Higher Ed’s "Civic Engagements" Get Dumbed Down


In 1964, after a military coup, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was jailed for seventy days and later exiled from his country. He did not return for 15 years. His crime? Using a wildly creative method to teach peasants how to read and write. In 1970 Freire published what was to become a world-historic book based on his efforts, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." The work presented his radical approach to overcome peasants’ "culture of silence" as a way to teach literacy. After nearly forty years the book retains its power.

I met Freire at a 1986 conference on "critical pedagogy" in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was a very modest and charming man. I remember him taking the stage with his gray beard and thick glasses talking about the necessity to criticize him and "recreate" his ideas for one’s own context, discarding what did not work and developing new critical approaches appropriate for one’s given historical times.

Universities today are very busy "recreating" Freire for their own contexts, or so it might seem. In the wave of social responsibility, sustainable development, and civic engagement initiatives several universities tout Freire as a key influence. But do they understand him? According to the newsletter of one university Freire is important for showing the importance of "solidarity between institutions and society." They continue, "in the parlance of ‘civic engagement,’ the solidarity about which Freire writes is commonly known as campus-community partnerships." According to this view Freire’s civic engagement means planting trees, donating blood and mentoring troubled youths.

Freire mentored youths to make trouble. He was no Johnny Appleseed. His book is strewn with references to Marx, Lenin, Niebuhr, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

There can be no civic engagement without identifying the oppressors, as some universities might have it. Such an idea grossly distorts the man, erasing his significance. "For the oppressors," wrote Freire, "what is worthwhile is to have more-always more-even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’"

What might Freire himself do if he was leading a university-based civic engagement curriculum in 2008? We don’t know. But we do know that he would hold the idea of "campus-community" partnerships to critical scrutiny. For Freire problem posing was more important than problem solving. We also know that Freire was an irrepressible force against capitalism and imperialism. One way to imagine Freire’s approach today is to consider what the leading critical pedagogy activists and scholars are doing today. Chief among them are Henry Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz and Peter McLaran. All three were organizers of the 1986 conference and all have risen to leadership positions in U.S. culture. Over the past two decades they have published hundreds of articles and scores of books between them, developing critical approaches appropriate for our times. All have deplored the domestication of Freire. "Unfortunately," said Giroux, "many of Freire’s followers have reduced his pedagogy to a methodology or set of teaching techniques emphasizing dialogue, the affirmation of student experience, and the decentralization of power in the classroom. What has been lost in this analysis is Freire’s legacy of revolutionary politics." (Giroux 1998)

Like the civic engagement movements sweeping U.S. universities, all three writers are deeply concerned about citizen activism and the state of U.S. higher education. They argue that an urgent movement is required to "take back higher education" from those who would replace the publicly engaged intellectual with a public relations one instead. For example, in his latest book, "University in Chains, Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic complex" (2007), Giroux argues that the United States is drifting towards a new form of authoritarianism. Universities, he charges, increasingly serve the needs of militarization, neoliberalism and the national security state. Giroux has even made an authoritative case that the U.S. now contains elements of "proto-fascism." But few civic engagement leaders are knowledgeable about neoliberalism, let alone proto-fascism.

Gary Malaney, a student affairs director at the University of Massachusetts argues that student affairs professionals are very poorly educated on capitalism and neoliberalism. In his 2006 article, "Educating for Civic Engagement, Social Activism, and Political Dissent: Adding the Study of Neoliberalism and Imperialism to the Student Affairs Curriculum" Malaney said that, "instead of working to educate our students regarding the potentially devastating impact of neoliberal ideology, colleges and universities are contributing to the problem by catering to corporate power and money through such activities as making the primary focus of the curriculum related to jobs, not civic engagement, and by focusing research on corporate interests that do not necessarily consider the impact on the environment." He says that "generally speaking [administrators] are very supportive of the disadvantaged and oppressed, although they might not be attuned to the causes of the disadvantage."

Freire was a revolutionary educator. He founded an educational movement based, in part, on conducting an ethnographic evaluation of a community to identify the generative themes (or "dangerous words") which matter profoundly to people and which, for just this reason, contain their own catalytic power. "Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence," said Freire. "The means used are not important; to alienate men from their own decision making is to change them into objects."

Jobs are a form of violence against workers. Ironically they are also forms of civic engagement. With Freire workers need to research the way power operates to construct their everyday commonsense knowledge and undermine their autonomy. In my classroom work we discuss students’ jobs as a central point of departure. I ask students to write about their most favorite and least favorite jobs and explain why. I then collect these responses and we dialogue about them, capturing ideas and generative themes on the board and in subsequent handouts. "How much critical inquiry and decision making power are you allowed on the job?" I ask. "How would you redesign your job to make it more civically engaged?" I am always dismayed at how little students know about capitalism. Most reduce it to "supply and demand, "freedom of choice," or "democracy." I’ve yet to meet one student who is aware of FDR’s Four Freedom’s inaugural address or Marx’s labor theory of value. So we explore the themes of freedom, democracy and exploitation by juxtaposing these concepts to students’ own lived experiences, especially their jobs or their parents’ jobs, many of which, at Ford or GM, are being lost or moved out of the country. It can become very emotional. We also explore the cultural politics of the university itself. How does capital constrain what is possible? What weapons of the weak do people employ for resistance?

The class erupts. It is all deeply influenced by Freire who would ask these dangerous questions.

A few weeks ago I showed "Libby, Montana," the 2005 documentary that details how W.R. Grace suppressed information about asbestos laden ore in Libby, Montana’s Zonolite mine for forty years, contributing to the deaths of over 200 workers. It turns out that Dearborn, Michigan, where I teach, was a central delivery point for the asbestos laden material that is now used as insulation in attics and businesses throughout Southeastern Michigan. Our class is using environmental anthropology approaches to conduct a civic engagement effort around this and similar issues, identified by students. One student shared how her father had acquired asbestosis after decades from working at a local car factory. Her group will research this. Similarly, another student wrote in his research proposal, "Living in Dearborn has always made me wonder what the Rouge plant does to our city. My uncle worked there for over thirty years and now has lung cancer and I would love to do further research to figure out if Ford can be blamed for his problems. I know that Ford just lost a lawsuit against the City of Dearborn and had to plant 10,000 trees but that is beside the fact. The people of the south end of Dearborn have suffered for years and I think they deserve an explanation."

Let Ford be Johnny Appleseed. We’ll take a page out of Freire–directly!

The curriculum is oriented towards what Freire called "a mutual co-investigation of reality" that diagnoses the culture, resources and power of the community. This is all part of the hidden history of Dearborn/Detroit that matters profoundly to students.

For Freire civic engagement has nothing to do with public relations. It is, rather, "education in the practice of freedom." In the Freirean tradition civic engagement is dangerous because it does not bow to dominant hierarchies. It seeks to eliminate them.

BRIAN McKENNA lives and teaches in Michigan. He can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com


Aronowitz, Stanley
2000 The Knowledge Factory, Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. New York:Beacon.

Aronowitz, Stanley and Henry Giroux
1995 Education Under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling, pp. 115-138. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey.

Freire, Paulo
1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Giroux Henry
1988 Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life. Minneapolis: University of Min-nesota Press.

1998 Radical Pedagogy and Prophetic Thought: Remembering Paulo Freire. Rethinking Marxism.
2007 University in Chains. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Giroux Henry A. and Giroux, Susan Searles
2004 Take back Higher Education: Race, Youth and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post Civil Rights Era. Palgrave.

Malaney, Gary D.
2006 Educating for Civic Engagement, Social Activism, and Political Dissent: Adding the Study of Neoliberalism and Imperialism to the Student Affairs Curriculum, Journal of College & Character Volume 7:4.

McLaren, Peter
2005 Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.



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