An Assault on the Mind

When you handcuff ten-year-olds because they’ve had a temper tantrum in the classroom, that suggests something about the way any respect for the social, any respect for relationships, has begun to collapse.

AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.

On 8 March 2014,  Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to educator and author Henry Giroux about neoliberalism’s role in the gradual perversion of public and higher education as well as of the dominant media culture.

“I don’t think we need to educate people to simply abide by the rules.  We know where that goes.”

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Chuck Mertz:  On the line with us right now is Henry Giroux.  He is author of the new book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.  He holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMasters University in the English and Cultural Studies department.  Good morning, Henry.

Henry Giroux:  Hi Chuck, how are you?

CM:  Good!  It’s always great having you on the show.  Your most recent books include Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty, and Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, but we have you on today to talk about your newest book over at Haymarket: Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.  How much impact do you think the neoliberalization of higher education will have on the kind of activists that you wrote about in Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future?  Could it undermine—or energize—the potential for young people today to revolt?

HG:  Well, neoliberalism has had an enormous impact on higher education in a profound number of disturbing ways.  First, it results in the defunding of higher education: as corporate taxes are lowered and state budgets have fewer resources, one of the first victims tends to be public and higher education.

Second, we’ve seen the impoverishment of professors all over the United States.  Out of 1.5 million university professors, 1 million are adjuncts.  We’ve seen the notion of the university as a democratic, public sphere being transformed.  A managerial class that defines itself as CEOs wants to run the university strictly as a business, as an adjunct to corporations—a kind of training center.

Third, we see an enormous amount of corporate money being flooded into the university.  We see college students being dumbed down with curricula that replace education with edu-training.  And we’re seeing an enormous amount of money being redistributed upwards to an administrative class that’s being expanded amidst this huge bureaucracy, while faculty are being cut or being put on part-time positions.

Whether that will inspire students to redefine what it means to take the university seriously and revolt, and not allow themselves to be put into massive debt as tuition increases…hopefully it’s a rallying point.  Students are suffering as a result of the attack on higher education.

But if you don’t mind, I want to say one more thing.  We have to understand that this attack on the university has a long history.  One of the things that frightens the Republicans and the rightwing in the United States is what happened to the university in the 1960s.  Christopher Newfield has written brilliantly on this.  They simply do not want to allow the university to repeat what happened in the ‘60s, when students didn’t want the university to be turned into a corporation.  When they were fighting for free speech.  They were fighting against racial segregation.  Women were fighting for feminist rights.  Ethnic groups were fighting to expand their curriculum in ways that were more inclusive.  That posed an enormous threat to the Right, they have never forgotten it, and they are doing everything they can to make sure it never repeats itself again.

CM:  President Barack Obama gave a speech at the General Electric gas engine plant in Waukesha.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on January 30th that the President said, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”  So how good of a worker are you when you do not have any background in the humanities, the kind that leads to critical thinking?

HG:  You’re not really a worker at all.  You’re somebody who is hostage to wage slavery.  When you define work as simply a set of skills—many of which become outdated as time goes on—and you don’t suggest that work is something that also has to be understood politically, economically, and theoretically as a set of meaningful relations, then you don’t provide workers with the tools to understand the nature of their exploitation, the nature of how power works around questions of labor, the relationships between labor and the larger society, what it means to hold corporations accountable for the great injustices that they do.

School? Prison? Complex.

In other words, you turn people into cogs, you turn them into data.  This is really a pathetic argument for stripping education not only of its ideals, but of its most important capacity: to give people the tools, the knowledge, the modes of literacy they need to be actively and critically engaged citizens.  This is an attack on citizenship.  This is a form of depoliticization.  That’s what it is.  It’s a mode of education that has been transformed into training.  It is designed to depoliticize people and make them stupid.

CM:  How bad is that for the economy?  When I’ve talked to people who hire people, they say that they do not want to have people who have an undergraduate degree in business and then an MBA and then maybe even a Ph.D. in business.  They don’t want a person who just has a background in business.  They want people who have some other general knowledge background.  A lot of schools believe that you should not have an undergrad business degree, you should only have an MBA process.

Last week when we were talking to Adolph Reed, he said he wishes the same would be the case for journalism; people should have a background in history or sociology or anthropology—something within the humanities—before they get a degree in journalism, which would be a graduate degree.  How much does only wanting workers to be non-critical thinkers, just to be workers, just to be chasing the degrees that could pay the most—how much does that undermine our economy here in the United States, by putting people in positions where they may not be the best-trained or best-educated, and may not be able to compete with other countries?

HG:  There are businesspeople who are very smart about what it means to hire people who have the capacity to think.  Because they take chances, they take risks.  And they have faith in workers who can work with them collaboratively.  But the people who own the commanding heights of the economy have no interest in that whatsoever.  I don’t think that Bill Gates has any interest in modes of education that would make people critically literate.  I don’t think the Koch Brothers, who practically run the economy—if not the system itself, politically—they don’t have any interest in people who can think.  Major politicians strike me as zombies who are practically brain-dead, or certainly dead ethically—they live in a dead zone of the ethical imagination—they have no interest in expanding the capacity of people to think and be critical.

Remember Santorum’s famous speech, when he said the Republican Party does not need intellectuals?  “We don’t want them, that’s the last thing that we need.”  I think that sums up well what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about a division around what it means to construct somebody who is either a citizen, critically engaged, who takes the principles of democracy seriously, or someone who doesn’t: someone who is willing to live in a society that is becoming increasingly more authoritarian, and is willing to simply abide by the rules.

I don’t think we need to educate people to simply abide by the rules.  We know where that goes.  We’ve seen it in Argentina in ‘73.  We saw it in Chile, we saw it in Nazi Germany, we saw it in Italy.  Hannah Arendt had a wonderful expression: at the root of all totalitarianisms is the inability to think, a kind of thoughtlessness that grips the populace.  That’s what we see in the country today.

You can say to me we have businesspeople who want critical workers, but these are the same people who want to lower corporate taxes and not fund public education.  These are the same people who sponsor a celebrity culture that has become so banal it’s the laughing stock of the world.  These contradictions need to be taken up in ways that suggest a larger consideration of what exactly is being supported here, politically, economically, educationally and culturally.

CM:  You write, “four decades of neoliberal policies have resulted in an economic Darwinism that promotes privatization, commodification, free trade, and deregulation.  It privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, and it fosters a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest—if not an unchecked selfishness.”

This week, Forbes came out with a list of the world’s billionaires.  ABC World News Tonight reported that of those billionaires, two thirds said they were ‘self-made.’  What’s wrong with privileging personal responsibility, promoting self-interest, rewarding the best and brightest by giving them most of the money?  Isn’t that the kind of system that makes the U.S. the world leader in billionaires?  And not just billionaires, but apparently, Henry—lucky us—self-made billionaires.

HG:  That has to be the biggest lie since the Virgin Birth.  It’s really hard to believe that anybody can take seriously the notion that we have a level playing field and that we ultimately have to bear responsibility individually for all the choices that we make, when we have such massive amounts of inequality in this country.  The United States ranks in the top third in the amount of inequality in the world, among the advanced industrial nations.  We all know that.

“When you handcuff ten-year-olds because they’ve had a temper tantrum in the classroom, that suggests something about the way any respect for the social, any respect for relationships, has begun to collapse.”

What we’ve failed to realize is that we’re not just talking about individual choices, we’re talking about choices within specific relations of constraint.  As a working class kid, I had a choice:  I could become a priest, or I could become a policeperson.  That was it, those were the choices.  To argue that wealth doesn’t provide enormous opportunities—and wealth now is so rigidly defined that very few people really have the kind of privileged opportunities that these people suggest come automatically—is one of the great lies of neoliberalism.

Because what it fails to take into consideration are those systemic, structural, ideological, cultural, and economic forces that actually bear down on people in such a way that their choices are so limited, their opportunities are so narrowly defined, that it becomes almost impossible—in this rigid racialized class system that we have—for people to move up.  We have enormous numbers of studies on this, that social mobility in the United States is actually diminishing.  Middle-class wealth has been wiped out—we know that.  We know that workers’ wages have been frozen for twenty years.

So we have to ask ourselves, where is the wealth?  Where is the wealth that makes possible the opportunities and the mobility that give people a real chance to better themselves?  It’s in the upper 1%.  That’s exactly where it is.  So if you really want to talk about individual responsibility, we have to ask ourselves: why is the upper 1% so irresponsible when it comes to sharing resources that would allow 99% of the population to live a life with dignity, with some prosperity, with quality healthcare, to be able to say we live in a democracy?

CM:  Here’s what you write in your book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education: “Once set in motion, economic Darwinism unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws, and political considerations collapse into the injurious and self-indicting discourse of character.  Many Americans are preoccupied less with political and moral outrage over a country whose economic and political system is in the hands of a tiny exorbitantly rich elite than they are with the challenges of being isolated and surviving at the bottom of a savage neoliberal order.”

This reminds me of when we interviewed Dana Becker back in October.  She’s the author of One Nation Under Stress: the Trouble With Stress as an Idea.  In Dana’s book, she argues that the diagnosis of stress individualizes all of society’s problems, as if they are that person’s fault for not conforming, not that the system has problems.  The stress that many of us suffer is due to our horrible system, not the failings of us as individuals.  This diagnosis of stress then disempowers us from working together to change what’s wrong with the system because we believe there’s something wrong with us.  After all, Henry, the Unites States of America is the greatest nation ever, so if we have any problems with it, it must be our fault.

...for better or worse
…for better or worse

HG:  Thank you so much, it’s really such an important issue.  When you collapse the public into the private, when you claim that private troubles have no connection to larger social considerations, what you do is focus on the personal in ways that obscure what’s really at stake: ideas, ideologies, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of those critical faculties that really would allow us to connect personal troubles to larger social and public considerations.

C. Wright Mills was brilliant on this, as you know.  He said if you really want to understand the nature of fascism, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism, look at the way social problems are individualized.  Look at the way there’s a shift away from understanding larger systemic causes, for instance, and reducing them to individual responsibilities so that we say, ‘if there’s massive unemployment in the country it must be because people are too lazy to want a job.  If people are on food stamps, it must be because they refuse to work for food.’

It’s not just ideologically false, it’s also symptomatic of a culture of cruelty that no longer wages a war on poverty, but wages a war on the poor.  It’s symptomatic of a culture that no longer addresses social problems, but criminalizes the effects of those problems.  For instance, when you handcuff ten-year-olds because they’ve had a temper tantrum in the classroom, that suggests something about the way any respect for the social, any respect for relationships, begins to collapse into a circus in which people who really believe in this kind of respect—or people who are the subjects and objects of it—become objects of incredible scorn.

Let’s take one example.  In the richest country in the world, the Republicans who are endlessly cutting corporate taxes in any way possible—50% in the last ten years, as you know—they actually want to eliminate $40 billion from the food stamp program.  Thanks to Obama’s own neoliberal sensibilities, they ended up eliminating $8 billion per year.  Imagine: half the people on food stamps in the country are children, and 30% are the elderly.  How can we justify that in the name of individual responsibility?  How do you justify that without recognizing that it represents a flight from any sense of what democracy means, from being able to provide the protections for those who need it most: the poor, young people, the elderly?

It seems to me what we have a country that’s at war with the public.  They’re at war with workers, they’re at war with labor unions, they’re at war with women, they’re at war with young people.  We have a country that’s been taken over and hijacked by extremists.

“Public schools are under assault in ways we have never seen in this country.  And it’s not because they’re failing, it’s because they’re public.”

CM:  You mentioned individual responsibility.  Individual responsibility and personal freedom seem to be the driving themes of many on the Right.  I saw the founder of Tea Party Patriots the other day on TV.  She was going through their platform, and the first thing she said was, “we have to protect personal freedoms.”  Individual freedoms is what she was stressing more than anything else.  Obviously you and I believe that we should have personal or individual freedoms, but at what point does that go too far, into an extremist level?  And how can that be bad, being an extremist who is for personal freedoms?

HG:  I think that you can’t talk about personal freedom when it becomes synonymous with a kind of rabid individualism and harsh competition that replaces all notions of the public good and all forms of solidarity.  You can slice it in a couple of ways.  The Right says, “we want freedom from interference.”  That’s how they define freedom.  And they collapse it into a notion of radical individualism, or what I would call rabid individualism.

But there’s another kind of freedom, and that’s a freedom in which we not only assume a certain sense of individual responsibility, but we also define freedom as the freedom to shape the world in which we find ourselves.

When you privilege personal freedom and personal rights over social rights, when you say that personal freedom has nothing to do with creating the conditions that enable people to act on a whole range of capacities—that would broaden the possibility of freedom in ways benefiting not only the individual, but society at large—you have a very different conception of freedom.

Their notion of freedom lives in a desert of organized cruelty.  Their notion of freedom is, look, freedom is about self-interest and screw everybody else.  That’s not freedom, that’s slavery.  That’s a form of political slavery.  That’s an excuse for people to do anything that they want in the name of freedom, without having to take seriously questions of justice, social responsibility, and the public good.

CM:  We’re trained, we’re educated to be patriotic.  How much does that patriotism, that love of country, undermine our ability to recognize and rise up against what you see as the “larger forces that control or constrain our choices and the lives we are destined to lead?”

HG:  I think any notion of patriotism that becomes synonymous with blind obedience is a prescription for fascism.

CM:  That pretty much sums that up.

When it comes to what you call this economic Darwinism that unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws, you write that “it makes it all the simpler for neoliberalism to convince people to remain attached to a set of ideologies, values, modes of governance, and policies that generate massive suffering and hardships.  Neoliberalism’s best trick is to persuade individuals, as a matter of common sense, that they should imagine themselves as solitary agents who can and must live the good life promised by capitalist culture.”

This is a re-phrasing of Baudelaire’s line, “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”  How successfully do you think U.S. culture has been convinced that the devil of their problems doesn’t exist and that they themselves are the problem?

“Let’s be clear about what the dominant media does.  The dominant media is there to provide an audience for advertisers.”

HG:  This is something that a lot of people fail to realize.  Some critics of neoliberalism seem to think that it is simply about economics, that it’s simply about the redistribution of wealth upward, away from the middle class and the poor, and that it assumes the only obligation of citizenship is to be a consumer.

But neoliberalism is about more than that.  It’s also a mode of education.  It produces particular notions of what a citizen is, of which desires matter.  Since the 1970s—and especially once Reagan came into office—it has put in place a cultural apparatus that is enormously powerful.  It includes all the dominant media, who have relentlessly—relentlessly—pushed the assumption that profit is the essence of democracy; that anything that has anything to do with the government is in some way erroneous and should be condemned; and that the market basically should not only control the economy but the whole of social life.

What we see here is an ongoing attempt to educate the public that undermines the very notion of what it means to live in a democracy.  And they’ve been enormously successful.  You can’t turn on the television, you can’t go to a movie, and not see this theme of the individual overcoming, you can’t escape this particular notion of what it means to succeed in America.  You can’t go to a film without in some way catching what I would call blatant racism, or the increasing celebration of police, or the surveillance state.

It becomes difficult to live in a country where the range of ideas about what democracy means is so narrow.  A democracy is not a corporation, and citizenship is not simply about shopping and buying.  Celebrity culture is not the height of what it means to be successful.  Idiocy is not a virtue.  And yet these themes are pounded into us over and over.

And now this assault on rationality, reason, civic literacy and civic courage is being waged against the schools.  Public schools are under assault in ways we have never seen in this country.  And it’s not because they’re failing, it’s because they’re public.  Higher education is under assault not because it’s failing, but because colleges are not corporations.

This is really an assault on the mind.  This is really an assault on the educative nature of being alive to democratic impulses.  The Left has never taken that seriously.  They don’t understand that education is central to any viable definition of policy, or that the appreciation of what it means to change ideas—what it means to persuade people to think otherwise, in order to act otherwise—has largely been lost.

CM:  Last week we were speaking with ProPublica’s Julia Angwin.  She was talking about the surveillance state and how much of our own personal information we give up voluntarily, and how the surveillance state is not just the government spying on us, it’s a lot of marketers spying on us.  How much of the neoliberal war on higher education is self-inflicted and not caused by some big bad nefarious corporate cabal?  How much is the success of neoliberalism simply due to people, well, believing in neoliberalism?

HG:  When you live in a country that privatizes everything; when you live in a country that so emphasizes individual responsibility that it eventually develops into a full-blown addiction to narcissism; when you develop modes of education that tell people the only thing they should really care about is themselves; then you live in a country where people have a relatively narrow range of choices about how to define themselves.  Ideology is smothering.

So I don’t blame people, per se, for taking that ideology up.  I place the blame on a system that doesn’t provide them with alternatives.  I’ve just written a paper on the surveillance state and the notion of paranoia and my point is, look, we’re not just talking about the state, we’re talking about corporations who are actively engaged—endlessly—in mining data.  They’re probably more dangerous than the NSA, because there are no checks on them.

But people willingly give up that information.  Privacy is no longer something that we cherish.  Young people today want to make an exit from privacy.  Everything is about performance; everything is about putting yourself on display.  The public has been so emptied out of meaning that the only purpose it really serves now is for one to indulge one’s own narcissistic fantasies.

There are many young people fighting that.  We know that.  But there are many young people who choose this deadening, brain-damaging culture of consumerism and performance and display, and allow themselves to be simply turned into a commodity.  Again, these are signs of the power and success of the neoliberal ideology in the United States.  It’s undermined a whole generation of young people who really have no concern with privacy—and in many ways have no concern with freedom.

The real attack by the surveillance state is not on privacy, it’s on freedom.  It’s an attack on dissent.  It’s about what’s happening to people like Snowden and Jeremy Hammond and a whole range of alleged traitors who reveal corruption and then get punished for it.  Meanwhile in the United States people who have engaged in actual torture, or have swindled the system of billions of dollars—or both—are labeled as heroes.  That’s a contradiction that we need to address, and understand the ideological forces that promote it.

CM:  Henry, one last question for you, and as always it’s the Question from Hell—the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience will hate your response.  In your writing you always touch on the media.  You always do some very good media criticism. You write in your book, “in media discourse, language has been stripped of the terms, phrases and ideas that embrace a concern for the other.  With meaning utterly privatized, words are reduced to signifiers that mimic spectacles of violence designed to provide entertainment rather than thoughtful analysis.”

What people really talk about at the water cooler isn’t the wars that are being ignored across Africa, even if they did know about them.  What audiences want are the personal interest stories, the stories on entertainment that the media provides.  So do TV ratings prove that what audiences really want isn’t to be knowledgeable of the world around us, but instead to be distracted from their job and daily routine in this world we are building on neoliberalism?

HG:  Let’s be clear about what the dominant media does.  The dominant media is there to provide an audience for advertisers.  That’s what it does.  It’s not concerned about educating people critically.  There are exceptions.  We all know that.  And there are exceptions in Hollywood.  But the point is they’re exceptions.

But I think the idea that people get what they want—and people only want things that are personal, only programs that are fun—I think that’s an effect, that’s not a cause.  That’s something that’s produced by the media and then the claim is made that “that’s really what people want, we just give them what they want!”

They don’t give people what they want.  That’s insane.  They have the power.  They decide what gets put on television, they decide what’s going to be distributed.  And they decide on the basis of the people who sponsor those programs.  Which limits, in many ways, what can be said.

What we’re talking about here is a systemic limitation of what can be said, heard, and seen.  Call it what you may, but simply stated it’s just corporate propaganda.  That’s all it is.  And to claim that the responsibility for that ultimately lies on people, who never hear alternative positions…

I’ll give you an example of where this idea gets challenged.   When I first started writing for Truthout, there was the assumption that nobody should write a piece more than five pages long, because no audience would read more than five pages online.  So I started asking major intellectuals all over the country to write major pieces, but just make them accessible—rigorous, but acceptable.  Clear.

Those pieces generated more audience responses than the news, than the entertainment pieces.  And people were shocked.  What I’m saying is that there’s an audience out there that is desperate for something substantial.  Desperate for real conversation.  Desperate for programs that take up real issues but in a way that combines art with politics and insight.  There’s a hunger, there’s a void.

That void exists because the culture celebrates a celebrity culture that’s basically stupid.  Who cares about the Kardashian sisters?  I mean, really.  Is that all we have to show?  In a culture that is bereft with enormous contradictions and social problems?  Give me a break.  And to say that people are responsible for that, that it’s “what they want,” when they have absolutely no power over what is being produced, distributed and circulated?  That’s just a silly argument to me.

CM:  Henry, always a pleasure.  Great to have you on the show.

HG:  Thank you so much, it’s always such a pleasure to be on your program.  I’m delighted.

Transcribed and printed with the permission of This is Hell! Radio. Listen to the full interview here:

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