One week ago, our class attended a lecture at John Abbott with Dr. Henry Giroux, a recent emigre from the US, who now teaches at McMaster, where he holds the Global Television Network Chair in Communication Studies. Giroux, who looks at little like the love child of Woody Allen and Joey Ramone, is a fascinating mind with a lot to say, especially when it comes the the US education and political systems.
Giroux and his wife, Dr. Susan Searls-Giroux, left the States for Canada – they are actual physical manifestations of the legendary intellectual arkload of people who fled the US when the Bush league were reinstated. Yes, Virginia, they really exist.
The following journal entry is how I responded to Giroux’s talk last week.
Reflections on ‘Take Back Higher Education’
I enjoyed Henry Giroux’s talk on taking back higher education. Much of what Dr. Giroux had to say rung true for me; also, his style and pacing were accessible and generally interesting.
I wonder, however, whether the content of his talk is as relevant for Canadian educators as it is for our American counterparts. After all, the gist of his theory is that the US government has broken the social contract with its citizens in general and its youth in particular. Here in Canada, many of the issues with which Giroux takes umbrage are not applicable: for instance, our universities are (as far as I can see) still havens of intellectual debate and political critique. As for funding, schools such as McGill are in such dire financial straights that Coke and Pepsi can provoke a front-page scandal when they bid on exclusive on-campus distribution – a matter that is not so much a result of university commercialism as it is a symptom of underfunding.
Tuition at the most prestigious Canadian universities is 1/10th the tuition at comparable American institutions, and our governments are so preoccupied with maintaining the social contract – i.e., keeping higher education accessible – that inflexible and impractical tuition caps force the institutions to engage in commercialism as a matter of survival.
During his talk and the subsequent round table discussion, Giroux and his partner invoked a couple of terrifying incidents in American academia – the professor who is being sued because students were asked to “think about being white,” and the university that’s being sued because a professor assigned excerpts of the Q’ran – which, again, I hope, are unlikely occurrences in a Canadian system. Look at our history – while the US was shooting protestors at Kent State, our PM was a pot-smoking, convertible-driving, cradle-robbing, pirouetting, bird-flipping playboy, decades before Clinton hit the White House.
Today, although our politicians are but pale imitations of their predecessors, our academics are not silenced; local professors and teachers are frequently featured in the local and national media, from print to television to the Internet.
Giroux’s discussion of the modern, “plural” literacy, in fact, was a gentle hint that teachers need to embrace new technology rather than poo-poo it as newfangled machinery. Traditionally, literacy has been print-based. But today, staying connected to the real world outside the academy incorporates idea of staying technologically aware (and aware in other dimensions, too). One of the most important ideas that I took from the talk was that connection – this is not simply a political connection. Teachers need to embrace modernity, from the poetry teacher who brings a rap song to class to the business teacher who devotes classtime to building web sites. Our students are engaged in the world; we need to encourage this engagement and participate as best we can.
Giroux’s talk focused on the issue of political engagement at the university level, and again, not all of his points were applicable at the Cegep level. For instance, although we are protected by strong unions, Cegep teachers are not tenured, and we do not operate under the proverbial ‘publish or perish’ tenet of our university counterparts. Perhaps because we are teachers first and researchers/writers second – if at all – we may be less likely to take refuge in the Ivory Tower.
Having said that, I have to admit that a lot of what Giroux attacked is true for us, as Canadians and as Cegep teachers. Our youth have become a marketing demographic, reduced to human billboards for Nike and Adidas. We are faced with the same crises as teachers in terms of job security and the pressure to teach “marketable” skills. I especially responded to his comments about criminalizing youth – Giroux really made me reconsider the idea of “Zero Tolerance” for drugs and violence. In the parameters of the social contract, our schools should be dedicated to helping students, not punishing them.
I also liked Giroux’s Chomsky-esque approach to critical thinking – students are already critical thinkers, our job is to (a) make them see that they are and (b) teach them how to become critical agents. In this context, we have a responsibility to be actively engaged as teachers, since we are modelling behaviour for our students. I think he also made it clear that this engagement with the world – whether we teach political science or phys-ed – needs to be critically aware and active. We don’t need to stand perpetually on soapboxes, but we do need to demonstrate to our students that educated people do act and react to the socio-political happenings around us.
I was also gratified to hear from Giroux that he does believe this responsibility extends to teachers at the primary and secondary levels. After all, 11% of Canadian youth leave high school without a diploma , 73% of whom never resume their education. Although 76% of Canadian youth have some post-secondary education, only 27% graduate (the Quebec figure is literally twice that!). So at least 24% of the voting-age population is never exposed to higher education (Zeman, Knighton & Bussiere, 2004). If, as Giroux contends, democracy demands an educated, critically aware populace, then higher education cannot bear the burden alone.