Spring 2009 - Volume 12 Number 2
Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed.
Boulder CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008.
I thought I had kept pretty much up to date with the writings of Henry A. Giroux. I was badly mistaken. I’ve been attending irresolutely to his contributions to the study of schooling and society since the publication of his first joint volume with Stanley Aronowitz, Education Under Siege, in 1985. He has, however, been prolific. Since 2001, he has churned out substantial books at the rate of about two a year. He has treated subjects such as the militarization of education, multiculturalism, terrorism, the Walt Disney entertainment empire, and the troubles of youth at the margins of a society of greed.
Henry Giroux was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1943. After receiving his doctorate from Carnegie-Mellon in 1977, he went of to become professor of education at Boston University, Director at the Center for Education and Cultural Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a distinguished Chair Professorship and Pennsylvania State University. He is now the Global University Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Giroux’s writing may best be categorized as “critical theory” with distinctive links to critical practice. He thinks seriously about issues and, having come to understand a good part of the world, has chosen to help change it.
By focusing on what he properly calls neoliberalism, he addresses both the principal ideology and the dominant social practices of our time. Lest anyone be confused, in North America, the rather elastic ideology of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Stephen Harper and the copious right-of-centre “think tanks” is we commonly dubbed “neoconservative.” That is because people with strong views about lowering taxes (especially on the rich), cutting government spending (especially in support of the poor) and finding the solutions for social problems in an unfettered economic market use the term “conservative” to describe themselves. The “neo” is added on because their views in favour of an unregulated private sector market were out of fashion from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. As some may recall, even Richard M. Nixon once announced: “We’re all Keynesians now!” In effect, however, what North Americans typically call neoconservative and what Europeans generally refer to as neoliberal are close to synonymous.
The picture is only somewhat blurred by the commanding presence of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, especially in the “base” of the American Republican Party. Absent those whose “personal relationship with Jesus” prompts them to oppose abortions, gay marriage and the teaching of evolution in the schools, what is left of their thinking is a naïve reading of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) combined with a rather harsh version of Spencer’s “social Darwinism” and an abundant supply of “patriotism,” which often takes on robustly racist qualities domestically and globally.
To Henry A. Giroux, neoliberalism (or neoconservatism, if you insist), is toxic. It fosters not just growing socio-economic inequality, but intensified inequity as well. It undermines the material comfort and security of all lives, while transforming symbolic culturethe arts, sciences, politics and even personal and family relationshipsinto commodities. It disdains democracy by undervaluing public discourse and civic virtue. Of special concern to us, it is responsible for the assault on education by making the transmission of immediately marketable skill-sets the principal criterion for judging the value of teaching and learning. And, it is none too good for the natural environment either.
Giroux’s text skillfully weaves history, ideology, political economy and education into a seamless cloth. He not only shows how neoliberalism in theory and practice must be opposed in principle, but also how it can be challenged in practice. His noble aim is to reclaim substantive political policies and democratic political processes. No small task, but the urgency of that task, however, is clear.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Giroux must overcome is to persuade us, his readers and his most significant audience, that present patterns and trends are not unalterable, that social arrangements and educational practices might be otherwise. One of the standard retorts that I have received to pleas to rescue the character and quality of college curricula from narrow vocationalism and social conformity is the admonition that we must move with the times, that attempts to restore the place of education in systems shifting toward mere training are futile and that we cannot stop “progress”however much that term may be cynically distorted to meet the corporate agenda. Henry Giroux more than meets those objections, especially in Chapter 3, which is called “Disabling the Future,” wherein he presents a concise and compelling call for resistance.
One important approach to the contest over the content of college curricula involves a simple question: Why have all the recent “crises” in education been about the economy and not about the people. Budgetary restrictions, the exploitation of part-time staff, arcane accountability measures, “vocationally relevant” curricula, standardized student evaluation techniques, graduate employment statistics are all part of a package that can be wrapped up in the single phrase, “neoliberal education.” Simply by applying Giroux’s thoughts to our often harrowing lives, possibilities for a series of breakthroughs will appear. They involve participation and empowerment at every levelincluding and, perhaps, most importantly the students.
Living experimentally in the classroom, seeing what we can get away with, constructing pedagogical projects that reduce the exchange of curriculum we “deliver” to students for an increase in the quantity (and therefore the quality) of what we build together with them is one way to proceed. This is not, of course, an invitation to hold hands and share experiences with students. Promoting active participation and conscious engagement is hard work, a lot harder that linking a door-stopper text book or, worse, a slew of PowerPoint presentations to a multiple choice final examination. But, as even a cursory look at Against the Terror or Neoliberalism will reveal, it is essential lest (to paraphrase Santayana) we ignore the past and condemn ourselves not merely to repeat it, but to make it worse.
No doubt some will be disinclined to take advice from so consistent a critic of contemporary education. To some, Giroux’s intimations of “authoritarianism” bordering on “proto-fascism” may seem hyperbolic. They are not, andif the rising cry for “leadership” irrespective of the direction in which we are to be led is any cluethe hope of reducing anxiety by placing our collective fate in the hands of a strong guiding executive is pervasive.
As teachers as well as citizenand Henry A. Giroux is a fine example of bothwe must understand that our problems are certainly circumstantial, but they are also self-imposed. We may not be free to make our history just as we choose, but we needn’t acquiesce in our own oppression either. Too much have we concerned ourselves with the dismal details of everyday life and left the theorizing of our situation to others, comfortable in the belief that problems can be addressed practically in the here and now, that thinking too much can be hazardous to your health and that nothing large can be done about our situation anyway.
If grousing about class size, underprepared students and a general lack of respect for our work no longer works as a meaningful approach to our educational work, a healthy dose of Henry Giroux might be tonic. It certainly cannot hurt.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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