Critical pedagogy challenges both students and teachers to channel their experiences of oppression into educating and empowering marginalized peoples. Critical pedagogues approach education as a process of social, cultural, political, and individual transformation, where social equity can be nourished or social inequity perpetuated. According to critical pedagogues, notions defining rational classification of people into categories that diminish their social affect and importance keep them oppressed. Oppressed peoples thus require not only awareness of inequities they suffer but also an understanding of ways that oppressive social mechanisms and beliefs endure, and of resistance strategies. Reflection on one’s own experiences of oppression and the feelings of frustration, shame, guilt, and rage that accompany those experiences help shape practices of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogues redirect these feelings that can incite violent acts, submission, and/or ongoing repression into dynamic dialogue that defines literacy in terms of participatory citizenship.
Methods of critical pedagogy are as diverse as the people who practice them. However, some common elements and general themes include reworking roles of student and teacher, questioning economic categories of worth and success, and ongoing engagement with the social, cultural, and political interactions that perpetuate disenfranchised and marginalized identities. In a traditional educational environment, students listen to a lecturing teacher, who controls the flow of questions and answers. Part of the traditional student-teacher relationship is that students consume decontextualized knowledge produced by the teacher (and those who dictate what the teacher teaches). This arrangement, according to critical approaches to pedagogy, disenfranchises people by removing their control over experiential reflection, and by neglecting to address emotionally charged daily experiences through which cultural symbols gain greater meaning.
Critical pedagogy incites critique of social values based on economic measures of worth and identity. When economic value defines products and peoples who can or cannot afford them, participation in community governance pits those who have against those who have not, and freedoms may only be afforded by people with enough money to buy them. Critical pedagogues teach people how to effectively participate in community governance (voting, legislating, finding alternative resources), thereby empowering people who are in no position to challenge oppressive economic systems and values based on economic leverage. Many scholars attribute the beginning of critical pedagogy to Karl Marx’s writings on commodity fetish ism and the social stratification that accompanies economic classification of people and resources, and to John Dewey’s writings on educational theory and progressive schooling. More frequently, however, the beginnings of critical pedagogy are traced back to a school of thought, referred to as the Frankfurt School, that applied Marx’s writings and critiques of capitalism to academic inquiries.
The Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School identifies a school of thought originating at the Institute for Social Research (Institut fur Sozialforschung) established at Frankfurt University in 1923. As such, its members, many Jewish radicals and all various Marxist scholars, observed first-hand the German fascists’ rise to power. Austrian economist and historian Carl Griinberg became the first director of the Institute. Under Gran berg’s charge, the Institute’s research followed an orthodox Marxist avenue to investigate the economic structures of bourgeois society and problems with the European working class movement. Institute staff during its first six years included economist Henryk Grossman, who worked on crisis theory, and Orientalist Karl Wittfogel, then an active member of the German Communist Party (KPD).
After Griinberg suffered a stroke, Max Horkheimer became director in 1930. With this change of directorship came changes in the Institute’s general approaches to studying capitalism and socialism. In addition to Horkheimer, some notable Frankfurt School figures from this period include Erich Fromm (psychologist and philosopher), Theodor W. Adorno (philosopher, sociologist, and musicologist), Herbert Marcuse (philosopher), and Walter Benjamin (essayist and literary critic). Changes in the way Institute members approached capitalism and socialism included distancing academic study from activism while nurturing inquiry into how cultural systems, Marx’s historical materialism, and Freud’s psychoanalysis help explain dynamics of working class political struggles. Later in the 1950s and 1960s, former Hitler Youth member Jurgen Habermas and others steered the Frankfurt School back toward left wing student activist stances, which required ongoing intellectual disagreement amongst Institute members.
By this time the Russian Revolution had transformed Marxism as a subject of intellectual inquiry into the state ideology of Marxism Leninism. This transformation, together with Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in 1933, the abolition of the Austrian workers’ movement in 1934, and Francisco Franco’s seizure of power through the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), represented a decade of defeat for the ideals and freedom of inquiry sought by Institute members, who fled Germany in exile.
Because of these developments, the Institute began referring to its brand of Marxism as ”critical theory,” thereby distancing its work from overt ties to subversive ideals without abandoning them. In his 1937 paper ”Philosophie und Kritische Theorie” (Traditional and Critical Theory), Horkheimer wrote: ”The Marxist categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, impoverishment, and col lapse are moments of a conceptual whole whose meaning is to be sought, not in the reproduction of the present society, but in its transformation to a correct society.” Themes developed by different Institute members in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) include the mass culture industry, Enlightenment philosophy, postpositivism, rationality, anti-Semitism, fascism, authoritarianism, and psychoanalysis. Later, critical pedagogues developed these ideas into educational approaches for steering social transformations toward using more equitable categories.
Critical Theory, Pedagogy, and Consciousness
After Frankfurt School exiles developed critical theory as their brand of Marxism, Paulo Freire spread his brand of Marxism as a form of empowering education during his exile from Brazil. Brazilian voting laws in the 1950s and 1960s dictated that only functionally literate people were allowed to vote. Because share croppers and peasants were not given access to educational opportunities, these laws maintained a hegemonic power structure that kept the lower economic classes from having a voice in their governance. Freire spearheaded successful educational programs for these Brazilians, teaching them not only to read and write, but also how their constructive reflection and discussion of their experiences could sow literacy and participation in morally and ethically responsible community decision making. After President Joao Belchior Goulart invited Freire to implement a literacy program that aimed to teach reading, writing, and political understanding to 5 million illiterate Brazilians in the first year, a coup d’etat plunged Brazil into over 20 years of military rule under which Freire was arrested twice and spent two months in prison before beginning his 16 years in exile.
Freire traveled extensively during those 16 years, a time in the United States marked by student activism and challenging capitalistic values. He defined the term ”praxis” as a continual and balanced process of reflection and action, emphasizing that action arises from critical perception of lived experiences that can challenge oppressive social arrangements, so long as reflection does not dominate action or vice versa. Praxis at both the individual and collective level involves coming to what Freire described as a ”critical consciousness,” engaging in an ongoing process (”conscientization”) of theoretical application, evaluation, reflection, and further theorizing. Freire and many others who furthered the concepts of praxis and critical consciousness helped not only to develop critical pedagogy but also to pave the road to studies of postcolonialism and postmodernism.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States at that time significantly fueled the development of critical pedagogy. Septima Poinsette Clark, who taught both children and illiterate adults in South Carolina and Tennessee (with Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School), related problems these people faced in everyday life to English, math, and political concepts. She founded ”citizenship schools” on these principles, and worked with judges and community groups to get equal pay for black and white schoolteachers. As a young black woman in the Southern, rural United States, bell hooks identified with the marginalized peasants she read about in Freire’s work. Yet, hooks challenged the language Freire used as one that marginalized women, and subsequently became a figure in the feminist movement, educating and writing on topics that encouraged people to use education as a means of practicing freedom.
Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970) described this in terms of how traditional school systems make all students powerless and directly model capitalist social arrangements that critical pedagogies aim to transform. Paul Willis presents his notable ethnographic work on how schools ensure that working class students get working class jobs in his book Learning to Labor (1977). Ira Shor, another leading proponent of critical pedagogy, joined forces with Freire and emphasized that traditional capitalist definitions of literacy and education not only oppress lower social classes, but also perpetuate inequality through middle and upper social class strata as well. Because social transformation arises from praxis at the collective level, critical pedagogues maintain that education for critical consciousness must take place at all levels of society and among all categories of people to instigate necessary social change.
The democratic school and free school movement grew from these and many others’ works. These schools focus on participatory democracy by allowing student teachers and teacher students the power to choose what they learn and teach, with minimal class or activity requirements. By so doing, participation in democratic school activities helps people question the mass culture industry that perpetuates inequalities. The mass culture industry com modifies education just like any other good or service, but critical pedagogues aim to spread informed dissidence that breaches the boundaries set by capitalist categories of people and of knowledge.
When corporations superficially adopt principles of critical pedagogy to sell products, they introduce elements of confusion to those new to the concepts of critical pedagogy. For example, ”praxis” became the name of a standardized test used to evaluate teachers in training. A main goal of critical pedagogy challenges people to think and act against forces of commodification and the stratified categories that perpetuate social injustices. Such categories inherently define most, if not all, standardized tests, and place pressure on critical pedagogues to con form instead of transform.
Henry Giroux, another noted critical pedagogue, chose to leave the more culturally credentialed Penn State University, after 10 years, for McMaster University in Canada, because he observed increased alliances among corporate values and interests in the United States’ university system. Giroux’s move exemplifies problems faced by critical pedagogues. On one hand, they draw emotional and material support for their ideas and their communities from people raised according to capitalistic values. On the other hand, the principles they live and learn by inherently reject capitalistic values and ways they find support (such as commodification of educational services and concepts). Concepts drawn from social constructivism address these issues through exploration of how people ”socially construct” their society, culture, and realities through enactment of recurring stratified interactions.
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- Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, New York.
- Gatto, J. T. (2002) A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling. Berkeley Hills Books, California.
- Giroux, & Giroux, S. S. (2004) Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- Holt, J. (1970) What Do I Do Monday? Dell, New York.
- Horkheimer, M. (1975) Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Continuum, New York.
- Kohn, A. (1999) The Schools Our Children Deserve. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- McLaren, P. (2002) Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. Allyn & Bacon, Boston.
- Morais, A., Neves, I., Davies, B., et al. (Eds.) (2001) Toward a Sociology of Pedagogy: The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research. Peter Lang, New York.