Interview with Henry A. Giroux: The Neoliberalisation of Higher Education

Henry 2012 compressed


Henry A. Giroux, whose book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education came out earlier this year, kindly agreed to answer some questions I had for him on neoliberalism, the public university and the role of the public intellectual in resisting, as well as critiquing, the neoliberalisation of academic life.


Simon Dawes: In the context of contemporary changes to the funding of Higher Education around the world, an increasing number of academics have begun to defend the public importance of universities. How do you define the idea of the ‘public university’ and its importance for the public sphere?

Henry A. Giroux: Higher education must be understood as a democratic public sphere – a space in which education enables students to develop a keen sense of prophetic justice, claim their moral and political agency, utilize critical analytical skills, and cultivate an ethical sensibility through which they learn to respect the rights of others. Higher education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead, but also to educate students to make authority and power politically and morally accountable while at the same time sustaining a democratic, formative public culture. Higher education may be one of the few public spheres left where knowledge, values, and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope, and a substantive democracy.  Democracy places civic demands upon its citizens, and such demands point to the necessity of an education that is broad-based, critical, and supportive of meaningful civic values, participation in self-governance, and democratic leadership. Only through such a formative and critical educational culture can students learn how to become individual and social agents, rather than merely disengaged spectators, able both to think otherwise and to act upon civic commitments that demand a reordering of basic power arrangements fundamental to promoting the common good and producing a meaningful democracy.



Simon Dawes: In what way do changes to the funding of universities affect this principle of the public university, and what are the consequences of this for the public sphere?

Henry A. Giroux: In the United States and in many other countries, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to low funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the lack of faculty self-governance, all of which not only contradicts the culture and democratic value of higher education but also makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere.  Decreased financial support for higher education stands in sharp contrast to increased support for tax benefits for the rich, big banks, military budgets, and mega corporations.  Rather than enlarge the moral imagination and critical capacities of students, too many universities are now wedded to producing would-be hedge fund managers, depoliticized students,  and creating modes of education that promote a “technically trained docility.”  Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities are now driven principally by vocational, military, and economic considerations while increasingly removing academic knowledge production from democratic values and projects. The ideal of the university as a place to think, to engage in thoughtful consideration, promote dialogue, and learn how to hold power accountable is viewed as a threat to neoliberal modes of governance. At the same time, higher education is viewed by the apostles of market fundamentalism as a space for producing profits, educating a docile labor force, and a powerful institution for indoctrinating students into accepting the obedience demanded by the corporate order.


Simon Dawes: What’s distinctive about the current threat to higher education, and why does neoliberalisation necessarily undermine the concept of the public university?

Henry A. Giroux: Under neoliberalism, any public sphere that educates young people to be critical and engaged citizens is seen as dangerous to the established order. This is one of the reasons that the right-wing hates the legacy of the sixties because it reminds them of the power of students to question the established order and make power accountable while demanding that education function as a democratic public sphere. Moreover, education provides opportunities for those multiracial and working class individuals previously unable to get a decent education. This is viewed as a threat to a dominant perception of the public sphere as predominantly Christian and white.

These are some of the reasons why education is being massively defunded while students are trapped into tuition increases that imperil the possibility of poor students from going to college while forcing existing students into an intellectual and morally dead zone that robs them of their imagination and forces them to think about their lives and careers solely in terms of survival tactics—how to pay off their loans as quickly as possible in order to be free of debt. The current assault threatening higher education and the humanities in particular, cannot be understood outside of the crisis of youth, public values, critical thought, and democracy itself. What is also important to recognize is that since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, a new model for running the university emerged that relied on corporate management styles, values, and institutional formations. This marked the rise of the corporate university which now defines all aspects of governing, curriculum, financial matters, and a host of other academic policies.  The corporate university is the ultimate expression of neoliberal values and social relations, which are defined by a top-down authoritarian style of power.

What is distinct about the current threat to higher education and the humanities in particular is the increasing pace of the corporatization and militarization of the university, the squelching of academic freedom, the rise of an ever increasing contingent of part-time faculty, the use of violence to squelch peaceful student dissent, and the view that students are basically consumers and faculty providers of a saleable commodity such as a credential or a set of workplace skills.

More striking still is the slow death of the university as a center of critique, vital source of civic education, and crucial public good.  Many faculties are now demoralized as they increasingly lose their rights and power. Many now find themselves staring into an abyss, either unwilling to address the current attacks on the university or befuddled over how the language of specialization and professionalization has cut them off from not only connecting their work to larger civic issues  and social problems but also from developing any meaningful relationship to a larger democratic polity.  As an adjunct of the academic-military-industrial complex, higher education has nothing to say about teaching students how to think for themselves in a democracy, how to think critically and engage with others, and how to address through the prism of democratic values the relationship between themselves and the larger world. Hence, students are treated like commodities and data to be ingested and spit out as potential job seekers for whom education has been reduced to a form of training.

Students are now taught to ignore human suffering and to focus mainly on their own self-interests and by doing so they are being educated to exist in a political and moral vacuum. Education under neoliberalism is a form of radical depoliticization, one that kills the radical imagination and the hope for a world that is more just, equal, and democratic.

The increasing corporatization of higher education poses a dire threat to its role as a democratic public sphere and a vital site where students can learn to address important social issues, be self-reflective, and learn the knowledge, values, and ideas central to deepening and expanding the capacities the need to be engaged and critical agents. Under neoliberalism, higher education is dangerous because it has the potential to educate young people to think critically and learn how to hold power accountable.  Unfortunately, with the rise of the corporate university which now defines all aspects of governing, curriculum, financial matters, and a host of other academic policies, education is now largely about training, creating an elite class of managers, and eviscerating those forms of knowledge that conjure up what might be considered dangerous forms of moral witnessing and collective political action.  Any subject or mode of knowledge that does not serve the instrumental needs of capital is rendered disposable, suggesting that the only value of any worth is exchange value the only pedagogical practice of any value must be reduced to a commercial transaction. The corporate university is the ultimate expression of a disimagination machine, which employs a top-down authoritarian style of power, mimics a business culture, infantilizes students by treating them as consumers, and depoliticizes faculty by removing them from all forms of governance. As William Boardman argues, the destruction of higher education “by the forces of commerce and authoritarian politics is a sad illustration of how the democratic ethos (educate everyone to their capacity, for free) has given way to exploitation (turning students into a profit center that has the serendipitous benefit of feeding inequality).”

Particularly disturbing here is the corporate university’s attempt to impose modes of governance based on a business model and to wage a war on higher education by reducing the overwhelming number of faculty to part-time help with no power, benefits, or security. Faculty are being turned into a labor forces that mimics Wal-Mart workers while the managerial class is expanding, draining off funds from faculty and students, and governing the university as if it were a branch of General Motors and Disneyland.  Many part-time and non-tenured faculty in the United States qualify for food stamps and are living slightly above the poverty level. The slow death of the university as a center of critique, a fundamental source of civic education, and a crucial public good make available the fundamental framework for the emergence of a formative culture that produces and legitimates an authoritarian society. The corporatization of higher education constitutes a serious strike against democracy and gives rise to the kind of thoughtlessness that Hanna Arendt believed was at the core of totalitarianism. Too many universities have become captives of corporate power. For instance, New York University in its attempt to expand the reach of neoliberal academic globalization constructed a campus in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates in which, as the New York Times pointed out, workers were beaten and deported for going on strike, forced to pay recruitment fees that added up to a year’s wages, and had their passports held in order to squelch dissent.  But, then again, higher education is now firmly entrenched in what President Eisenhower once called the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex.


Simon Dawes: A problem with the critique of neoliberalism is that many critics neglect to specify what they mean by the term. How do you define neoliberalism?

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism, or what can be called the latest stage of predatory capitalism, is part of a broader project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital. It is a political, economic, and political project that constitutes an ideology, mode of governance, policy, and form of public pedagogy. As an ideology, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and an irrational belief in the market to solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations.  As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life free of government regulations, driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social costs. As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, selling off of state functions, deregulation of finance and labor, elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society.   As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.


Simon Dawes: So how do you see the distinction between neoliberalism and (classical) liberalism?

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism is both an updated and more ruthless stage in predatory capitalism and its search for the consolidations of class power globally, buttressed by the free market fundamentalism made famous by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, without any regard for the social contract. As Robert McChesney has argued, it is classical liberalism with the gloves off or shall we say liberalism without the guilt–a more predatory form of market fundamentalism that is as ruthless as it is orthodox in its disregard for democracy. The old liberalism believed in social provisions and partly pressed the claims for social and economic justice. Neoliberalism considers the discourse of equality, justice, and democracy quaint, if not dangerous and must be either trivialized, turned into its Orwellian opposite, or eviscerated from public life. It certainly represents more than an intensification of classical liberalism and in that sense it represents a confluence, a historical conjuncture in which the most ruthless elements of capitalism have come together to create something new and more predatory amplified by the financialization of capital and the development of a mode of corporate sovereignty that takes no prisoners.


Simon Dawes: In what way does neoliberalism, as an ideological project, legitimate cruelty, and to what extent do you think a neoliberal perspective could be capable of developing its own notion of the good society or the public good?

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism creates a political landscape that destroys the social state, social protections, and democracy itself.  As a theater of cruelty, it produces massive inequality in wealth and income, puts political power in the hands of ruling financial elites, destroys all vestiges of the social contract, and increasingly views those marginalized by race, class, disability and age as redundant and disposable. It facilitates the dismantling of democracy and the rise of the punishing state by criminalizing social problems and ruling through a crime control complex. It also removes economics and markets from the discourse of social obligations and social costs.  The results are all around us ranging from ecological devastation and widespread economic impoverishment to the increasing incarceration of large segments of the population marginalized by race and class.  The language of possessive individualism now replaces the notion of the public good and all forms of solidarity not aligned with market values.  Under neoliberalism the social is pathologized. As public considerations and issues collapse into the morally vacant pit of private visions and narrow self-interests, the bridges between private and public life are dismantled making it almost impossible to determine how private troubles are connected to broader public issues. Long term investments are now replaced by short term profits while compassion and concern for others are viewed as a weakness. Neoliberalism drains the pubic treasury while feeding the profits of the rich and the voracious military-industrial complex. In the end, it abolishes institutions meant to eliminate human suffering, protect the environment, insure the right of unions, and provide social provisions. It has no vision of the good society or the public good and it has no mechanisms for addressing society’s major economic, political, and social problems.



Simon Dawes: You’re a well-known advocate of critical pedagogy and the need for teachers to be publically engaged individuals, and you of course have your own Public Intellectuals Project and column in Truthout magazine. How do you envisage the role of the public intellectual?

Henry A. Giroux: Not only are many academics under siege as a result of the increased corporatization and militarization of higher education, but many have succumbed to the seductions of power, while a minority have taken a very different role and are attempting with great difficulty to engage in modes of teaching and scholarship that address wider civic values and crucial social problems.

In the first instance, I write about the reduction of intellectuals to the status of technicians and on the other hand the perverse elevation of a new regime of gated intellectuals. That is, academics who have become comfortable with the rewards of power and in doing so buy into defining themselves as servants of established power, accepting the transformation of the university as an appendage of the marketplace, and functioning to legitimate what amounts to a toxic vision of higher education. They generally are technicians who have no vision and expect very little for their students and are largely concerned about turning research and teaching into acts of commerce. These intellectuals have no interest in helping to construct a more just world or using their knowledge and skills to help students and others come to a better understanding of how power works and what it means to inhabit a discourse of rigor, morality, and responsibility.  On the other hand, there are those academics who are both clever and frivolous, anti-political and often indifferent to the growing plight of human suffering. Their academic work is often utterly privatized and unconnected to important social issues and always haughty—and they are quite unaware of the caricatures they have become. And while they are not directly complicit with the workings of the corporate university, they have become irrelevant by virtue of their jargonistic language, cerebral convolutions, and their refusal, as James Baldwin once put it, “to disturb the peace.” There is also the issue of careerism and the powerful force it exercises in undermining intellectual courage, which has given way to the comfortable space of accommodation. In this instance, the notion of the public intellectual has given way to the “public relations intellectual,” the overheated talking head spewing out sound bites to various media outlets.

In the second instance, there are also a number of academics who are public intellectuals who model what it means to connect their scholarship to important public issues, work across a number of disciplines, address a variety of audiences, and refuse a notion of education that is compatible with the vision of accountants. Such intellectuals assume the role of public intellectuals, wakeful and mindful of their responsibilities to bear testimony to human suffering and the pedagogical possibilities at work in educating students to be autonomous, self-reflective, and socially responsible. In this case, I argue for intellectuals who not only teach students how to be critical, to search for the truth, but also to understand education as the practice of freedom.

At a time of rising authoritarianism and state and corporate violence in the United States and elsewhere, academics have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus, and challenge common sense.  The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition.  Put simply, academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, and making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view. Too many intellectuals focus on how something can be done efficiently rather than ask if it is right or wrong, if it benefits human kind and the planet rather than simply being reduced to an empty form of neoliberal instrumentality.

The seriousness of the retreat of intellectuals from addressing important social issues, aiding social movements, and using their knowledge to create a critical formative culture cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, the retreat of the intellectuals in the struggle against neoliberalism and other forms of domination is now matched by the rise of anti-public intellectuals who have sold themselves to corporate power. More specifically, neoliberalism has created not only a vast apparatus of pedagogical relations that privileges deregulation, privatization, commodification, and the militarization of everyday life, but also an army of anti-public intellectuals who function largely in the interest of the financial elite. Rather than show what is wrong with democracy, they do everything they can to destroy it. These intellectuals are bought and sold by the financial elite and are nothing more than ideological puppets using their skills to destroy the social contract, critical thought, and all those social institutions capable of constructing non-commodified values and democratic public spheres.   They are the enemies of democracy and are crucial in creating subjectivities and values that buy into the notion that capital rather than people are the subject of history and that consuming is the only obligation of citizenship.  Their goal is to normalize the ideologies, modes of governance, and policies that reproduce massive inequities and suffering for the many and exorbitant and dangerous privileges for the corporate and financial elite.   Moreover, such intellectuals are symptomatic of the fact that neoliberalism represents a new historical conjuncture in which cultural institutions and political power has taken on a whole new life in shaping politics. What this suggests is that the left in its various registers has to create its own public intellectuals in higher education, the alternative media, and all of those spaces where meaning circulates.  Intellectuals have a responsibility to connect their work to important social issues, work with popular movements, and engage in the shaping of policies that benefit all people and not simply a few. At the heart of this suggestion is the need to recognize that ideas matter in the battle against authoritarianism and that pedagogy must be central to any viable notion of politics and collective struggle. Public intellectuals have an obligation to work for global peace, individual freedom, care of others, economic justice, and democratic participation, especially at a time of legitimized violence and tyranny. I completely agree with the late Pierre Bourdieu when he insisted that there is enormous political importance “to defend the possibility and necessity of the intellectual, who is firstly critical of the existing state of affairs. There is no genuine democracy without genuine opposing critical power.”  The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition.


Simon Dawes: You’ve previously spoken of your white, Catholic, working-class background and the importance of cultural figures, such as Etta James and James Baldwin, as reminders for you of what it means to “ground one’s life in real struggles, disappointments, and hopes”. A deep “sense of solidarity and social justice” certainly underlies your work, both in and out of the academy. To what extent would you say that your own experience with the American academy, prior to your move from the US to Canada, was a struggle, and in what ways do you think that it has influenced your views on neoliberalism, higher education and critical pedagogy?

Henry A. Giroux: As a working class intellectual, I found myself for much of my career in universities that were largely hostile to my experiences, cultural capital, and the critical scholarship that informed my work. This was particularly true of my experiences at Boston University where I was denied tenure by the right-wing university president, John Silber. And this was after going through the tenure process at all levels with unanimous votes for tenure. It was also true of my time at Penn State where I had to endure a couple of deans who lacked any vision, were mean-spirited, and intellectually vacuous. Fortunately, these dreadful experiences were not true for my time at Miami University and not true for my current position at McMaster University, in which both institutions generously provided the conditions and support for me to do my work and continue my role as a public intellectual. I believe that such narratives and struggles need to be made visible in order to articulate the broader pressures that many academics marginalized by their backgrounds experience when they push against the grain or find themselves under assault as part of a hidden curriculum that has a powerful and invisible order of politics.  At the same time, my own struggle is not meant to reaffirm the often dystopian nature of the university but to make clear that such spaces are not without their contradictions and that power is never absolute – social and political change is always possible.

The university is neither a prison nor a neoliberal factory. It is a site of contradictions and struggles and in my mind a public sphere where one of the most important struggles over the formative culture necessary in a democracy is taking place in the United States. I wanted to use the interview to explore a number of layers at work in the structuring of the university while at the same time arguing that intellectuals and students need to fight for higher education as a crucial public good. Moreover, the interaction between the private and the public have informed my role of as a public intellectual in higher education and my attempts to develop an understanding of critical pedagogy as central to the crucial nature of agency, politics, and democracy itself.   Amid the pressures of an institution that is rife with the legacy of cultural elitism, class structures, racism, and repression, the interview provides an archive and a narrative of critique and possibility, despair and hope, and a glimpse into a particular kind of memory work that illuminates past struggles and the problems of a new historical conjuncture as well as what it means to address them.  Working class academics and young people are presently struggling within higher education, unsure of their role, refusing to be defined by their deficits, and trying to find the courage to make a difference in their roles as scholars, teachers, and researchers.



Simon Dawes: What can academics do to not only critique the neoliberal assault on the public university, but also resist it?

Henry A. Giroux: First, educators and others need to figure out how to defend more vigorously higher education as a public good and how central it is in producing the formative culture necessary to educate young people to be critical and engaged agents willing to fight to deepen and expand the promises of a substantive democracy.

Second, we need to address what the optimum conditions are for educators, artists, activists, etc., to perform their work in an autonomous and critical fashion. In other words, we need to think through the conditions that make academic labor fruitful, engaging, and relevant.

Third, we need to turn the growing army of temporary workers now swelling the ranks of the academy into full-time, permanent faculty. The presence of so many part-time employees is scandalous and both weakens the power of the faculty and exploits them.

Fourth, we need to educate students to be critical agents, to learn how to take risks, engage in thoughtful dialogue, and address what it means to be socially responsible.

Fifth, educators and others must address pedagogy as the practice of freedom. Pedagogy is not about training; it is about educating people to be self-reflective, critical, and self-conscious about their relationship with others and to know something about their relationship with the larger world. Pedagogy in this sense not only provides important thoughtful and intellectual competencies; it also enables people to act effectively upon the societies in which they live.

Sixth, educators and others need a new political language with broader narratives that address the totality of society rather than focus on single-based issue politics. I am not against identity politics or single-based issues, but we need to find ways to connect these issues to more encompassing, global narratives about democracy so we can recognize their strengths and limitations in building broad-based social movements. In short, it is imperative that as educators and socially responsible intellectuals, artists, parents, and concerned citizens, we must act for justice and against injustice. And such a call to pursue the truth with a small “t” must be shaped by informed judgments, self-reflection, searing forms of critique, civic courage, and a deep commitment to education as central to the struggle for democracy and social change.  Needless to say, we need to find new ways to connect education to the struggle for a democratic future, which is now being undermined in ways that were unimaginable thirty years ago.

Opposing the forces of domination is important, but it does not go far enough. We must move beyond a language of pointless denunciations and offer instead a language that moves forward with the knowledge, skills, and social relations necessary for the creation of new modes of agency, social movements, and democratic economic and social policies. We need to open up the realm of human possibility, recognize that history is open, that justice is never complete, and that democracy can never be fully settled. I fervently believe in the need for both critique and hope, and have faith that the Left can develop the public spheres that make such possibilities realizable, whether they be schools, classrooms, workshops, newspapers, online journals, community colleges, or other spaces where knowledge, power, ethics, and justice merge to create new subjectivities, new modes of civic courage, and new hope for the future.

Giroux book cover

Henry A. Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), best known for his work in public pedagogy, cultural studies, youth studies, higher education, media studies, and critical theory.

His website:

His new book is Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Books, 2014):







One comment

  1. […] In 2020, universities were issued mandate letters directing them to align more closely with industry to “ensure programs meet workforce needs…and meet the demands of our ever-evolving world of work.” More closely linking university programming to labour market needs is a bright red flag for anybody concerned with the narrow view that education should be solely  “occupationally useful” rather than a public space “where knowledge, values, and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing publ…“ […]

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