In a recent entry, I asserted that composition has taken Paulo Freire and turned him on his head, substituting the neoclassical economist’s embedded-in-capitalism perspective for the Marxist’s economic analysis of capitalism, and asked: how did this happen? How did composition, in adopting critical pedagogies as its default models for instruction, come to decide that the economic aspects of such pedagogies were to be avoided? Part of this, I think, comes out of the work of one of the most prominent proponents of Freirean critical pedagogy. Composition, and the field of education in general, owes an immense debt to the theoretical work of Henry Giroux in translating Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy into educational applications for an American context: Giroux is a rigorous and prolific scholar (his curriculum vitae [PDF] goes to 75 pages), and one of the most prominent critical pedagogues working today. Interestingly, however, Giroux’s later work has done much to turn Freirean critical pedagogy away from economic concerns and towards cultural concerns: in a 1998 interview, Giroux notes that his recent ‘work gives less emphasis to class as a universal category of domination’ (142), and this seems to be because Giroux sees formulating cultural concerns in economic terms as problematic: "Reformulating social issues as strictly individual or economic issues, corporate culture functions largely to cancel out the democratic impulses and practices of civil society by either devaluing them or absorbing such impulses within a market logic. No longer a space for political struggle, culture in the corporate model becomes an all-encompassing horizon for producing market identities, values, and practices" (1.2)[i]. We can take from this contention that Giroux would prefer the opposite circumstance, by which one replaces political struggle in the economic sphere with political struggle in the cultural sphere.
This move on Giroux’s part — the denial of economic concerns in favor of cultural concerns — can be more easily seen in his August 7, 2004 article in Dissident Voice, entitled "Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy: Resurrecting Hope in Dark Times." The article decries the way in which economic neoliberals hypocritically "have no qualms about using the government to bailout the airline industry" and offer no "expressions of outrage when the state engages in promoting various forms of corporate welfare by providing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to multinational corporations". The first two-thirds of Giroux’s article tread similarly familiar ground; a rehearsal of complaints lodged against neoliberal economic ideologies.
What’s most fascinating about the article, though, is Giroux’s final paragraph, where — quoting Pierre Bourdieu — he urges that "social movements must address the crucial issue of education as it develops throughout the cultural sphere because the ‘power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual — lying in the realm of beliefs,’ and it is precisely within the domain of ideas that a sense of utopian possibility can be restored to the public realm" (emphasis mine). Giroux seems to not catch the warning against exclusivity in Bourdieu’s word ‘just’ and so does exactly what Bourdieu was avoiding, in separating out the cultural and the intellectual from the economic. By placing education within the "cultural sphere", Giroux suggests that education is not an economic process, and glides over Bourdieu’s "not just" rejection of a spurious binary. The worry from Giroux would seem to be that acknowledging an economic component to education is tantamount to saying that education is founded on the neoliberal free market (again, a problematic equating of "the economy" with "the market"). Furthermore, in the latter part of the quotation, Giroux seems to suggest that "ideas" are somehow fundamentally anti- or non-economic, indicating that Giroux’s academy exists above or outside of the explosion of what has been variously called the dot-com economy, the new economy, or the information economy.
Why might Giroux want to substitute cultural struggle for economic struggle? In a 2002 essay, Giroux contends that "Market forces have altered radically the language we use in both representing and evaluating human behavior and action. In addition, individual and social agency are defined largely through market-driven notions of individualism, competition, and consumption" (1.1). Throughout the essay, Giroux portrays such market forces as irresistible, but also as faceless and agentless forces. In simultaneously accepting and condemning such circumstances, Giroux makes a move that J. K. Gibson-Graham characterizes as common to contemporary mainstream economic discourses that construct the economy as all-pervasive and beyond human intervention.
Consider Giroux’s use of passive or agentless constructions in describing the changes he sees being wrought upon society by irresistible and invisible economic forces: "democratic values give way to commercial values, intellectual ambitions are often reduced to an instrument of the entrepreneurial self, and social visions are dismissed as hopelessly out of date. Public space is portrayed exclusively as an investment opportunity, and the public good increasingly becomes a metaphor for public disorder" (1.1, emphasis added). Furthermore, "Public spheres are replaced by commercial spheres as the substance of critical democracy is emptied out and replaced by a democracy of goods, consumer life styles, shopping malls, and the increasing expansion of the cultural and political power of corporations" (Giroux 1.2, emphasis added). In fact, Giroux almost always uses such passive constructions in describing the effects of economic forces on contemporary society, proclaiming that "As the power of the state and civil society are reduced in their ability to impose or make corporate power accountable, politics as an expression of democratic struggle is deflated" (1.4, emphasis added), and pointing out that "students are now referred to as ‘customers’ and ‘consumers,’ while faculty are now defined less through their scholarship than through their ability to secure funds and grants", that "faculty are now urged to focus in on corporate largesse", and that "faculty are now valued as multinational operatives and increasingly reduced to contract employees" (1.6, emphasis added), with all of this evidence serving to support Giroux’s overarching concern "that corporations have been given too much power in this society" (5.1, emphasis added). Giroux’s passive constructions ascribe a sort of agentless agency to the economy’s shapeless juggernaut; the ultimate extension of Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand. Ultimately, Giroux sees the economic sphere as beyond human intervention, and economic struggle as hopeless: hence his desire to turn away from economic and class concerns, and construct political struggle in cultural terms.
Giroux, then, sees the hopeless economic situation he rhetorically constructs as the context within which critical pedagogy takes place. It would seem to follow that the Freirean conscientization performed by critical pedagogy would be, in part, an awakening to the hopelessness of students’ economic situations, and this may be one reason another influential critical pedagogue — Ira Shor — sees economic struggles on teachers’ terms, but not on students’. Like Giroux, Shor constructs the economy as almost supernatural in its invulnerability to human intervention.
In Chapter 1 of Critical Pedagogy and Everyday Life, Shor declares that the entire American community college system was created not by individual human actors, but by economic forces: "Virtually overnight, a headlong rushing economy created and peopled an educational frontier" (4). Furthermore, this economy drives all other concerns before it: to use Shor’s description, "A wildly growing and uncontrollable machine-economy rushed across the land transforming everything it touched, overwhelming the old things standing in its way and creating the new things it needed" (2). In a later interview with Leo Parascandola, Shor worries that "market logic will more aggressively configure all corners of life,’ and points out that ‘College teachers and students as well as curricula and campuses are inside the market system, not outside it, not Ivory Towers protected from the international flow of capital" (Section 26). Note the use of the word ‘inside’: the market system is all-encompassing, and the only economic transactions imaginable for Shor seem to be the market transactions of an all-encompassing economy.
Still, unlike Giroux, Shor draws more concrete connections between economic and pedagogical concerns. In response to Leo Parascondola’s remark that "we presume a relation between the working conditions of composition and the product of the process — what writing classes produce," (Cheap Labor Section 1) Shor contends that "The most compelling issue in Composition has been its labor policy," and adds that "An army of underpaid, overworked writing instructors (largely female) marks our field’s continuing shame" (Cheap Labor Section 2, emphasis Shor’s). In other words, Shor seems to believe that the exploitation of composition teachers — rather than the curriculum – is the central concern for the discipline of composition.
In addressing such exploitation[ii], Shor suggests that "Composition’s cheap labor deals in precious words that generate student consciousness, on the one hand, and cash surpluses, on the other" (Section 3). Which words are these: the students’, or the teachers’? The answer seems apparent at the beginning of the following section, where Shor asserts that "Writing classes are one influential site in the formation of student consciousness. They accomplish this through pedagogical discourses structured as curricula and deployed through syllabi (exercises, assignments, texts, tests, etc.)" (Section 4): clearly, these are the words of teachers that "generate student consciousness," rather than the students’ own words. It then seems clear that the "cash surpluses" are generated by the "precious words" of teachers (again: not students), in their acts of teaching, as well. The academic labor of students is given no economic value: Shor makes an immense leap from the economic value of the academic labor of instructors immediately to the economic consequences of literacy instruction, declaring that "The precious nature of Composition thus derives jointly from the enormous consequences of literacy in society (forming student thought, fitting students into the way things are) and the cash-cow status of college comp classes which cost less to run than the tuition they generate,[iii] thus producing surplus profits diverted to other institutional purposes" (Section 3) while easily ignoring any considerations of the student as an economic being, the student’s labor as economic activity, and the curricular activity of education itself as economic activity: Susan Miller’s "preeconomic, prepolitical" student (Textual Carnivals 87), indeed.
Giroux and Shor, despite the fact that they both so roundly critique neoliberaleconomic ideology (itself the most extreme extension of mainstream neoclassical economic thought), base their critiques squarely upon its theoretical foundations. Giroux cannot imagine any economic alternative to market capitalism, so his solution is to deny economic concerns entirely, and attempt to understand the problems and possibilities of American education in entirely cultural terms — which shifts the burden of responsibility for remedying economic inequality and enacting societal change squarely onto the shoulders of the individual. Shor, on the other hand, seems to imagine the work of students themselves as hermetically sealed off from the economy, despite his declaration that ‘students [. . .] are inside the market system’ (Section 26). Both Giroux and Shor, therefore, seem to see students as economic beings only in terms of their class positions and class backgrounds.
I’ll note here that I did a lot of reading to put this post together, working through three of Ira Shor’s books, numerous articles and interviews from Giroux, and a wealth of secondary sources, and I don’t want to seem like I’m being disrespectful of either Shor or Giroux. Both are generous scholars of immense stature, who — it scarcely needs to be said — have made enormous contributions to the study of literacy and pedagogy. But I find reading their work very helpful in my attempt to figure out what doesn’t get said about economic concerns when we talk about the writing classroom, and nowhere did that stand out more to me when I was reading the introductions to three of Ira Shor’s books: Critical Pedagogy and Everyday Life, When Students Have Power, and Empowering Education. In each of those introductions, Shor’s attention to the materials circumstances of everyday pedagogy — his careful scrutiny of the economic backgrounds of the students he taught and the economics of the environments he taught — is brilliant and penetrating. What startled me, however, was the way in which those analyses of economic circumstances and those considerations of students as economic beings were constructes solely as the exigency for the rest of the work that followed, and never addressed again, save in Chapter 1 of Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. The focus in all the subsequent chapters of Shor’s work is on the central figure of the teacher, and on what the teacher does in the classroom. (Query: is this a somewhat familiar trope from feminist perspectives on composition that I’m repeating here: the centrality upon the actions of the [frequently masculine] teacher as power-giving agent and enabler?) Should I take from this repeated pattern the inference that the economic concerns of students exist only as a motive for attempts at pedagogical change in the cultural sphere? Does it not seem strange that we can construct an economic exigency for a cultural curricular change, yet scrupulously avoid any attempt at theorizing a curricular economic agency for students?
[i] Note here that Giroux conflates ‘the market’ with ‘the economy’: despite his Marxist leanings, Giroux — like mainstream neoclassical economists — seems to believe that the economy is constituted entirely by market transactions and exchanges.
[ii] Exploitation of labor is a characteristically Marxist economic concern, and yet Shor’s economic analysis is firmly grounded in the market-based ideologies of neoclassical economics. This is a move characteristic of nearly all writing in composition that touches economic concerns: even if it makes a Marxist critique — as nearly all writing about the exploitation of composition teachers does — it cannot imagine an alternative to the market transactions that are at the center of neoclassical economic analysis.
[iii] With such an indictment, I wonder — with a wink and a grin; no offense, Ira — whether Shor might problematize any college courses that ‘cost less to run than the tuition they generate’: if so, well, so much for the Art History, Philosophy, and Classics departments. Is this another example of the ways in which economic critiques of various aspects of higher education often buy into the very neoclassical economic rhetorics and rationales that they seek to indict?