Thus student can think critically about the knowledge they gain and what it means to act on such knowledge in order to expand their sense of agency as part of a broader project of increasing both “the scope of their freedoms” and “the operations of democracy.”[16]  What students learn and how they learn should amplify what it means to experience democracy from a position of possibility, affirmation, and critical engagement.  In part, this suggests that educators develop pedagogical practices that open up the terrain of the political while simultaneously encouraging students to “think better about how arrangements might be otherwise.”[17]

At its best, critical pedagogy must be interdisciplinary, contextual, engage the complex relationships between power and knowledge, critically address the institutional constraints under which teaching takes place, and focus on how students can engage the imperatives of critical social citizenship. Education is not simply about the transmission of knowledge, it is about the producing of subjects, identities, and desires—no small matter when recognizing what such a struggle suggests about preparing students for the future. Once again, critical pedagogy must be self-reflexive about its aims and practices, conscious of its ongoing project of democratic transformation, but openly committed to a politics that does not offer any guarantees. But refusing dogmatism does not suggest that educators descend into a laissez-faire pluralism or an appeal to methodologies designed to “teach the conflicts.” On the contrary, it suggests that in order to make the pedagogical more political, educators afford students with diverse opportunities to understand and experience how politics, power, commitment, and responsibility work on and through them both within and outside of schools. This, in turn, enables students to locate themselves within an interrelated confluence of ideological and material forces as critical agents who can both influence such forces and simultaneously be held responsible for their own views and actions. Within this perspective, relations between institutional forms and pedagogical practices are acknowledged as complex, open, and contradictory–though always situated within unequal relations of power.[18]

Making the Pedagogical More Meaningful

Any analysis of critical pedagogy must stress the importance of addressing the role that affect and emotion play in the formation of individual identity and social agency. Any viable approach to critical pedagogy suggests taking seriously those maps of meaning, affective investments, and sedimented desires that enable students to connect their own lives and everyday experiences to what they learn. Pedagogy in this sense becomes more than a mere transfer of received knowledge, an inscription of a unified and static identity, or a rigid methodology; it presupposes that students are moved by their passions and motivated, in part, by the affective investments they bring to the learning process. This suggests, as Paulo Freire points out, the need for a theory of pedagogy willing to develop a “critical comprehension of the value of sentiments, emotions, and desire as part of the learning process.”[19] Not only do students need to understand the ideological, economic, and political interests that shape the nature of their educational experiences, they must also address the strong emotional investments they may bring to such beliefs. For Shoshana Felman, this suggests that educators take seriously the role of desire in both ignorance and learning. “Teaching,” she explains, “has to deal not so much with lack of knowledge as with resistances to knowledge. Ignorance, suggests Jacques Lacan, is a `passion.’ Inasmuch as traditional pedagogy postulated a desire for knowledge, an analytically informed pedagogy has to reckon with the passion for ignorance.”[20]  Felman elaborates further on the productive nature of ignorance, arguing “Ignorance is nothing other than a desire to ignore: its nature is less cognitive than performative…it is not a simple lack of information but the incapacity–or the refusal–to acknowledge one’s own implication in the information.”[21] If students are to move beyond the issue of understanding to an engagement with the deeper affective investments that make them complicitous with oppressive ideologies, they must be positioned to address and formulate strategies of transformation through which their individualized beliefs and affective investments can be articulated with broader public discourses that extend the imperatives of democratic public life. An unsettling pedagogy in this instance would engage student identities and resistances from unexpected vantage points and articulate how they connect to existing material relations of power. At stake here is not only a pedagogical practice that recalls how knowledge, identifications, and subject positions are produced, unfolded and remembered but also how they become part of an ongoing process, more strategic so to speak, of mediating and challenging existing relations of power.


In the current historical conjuncture, the concept of the social and the common good is being refigured and displaced as a constitutive category for making democracy operational and political agency the condition for social transformation. The notion of the social and the public are not being erased as much as they are being reconstructed under circumstances in which public forums for serious debate, including public education,  are being eroded. Within the ongoing logic of neoliberalism, teaching and learning are removed from the discourse of democracy and civic culture–defined as a purely private affair. How else to explain Rick Santorum’s rants against higher education, the elites, and that old phantom, the liberal media.   Divorced from the imperatives of a democratic society, pedagogy is reduced to a matter of taste, individual choice, home schooling, and job training. Pedagogy as a mode of witnessing, a public engagement in which students learn to be attentive and responsible to the memories and narratives of others disappears within a corporate driven notion of learning in which the logic of the market devalues the opportunity for students to make connections with others through social relations which foster a mix of compassion, ethics, and hope.  The crisis of the social is further amplified by the withdrawal of the state as a guardian of the public trust and its growing lack of investment in those sectors of social life that promote the public good. With the supreme court ruling that now makes vouchers constitutional, a deeply conservative government once again will be given full reign to renege on the responsibility of government to provide every child with an education that affirms public life, embraces the need for critical citizens, and supports the truism that political agency is central to the possibility of democratic life.

The greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes, or the lack of rigid testing measures. On the contrary, it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, that consigns 16.3 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services, and defines masculinity through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate controlled media industries. Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools, they are at risk because as a country we support an iniquitous class-based system of funding education and more recently are intent in completely destroying it precisely because it is public.  Children and young adults  are under siege in both public and higher education because far too many  of these institutions have become breeding grounds for commercialism, racism, social intolerance, sexism, homophobia, and consumerism, spurred on by the right-wing discourse of the Republican Party, conservative pundits, and a weak mainstream media. We live in a society in which a culture of punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain, it is easier for states such as California to set aside more financial resources to build prisons than to support higher education. Within this context, the project(s) of critical pedagogy need to be taken up both within and outside of public and higher education. Pedagogy is not a practice that only takes place in schools, it is also a public mode of teaching, that is, a public pedagogical practice largely defined within a range of cultural apparatuses extending from television networks to print media to the Internet. As a central element of a broad based cultural politics, critical pedagogy, in its various forms, when linked to the ongoing project of democratization can provide opportunities for educators and other cultural workers to redefine and transform the connections among language, desire, meaning, everyday life, and material relations of power as part of a broader social movement to reclaim the promise and possibilities of a democratic public life.[22] Given the current economic crisis, the growing authoritarian populism, the rise of religious dogmatism, the emergence of a failed state, and a politics largely controlled by the bankers and corporations, critical pedagogy becomes symptomatic of not only something precious that has been lost under a regime of casino capitalism but also of a project and practice that needs to be reclaimed, reconfigured, and made foundational to any viable notion of politics.

End Notes:

[1].Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. 7

2.  For an excellent analysis of contemporary forms of neoliberalism, see Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011, pp. 705-728; see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

[3]. Roger Simon, “Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility,” Language Arts 64:4 (April 1987), p. 372.

[4]. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Institutions and Autonomy.” In Peter Osborne (Ed). A Critical Sense (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 8.

[5]. Rachel donadio, “The Failing State of Greece,” New York Times (February 26, 2012), p. 8.

[6]. John Brenkman, “Extreme Criticism,” in Judith Butler, John Guillary, and Kendal Thomas, eds. What’s Left of Theory (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 123.

[7]. Henry A. Giroux, Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9/11 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

[8]. Jeffrey Williams, “Brave New University,” College English 61:6 (1999), p. 749.

[9]. Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 69.

[10]. For a brilliant discussion of the ethics and politics of deconstruction, see Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 2.

[11]. Jacques Derrida, “Intellectual Courage: An Interview,” Trans. Peter Krapp, Culture Machine Vol. 2 (2000), p. 9.

[12]. Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Malden, MA: Basil Blackwell, 2000), p.22.

[13]. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp, 11, 18.

[14]  Scott Jaschik, “Santorum’s Attack on Higher Education,” Inside Higher Education (February 27, 2012). Online: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/02/27/santorums-views-higher-education-and-satan

[15]. This expression comes from John Michael, Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 2.

[16]. Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Russell Fergusen, Martha Geever, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Cornel West, eds. Out There (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 35.

[17]. Jodi Dean, “The interface of Political Theory and Cultural Studies,” in Jodi Dean, ed. Cultural Studies and Political Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 3.

[18]. Alan O’Shea, “A Special Relationship? Cultural Studies, Academia and Pedagogy,” Cultural Studies 12(4) 1998, pp. 513-527.

[19]. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), p. 48.

[20]. Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.79. For an extensive analysis of the relationship between schooling, literacy, and desire, see Ursula A. Kelly, Schooling Desire: Literacy, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 1997); Sharon Todd, Learning Desire: Perspectives on Pedagogy, Culture, and the Unsaid (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[21]. Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.79.

[22] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004), p. 67.

[Thank you Henry as always for your contributions]

The writer holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, On Critical Pedagogy and Twilight of the Social. His website is at www.henryagiroux.com

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philoforchange.wordpress.com. Thanks for your support.