Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thinking critically about critical pedagogy

Most schools of education in the U.S., including the one in which I am enrolled, require preservice teachers who are pursuing certification to take a class on teaching to diverse learners. The idea is that as we are preparing to teach students with racial and socioeconomic backgrounds that may differ from our own, we ought to gain some understanding of the special issues these students (and their families and communities) confront so that we can do a better job connecting with them, respecting them, and teaching them. It is a very sensible idea.

In the diversity class I am currently taking, our reading so far has been drawn largely from the fields of critical pedagogy and critical race studies. This is not the first time I have encountered this sort of writing; variations of critical theory - often rooted in Marxism and the Frankfurt School - have flourished in many academic disciplines.

I am generally very resistant to this body of writing and scholarship, and I am hoping to use my experience in the diversity class to (a) open my mind about it so that I can take better advantage of its resources and its best works and thinkers, and (b) to better understand my resistance to critical theory and the reasons I am reluctant to adopt its conventions and vocabulary or spend too much time looking at the world through its lenses.

First, a bibliography of the readings we are being assigned this term, so that you can look into these ideas for yourself:

-Harro, "The Cycle of Socalization"
-Goodman, "About Privileged Groups"
-Howard, "Unlearning the Lessons of Privilege"
-Schmidt, "More Than Men in White Sheets: Seven Concepts Critical to the Teaching of Racism as Systemic Inequality"
-Bartolomé, "Critical Pedagogy and Teacher Education: Radicalizing Prospective Teachers"
-Godley et al., "Preparing Teachers for Dialectically Diverse Classrooms"
-Harklau, "Representational Practices and Multi-modal Communication in US High Schools: Implications for Adolescent Immigrants"
-Kalyanpur and Harry, "Legal and Epistemological Underpinnings of the Construction of Disability"

The titles alone can give you an idea of their contents. I've read the first five of these articles, and I have a few thoughts and criticisms so far:

I am concerned that the many and significant concerns I have about the worldview of critical pedagogues might be dismissed as a personal failure to understand my “white privilege,” to escape my racist “socialization,” or to fully comprehend the nature of institutional and cultural racism.

Some of the writers we have read attempt to pre-empt counterarguments by raising questions about the reader’s racial bias, a practice that amounts to a sophisticated form of ad hominem: “You wouldn’t understand or agree, because you are a socialized, privileged white male.”

I am more than willing to grant most claims about the reality of institutional and cultural racism in contemporary America. As a student of politics, history, and education, I know that one needs look no farther than statistics that show the correlations between race, school quality and funding, and household income level to understand the fact of the racial divide in America.

Segregation and inequality are hard facts from which the existence of institutional racism can be derived. But the layers of group-focused, finger-pointing theory that critical pedagogues pile on to these hard facts are not beyond debate and discussion, and we should be able to question these theoretical lenses – their rigor, appropriateness, and utility – without exposing ourselves, because we happen to be members of privileged groups, to charges of bias. The same goes for policy ideas, such as bilingual education and affirmative action, that we supposedly ought to support once we have recognized the fact of institutional racism.

To suggest that there is a necessary and immutable relationship between one’s group memberships and one’s political understanding is absurd, and to dismiss those who disagree with one’s own views - one's own radicalism, in the case of the critical pedagogues - as biased and insufficiently informed is bad practice; when, as in several of the articles we have read, these issues are discussed in terms of the need to “educate” people to think like critical pedagogues, and framed as recommended curricula for university professors and high school teachers, it borders on thought-control.

Critical pedagogues who assume that their white readers (because of their socialization and dominant-group position) have a less-sophisticated understanding of society are themselves making a broad-brush racial generalization; accordingly, they push a definition of racism that excludes their own biases: racism, apparently, is something that only dominant groups confronting minorities are engaged in (since only dominant groups benefit from "hegemonic," cultural racism).

There are alternative and arguably more optimistic and empowering lenses through which to look at racial and economic divisions, including race-neutral or cosmopolitan humanism, socialism, or libertarianism, or the lenses of human rights or natural law, or the ethical frameworks of the religious traditions (such as Catholic social thought). It is also very possible to adopt one of these alternative frameworks in a race-conscious way. I believe that individuals from all races and classes can reduce as well as perpetuate racism and classism. I wouldn’t be dedicating my life to education and writing if I didn’t believe in the critical role of individual minds and consciences in shaping social, political, and economic realities.

Things can get pretty ugly when “critical pedagogues” forget about individuals and lose themselves in a fantasy world where race and class are not only facts, but practically the only facts that matter. In the Bartolomé article, the author approvingly quotes a high school principal who argues, to paraphrase and draw the argument to its logical conclusion, that the worst day in the life of the poorest and most misfortunate “Anglo” is “never as challenging” as the best day in the life of the most wealthy and fortunate “Black person or Brown person.” How does this sort of hyperbole advance the conversation or improve the condition of underprivileged groups?

The bottom line: shouldn’t educators work to create a comfort zone for all students? Shouldn't we be focusing on creating caring and comfortable classrooms in which we can help all students advance their understanding and develop a love of learning? Must we think about inequality only in group-focused (collectivist) terms of dominant vs. subordinate groups, oppressors vs. oppressed, colonizers vs. colonized, and agent vs. target? Must everything be about race and class (and sexual orientation, disability, dialect differences, and so on), or can we best respect people by recognizing them as fellow human beings much like ourselves and working to understand them in the fullness of their individuality?

I encourage my classmates and readers to recognize the reality and complexity of cultural and institutional racism, but also to think critically about the theoretical lenses of critical pedagogy.