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Scholars breathe `fresh air'

Top American academics fleeing an increasingly repressive climate find a true home at McMaster U.S. education is becoming dumbed-down, corporatized and hostile to debate, writes Olivia Ward

By: Olivia Ward

Last month, thousands of despondent American liberals began to turn their eyes northward after the election victory of President George W. Bush and his right-wing administration.Henry and Susan Giroux were ahead of the curve. The couple, distinguished academics, took up new posts at McMaster University last summer, in the belief that the liberal and humanist traditions of American education were in jeopardy, and teachers like them out of step with the rapid march to corporatized education dominated by a hardline agenda."When we arrived in Canada it was like breathing fresh air for the first time in ages," says Susan Searls Giroux."We had forgotten what it was like to question, discuss and debate."

Signing up the couple is something of a coup for McMaster, which they describe as "a very special university that is interested in educating students to build global democracy."Henry Giroux has been named one of the world's top thinkers in education in the 20th century, and is the author of some 40 books on education, cultural studies, political theory and media studies.Susan, an expert in race and education, is a teacher, author and journal editor.

Their departure from Pennsylvania State University created a scandal in academic circles when it became known that the administration did nothing to try to change their minds."The fact that Giroux was allowed to walk away from Penn State ... ironically coincided with the school investing untold amounts of money to retain Joe Paterno, Penn State's football coach and apologist for the policies of George W. Bush," complained Mike Alexander Pozo, in the liberal journal Axis of Logic.The chilly reaction also confirmed Giroux's belief that "dumbing down and corporatization" is now at the centre of the U.S. government's agenda for education.Analyzing trends in education, the couple paint a dire picture of America's future, which they say will give fewer students from lower- and middle-income families the chance for higher education, and widen the cultural split between rich and poor.Those who do get to university will have less exposure to liberal arts and humanities, they say.

Their studies will be increasingly dominated by ideologues and technocrats chosen for their opposition to the ideals that have produced many of America's great philosophers, social reformers and lawmakers."Education should be about expanding the horizons of the students. They should be questioning, learning to be social agents for change. But America has become a country that no longer questions itself," says Henry Giroux.Lack of government funding is also undermining education in public schools, he says."Bush's `no child left behind' program is completely misleading. It should be called `every child left behind.' It's seriously underfunded and it's creating a situation in which education will be privatized."

In 2001, Bush introduced a $48-billion (U.S.) education reform plan that ties funding to school performance and gives parents whose children attend "failing" schools $1,500 vouchers to enrol in private or religious schools — a fraction of actual tuition costs.Meanwhile, Bush and the Republican-dominated Congress have provided $170 million (U.S.) for programs that emphasize sexual abstinence and were condemned in a recent congressional analysis for issuing "false, misleading or distorted information."U.S. universities are struggling for funds and turning more than ever to private donations, while tuition has soared by 35 per cent in 49 out of 50 states. Grants to low-income and minority students have been frozen in spite of promises to raise them, and the Bush administration's latest budget would cut state aid earmarked for loans to needy students by 60 per cent.Denying higher education to all but the elite, Giroux argues, would make it more likely that most Americans gain little understanding of democracy, and would become "obedient workers and passive spectators" easily ruled by the wealthy elite and willing to fill low-paying "McJobs."

Equally threatening, says Susan Searls Giroux, is the creation of right-wing activist groups who attack liberal causes and teachers on U.S. campuses, a trend that gained momentum after the terrorist attacks of 9/11."Universities were seen as bastions of liberalism. They were places of dissent, and (the far right) confuses dissent with treason. To question the war, or government policies, became unpatriotic. So the Republican campus groups set out to smash the foundations of liberal education," she said.

`I felt as though I'd been dropped into heaven (at McMaster) ... Nobody gave us an ideological litmus test, and we weren't on anybody's blacklist.'

Henry Giroux

One way of breaking what they identified as a liberal monopoly on campuses was to pressure on university trustees to crack down on liberal educators and courses. One of the most prominent anti-liberal activists was Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney and a founder of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Susan Searls Giroux charges that the right-wing backlash has overtones of racism along with a campaign against homosexuality: Hiring gays is opposed, minority teachers are attacked for their "liberal agenda," and affirmative action has been distorted to compel the hiring of right-wing academics. In this new climate, she says, political correctness is shunned and long-buried prejudices openly displayed."It's as though the civil rights movement never happened, and we're back to Jim Crow," she said, referring to the violent period of racial segregation in the late 19th century.In response to protests against their campaigns, Republican groups have charged that they're being harassed by liberals. Tensions have risen, and campuses face a siege mentality."Things are really poisonous," said Henry Giroux, who has written articles condemning the changes in American education. "I receive hate mail at the rate of one e-mail an hour."In Pennsylvania, Giroux was named in Education Next magazine as "the most dangerous educator in the United States."The stifling of alternative views is putting the country in peril, he warns. In universities, replacing intellectual debate with "practical education" for obtaining jobs is now a priority for parents and students, opening the way for uncritical acceptance of corporate America."At a time when politics is being depoliticized, everyday life is being militarized, and authoritarianism is once again on the rise," he wrote recently, "it is difficult for many people to get access to alternative views capable of challenging the privatized utopia espoused by corporate ideology."Those are not popular views in embattled America, and for the past four years the Girouxes were increasingly uneasy about the future of education and democracy.

But when Henry traveled to McMaster in 2001 after winning the university's H.L. Hooker Distinguished Visiting Professor award, he found the niche of his dreams.When the faculty of humanities offered him the new Global Television Network chair in communications, and Susan a post in the English department, their minds were made up. They moved to Hamilton last June, and will shortly be joined by Henry's son Chris, who will enrol in the university. Two other teenage sons remain in Pennsylvania."I never thought I would want to leave (Penn State)," Giroux said."But suddenly I felt as though I'd been dropped into heaven — they didn't ask how much money I could raise, they asked what I could do for the next generation of students. Nobody gave us an ideological litmus test, and we weren't on anybody's blacklist."McMaster president Peter George said Giroux's iconoclastic approach was welcome."He's renowned for breaking down barriers in culture and education studies, and we look forward to the explosion of ideas we know he will generate," he said in announcing the choice.

Giroux's first course, Theorizing Politics in the Age of Terrorism, focuses on the issues that most concern him in America.But when his students announced earlier this week that they would play hooky to travel to Ottawa and protest Bush's visit, he was delighted."Demonstrations are part of campus life," he says. "In the U.S., anything that doesn't translate into profit isn't wanted. Citizenship is more than consumerism."