The Classroom as a Space of Resistance: Disrupting Neoliberal Politics through Critical Communication Pedagogy




The university was once a space intended to be a bastion of unencumbered critical examination. In fact, many universities in the United States were developed, in part, to teach students to be members of society who served their communities (Anderson, 1993; Checkoway, 2001). A part of the university’s mission was to challenge students to assist marginalized groups in society and to understand the underlying hegemony that created these systems of oppression. Thus, higher education, specifically liberal arts education, worked to educate “students to be willing and able to engage the relationship between equality and social justice as fundamental to public life, and provide the conditions for educators to connect their teaching to broader social issues” (Giroux, 2009, p. 669).

This civic mission is evidenced by the 1876 inaugural address of Johns Hopkins University’s first president, Daniel Coit Gilkman, who stated that universities should “make for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in the schools, less bigotry in the temple, less suffering in the hospitals, less fraud in business, less folly in politics” (Long, 1992, pp. 9-10). In fact, until the 1970s, there was “a long history of U.S. education that has centered on, and prepared students to aid, local communities” (Frey & Palmer, 2014, p. 3).

However, this focus on education as a means of critical examination and social justice has been challenged by the encroachment of neoliberalism. McChesney (1999) defines neoliberalism as “the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit” (p. 7). This market-based ideology purposely deemphasizes critical examination, equality, and discussions of social justice in the modern university. As universities adopt this ideology, their focus on capital necessitates that they no longer concern themselves with educating students to become engaged citizens in public life (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985; Readings, 1996). As corporations slowly encroach upon the freedoms that the university once offered, and instead, impose a market-driven model upon it, academics are being asked (forced) to abandon the examination of power in lieu of a corporatized skills-based curriculum. Thus, instead of the university being a place of resistance to power, it has become corporate power’s apprentice (Giroux, 2014), resulting in numerous detrimental effects on the university.

Neoliberalism’s Detrimental Effects on the University

Having adopted a neoliberal ideology, the modern university has itself become a hegemonic structure that has aligned with corporations. Aptly, Giroux (2014) describes universities as “adjuncts of corporate power” (p. 75). Consequently, universities that once taught students to think critically about power now oppose such teaching because critiquing power would be to critique corporate marginalization (Kahl, 2013). In place of a curriculum that emphasizes critical and civic values, which are antithetical to a corporate agenda, universities have implemented market-based education. Frey and Palmer (2014) describe the effects of corporatized education, saying that “there are more professional/vocation-oriented courses being offered every year” and “many of the core curriculum courses offered, which, originally, had very few ties to the corporate system, now, virtually, are indistinguishable from the vocational curriculum” (pp. 4-5).

Thus, students are socialized to take part in an autocratic corporate environment in which they learn to submit to authority (Deetz, 1992). They do not learn, as Giroux (2009) explains, to “contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of works, and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and respect for all people” (p. 673). As the neoliberal, corporate model overtakes the university, only knowledge that is viewed as marketable is valued. Giroux (2014) explains:

… the only mode of education that seems to matter is that which enthusiastically endorses learning marketable skills, embracing a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, and defining the good life solely through accumulation and disposal of the latest consumer goods. Academic knowledge has been stripped of its value as a social good. To be relevant, and therefore adequately funded, knowledge has to justify itself in market terms or simply perish. (p. 75)


As evidenced above, the neoliberal commodification of education has resulted in the devaluation of critical thought, the promotion of corporate ideologies in the classroom, the devaluation of the humanities and social sciences, and the adjunctification of the academic workforce.

Although this situation appears bleak, I do believe that change to counter the neoliberal influence on education is possible. To work toward change, I advocate that instructors embrace critical communication pedagogy (CCP) as a means to confront the neoliberal politics that wage war on higher education. I argue that CCP, used in a pragmatic way, is a vehicle through which the classroom can become a space of resistance.

Critical Communication Pedagogy

CCP approaches learning from the perspective that power is always present in the classroom and in society. Thus, a goal of CCP is to examine the ways in which instructors and students can examine communicative practices to uncover marginalizing messages (Fassett & Warren, 2007; Kahl, 2013; Kahl, 2010). Extending on critical pedagogy and the influence of Paulo Freire (1970), CCP primarily emphasizes the examination of language and meaning and how they can be both empowering and marginalizing (Simpson, 2010). Specifically, CCP emphasizes social interaction as the origin of power (Allen, 2011). Therefore, in the following sections, I will extend the central tenets of CCP to demonstrate how CCP can be used to make the classroom a space of resistance to neoliberal politics.

Critical Communication Pedagogy’s Role in Resisting Neoliberal Influences

CCP has been used to assist students in understanding and resisting numerous hegemonic forces in society. However, CCP has been criticized for its lack of attention to the hegemonic effects of neoliberalism (Simpson, 2014). Therefore, in this paper, I will discuss ways in which CCP can address the marginalizing effects of neoliberalism on the university. Specifically, I suggest that in order for CCP to transform the classroom into a space of resistance to neoliberalism, it should help students to 1) make power visible and 2) hold power accountable (Giroux, 2014). To do so, students must first learn to recognize the hegemony present in neoliberalism. The following sections address the challenges that instructors may face while attempting to make the classroom a space of resistance to neoliberal influence. When instructors make themselves aware of these challenges, they are better able to navigate them to facilitate CCP.

Challenges within the classroom

Critically-minded instructors should realize that today’s undergraduate student has not lived in a time in which neoliberalism did not have a strong foothold in education. Thus, difficulty exists in opening students’ eyes to the perils of neoliberalism because students are so accustomed to it and often see no alternative. Current undergraduate students were born after the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and they have grown up knowing only the hyper-capitalistic system which thrives on consumerism, spending, and the free market. Neoliberalism has taught them that competition, individualism, and the profit motive are tantamount to success. For example, today’s students have learned that “Unemployment is not necessarily all that bad, as it keeps wages down, makes workers  ‘hungrier,’ and makes the United States more competitive” (McChesney, 2014, p. 79). Additionally, students have learned that “Extensive poverty, growing inequality, and tens of millions unemployed or underemployed are regrettable—but the only way to address them is to give even more breaks to business” (McChesney, 2014, p. 79). Because this ideology has been so inculcated, they do not see, and often do not desire to see, another way.

Challenges from outside the classroom

Critically-minded instructors often face resistance to discussions of power from outside of the classroom as well. This resistance to the discussion of neoliberalism often comes from administrators, community members, and right wing groups who believe that questions of power and hegemony should not be discussed in an academic environment. Such groups exert tremendous control over higher education and “there is little in their vision of the university that imagines young people as anything other than a market for corporate exploitation” (Giroux, 2009, p. 672). Therefore, they demand that education should only involve job training and accuse instructors who do discuss power and hegemony in the classroom of indoctrination (Giroux, 2014). Giroux (2014), however, presents two models of pedagogy to demonstrate the difference between indoctrination and critical examination. The first model, politicizing pedagogy, is a model of indoctrination, which insists “wrongly that students think as we do” (p. 50). The second model, political pedagogy, which I will discuss in the following section, “teaches students by example and through dialogue about the importance of power … while rigorously engaging the full range of ideas about an issue (Giroux, 2014, p. 50). In the following section, I will explain how instructors can use political pedagogy as a form of CCP to make power visible.

Facilitating CCP through political pedagogy: making power visible

Political pedagogy involves dialoguing about neoliberalism in a way that makes power visible (Giroux, 2014). Critically-minded instructors can assist students in making power visible by discussing with students the effects of neoliberalism on their lives both inside and outside of the classroom.

One way to make power visible is by dialoguing with students about the contradictions between the messages of hope neoliberalism promises and the material conditions  that students face (e.g., staggering student debt, disposability of youth, lack of jobs, de-emphasis of critical thought in education, standardized learning, low-paying jobs after graduation, and worker insecurity as a labor tactic). While these discussions can take a variety of forms, the key is to help students to realize that neoliberal ideals are so entrenched that it becomes difficult to recognize them, let alone critique them. Students frequently need help recognizing that the corporate lives they have been taught to covet and the educational practices universities now employ can hinder their ability to think critically about society, especially how neoliberalism idealizes corporate profit over other values and concerns.

It is important to recognize that privileged students often experience more difficulty comprehending, and accepting that they have been marginalized by neoliberalism. Marginalized students, as explained by standpoint theory (Orbe, 1998), are more attuned to the ideas that they are subjugated by those in power, such as corporations and the elite in society who advance a neoliberal agenda in higher education. Thus, privileged students, who may come from a neoliberally-influenced background, have more difficulty understanding that the economic promises that neoliberal education makes are false. Ironically, their privilege buffers them from facing the reality of neoliberalism. For this reason, reaching these students through CCP poses more of a challenge for instructors to attain their goals of political pedagogy.

When critically-minded instructors use CCP to help students resist taken-for-granted neoliberal assumptions, it opens “up for students important questions about power, knowledge, and what it might mean for them to critically engage the conditions under which life is presented to them” (Giroux, 2014, p. 50). As I previously mentioned, this process will be different for various groups because of their privilege or lack thereof. After students have learned to recognize how they have been marginalized by neoliberalism in the university and in society, instructors can then help students to learn to hold power accountable.

Facilitating CCP through political pedagogy: holding power accountable

One way to assist students in holding power accountable is by asking them to respond to the effects that neoliberalism has on their education and future lives. Doing so engages students in Freire’s (1970) notion of conscientization in which they respond to hegemony. Conscientization is a process in which instructors and students can learn about and counter hegemonic forces in society (in this case neoliberalism). In this process, learners 1) learn to recognize hegemony and 2) learn to respond to hegemony. This process is similar to Giroux’s (2014) process of 1) making power visible and 2) holding power accountable. Thus, when students hold power accountable, they do so by learning to respond to the hegemony inherent in neoliberalism.

In order to hold power accountable, I suggest that students work in groups to brainstorm ways of holding neoliberalism accountable in their education and future lives. Students may decide, for example, that they will consciously enroll in courses in the humanities and social sciences that examine hegemony so that they can gain a stronger understanding of how it functions in society. Students may also use their knowledge to dialogue with friends and fellow students. Finally, college graduates may use their knowledge of neoliberalism after they have entered a career. Because of rising tuition and the large debt that students often incur, I believe that it is unrealistic to expect students to avoid careers in corporations that advance a neoliberal ideology. However, graduates who understand neoliberalism and its effects will be more aware of marginalizing corporate policies that they experience. Thus, they may be able to affect change from within the system. Overall, while a myriad of ways exists to hold power accountable, students’ doing so allows them the opportunity to “answer questions of how we best develop a world that supports human welfare” (Hursh, 2007, p. 515). 


Neoliberalism has a strong foothold on American universities. Its taken-for-granted norms encourage students to believe that the marginalization they may face is a normal part of life. However, critically-minded instructors can use CCP to resist the encroachment of neoliberalism into their classrooms. Specifically, by helping students to make power visible and to hold power accountable (Giroux, 2014), instructors can aid students in making university classrooms a critical space of resistance.



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David H. Kahl, Jr. is an associate professor of communication at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Kahl holds a Ph.D. in Communication from North Dakota State University. Because of his interests in pedagogy and learning, Kahl conducts research in the areas of communication education, instructional communication, and critical communication pedagogy. Kahl has published articles in state, regional, national, and international journals, with the goal of applying his research to his teaching. He has presented his research at a variety of conferences and has received awards for his work at both the regional and national levels. He currently serves on the associate editorial board of Communication Studies and the editorial boards of Communication Teacher and the Western Journal of Communication. Kahl is also Associate Editor of the International Journal of Doctoral Studies.



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