Teachers as Intellectuals

Critical Educational Theory and the Language of Critique

Henry A. Giroux

Radical pedagogy emerged in full strength as part of the new sociology of education in England and the United States over a decade ago as a critical response to what can be loosely termed the ideology of traditional educational practice.' Preoccupied with the imperative to challenge the dominant assumption that schools are the major mechanism for the development of a democratic and egalitarian social order, critical educational theory set itself the task of uncovering how domination and oppression are produced within the various mechanisms of schooling. Rather than accept the notion that schools are vehicles of democracy and social mobility, educational critics make such an assumption problematic. In doing so, their major ideological and political task is to unravel how schools reproduce the logic of capital through the ideological and material forms of privilege and domination that structure the lives of students from various class, gender, and ethnic groupings.

Radical critics, for the most part, agree that educational traditionalists generally refused co interrogate the political nature of public schooling. In fact, traditionalists entirely eluded the issue through the paradoxical attempt of depoliticizing the language of schooling while reproducing and legitimating capitalist ideologies. The most obvious expression of this approach can be seen in the positivist discourse that defined and still defines mainstream educational research and policy and which takes as its most important concerns the mastery of pedagogical techniques and the transmission of knowledge instrumental to the existing society. In the world view of the traditionalists, schools are merely instructional sites. That schools are also cultural and political sites is ignored, as is the notion that they represent areas of accommodation and contestation among differentially empowered cultural and economic groups. From the perspective of critical educational theory, traditionalists suppress important questions regarding the relations among knowledge, power, and domination.

Out of this analysis emerged a new theoretical language and mode of criticism which argues that schools do not provide opportunities in the broad Western humanist tradition for self and social empowerment in the society at large. In opposition to the traditionalist position, leftist critics provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence to suggest that schools are, in fact, agencies of social, economic, and cultural reproduction. At best, public schooling offers limited individual mobility to members of the working class and other oppressed groups, but it is a powerful instrument for the reproduction of capitalist relations of production and the dominant legitimating ideologies of ruling groups.

Radical critics of education provide a variety of useful models of analysis and research to challenge traditional educational ideology. Against the conservative claim that schools transmit objective knowledge, radical critics developed theories of the hidden curriculum as well as theories of ideology that identify the specific interests underlying different knowledge forms. Rather than viewing school knowledge as objective, as something to be merely transmitted to students, radical theorists argue that school knowledge is a particular representation of dominant culture, a privileged discourse that is constructed through a selective process of emphases and exclusions. Against the claim that schools are only instructional sites, radical critics point to the transmission and reproduction of a dominant culture in schools. Far from being neutral, the dominant culture in the school is characterized by a selective ordering and legitimating of privileged language forms, modes of reasoning, social relations, and lived experiences. In this view, culture is linked to power and to the imposition of a specific set of ruling class codes and experiences. But school culture, it is claimed, functions not only to confirm and privilege students from the dominant classes, but also through exclusion and insult to disconfirm the histories, experiences, and dreams of subordinate groups. Finally, against the claim by traditional educators that schools are apolitical, radical educators illuminate the ways in which the State, through its selective grants, certification policies, and legal powers, influences school practice in the interest of particular dominant ideologies.

Despite its insightful theoretical and political analyses of schooling, radical educational theory suffers from some serious flaws, the most serious being its failure to move beyond the language of critique and domination. That is, radical educators remain mired in a language that links schools primarily to the ideologies and practices of domination or to the narrow parameters of the discourse of political economy. n this view, schools are seen almost exclusively as agencies of social reproduction, producing obedient workers for industrial capital; school knowledge is generally dismissed as a form of bourgeois ideology; and teachers are often portrayed as being trapped in an apparatus of domination that works with all the certainty of a Swiss watch. The tragedy of this position has been that it prevents left educators from developing a programmatic language for either pedagogical or school reform. Within this type of analysis there is little understanding of the contradictions, spaces, and tensions that characterize schooling. There is little possibility for developing a programmatic language either for a critical pedagogy or for institutional and community struggle. Radical educators have focused on the language of domination to such a degree that it undercuts any viable hope for developing a progressive, political educational strategy.

But critical theorists, with few exceptions, have done more than misrepresent the contradictory nature of schools, they have also retreated from the political necessity of challenging the conservative attempt to fashion ideological support for their vision of public education. Consequently, conservatives have adroitly exploited public fears about schools in a manner that has gone almost uncontested by radical educators. Conservatives have not only dominated the debate about the nature and purpose of public schooling, they have also increasingly set the terms around which policy recommendations have been developed and implemented, locally and nationally.

In effect, radical educators have undercut the opportunity both to challenge the conservative attack on schools and the current ways in which schools reproduce deep-seated inequalities and to reconstruct a discourse in which teacher work can be defined through the categories of democracy, empowerment, and possibility. For radical pedagogy to become a viable political project, it has to develop a discourse that combines the language of critique with the language of possibility. In doing so, it has to provide analyses that reveal the opportunities for democratic struggles and reforms within the day-to-day workings of schools. Similarly, it has to provide the theoretical basis for teachers and others to view and experience the nature of teacher work in a critical and potentially transformative way. Two elements of such a discourse that I think are important are the definition of schools as democratic public spheres and the definition of teachers as transformative intellectuals. While these categories are taken up in depth in the rest of the book, I will sketch some of their broader implications and the practices they suggest.

Schooling, the Public Sphere, and

Transformative Intellectuals

Any attempt to reformulate the role of educators has to begin with the broader question of how to view the purpose of schooling. I believe that central to a realizable critical pedagogy is the need to view schools as democratic public spheres. This means regarding schools as democratic sites dedicated to forms of self and social empowerment. In these terms, schools are public places where students learn the knowledge and skills necessary to live in an authentic democracy. Instead of defining schools as extensions of the workplace or as front-line institutions in the battle of international markets and foreign competition, schools as democratic public spheres are constructed around forms of critical inquiry that dignify meaningful dialogue and human agency. Students learn the discourse of public association and social responsibility. Such a discourse seeks to recapture the idea of critical democracy as a social movement that supports individual freedom and social justice. Moreover, viewing schools as democratic public spheres provides a rational for defending them along with progressive forms of pedagogy and teacher work as essential institutions and practices in the performance of an important public service. Schools are now defended in a political language as institutions that provide the ideological and material conditions necessary to educate a citizenry in the dynamics of critical literacy and civic courage, and these constitute the basis for functioning as active citizens in a democratic society.

This position owes a great deal to John Dewey's views on democracy, but it goes beyond his position in a number of ways, and these are worth mentioning. I use the term discourse of democracy as both a referent for critique and as ideal grounded in a dialectical notion of the school-society relationship. As a referent for critique, the theory and practice of democracy provides a model for analyzing how schools block the ideological and material dimensions of democracy. For instance, it interrogates the ways in which the discourse of domination manifests itself in forms of knowledge, school organization, teacher ideologies, and teacher-student relationships. Furthermore, inherent in the discourse of democracy is the understanding that schools are contradictory sites; they reproduce the larger society while containing spaces to resist its dominating logic. As an ideal, the discourse of democracy suggest something more programmatic and radical. First, it points to the role that teachers and administrators might play as transformative intellectuals who develop counterhegemonic pedagogics that not only empower students by giving them the knowledge and social skills they will need to be able to function in the larger society as critical agents, but also educate them for transformative action. That means educating them to take risks, to struggle for institutional change, and to fight both against oppression and for democracy outside of schools in other oppositional public spheres and the wider social arena. So, in effect, my view of democracy points to a dual struggle. In the first instance, I accentuate the notion of pedagogical empowerment and in doing so point to the organization, development, and implementation of forms of knowledge and social practices within schools. In the second, I accentuate the notion of pedagogical transformation in which I argue that both teachers and students must be educated to struggle against forms of oppression in the wider society and that schools only represent one important site in such a struggle. This is very different from Dewey's view, because I see democracy as involving not only a pedagogical struggle but also a political and social struggle, one that acknowledges that a critical pedagogy is but one important intervention in the struggle to restructure the ideological and material conditions of the wider society in the interest of creating a truly democratic society.

There is another important and related issue at work in defining schools as democratic public spheres, one that I stress throughout this book. By politicizing the notion of schooling, it becomes possible to illuminate the role that educators and educational researchers play as intellectuals who operate under specific conditions of work and who perform a particular social and political function. The material conditions under which teachers work constitute the basis for either delimiting or empowering their practices as intellectuals. Therefore, teachers as intellectuals will need to reconsider and, possibly, transform the fundamental nature of the conditions under which they work. That is, teachers must be able to shape the ways in which time, space, activity, and knowledge organize everyday life in schools. More specifically, in order to function as intellectuals, teachers must create the ideology and structural conditions necessary for them to write, research, and work with each other in producing curricula and sharing power. In the final analysis, teachers need to develop a discourse and set of assumptions that allow them to function more specifically as transformative intellectuals.9 As intellectuals, they will combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students with the skills and knowledge needed to address injustices and to be critical actors committed to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation. Such intellectuals are not merely concerned with promoting individual achievement or advancing students along career ladders, they are concerned with empowering students so they can read the world critically and change it when necessary.

Before I address the specifics of what it means to critically appropriate the concept of transformative intellectual as part of a wider discourse that views radical pedagogy as part of a form of cultural politics, I want to elaborate on some of the concerns that are central to an ontological grounding for what it means to make the pedagogical a form of radical praxis.

There are a number of important concepts that have methodological implications for teachers and researchers who assume the role of a transformative intellectual. The most important referent for such a position is "liberating memory"-the recognition of those instances of public and private suffering whose causes and manifestations require understanding and compassion. Critical educators should begin with those manifestations of suffering that constitute past and immediate conditions of oppression. Uncovering the horror of past suffering and the dignity and solidarity of resistance alerts us to the historical conditions that construct such experiences. This notion of liberating memory does more than recover dangerous instances of the past, it also focuses on the subject of suffering and the reality of those treated as "the other." Then we can begin to understand the reality of human existence and the need for all members of a democratic society to transform existing social conditions so as to eliminate such suffering in the present." Liberating memory points to the role that intellectuals might play as part of a pedagogical web of solidarity designed to keep alive the historical and existential fact of suffering by uncovering and analyzing those forms of historical and popular knowledge that have been suppressed or ignored and through which we once again discover the "ruptural effects of conflict and struggle."" Liberating memory represents a declaration, a hope, a discursive reminder that people do not only suffer under the mechanisms of domination, they also resist. Moreover, such resistance is always linked to forms of knowledge and understanding that are the preconditions for saying both a "No" to repression and a "Yes" to the dynamics of struggle and the practical possibilities to which it addresses itself.

There is another important dialectical element that constructs the notion of liberating memory. It "remembers" power as a positive force in the determination of alternatives and counterhegemonic truths. It is a notion of historical remembrance that sustains the memory of social movements that not only resist but also transform in their own interests what it means to develop communities around an alternative horizon of human possibilities. It is, simply, to develop a better way of life. 

It is also essential that transformative intellectuals redefine cultural politics with regard to the issue of knowledge, particularly with respect to the construction of classroom pedagogy and student voice. For transformative intellectuals, radical pedagogy as a form of cultural politics has to be understood as a concrete set of practices that produces social forms through which different types of knowledge, sets of experience, and subjectivities are constructed. Put another way, transformative intellectuals need to understand how subjectivities are produced and regulated through historically produced social forms and how these forms carry and embody particular interests. At the core of this position is the need to develop modes of inquiry that not only investigate how experience is shaped lived, and endured within particular social forms such as schools, but also how certain apparatuses of power produce forms of knowledge that legitimate a particular kind of truth and way of life. Power in this sense has a broader meaning in its connection with knowledge than is generally recognized. Power in this instance, as Foucault points out, not only produces knowledge that distorts reality but also produces a particular version of the "truth." In other words, "Power is not merely mystifying or distorting. Its most dangerous impact is its positive relation to truth, the effects of truth that it produces."

The chapters in this book offer a range of perspectives which have been forged over the past few years. The topics range from literacy to writing classroom objectives to the work of liberation theologians. Yet contained within this wide range are common themes that speak to reconceiving schools as democratic public spheres where both teachers and students work together to forge a new emancipatory vision of community and society. Also in this book are attempts to develop a new language and new categories with which to situate the analysis of schooling. While many of the categories have been selectively appropriated from the sociology of knowledge, theology, cultural studies, and other traditions, they offer educators a unique opportunity for reflecting critically on their own practices and the relationship between schools and the wider society.

I am providing not a recipe so much as I am acknowledging that any discourse, including my own, needs to be engaged critically and selectively so that it can be used within specific contexts by those who see value in it for their own classroom teaching and social struggle. What is at work in this book is a particular way of seeing, a critical discourse that is unfinished, but it is one that may illuminate the specifics of oppression and the possibilities for democratic struggle and renewal.

Rethinking the Language of Schooling


In the current political climate, there is little talk about schools and democracy and a great deal of debate about how schools might become more successful in meeting industrial needs and contributing to economic productivity. Against a landscape of shrinking economic resources, the breakup of liberal and radical public school coalitions, and the erosion of civil rights, the public debate about the nature of schooling has been replaced by the concerns and interests of management experts. That is, amidst the growing failures and disruptions in both American society and in the public schools, a set of concerns and problems has emerged conjured up in terms like "input-output," "predictability," and "cost-effectiveness."

Unfortunately, at a time when we need a different language of analysis to understand the structure and meaning of schooling, Americans have retreated back into the discourse of management and administration, with its focus on issues of efficiency and control. These issues have overshadowed concerns regarding understanding. Similarly, the need to develop at all levels of schooling a radical pedagogy concerned with critical literacy and active citizenship has given way to a conservative pedagogy that emphasizes technique and passivity. The stress is no longer on helping students to "read" the world critically; instead, it is on helping students to "Master" the tools of reading. The question of how teachers, administrators, and students produce meaning, and whose interest it serves, is subsumed under the imperative to master the "facts." The script is grim.

These issues raise fundamental questions about how educators and schools contribute to these problems, yet they simultaneously point to the possibility of developing modes of language, thinking, and reaching that may be used to overcome them, or at least help to establish the conditions that may be used to resolve them. I want to pursue this issue by examining a central concern: how can we make schooling meaningful so as to make it critical and how can we make it critical so as to make it emancipatory?

Theory and Language

 I want to analyze this question and the ways in which "traditional" views of schooling have responded to it. The precondition for such an analysis is the need for a new theoretical framework and mode of language that will enable teachers, parents, and others to understand both the limits and the enabling possibilities that characterize schools. Currently, traditional language about schooling is anchored in a rather mechanical and limited worldview. Essentially, it is a worldview borrowed primarily from the discourse of behavioristic learning psychology, which focuses on the best way to learn a given body of knowledge, and from the logic of scientific management, as reflected in the back-to-basics movement, competency testing, and systems management schemes. The result has been a language that prevents educators from critically examining the ideological assumptions embedded in their own language and the schooling experiences that they help to structure.

Generally speaking, the notion of language is evaluated according to whether it is simple or complex, clear or vague, concrete or abstract. However, this analysis falls prey to a theoretical error; it reduces language to a technical issue, i.e., the issue of clarity. But the real meaning of educational language has to be understood as the product of a specific theoretical framework, via the assumptions that govern it, and, finally, through the social, political, and ideological relations to which it points and which it legitimates. In other words, the issue of clarity often becomes a mask that downplays questions about values and interests while applauding ideas that are well packaged in the language of simplicity. Any educational theory that is to be critical and emancipatory, that is to function in the interests of critical understanding and self-determining action, must generate a discourse that moves beyond the established language of administration and conformity. Such a discourse requires a struggle and a commitment in order to be appropriated and understood. The way language can mystify and hide its own assumptions becomes clear, for instance, in the way educators often label students who respond to alienating and oppressive school experiences with a whole range of resistant behaviors. They call such students deviant rather than resistant, for such a label would raise different questions about the nature of schooling and the reasons for such student behavior.

Generating a New Discourse

Implicit in my analysis is the need to construct a new discourse and mode of analysis about the nature of schooling that would serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, it should analyze and indict the shortcomings and failures inherent in traditional views of schooling. On the other hand, it should reveal new possibilities for thinking about and organizing school experiences. In order to explore the possibilities for reorganization, I want to focus specifically on the following concepts: rationality, problematic, ideology, and cultural capital.


The notion of rationality has a dual meaning. First, it refers to the set of assumptions and practices that allows people to understand and shape their own and others' experiences. Second, it refers to the interests that define and qualify how one frames and engages problems confronted in lived experience. For instance, interests exhibited in teacher talk and behavior may be rooted in the need to control, to explain, or to act from principles of justice. Rationality, as a critical construct, can also be applied to classroom materials such as curriculum packages, films. Such materials always embody a set of assumptions about the world, a given subject, and a set of interests. This becomes evident in many of the "teacher proof" dominant society is learned and where students experience the difference between those status and class distinctions that exist in the larger society.

Traditional Schooling

The rationality that dominates traditional views of schooling and curriculum is rooted in the narrow concerns for effectiveness, behavioral objectives, and principles of learning that treat knowledge as something to be consumed and schools as merely instructional sites designed to pass onto students a "common" culture and set of skills that will enable them to operate effectively in the wider society. Steeped in the logic of technical rationality, the problematic of traditional curriculum theory and schooling centers on questions about the most thorough or most efficient was to learn specific kinds of knowledge, to create moral consensus, and to provide modes of schooling that reproduce the existing society. For instance, traditional educators may ask how the school should seek to attain a certain predefined goal, but they rarely ask why such a goal might be beneficial to some socioeconomic groups and not to others, or why schools, as they are presently organized, tend to block the possibility that specific classes will attain a measure of economic and political autonomy.

The ideology that guides the present rationality of the school is relatively conservative: it is primarily concerned with how-to questions and does not question relationships between knowledge and power or between culture and politics. In other words, questions concerning the role of school as an agency of social and cultural reproduction in a class-divided society are ignored, as are questions that illuminate the intersubjective basis of establishing meaning, knowledge, and what are considered legitimate social relationships. The issue of how teachers, students, and representatives from the wider society generate meaning tends to be obscured in favor of the issue of how people can master someone else's meaning, thus depoliticizing both the notion of school culture and the notion of classroom pedagogy. In my view, this is a limited and sometimes crippling rationIity. It ignores the dreams, histories, and visions that people bring to schools. Its central concerns are rooted in a false notion of objectivity and in a discourse that finds its quintessential expression in the attempt to posit universal principles of education that are lodged in the ethos of instrumentalism and a self-serving individualism.

Alternative Theories

Against the theoretical shortcomings that characterize traditional views of schooling and curriculum new theories of educational practice must be developed. Such theories must begin with a continuous and critical questioning of the "taken for granted" in school knowledge and practice. Moreover, an attempt must be made to analyze schools as sites that, while basically reproducing the dominant society, also contain possibilities for educating students to become active, critical citizens (not simply workers). Schools must come to be seen and studied as both instructional and cultural sites.

One of the most important theoretical elements for developing critical modes of schooling centers around the notion of culture. Schools must be seen as institutions marked by the same complex of contradictory cultures that characterize the dominant society. Schools are social sites constituted by a complex of dominant and subordinate cultures, each characterized by the power they have to define and legitimate a specific view of reality. Teachers and others interested in education must come to understand how the dominant culture functions at all levels of schooling to disconfirm the cultural experiences of the "excluded majorities. " It also means that teachers, parents, and others should fight against the powerlessness of students by affirming their own cultural experiences and histories. For teachers, this means examining their own cultural capital and examining the way in which it either benefits or victimizes students. Thus, the central questions for building a critical pedagogy are the questions of how we help students, particularly from the oppressed classes, recognize that the dominant school culture is not neutral and does not generally serve their needs. At the same time we need to ask how it is that the dominant culture functions to make them, as students, feel powerless. The answer to this lies, in part, in revealing the myths, lies, and injustices at the heart of the dominant school culture and building a critical mode of teaching that engages rather than suppresses history and critical practice. Such an activity calls for a mode of dialogue and critique that unmasks the dominant school culture's attempt to escape from history and that interrogates the assumptions and practices that inform the lived experiences of day-to-day schooling.

Educators and parents will have to come to view knowledge as neither neutral nor objective and, instead, to view it as a social construction embodying particular interests and assumptions. Knowledge must be linked to the issue of power, which suggests that educators and others must raise questions about its truth claims as well as the interests that such knowledge serves. Knowledge, in this case, does not become valuable because it is legitimized by curriculum experts. Its value is linked to the power it has as a mode of critique and social transformation, Knowledge becomes important to the degree that it helps human beings understand not only the assumptions embedded in its form and content, but also the processes whereby knowledge is produced, appropriated, and transformed within specific social and historical settings. Certainly, a critical view of school knowledge would look different from a traditional view of school knowledge. Critical knowledge would instruct students and teachers alike about their status as a group situated within a society with specific relations of domination and subordination. Critical knowledge would help illuminate how such groups could develop a language and a discourse released from their own partially distorted cultural inheritance. The organizing question here would be: what is it that this society has made of me that I no longer want to be? Put another way, a critical mode of knowledge would illuminate for teachers and students how to appropriate the most radical and affirmative aspects of the dominant and subordinate culture. Finally, such knowledge would have to provide a motivational connection to action itself, it would have to link a critical decoding of history to a vision of the future that not only exploded the myths of the existing society, but also reached into those pockets of desires and needs that harbored a longing for a new society and new forms of social relations, relations free from the pathology of racism, sexism, and class domination.

Teachers and administrators need to address issues concerning the wider functions of schooling. Issues that deal with questions of power, philosophy, social theory, and politics must be opened to scrutiny. Teachers and administrators must be seen as more than technicians. The technocratic, sterile rationality that dominates the wider culture, as well as teacher education, pays little attention to theoretical and ideological issues. Teachers are trained to use forty-seven different models of teaching, administration, or evaluation. Yet, they are not taught to be critical of these models. In short, they are taught a form of conceptual and political illiteracy. Educators should dissuade individuals who reduce teaching to the implementations of methods from entering the teaching profession. Schools need prospective teachers who are both theoreticians and practitioners, who can combine theory, imagination, and techniques. Moreover, public school systems should sever their relations with teacher-training institutions that simply turn out technicians, students who function less as scholars and more as clerks. This move may seem harsh, but it is a small antidote compared to the critical illiteracy and incompetency such teachers often reproduce in our schools.

Instead of mastering and refining the use of methodologies, teachers and administrators should approach education by examining their own perspectives about society, schools, and emancipation. Rather than at tempt to escape from their own ideologies and values, educators should confront them critically so as to understand how society has shaped them as individuals, what it is they believe, and how to structure more positively the effects they have upon students and others. Put another way, teachers and administrators, in particular, must attempt -to understand how issues of class, gender, and race have left an imprint upon how they think and act. Such a critical interrogation provides the foundation for a democratic school. The democraticization of schooling involves the need for teachers to build alliances with other teachers, and not simply union alliances.

Such alliances must develop around new forms of social relations that include both teaching and the organization and administration of school policy. It is important that teachers break through the cellular Structure of teaching as it presently exists in most schools. Teachers need to acquire more control over the development Of Curriculum materials; they need to have more control over how such materials might be taught and evaluated and how alliances over curriculum issues could be established with members of the larger community.

The present structures of most schools isolate teachers and cut off the possibilities for democratic decision making and positive social relations. Relations between school administrators and teaching staff often represent the most disabling aspects of the division of labor, the division between conception and execution. Such a management model is demeaning to teachers and students alike. If we are to take the issue of schooling seriously, schools should be the one site where democratic social relations become a part of one's lived experiences.

Finally, any viable form of schooling needs to be informed by a passion and faith in the necessity of struggling in the interest of creating a better world. These may seem like strange words in a society that has elevated the notion of self-interest to the status of a universal law. And yet out very survival depends on the degree to which the principles of communality, human struggle, and social justice aimed at improving the privileges of all groups eventually prevail. Public schools need to be organized around a vision that celebrates not what is but what could be, a vision that looks beyond the immediate to the future, and a vision that links struggle to a new set of human possibilities. This is a call for public institutions that affirm one's faith in the possibility of people like teachers and administrators taking risks and engaging life so as to enrich it. We must celebrate the critical impulse and lay bare the distinction between reality and the conditions that conceal reality. Such is the task that all educators must face, and I am quite sure that it will not be met by organizing schools around the goals of raising reading and math scores or, for that matter, improving students' SAT scores. These are not minor concerns, but our primary concern is to address the educational issue of what it means to teach students to think critically, to learn how to affirm their own experiences, and to understand the need to struggle individually and collectively for a more just society.