Reading Giroux, again

It must have been in the early 1990’s when I first read Henry Giroux. But during 1996-1997 in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, as visiting scholar I really got into his ideas. As far as I remember the first book I bought from him was Fugitive Culture. (I have used to buy my books, for they are my tools, and tools must be at hand when needed.) And so it went. I was rather deep into Giroux’s work, and eventually wrote an introduction to his thinking. In 1999 that text was published in the book entitled Theorists in the Sociology of Education (in Finnish) edited by prominent educational sociologist Tapio Aittola. As it turned out, part of that text went to my book Radical Education published in 2005 (in Finnish).

After Giroux I hooked up with Peter McLaren’s writings first, and ultimately with the man himself. That encounter was, and still is, a very special moment in my life.

And here I am, reading Giroux again; now his updated edition of Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life (2005). In this case ‘an update’ means that Giroux has added to the book a new thirty pages introduction (Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge) in which he mainly discusses the present dangers to US democracy, and politico-educational ways to overcome “the fear industry” of the Bush administration. Giroux refers to democracy as a social construction, as a not given concept of which meaning must be negotiated in the constant hegemonic struggle. One must dare to ask, if the US is a democracy, or if it has ever been one? I would not call it democracy but plutocracy; the one in which the economic elite has reigned over people for centuries.

In the book Giroux raises three antidemocratic tendencies that threaten “American democracy.” (Why, by the way, is he using the word ‘America’ when referring merely to ‘US’? ‘America’ is not the US alone, but Canada in the North, and the whole wide world of Latin America in the South). One of the threats Giroux addresses is market fundamentalism. As we know, it is another name for individualism, competition, and so-called freedom of choice in all spheres of human life. Second threat is religious fervor, and the third one militarism. These are “usual suspects,” addressed by numerous social and political critics, and in this respect there is nothing really new here. Yet as a theorist in the often sanitized and apparently “objective” field of education, Giroux writes with power and with language and formulations which are worth reading, and repeating.

His starting point, like quite many others’ in the field of critical pedagogy, and in radical sociology of education, is the following definition of education: “Education is the terrain where consciousness is shaped, needs are constructed, and the capacity for self-reflection and social change is nurtured and produced (Giroux 2005, xxvii).” Thus rather than simply a technique, education is seen as a critical area “for the production and struggle over those pedagogical and political conditions that offer up the possibilities for people to believe it is possible to develop forms of agency that enable them individually and collectively to intervene in the processes through which the material relations of power shape the meaning and practices of their everyday lives” (ibid. xxviii). Although Giroux believes in people, in democracy from below (or participatory democracy if you like), and in the power of critical education to gradually transform the material, social and conditions, he makes a needed addition from the side of historical materialism:

“The struggle over education is about more than the struggle over meaning and identity; it is also about how meaning, knowledge, and values are produced, legitimated, and operate within economic and structural relations of power. Education is not at odds with politics; it is an important and crucial element in any meaning of the political and offers not only the theoretical tools for a systemic critique of authoritarianism but also a language of possibility for creating actual movements for democratic social change.” (Ibid. xxviii.)

Without a doubt Giroux is among the best social critics in the US, and a desperately needed witness in the social desert of growing cynicism. Still I have to ask, whether his analysis of the current state of socio-political affairs reaches to the heart of darkness. For example, is it sufficient to predict that if the Bush and his extremist gang will carry on their so-called reforms in educational and social policy (not to mention their dangerous foreign policy), the nation, and the world will end up in the situation where highly trained white Western elite commands, and low-skilled poor workers fill the sweatshops. To me this is not a prediction, but a more or less accurate description of the present situation.

What, thus, are the alternatives? Giroux suggests yet another educational reform. His recipe is the following: we must say firm ‘no’ to the corporatization of education, and uphold the promise of social contract guaranteeing for the youth the necessary protection and opportunities for the future. This is a lot of good intentions. Unfortunately they alone might not be enough. In this respect, radical education is not only about the politics of schooling but also about the politics of human condition; it is one crucial intervention in the struggle to restructure and reorganize the ideological and material conditions of political, economic and social life (cf. Giroux 2005, 202). Along with educational interventions, economic and social changes are needed. Although Giroux seems to avoid the latter changes, and therefore cannot take his thinking to the roots of the problems of capitalistic relations of power and education (he hardly mentions the concept of capitalism in his analysis), Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life belongs to his most valuable books in its critical stance towards “only for elites” society, and “only for the privileged” education.

Henry Giroux:

Peter McLaren:


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