Cultural Politics and the Crisis of the University – Henry A. Giroux


What is surprising about the current attack on education, especially in light of the growing corporatization and privatization at all levels of schooling, is the refusal on the part of many theorists to rethink the role academics might play in defending the university as a crucial democratic public sphere. Lost in these debates is a view of the university that demands reinvigorated notions of civic courage and action that address what it means to make teaching and learning more socially conscious and politically responsive in a time of growing conservatism, racism, and corporatism. Even more surprising is the common ground shared by a growing number of conservatives and progressives who attempt to reduce pedagogy to technical formalism or a reified methodology, on the one hand, or narrowly define politics and pedagogy within a dichotomy that pits the alleged ‘real’ material issues of class and labor against a fragmenting and marginalizing concern with the politics of culture, textuality, and difference, on the other.

The End of Cultural Politics

The right-wing attack on culture as a site of pedagogical and political struggle is evident in the work of traditionalists such as Harold Bloom and Lynn Cheney and liberals such as Richard Rorty, all of whom bemoan the death of romance, inspiration, and hope as casualties of the language of power, politics, and multiculturalism. For Bloom, literary criticism has been replaced in the academy by cultural politics and the result is nothing less than the renunciation of the search for truth and beauty that once defined universalistic and impartial scholarship. Bloom cannot bear the politics of what he calls ‘identity clubs’, arguing that ‘multiculturalism is a lie, a mask for mediocrity for the thought-control academic police, the Gestapo of our campuses’ (Bloom, 1998: 27). Bloom wants to situate culture exclusively in the sphere of beauty and aesthetic transcendence, unhampered and uncorrupted by politics, the struggle over public memory, or the democratic imperative for self-and social criticism. For Bloom, cultural politics is an outgrowth of cultural guilt, a holdover from the sixties that begets what he calls ‘the School of Resentment’ (Bloom, 1994: 29).1

But there is more at stake in delegitimatizing the investigation of the relationship between culture and power for Bloom and his fellow conservatives. Eager to speak for disenfranchised groups, conservatives claim that cultural politics demeans the oppressed and has nothing to do with their problems. It neither liberates nor informs, they maintain, but rather contributes to an ongoing decline in standards and civility by prioritizing visual culture over print culture, popular culture over high culture. For Bloom, replacing Julius Caesar with The Color Purple is indicative of the lowering of such standards and the ‘danger of cultural collapse’ (Bloom, 1998: 28). As a custodian of the good old days, Bloom holds no punches in equating literature that has been traditionally marginalized in the university with degrading forms of popular culture. He writes:

the Resenters prate of power, as they do of race and gender: they are careerist stratagems and have nothing to do with the insulted and injured, whose lives will not be improved by our reading the bad verses of those who assert that they are the oppressed. Our schools as much as our universities are given away to these absurdities; replacing Julius Caesar by The Color Purple is hardly a royal road to enlightenment. A country where television, movies, computers, and Stephen King have replaced reading is already in acute danger of cultural collapse. That danger is dreadfully augmented by our yielding education to the ideologues whose deepest resentment is of poetry itself. (Bloom, 1998: 28)

By conflating minority literature with popular culture and the decline of academic standards, Bloom conveniently and unabashedly reveals the contempt he harbors for minorities of race, class, and gender and their ‘uncivil’ demands for inclusion in the curricula of higher education and the history and political life of the nation. Bloom’s tirade is all the more disingenuous given his appeal to excellence and objectivism. Bloom’s conservative stance would be more interesting if his disdain of the ideological could be read as simply ironic, but he appears, unfortunately, dead serious when he maps out his retrograde view of the canon, academics, and the purpose of the university as a position free from the tainted discourse of politics and ideology.

There is no room in Bloom’s discourse for theorizing the dialectical connections between culture and politics. There is little regard for the ways in which cultural processes are inextricably part of the power relations that structure the symbols, identities, and meanings that shape dominant institutions such as education, the arts, and the media. Nor is there the slightest attempt to theorize how the political character of culture might make possible a healthy and ongoing engagement with all forms of pedagogical practice and the institutionally sanctioned authority that gives them legitimacy. Bloom has nothing but contempt for educators who attempt to understand how cultural politics can be appropriated in order to teach students to be critical of dominant forms of authority, both within and outside of schools, that sanction what counts as theory, legitimate knowledge, put particular subject positions in place, and make specific claims on public memory. Pedagogy for Bloom is both depoliticized and unproblematic. Dismissing the contribution that radical educators have made to theorizing pedagogical practice, Bloom is utterly dismissive towards any critical attempts within the university to expand the political possibilities of the pedagogical. Lost in Bloom’s discourse is any serious attempt to grapple with the implications of treating pedagogy as a form of moral and political regulation rather than as a technique or fixed method. Similarly, Bloom’s arguments do not offer any theory of pedagogy. Hence, he is unable to engage pedagogical practice as the outcome of social struggles between different groups over how citizens are to be defined, the role pedagogy plays in mediating what knowledge is to be considered worthy of serious inquiry, or how pedagogy provides the conditions for students to recognize anti-democratic forms of power. But this is clearly beyond Bloom’s theoretical and ideological reach, because to suggest such issues are worthy of serious debate would mean that Bloom would have to recognize his own pedagogy as a political activity, and his criticism of cultural politics as participating in the very ideological processes he so vehemently dismisses.

Lynn Cheney, on the other hand, embraces the political as part of a more activist critique of left cultural politics both within and outside of the university. As the former head of National Endowment for the Humanities and the current director of the activist National Alumni Forum, Cheney argues that progressive trends in the academy are undermining what she terms the national cultural heritage. Claiming that ‘activist’ faculty are abusing the principle of academic freedom, Cheney has sought to demonize progressive scholars by defining them as a threat to both the university and to the most valued traditions of Western civilization. Cheney spells this out in a speech to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1988. She writes:

When I become most concerned about the state of the humanities in our colleges and universities is not when I see theories and ideas fiercely competing, but when I see them neatly converging, when I see feminist criticism, Marxism, various forms of poststructuralism, and other approaches all coming to bear on one concept and threatening to displace it. I think specifically of the concept of Western civilization, which has come under pressure on many fronts, political as well as theoretical. Attacked for being elitist, sexist, racist, Eurocentric, this central and sustaining idea of our educational system and our intellectual heritage is being declared unworthy of study. (Chaney, 1988: 6)

Cheney’s attack on cultural politics in the university redefines the relationship among culture, power, and knowledge by shifting the political emphasis away from struggles over curricula to struggles over policy that would shape the institutional conditions under which knowledge is produced, faculty are hired and evaluated, and credentials awarded. As Ellen Messer-Davidow has brilliantly documented, this is evident in the efforts by conservatives such as Lynn Cheney, William Bennett, and William Kristol, among others, along with the backing of conservative groups such as the Olin and Bradley foundations, to attack extra-academic institutions and resources in order to restructure higher education along retrograde ideological lines (Messer-Davidow, 1997: 491). Examples abound and include conservative attempts to defund the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, dismantle Affirmative action policies in universities and state agencies, and encourage ‘alumni and trustees to censure and/or defund “inappropriate” courses and curricula’ (Cited in Berube, 1998: 181). Under the charge of political correctness, conservatives such as Cheney deride the politicization of culture, the rise of ‘advocacy’ programs such as African American studies, cultural studies, and women’s studies. John Silber, the former president of Boston University, in a 1993 report to the board of trustees reveals the blatant disregard for academic freedom that parades under the rubric of fighting political correctness in the university. Silber writes, without irony:

[T]his University has remained unapologetically dedicated to the search for truth and highly resistant to political correctness… we have resisted the fad toward critical legal studies… In the English Department and the departments of literature, we have not allowed the structuralists or the deconstructionists to take over. We have refused to take on dance therapy… We have resisted revisionist history… In the Philosophy Department we have resisted the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory… We have resisted the official dogmas of radical feminism. We have done the same thing with regard to gay and lesbian liberation, and animal liberation… we have resisted the fad of Afro-centrism. We have not fallen into the clutch of multi-culturalists. (Silber cited in Raskin, 1994: 69)

If conservatives are to be believed, they are not engaging in a form of cultural and institutional politics, at least the ideological version, but simply purging the university of feminists, multiculturalists, and other progressive groups in order to promote excellence, raise academic standards, and create an objective scholarly climate that facilitates the intellectual pursuit of truth and beauty. Such actions, underwritten with resources and power provided by conservative forces such as the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the National Association of Scholars, reveals a dangerous ideological orthodoxy. In this instance, the threat to academic freedom comes less from left-wing professors than it does from administrative demagogues and right-wing organizations willing to police and censor knowledge that does not silence itself before the legitimating imperatives of the traditional academic canon.

Liberalism and the Politics of Gentility

Although Richard Rorty does not reject the political as a meaningful category of public life, he does abstract it from culture and in so doing legitimates a sharp conceptual division between politics and culture as well as an ideologically narrow reading of aesthetics, pedagogy, and politics. According to Rorty, you cannot ‘find inspirational value in a text at the same time as you are viewing it as a… mechanism of cultural production’ (Rorty, 1996: 13). Rorty steadfastly believes in the rigid division between understanding and hope, mind and heart, thought and action. He rejects the work of critical theorists such as Stuart Hall, Larry Grossberg, Paulo Freire and others who believe that hope is a practice of witnessing, an act of moral imagination and political passion that helps educators and other cultural workers to think otherwise in order to act otherwise. Moreover, Rorty shares with Bloom, though for different reasons, the fall-from-grace narrative that seems to be the lament of so many well-established white male academics. Rorty wants progressives to be more upbeat, to give up their whining cultural politics and provide positive images of America. He wants feminist to stop indulging in victim politics by linking the political and the personal so that they can get on with a politics that addresses the ‘real thing’. Moreover, as Lindsay Waters points out, ‘Rorty wants to hear good stories. He is not, however, interested in popular culture, even though it sometimes presents positive images of America, because popular culture, in his view, is a source of chauvinistic, right-wing, simpleminded images of America. It’s “high culture” that concerns him’ (Waters, 1998: 86).

Given Rorty’s distaste for popular culture, it should not come as a surprise that he is equally dismissive of educators who situate texts within the broader politics of representation and engage pedagogy as a political practice. But the brunt of his criticism is reserved for a cultural left that refuses to ‘talk about money’, legislation, or welfare reform and squanders its intellectual and critical resources on ‘such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies’ (Rorty, 1998: B5). Rorty disdains progressive academics for elevating cultural politics over real politics, and ‘accuses the ageing New Leftists who popular the academy of something worse than a failure of nerve. They are quislings, he says, collaborators: in permitting cultural matters to supplant “real politics”, they have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to the political debate’ (Waters, 1998: 85).

For Rorty, the cultural left needs to transform itself into a reformed economic left that addresses ‘concrete’ political issues such as reforming campaign finance laws, abolishing the local financing of public education, and fighting for universal health insurance. These are laudable goals for any left, but for Rorty, they cannot be addressed by means of a cultural politics that complicates and burdens political resistance through a language that speaks to how power works within popular culture or engages politics through the connected registers of race, gender, and sexuality. Nor can such goals be addressed by expanding the political field to include various social movements organized around issues such as AIDS, sexuality, environmentalism, feminism, and anti-racist struggles. Rorty seems to forget, as Homi Bhabha points out, how thin the line is between his call for a reconstructed left politics and how perilously close it comes to producing the legacy of a bad left orthodoxy, which includes: ‘the reduction of the cultural public sphere to the realm of economic determinism; the support of trade unions at the expense of raced and gendered workers whose “differences” and discriminations become subordinated to class interest; the homophobia and xenophobia that so easily perverts patriotism’ (Bhabha, 1998: 22).

Rorty, along with conservative ideologues such as Harold Bloom, believes that the university and public schools are not a viable public arena in which to wage nondoctrinaire political struggles. For Rorty, the political does not include cultural spheres that trade in pedagogy, knowledge, and the production of identities that mediate the relationship between the self and the larger society. Culture is not a sphere in which political struggles can be effectively conducted over broad visions of social justice. Within the narrow confines of this language, cultural politics is dismissed either as a self-serving and narrow politics of difference or as victim politics.

If Rorty is to be believed, the left can get itself out of its alleged political impasse only by giving up on theory (which has produced a few good books, but has done nothing to change the country) and by shedding its ‘semi-conscious anti-Americanism, which it carried over from the rage of the late `60s’ (Rorty, 1998: B6).2 Criticism that focuses on race, gender, sexuality, popular culture, schooling, or any other merely cultural issue represents not only a bad form of identity politics but contains an unwarranted (unpatriotic?) ‘doubt about our country and our culture’ and should be replaced with ‘proposals for legislative change’ (Rorty, 1997:19). Rorty wants a progressive politics that is color-blind and concrete, a politics for which the question of difference is largely irrelevant to a resurgent materialism that defines itself as the antithesis of the cultural. In Rorty’s version of politics, the pedagogical is reduced to old-time labor organizing, which primarily benefitted white men and failed to question the exclusions at its basis. In the end, Rorty provides a caricature of the cultural left, misrepresents how social movements have worked to expand the arena of democratic struggle,3 and ignores the centrality of culture as a pedagogical force for making politics meaningful as a basis for making it an object of both critique and transformation. Moreover, liberals such as Rorty conveniently forget the specific historical conditions and forms of oppression that gave rise to the ‘new left’ and new social movements that British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, makes central to his arguments against a facile return to the totalizing politics of class struggle, that is, a politics that defines itself as so all-encompassing in its view of the world that it dismisses any other explanation. Hall insightfully reminds us that in order to think politics in the sixties, progressives had to confront the legacy of Stalinism, the bureaucracy of the Cold War and the stiflingly racist and sexist hierarchies within traditional left organizations (Chen, 1996). Class was not the only form of domination, and it was to their credit that some New Left theorists made visible the diverse and often interconnected forms of oppression organized against women, racial minorities, homosexuals, the aged, the disabled, and others.

Left Orthodoxy and Real Politics

The attack on culture as a terrain of politics is not only evident in the works of conservatives such as Harold Bloom, Lynn Cheney, and liberals such as Richard Rorty, but it also is gaining ground in the writings of a number of renegades from the New Left, the most notable of whom are Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, and Jim Sleeper (Gitlin, 1995; Tomasky, 1996; Sleeper, 1990). Unlike Bloom and Rorty, Gitlin and his ideological cohorts speak from the vantage point of left politics but display a similar contempt for cultural politics, popular culture, cultural pedagogy, and differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. In what follows, I highlight some of the recurrent arguments made by this group, focusing on the work of Todd Gitlin, who has extensively criticized the current preoccupation on the part of many leftists and progressive academics with cultural politics.4

For Gitlin, contemporary cultural struggles, especially those taken up by social movements organized around sexuality, gender, race, the politics of representation, and, more broadly, multiculturalism, are nothing more than a weak substitute for ‘real world’ politics, notably one that underscores class, labor, and economic inequality. According to Gitlin, social movements that reject the primacy of class give politics a bad name; they serve primarily to splinter the left into identity sects, fail ‘to address questions of economic equity and redistribution’ (Butler, 1997: 266), and offer no unifying vision of the common good capable of challenging corporate power and right-wing ideologues.

Gitlin’s critique of social movements rests on a number of omissions and evasions. First, in presupposing that class is a transcendent and universal category that can unite the left, Gitlin fails to acknowledge a history in which class politics was used to demean and domesticate issues raised by those groups oppressed under the sign of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Marked by the assumption that race and gender considerations could not contribute to a general notion of emancipation, the legacy of class-based politics is distinguished by a history of subordination and exclusion toward marginalized social movements. Moreover, it was precisely because of the subordination and smothering of difference that social groups organized to articulate their respective goals, histories, and interests outside of the orthodoxy of class politics. Judith Butler is right in arguing ‘[h]ow quickly we forget that new social movements based on democratic principles became articulated against a hegemonic Left as well as a complicitous liberal center and a truly threatening right wing’ (Butler, 1997: 268). Moreover, not only does Gitlin limit social agency to the pristine category of class, he can imagine class only as a unified, pre-given subject position, rather than as a shifting, negotiated space marked by historical, symbolic, and social mediations, including the complex negotiations of race and gender.5 Within this discourse, the history of class-based sectarianism is forgotten, the category of class is essentialized, and politics is so narrowly defined as to freeze the open-ended and shifting relationship between culture and power.6

Second, in reducing all social movements to the most essentialistic and rigid forms of identity politics, Gitlin fails to understand how class is actually lived through the everyday relations of race and gender. In Gitlin’s discourse, social movements are defined as narrowly particularistic; hence, it is impossible for him to ‘conceive of social movements as essential to a class-based politics’ (Kelley, 1997: 113-114). For instance, historian Robin Kelley insightfully points out the failure of Gitlin and others to recognize how Act UP, the movement to fight discrimination against gays and lesbians, through its varied demonstrations and media-blitz campaigns, made AIDS visible as a deadly disease that is now taking its greatest toll among poor black women (Kelley, 1997: 113-114). Nor is there any recognition of how the feminist movement made visible the radical political character of everyday experience in order to expose how particular forms of male oppression operated unchallenged in spheres traditionally regarded as distinctly unpolitical. For example, by linking the personal and the political, feminists exposed the dynamics of sexual abuse, particularly as it raged through the communities of poor black and white households. Nor is there any understanding of how a whole generation of young people might be educated to recognize the racist, sexist, colonialist, and class specific representations that permeate advertising, films, and other aspects of media culture that flood daily life. Or how young people have actively engaged in forms of cultural politics through movements such as radical community and youth work, struggles against sweat-shop labor policies supported by university investments, gay and lesbian civil rights drives, and ‘Rock against Racism’ and other forms of political protests. In each case, such movements on the cultural front have registered important forms of resistance designed to reclaim the political struggle over challenging dominant modes of ‘common sense’ as a precondition for building larger social movements and changing institutional power.

Third, Gitlin’s appeal to majority principles slips easily into the reactionary tactic of blaming minorities for the current white backlash, going so far as to argue that because the followers of identity politics (struggles organized around the specific interests of gender, race, age, and sexuality) abandoned a concern for materialist issues, they opened the door for an all-out attack by right-wing conservatives on labor and the poor. At the same time, identity politics bears the burden in Gitlin’s discourse for allowing the right to attack ‘racialized rhetoric as a way of diverting attention from the economic restructuring that has been hurting most Americans’ (Young, 1997: 67). Thoughtlessly aligning himself with the right, Gitlin seems unwilling to acknowledge how the historical legacy of slavery, imperialism, urban ghettoization, segregation, the extermination of Native Americans, the war against immigrants, and the discrimination against Jews as it has been rewritten back into the discourse of American history may upset a majority population that finds it more convenient to blame subordinate groups for their problems than to acknowledge their own complicity.

Against this form of historical amnesia, the call to patriotism, majority values, and unity shares an ignoble relationship to a past in which such principles were rooted in the ideology of white supremacy, the presumption that the public sphere was exclusively white, and the prioritizing of a ‘racially cleansed notion of class’ (Butler, 1997: 268). If identity politics poses a threat to the endearing (because transcendent and universal) category that class represents to some critics, as Robin Kelley argues, it may be because such critics fail to understand how class is actually lived through race, sexual orientation, and gender, or it may be that the return to a form of class warfare against corporate power represents simply another form of identity politics – an identity-based campaign that stems from the anxiety and revulsion of white males who cannot imagine participating in movements led by African Americans, women, Latinos, or gays and lesbians speaking for the whole, or even embracing radical humanism (Kelley, 1998).

Finally, Gitlin’s materialism finds its antithesis in a version of cultural studies that is pure caricature. According to Gitlin, cultural studies is a form of populism intent on finding resistance in the most mundane of cultural practices, ignoring the ever-deepening economic inequities, and dispensing entirely with material relations of power. Banal in its refusal to discriminate between a culture of excellence and the political and economic order, on the one hand, and the trivial pursuits of consumer culture on the other, cultural studies becomes a symbol of bad faith and political irresponsibility. According to Gitlin, ‘popular culture is the consolation prize’ seized upon by progressives who refuse to ‘dwell on unpleasant realities’ associated with the worsening conditions of the poor and the deepening of class inequalities (Gitlin, 1997: 81). For theorists in cultural studies, Gitlin argues, it is irrelevant that African Americans suffer gross material injustice because what really matters is that ‘they have rap’ (Gitlin, 1997: 81). It seems that for Gitlin, cultural studies should ‘free itself of the burden of imagining itself to be a political practice’ (Gitlin, 1997: 82) since the locus of much of its work is the university – a bankrupt site for intellectuals to address the most pressing questions of our age. Rather than take responsibility for what British cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls ‘translating knowledge into the practice of culture’ (Hall, 1990: 18), academics, according to Gitlin, should put ‘real politics’ ahead of cultural matters, ‘not mistake the academy for the larger world’, and put their efforts into organizing ‘groups, coalitions, and movements’ (Gitlin, 1997: 82).

Gitlin’s model of politics is characteristic of a resurgent economism rooted in a notion of class struggle in which it is argued that ‘we can do class or culture, but not both’ (Willis, 1998: 19). Within this view, social movements are dismissed as merely cultural, and the cultural is no longer acknowledged as a serious terrain of political struggle. Unfortunately, this critique not only fails to recognize how issues of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class are intertwined, it also refuses to acknowledge the pedagogical function of culture in constructing identities, mobilizing desires, and shaping moral values. Gitlin dismisses as ‘false consciousness’ the attempt on the part of many theorists to acknowledge that cultural studies is, in part, a pedagogical project concerned with how knowledge is constructed and disseminated in relation to the materiality of power, conflict and oppression. He is utterly indifferent to the political project of analyzing how the educational force of the culture (high and low) has relevance for enabling adults, students, workers, and others to become attentive to the different dynamics of power through ongoing critical analyses of how knowledge, meaning, and values operate in the production, reception, and transformation of social identities, diverse forms of ethical address, and a range of claims on historical memory. Gitlin has no understanding of the importance of cultural pedagogy in illuminating how identities are shaped in a vast array of pedagogical sites outside of the schools. Nor is he sensitive to the pedagogical task of teaching people how to challenge authority, resist, ‘unlearn privilege’ and strategically deploy theory and knowledge in order to make learning fundamental to social change itself.

What is surprising about Gitlin’s attack on cultural studies and his contemptuous dismissal of cultural politics is that the pedagogical and political relevance of such work is part of a long theoretical history that is indebted to critical Marxism. For instance, the crucial importance of linking the political and pedagogical is evident in Antonio Gramsci’s insight that ‘Every relationship of “hegemony” is necessarily an educational relationship’ (Gramsci, 1971: 350). It is also clear in Raymond Williams’ perceptive argument that a critical cultural politics must acknowledge ‘the educational force of our whole social and cultural experience… [as an apparatus of institutions and relationships that] actively and profoundly teaches’ (Williams, 1967: 15). In addition, one could add the insistence of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer that questions about culture cannot be abstracted from questions regarding economics and politics nor can they be dismissed as merely superstructural (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972). Unfortunately, Gitlin’s critique of cultural studies as a retrograde form of populism ignores the relevance of cultural politics and pedagogy as a historical project as well as its current political importance for engaging the interrelated issues of culture, agency, resistance, and power. Unfortunately, by separating politics from culture, Gitlin ends up ‘not only depoliticizing culture but also, with equally impoverishing results, of “deculturalizing” politics’ (Batsleer, 1985: 7). Ironically, the consequences of such an act undermines the very viability of politics and political struggle, especially among those for whom making the political more pedagogical is crucial to their political awakening and potential involvement against various forms of oppression. As Janet Batsleer and her colleagues point out:

Removing politics from the semiotic domain of signs, images and meanings, it segregates it from the lives and interest of ‘ordinary people’, who are in turn induced to accept the representation of themselves as incapable of, and bored by, political reflection and action. (Batsleer, 1985: 7)

By arguing that cultural politics diverts our attention from real concerns, predominantly economic in this case, Gitlin constructs a dichotomy between culture and economics that is, as Andrew Ross points out, both ‘disabling and divisive’ (Ross, 1998: 3). In opposition to such a claim, Ross insightfully argues that cultural and economic forces are mutually interdependent and central to any radical theory of cultural politics.

The vast economic forces that take their daily toll on our labor, communities, and natural habitats are the most powerful elements in our social lives. The power with which they work on our world is exercised through cultural forms: legal, educational, political, and religious institutions; valued artifacts and documents; social identities; codes of moral sanctity; prevailing ideas about the good life; and fears of ruination, among many others. Without these forms, economic activity remains a lifeless abstraction in the ledgers and databases of financial record. Without an understanding of them, we impoverish our chances of building on those rights, aspirations, and collective affinities that promise alternatives to the status quo. (Ross, 1998: 3)

By furthering a false dichotomy between cultural politics and ‘real’ economically based politics, Gitlin substitutes a rigorous engagement with the interrelated and complex modalities of meaning, culture, institutional power, and the material context of everyday life with a dogmatic and narrow view of politics. Moreover, Gitlin’s economism comes dangerously close to promoting an anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical claim to politics which largely registers as an incitement to organizing and pamphleteering.

This discourse is troubling because it separates culture from politics and leaves little room for capturing the contradictions within dominant institutions that open up political and social possibilities for contesting domination, doing critical work within the schools and other public spheres, or furthering the capacity of students and others to question oppressive forms of authority and the operations of power.

Taking Cultural Politics Seriously

Unfortunately, the current onslaught on cultural politics by conservatives and the orthodox left tends to disregard the substantive and critical role of culture, particularly popular culture, in pedagogy and learning, especially for young people. There is no sense in this position of the enormous influence Hollywood films, television, comics, magazines, video games, and Internet culture exert in teaching young people about themselves and their relationship to the larger society. Moreover, neither group addresses the role that academics and public school teachers might assume as public intellectuals mindful of the part that culture plays in shaping public memory, moral awareness, and political agency; similarly, neither group addresses the significance of higher and public education as important cultural sites that functions as a public sphere essential to sustaining a vibrant democracy.

In its best moments, the debate over the politics of culture has reinvigorated the dialogue about the role that public and higher education might play in creating a pluralized public culture essential for animating basic precepts of democratic public life, that is, educating students to be critical and active citizens. At the same time, the right and left-wing orthodox versions of the debate have failed to consider more fundamental issues about the importance of culture as a teaching force that goes far beyond institutionalized schooling. With the rise of new media technologies and the global reach of the highly concentrated culture industries, the scope and impact of the educational force of culture in shaping and refiguring all aspects of daily life appear unprecedented. Yet the current debates have generally ignored the powerful pedagogical influence of popular culture, along with the implications it has for shaping curricula, questioning notions of high-status knowledge, and redefining the relationship between the culture of schooling and the cultures of everyday life. Consequently, the political, ethical, and social significance of the role that popular culture plays as the primary pedagogical medium for young people remains largely unexamined. For instance, there is little recognition by either conservatives or progressives of the importance of using Hollywood films such as Schindler’s List to examine important historical events or incorporating Disney’s animated cartoons in the curriculum to examine how gender roles are constructed within these films and what they suggest about the subject positions that young people should take up,question, or resist in a patriarchal society. Nor do conservatives or liberals who disavow cultural politics and pedagogy exhibit any understanding of the importance of expanding literacy in the schools beyond the culture of the book to teach students how to use the new electronic technologies that characterize the digital age.

Informal learning for many young people is directly linked to their watching CD-ROM, videos, films, television, and computers. Students need to learn how to read these new cultural texts critically, but they should also learn how to create their own cultural texts by mastering the technical skills needed to produce television scripts, use video cameras, write programs for computers, and produce television documentaries. This is not to suggest that young people are unaware of how to use these technologies. On the contrary, many young people, as Jon Katz points out, ‘are at the center of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world [because] they helped build it,


they understand it as well, or better than anyone else’ (Katz, 1997: 11). The problem is that the schools, primarily from the elementary grades to high school, are too big and out of touch with the new technologies and the new literacies that they have produced. Some schools at the secondary level have begun to take note of the importance of the new technologies, while higher education is moving more quickly to catch up with the digital revolution. For instance, a growing number of alternative school programs and universities have developed very successful media literacy programs and mass communications programs, which unlike computer technology programs do not reduce digital literacy simply to learning new skills. These programs combine literacy aimed at reading and writing with literacy classes aimed at learning the basics of video production and television programming. These programs allow kids to tell their own stories, learn to write scripts, and how to get involved in community action programs.7 They also challenge the assumption that popular cultural texts cannot be as profoundly important as traditional sources of learning in teaching about important issues framed through, for example, the social lens of poverty, racial conflict, and gender discrimination. Within these approaches, hands-on learning, basic literacy skills, and more advanced classroom studies are combined with the skills and knowledge needed to both produce and critically examine the new media technologies. This is not so much a matter of pitting popular culture against traditional curricula sources as it is of using both in a mutually informative way.

As culture, especially popular culture, becomes the most powerful educational force in shaping the perceptions of young people about themselves and their relationships to others, educators must ask new kinds of questions: How might teachers address education anew, given the new forms of cultural pedagogy that have arisen outside of traditional schooling? In light of such changes, how do educators respond to value-based questions regarding the purposes that schools should serve, what types of knowledge are of the most worth, and what does it mean to claim authority in a world where borders are constantly shifting? How might pedagogy be understood as a political and moral practice rather than a technical strategy? And what relation should public and higher education have to young people as they develop a sense of agency, particularly with respect to the obligations of critical citizenship and public life in a radically transformed cultural and global landscape?

As citizenship becomes more privatized and public and higher education more vocationalized, youth are increasingly educated to become consumers rather than critical social subjects. Under such circumstances, it becomes all the more imperative for educators to rethink how the educational force of the culture works to both secure and exclude particular identities and values, and how such a recognition can be used to redefine what it means to link knowledge and power, expand the meaning and role of public intellectuals, and take seriously the assumption that pedagogy is always contextual and must be understood as the outcome of particular struggles over identity, citizenship, politics and power. In opposition to Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty, and Todd Gitlin, educators need to foreground their role as public intellectuals and affirm the importance of such critical work in expanding the possibilities for democratic public life, especially as it addresses the education of youth within rather than outside of the relations of politics and culture. What exactly does this suggest?

Assuming the role of public intellectuals, educators might begin by establishing the pedagogical conditions for students to be able to develop a sense of perspective and hope in order to recognize that the way things are is not the way they have always been or must necessarily be in the future. More specifically, it suggests that educators develop educational practices informed by both a language of critique and possibility, a discourse in which the utopian moment is anticipatory rather than compensatory and employs the language of critical imagination to enable educators and students to consider the structure, movement, and opportunities in the contemporary order of things and how they might act to resist forms of oppression and domination while developing those aspects of public life that point to its best and as yet unrealized possibilities. At the current historical moment, such hope rejects a fatalism that suggests that the only direction in which education can move is to adopt the overriding goals of the corporate culture, to prepare students at all levels of schooling in order to simply take their place in the new corporate order. Hope in this context is not simply about lost possibilities, or a negative prescription to resist, but an ethical ideal rooted in the daily lives of educators, adults, students and others who deny the machinery of corporate authoritarianism along with other forms of domination by embracing the ‘spark that reaches out beyond the surrounding emptiness’ (Rabinach, 1977: 8).

This is a language of educated hope and democratic possibilities, which asserts that schools play a vital role in developing the political and moral consciousness of its citizens. It is also grounded in a notion of educational struggle and leadership that does not begin with the question of raising test scores or educating students to be experts, but with a moral and political vision of what it means to educate to govern, lead a humane life, and address the social welfare of those less fortunate than themselves. Educated hope points beyond the given by salvaging those dreams that call for educators to develop ethical projects out of the specificity of the contexts and social formations in which they undertake efforts to combat various forms of oppression.8

Educators who take on the role of public intellectuals can also teach students what might be called a language of social criticism and responsibility. This is a language that refuses to treat knowledge as something to be consumed passively, taken up merely to be tested, or legitimated outside of an engaged normative discourse. Central to such a language is the goal of creating those pedagogical conditions that enable students to develop the discipline, ability, and opportunity to think in oppositional terms, to critically analyze the assumptions and interests that authorize the very questions asked within the authoritative language of the school or classroom. Such criticism cuts across disciplinary boundaries and calls for educators, students, and cultural workers to take on the role of public critics who can function as historians, archivist, pundit, social critic, bricoleur, and activist. Maurice Berger suggests that such forms of criticism create new forms of expression and practice. He writes:

The strongest criticism today – the kind that offers the greatest hope for the vitality and future of the discipline – is capable of engaging, guiding, directing, and influencing culture, even stimulating new forms of practice and expression. The strongest criticism serves as a dynamic, critical force, rather than as an act of boosterism. The strongest criticism uses language and rhetoric not merely for descriptive evaluative purposes but as a means of inspiration, provocation, emotional connection, and experimentation. (Berger, 1998: 11)

Berger’s notion of criticism affirms a notion of literacy that reveals the bankruptcy of the vocabulary of literacy associated with the discourse of both corporate culture and traditional pedagogy. Refusing both a market pragmatism and a literacy rooted in the exclusive confines of the modernist culture of print, ‘the strongest forms of criticism’ emerge out of pluralized notion of literacy that values both print and visual culture. Moreover, literacy as a critical discourse also provides a more complex accounting of power, identity formation, and the materiality of power while stressing that while literacy itself guarantees nothing, but is an essential precondition for agency, self-representation, and a substantive notion of democratic public life. This suggest a discourse of criticism and literacy that unsettles common sense and engages a variety of cultural texts and public forms. It is a language that learns how to address social injustices in order to break the tyranny of the present.

Another possible requirement for teachers who assume the position of public intellectuals is the need to develop new ways to engage history in order to develop a critical watch over the relationship between historical events and the ways in which those events are produced and recalled through the narratives in which they unfold. This suggests that educators reaffirm the pedagogical importance of educating students to be skilled in the language of public memory. Public memory rejects the notion of knowledge as merely an inheritance with transmission as its only form of practice. In its critical form, public memory suggests that history be read not merely as an act of recovery but as a dilemma of uncertainty, a form of address and remembering that links the narratives of the past with the circumstances of its unfolding and how such an unfolding or retelling is connected to ‘the present relations of power’ and the experience of those engaged in the rewriting of historical narratives.9 Public memory sees knowledge as a social and historical construction that is always the object of struggle. Rather than be preoccupied with the ordinary, public memory is concerned with what is distinctive and extraordinary; it is concerned not with societies that are quiet, that reduce learning to reverence, procedure, and whispers but with forms of public life that are noisy, that are engaged in dialogue and vociferous speech.

In addition, educators as public intellectuals need to expand and apply the principles of diversity, dialogue, compassion and tolerance in their classrooms to strengthen rather than weaken the relationship between learning and empowerment on the one hand and democracy and schooling on the other. Bigotry, not difference, is the enemy of democracy, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for students to believe in democracy without recognizing cultural and political diversity as a primary condition for learning multiple literacies, experiencing the vitality of diverse public cultures, and refusing the comfort of monolithic cultures defined by racist exclusions. Differences in this instance become important not as simply rigid identity markers, but as differences marked by unequal relations of power, sites of contestation, and changing histories, experiences, and possibilities. Difference calls into question the central dynamic of power and in doing so opens up both a space of translation and the conditions for struggling to renegotiate and challenge the ideologies and machineries of power that put some subjects in place while simultaneously denying social agency to others.10

In a world marked by increasing poverty, unemployment, and diminished social opportunities, educators must vindicate the crucial connection between culture and politics in defending public and higher education as sites of democratic learning and struggle. Essential to such a task is providing students with the knowledge, skills, and values they will need to address some of the most urgent questions of our time. Educating for critical citizenship and civic courage, in part, means redefining the role of academics as engaged public intellectuals and border crossers who can come together to explore the crucial role that culture plays in revising and strengthening the fabric of public life. Culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force as a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996: 142) can be extended to broader public discourses and practices about the meaning of democracy, citizenship, and social justice. One of the most important functions of a vibrant democratic culture is to provide the institutional and symbolic resources necessary for young people and adults to develop their capacity to think critically, to participate in power relations and policy decisions that affect their lives, and to transform those racial, social, and economic inequities that impede democratic social relations.


1. Bloom’s position is rooted in a nostalgia for the good old days when universities taught the select few who qualified as talented writers and readers and were willing to carry on an aesthetic tradition purged of the contamination of politics, ideology, and power. Unfortunately, for Bloom, the universities are now filled with the stars of the School of Resentment, who debase themselves by teaching social selflessness.

2. This argument is repeated in greater detail in Rorty (1998).

3. For a brilliant rejoinder to this type of historical amnesia, see Kelley (1997).

4. Gitlin’s most sustained development of this argument can be found in Gitlin (1995).

5. I take these issues up in Giroux (1996) and Giroux (1998).

6. For an insightful analysis of this position, see Grossberg (1997: 245-271).

7. See the excellent story on video literacy and schooling in Pall (1999: 34-36, 38).

8. This theme is taken up in Paulo Freire (1998).

9. I have appropriated this idea from Young (1998: 668-669).

10. I have taken these ideas from Homi Bhabha in Olson and Worsham (1998: 361-391).


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