Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life: Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge, Updated Edition

reviewed by Aaron Cooley - 2006

coverTitle: Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life: Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge, Updated Edition
Author(s): Henry A. Giroux
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594510350, Pages: 254, Year: 2005
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Both admirers and critics of Henry Giroux’s large body of work must appreciate his passionate writing style. His books and essays can be described appropriately and laudatorily as poetic polemics. Even his critics must admit that his arguments are cogent and focus attention on his political goals. Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life: Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge is an updated and expanded version of a book written in the late 1980s. Its central critique—that many students in American public schools are underserved in terms of citizenship development—holds up well. At many points, any reasonable reader could not disagree with his steadfast statements, such as “public schools can and should play an active and productive role in broadening the possibilities for the democratic promise of American schooling, politics, and society” (p. 202). Overall, this volume finds a place alongside his Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning  (1988) and Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (2005), by again hitting on those omnipresent Girouxian themes of critique and pedagogy.

Yet, readers like me, who are quite sympathetic to many of Giroux’s concerns (e.g., the future of democracy, growing disparities in educational opportunities, and economic inequality) can be troubled by the ideological and intellectual insularity of sections of his narrative. This problem manifests itself around two general notions. The first is his concept of turning schools into democratic public spheres and the second centers on turning teachers into agents of social change, in and out of schools, through political action.  His phrasing of these notions occasionally varies, but the consistent message that comes through is that public schools need to be catalysts for social change that will make society fairer and more just. These are quite admirable goals for Giroux’s educational theory, but what is less clear and quite bothersome is that there is little substantive discussion about how to overcome the opposing forces that strongly object to his future for public schools and teachers. Granted, he does mention Hirsch and Bloom and makes some suggestions for teacher education reform, but the sustained discussion of how to overcome the political forces that would prevent his suggestions from taking root is missing. In attempting to circumvent the hollow politics of the academic left, he falls somewhat short of connecting radical pedagogy to present educational reforms. In fact, the criticism he levies towards the detached academic left could be redirected towards him:

Put another way, the failure of these critics to articulate a well-developed political and public project built on concrete principles of solidarity, resistance, and struggle make their work hospitable to the status quo. What could be more promising than “radicals” who fuel the universities with a discourse of critique that is simultaneously a practice of political impotence. (p. 204)

Now, Giroux could obviously disagree with this assessment, but from a policy oriented perspective or a philosophically pragmatic position the critique holds. The difference between his loosely defined positions and the “second generation of educational theorists” (p. 205) would be thin and relatively inconsequential to the vast majority of educational policy makers, who still control the public schools.

The issue with both of these notions hints at a deeper problem with Giroux’s notion of democracy. For Giroux, “Democracy is a ‘site’ of struggle and as a social practice is informed by competing ideological conceptions of power, politics, and community. This is an important recognition because it helps redefine the role of the citizen as an active agent in questioning, defining, and shaping one’s relationship to the political sphere” (p. 29). This is a completely plausible and well-stated definition. However, there are two problems with its application. One problem is that most of the rest of the text does not reflect this notion of competition in democracy or that the meaning and/or objectives of democracy are quite contested by scholars and politicians alike. Secondly, Giroux quite clearly acknowledges that democracies inherently have competition among ideas for the public’s approval, but throughout most of the book, democracy is put to work only for his outcomes. It goes without saying that the democratic public sphere he so desires for schools to become does not exist at present, and there is a rationale for this reality. The democratic will of the people has not sought to make schools into the engines of social change he suggests. Simply and by the application of Giroux’s own definition, the noetic competition for the purpose of our public schools continues to be won by the standards and “school-to-work” crowd. This is not an indictment of the policies Giroux suggests; rather, it is just an acknowledgement of the fact that local, state, and federal educational policy making bodies are oriented towards different goals. Of course, these are the very bodies (democratically chosen ones) that Giroux feels should be usurped by teachers, who would act as public intellectuals and change the direction of the school system. Again, my point is not that the aim of his reforms is inadequate or wrong-headed; it is that replacing the policies of democratically elected policy makers with unelected public intellectuals hardly seems more democratic.

With this caveat, Giroux stamps out a large area of common ground with writing that is essentially irrefutable for progressive supporters of public education. For example,

Educators need to fight against those who would simply make schools an adjunct of the corporation or local church. Schools need to be defended as an important public service that educates students to be critical citizens who can think, challenge, take risks, and believe that their actions will make a difference in the larger society. (p. 215)

This passage displays Giroux at his best by describing an educational institution that could gain broader support and achieve the goals he passionately believes in without the polemic rhetoric that could otherwise marginalize his noble intellectual positions. Building on this insight, he finishes on an upbeat note with language that is less polarizing and extremely optimistic:

To be a teacher who can make a difference in both the lives of students and in the quality of life in general necessitates more than acquiring a language of critique. It also means having the courage to take risks, to look into the future, and to imagine a world that could be as opposed to simply what is. (p. 215)

There are certainly few scholars who have had a greater impact in educational theory than Henry Giroux. His superb intellect is only matched by his prodigious scholarly capacity. This recent effort of updating an old work supports these widely held beliefs. However, there are moments when educators must work within systems that will not change in the way Giroux hopes they will. It is in this territory that we must stress the pragmatic opportunities for positive work over the false superiority of transformative rhetoric.


Giroux, H.  (1988). Teachers as intellectuals:  Toward a critical pedagogy of learning.  New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Giroux, H.  (2005). Border crossings:  Cultural workers and the politics of education.  Oxford, UK:  Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1647-1650 ID Number: 12241, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:57:33 AM

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