Curriculum Theory

Popular culture as a pedagogy of pleasure and meaning

Giroux, H. & Simon, R. (1989). Popular culture as a pedagogy of pleasure and meaning. Popular culture, schooling, and everyday life, pp. 129. Retrieved from http://skillscenter.greenwood.

Henry Giroux

Henry Giroux

How knowledge is produced, exchanged and may be mediated, re-presented or refused in favour of a dominant sociocultural ideology or doctrine, e.g., evolutionary science education in favour of creationism, a faith-based, cultural alternative, has been the focal point of my studies and a passion for many years. This article discusses the implications of cultural influence on modern science education, specifically evolution by natural selection, and the encouragement of critical-thinking and hegemonic challenge by students. I’m going to use a logical extension of the arguments put forward by Giroux and Simon (1989), to examine the possibility of alienating theistic students from modern science education, by not engaging with the social and cultural forms which dominate a theistic worldview.

Giroux and Simon’s (1989) paper explores the significance of popular culture in critical pedagogical theory and practice. They begin with the premise that, although “radical educational theorists” (p. 1), stressed the importance of the student experience when critically examining the pedagogical whole, they “have generally failed to consider how such experience is shaped by the terrain of popular culture…” and have been reluctant to consider “why popular culture has not been a serious object of study either in the present school curriculum or in the curriculum reforms put forth by critically minded liberal educators” (p. 1). The authors argued that, whilst striving to achieve an overarching ideology imposed by a dominant culture, teachers could be both “politically correct and pedagogically wrong” (p. 2), with researchers making no attempt to understand how the position of a dominant culture might affect the entire chain of production and exchange of knowledge.

Giroux and Simon (1989) argued that, “[w]hat is often ignored is the notion of pedagogy as a cultural production and exchange that addresses how knowledge is produced, mediated, refused, and re-presented within relations of power both in and outside of schooling” (p. 2). This production, and exchange of dominant ideologies is intrinsic to a holistic pedagogical experience. Students absorb the messages of a dominant culture within a society by connections to popular culture (sociocultural infuences):

[T]he dominant culture attempts to secure – both semantically and affectively, through the production of meaning and the regulation of pleasure – the complicity of subordinate groups. Rather than merely dismiss or ignore the traditions, ideologies, and needs that emerge out of the cultures of subordinate groups, the dominant culture attempts to appropriate and transform the ideological and cultural processes that characterize the terrain of the popular (p. 10).

Such ideas of a dominant sociocultural ideology, influencing pedagogical exchange have been supported in observations made by additional curriculum researchers (Hedges, 2011; Marsh 2000). Giroux and Simon point out that the recognition of popular culture as necessarily pedagogical sites, results in a kind of pedagogy that will be receptive to ways in which students actively construct meaning that consequently determines their production of—and response to—classroom knowledge. Ignoring the cultural and social forms that are central to youth’s experiences, on the other hand, results in educators risking the alienation of their students.

This idea has been reinforced by Apple (2008), when he examined publications which focused on justifications for faith-based alternatives to science education, and possible caveats of the popularization of evolutionary science. Apple explored ways for theists and non-theists to achieve common ground, in an argument he believed would have no clear resolution. He warned that without a strategic method of progressing the debate, there would likely be serious consequences for American education, resulting in students withdrawing from public schools to avoid confrontation with a contradictory worldview. Consequently he warned of a “very real breakdown in public understanding and in the ways in which claims to knowledge are debated” (p. 334).

Whilst this may not have been precisely what Giroux and Simon (1989) were referring to in their discussion of the dominant ideology, I would contend that ignoring the cultural and social forms—that are central to the experiences of students raised in a sociocultural environment and may be contradictory to some aspects of modern scientific teaching—risks the alienation of students and parents, and is a logical extension of Giroux and Simon’s argument.

Giroux and Simon (1989) did not concisely define the term popular culture, instead they discussed its properties from the perspectives of left and right-wing political philosophies, drawing their own conclusions from these arguments:

[T]he popular has a dual form of address: it not only serves as a semantic and ideological referent for marking one’s place in history; it also brings about an experience of pleasure, affect, and corporeality. (p. 8)

In summary, we claim that there is no popular culture outside of the interlocking processes of meaning, power, and desire that characterize the force of cultural relations at work at a given time and place in history. (p. 9)

The authors stressed that the concept of popular culture cannot be defined against a rigid, static ideology that is “… permanently inscribed in particular cultural forms. Rather, the meaning of cultural forms can only be ascertained through their articulation into a practice and set of historically specific contextual relations which determine their pleasures, politics, and meanings” (p. 17).

Articles of popular culture must, to have relevance, be dynamic—changing with the political and sociocultural climate of a community—in order to be popular. As a product of historical and political context, popular culture can only ever be a product of a dominant ideology. Giroux and Simon earlier affirmed this notion:

[T]he way in which student experience is produced, organized, and legitimated in schools has become an increasingly important theoretical consideration for understanding how schools produce and authorize particular forms of meaning and implement teaching practices consistent with the ideological principles of the dominant society. (p. 1)

Paolo Freire

Paolo Freire

There are obvious risks involved in the use of popular culture—as the product of a dominant ideology—in pedagogical practice. Freire (2008), has discussed the implications of a dominant sociocultural influence stating, “Education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression” (p. 248). Freire asserts that a banking concept of education, which he described as “(at best) [a] misguided system” (p. 243), perpetuates ignorance and maintains the status quo of the dominant influence. Freire stated, “The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed” (p. 243). Freire claimed that by assuming the roles of teachers as depositors and students as receptors, the banking concept thereby changes humans into objects. Humans (as objects) have no autonomy and therefore no ability to rationalize and conceptualize knowledge at a personal level. And because of this initial misunderstanding, the method itself is a system of oppression and control.

As an alternative to the dehumanization of the banking concept Freire (2008) introduced what he termed as “problem-posing education”. Freire argued that this approach would allow the roles of students and teachers to become less formal, both would engage in a problem-solving journey to gather knowledge from each other. Such a system would illustrate that students and teachers never fully complete such a journey:

Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality. Indeed, in contrast to other animals who are unfinished, but not historical, people know themselves to be unfinished; they are aware of their incompletion. (Freire, 2008, p. 251)

To avoid indoctrination of students with Freire’s banking concept of depositing the perceived wisdom of the dominant society into the minds of credulous students, the use of popular culture within the curriculum must do more than just encourage hegemonic challenge. Any curriculum, especially that of modern science, must require critical thought and empower students to challenge the dominant ideology. Giroux and Simon (1989) provide clear recommendations for the pedagogical route pursued in this manner:

Popular culture and social difference can be taken up by educators either as a pleasurable form of knowledge/power which allows for more effective individualizing and administration of physical and moral regulation or such practices can be understood as the terrain on which we must meet our students in a critical and empowering pedagogical encounter.

As teachers committed to the project of a critical pedagogy we have to read the ground of the popular for investments that distort or constrict human potentialities and those that give voice to unrealized possibilities (p. 22).

Giroux and Simon (1989) have not attempted to discuss how this might be accomplished. The authors point out that the properties of popular culture require practitioners to confront a number of complex questions, and must necessarily leave the final implementation in the hands of the teacher. But without such effective individualization and critical empowerment, education risks becoming merely the acceptance of doctrine. Free-thought, analysis and problem-solving would be rare, and the result, simply acceptance of the “ideology of the dominant class” (Foucault, 1980, p. 3).


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