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Changing the way we think

"We each have a responsibility to address social injustices. There is an urgency to make the planet a better place to be. But we need to wake up, and defend our public institutions and values."
Changing the way we think

Global Television Network Chair in Communications, Henry Giroux

Researcher Henry Giroux sees a battle being fought between private interests and public values in society. And if the former continues to attack the latter, he worries democracy will be the eventual casualty.

 A professor in McMaster’sDepartment of English and Cultural Studies, Giroux is theGlobal Television Network Chair in Communications. A prolific and internationally known author with several hundred articles and more than fifty-five  books to his name,hewas named one of the world’s “Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education” in 2002. Moreover,earlier this year, hewas included in the Toronto Star’s list of “12 Canadians Changing The Way We Think.” 

 An advocate for a more democratic culture and informed citizenry, Giroux is one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy, an educational movement that emphasizes social justice,focuses on the educational force of the wider culture, connects learning to social change, and examines the power dynamics that reproduce contemporarysocial and economic institutions., According to Giroux, those power structures are increasingly skewed against peopleon the margins of society – in particular,poor minorities and low-income young people.

"With the rise of a crippling hyper-individualism and pervasive consumerism, we are losing sight of the importance of the public good, public values and the meaning ofsocial responsibility,” explainsGiroux. “For instance, instead of seeing poverty as a consequence of systemic inequalitiesand problems that we must work together to address, we think it’s an individual’s own fault for being poor.”

This ideological narrow and privatized view, he goes on, often leadsto a number of injuriousoutcomes. First, disadvantaged groupsare seen as “disposable.” Second, those communities are collectively demonized. Third, public values are displaced by commercial values along with a growing disparity in wealth and income. And the result is that too often people become ethically disengaged and more narcissistic and complicit in a growing culture of cruelty and criminalization. As proof, Girouxpoints to several examples, including the overrepresentation of underprivileged youth in the criminal justice system and public schools’adoption of “zero tolerance” policies –rules that disproportionately affectminority students, according to Giroux.

He also notes the denigration of the language of public engagement and civic responsibility. One example from recent headlines uses the phrase “hug-a-thug programs” to describe youth outreach initiatives in urban, low-income neighbourhoods. He notes that one of the major problems facing societies that lack a languagefor the common good is that they have no way of translating private problems into public considerations. Hence, there is a tendency to privatize all problems and a failure to understand the broader economic, social and political contexts that produce them.

Of course, the situation doesn’t have to be this way, Giroux stresses.  But to change the status quo, and by extension protect the ideals of democracy, he believes society must support those public spheres such as higher education where students and adults can learn the knowledge, critical skills, values, and social relations necessary to thrive in a democracy. And Giroux is doing just that – all with the aim of creating a well-informed populacewilling to struggle for and sustain a society rooted in the principles of equality, freedom, and justice.

“We each have a responsibility to address social injustices. There is an urgency to make the planet a better place to be. But we need to wake up, and defend our public institutions and values.”

For Giroux, this project involves a myriad of transformations. Among themisseeingeducational institutions as places where meaningful and engaged learning happens, not justwhere profits are made; supportingthe development of young people, not spending more money to police them; and waging a war on poverty, not the poverty-stricken. It also entails dismantling those economic institutions that disdain public life, emphasize individual advantage over the public good, and recklessly use their power in the interests of financial gain to the detriment of the larger society.

Furthermore, Giroux thinks society must make a fundamental shift in the cultural realm– away from a popular culture fixated on commercially carpet bombing young children, celebrating an empty and trivial celebrity culture, and reproducing a ruthless survival-of-the-fittest ethic through an ever expanding glut of RealtyTV. This is more than a call for more thoughtfulcontent; it is a call to rethink the very nature of our society and the culture that drives it.To that end, he is making critical analyses and alternative theoretical frameworks more readily availableas a regular contributor to, an independent news and commentary website, and through the various book series that he edits (with his wife, Susan Searls Giroux) at PalgraveMacmillan and Paradigm Publishers.

Additionally, Giroux has spearheaded the creation of a new research centre on campus. The Centre for Scholarship in the Public Interest will bring together scholars to conduct interdisciplinary research on several complex subjects, including youth resistance movements, global inequalities, the impact of digital technologies and social networks, and the future of higher education institutions.

Ultimately, Giroux hopes his work will help people to realize that seemingly disparate problems in society are indeed linked. And he would like to see new social movements emerge to tackle those challenges.

“At the moment, too many people are comfortable with the current state of the world,” he says. “But to move forward, people will have to imagine the unimaginable and learn how to govern rather than merely be governed”