Doing Cultural Studies: Youth and the Challenge of Pedagogy

Doing Cultural Studies:
Youth and the Challenge of Pedagogy
By: Henry A. Giroux
[Harvard Educational Review 64:3 (Fall 1994), pp. 278-308.]
In our society, youth is present only when its presence is a problem, or is regarded as a
problem. More precisely, the category "youth" gets mobilized in official documentary
discourse, in concerned or outraged editorials and features, or in the supposedly
disinterested tracts emanating from the social sciences at those times when young people
make their presence felt by going "out of bounds", by resisting through rituals, dressing
strangely, striking bizarre attitudes, breaking rules, breaking bottles, windows, heads,
issuing rhetorical challenges to the law.
A recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that the field of
cultural studies is "about the hottest thing in humanities and social-science research right
now, but it's largely peopled by scholars in literature, film and media, communications,
and philosophy" Given the popularity of cultural studies for a growing number of
scholars, I have often wondered why so few academics have incorporated cultural studies
into the language of educational reform. If educators are to take seriously the challenge of
cultural studies, particularly its insistence on generating new questions, models, and
contexts in order to address the central and most urgent dilemmas of our age they must
critically address the politics of their own location. This means understanding not only
the ways in which institutions of higher education, in part, shape the work we do with
students but also the ways in which our vocation as educators support, challenge, or
subvert institutional practices that are at odds with democratic processes and the hopes
and opportunities we provide for the nation's youth. In what follows, I want to explore
not only why educators refuse to engage the possibilities of cultural studies but also why
scholars working within a cultural studies framework often refuse to take seriously
pedagogy and the role of schools in the shaping of democratic public life.
Educational theorists demonstrate as little interest in cultural studies as cultural studies
scholars do in the critical theories of schooling and pedagogy. For educators, this
indifference may be explained, in part, by the narrow technocratic models that dominate
mainstream reform efforts and structure education programs. Within such a tradition,
management issues become more important than understanding and furthering schools as
democratic public spheres. Hence, the regulation, certification, and standardization of
teacher behavior is emphasized over creating the conditions for teachers to undertake the
sensitive political and ethical roles they might assume as public intellectuals who
selectively produce and legitimate particular forms of knowledge and authority.
Similarly, licensing and assimilating differences among students is more significant than
treating students as bearers of diverse social memories with a right to speak and represent
themselves in the quest for learning and self-determination. While other disciplines have
appropriated, engaged, and produced new theoretical languages in keeping with changing
historical conditions, colleges of education have maintained a deep suspicion of theory
and intellectual dialogue and thus have not been receptive to the introduction of cultural
studies. Other considerations in this wilful refusal to know would include a history of
educational reform which has been overly indebted to practical considerations that often
support a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. Moreover, educators frequently pride
themselves on being professional, scientific, and objective.
Cultural studies challenges the ideological and political nature of such claims by arguing
that teachers always work and speak within historically and socially determined relations
of power. Put another way, educators whose work is shaped by cultural studies do not
simply view teachers and students either as chroniclers of history and social change or
recipients of culture, but as active participants in its construction.
The resistance to cultural studies may also be due to the fact that it reasserts the
importance of comprehending schooling as a mechanism of culture and politics,
embedded in competing relations of power that attempt to regulate and order how
students think, act and live. Since cultural studies is largely concerned with the critical
relationship among culture, knowledge, and power, it is not surprising that mainstream
educators often dismiss cultural studies as being too ideological, or simply ignore its
criticisms regarding how education generates a privileged narrative space for some social
groups and a space of inequality and subordination for others.
Historically schools and colleges of education have been organized around either
traditional subject based studies (math education) or into largely
disciplinary/administrative categories (curriculum and instruction). Within this type of
intellectual division of labor, students generally have had few opportunities to study
larger social issues. This slavish adherence to structuring the curriculum around the core
disciplinary subjects is at odds with the field of cultural studies whose theoretical
energies are largely focused on interdisciplinary issues, such as textuality and
representation refracted through the dynamics of gender, sexuality, subordinate youth,
national identity, colonialism, race, ethnicity, and popular culture. By offering educators
a critical language through which to examine the ideological and political interests that
structure reform efforts in education such as nationalized testing, standardized
curriculum, and efficiency models, cultural studies incurs the wrath of mainstream and
conservative educators who often are silent about the political agendas that underlie their
own language and reform agendas.