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.


  1. Ryan,
    You raise several interesting points and I'd like to know what resources you used to arrive at your conclusions. I realize it may involve many different books, but it might be helpful for you to share a few with the Secondary MACers.
    Thanks again for providing food for thought.

  2. Hi Ryan,
    This is interesting. I agree that it is extremely important to think critically about the theoretical lenses of critical pedagogy, but I do disagree with your assertion that critical pedagogues pile "layers of group-focused, finger-pointing theory" onto the facts of systemic racism that are observed in, for example, the inequities between public schools available to middle-class whites and those for low-income, predominantly minority people. I think that the nature of this kind of theory is socialist (rooted in Marx, as you suggest), and that when these theorists discuss these inequities, they are not pointing the finger at any one individual, but rather at the system that has created these inequities. The blame for these inequities does lie upon us as individuals when we go along with racism by laughing at a racist joke so as not to offend the teller, or just sitting mutely when confronted with a racist act, thinking that there is nothing that we as individuals can do about it. So when you say that we should work toward creating atmospheres of comfort, caring and loving, I completely agree, but first we need to recognize that in order to achieve that, extra effort must be made in making comfort for those who might not otherwise feel that way due to membership in an oppressed group. This, in my mind, is the primary goal of critical theory, and it is a collective effort. The notion of "individuality" is rooted in the meritocracy, which suggests that every one person can achieve if they work hard, but if everyone does not start out from the same point, then how is that possible?

  3. Hey Ryan, Thanks for your comments. Being in Group B I can now share in some of your thoughts on the readings and issues we are facing in the Diversity course. I appreciate your pointing out the perspective of the articles that we are reading. I find them particularly hopeless. They seem to endlessly dwell on the oppressive situation of our society and never really offer some actions that an individual, especially one who belongs to the privileged group, can engage in to make a difference. My frustration is that there is no recognition of responsibility. It always seems to be "society" that is causing all the problems. Where is the responsibility of the individual? I think both in terms of my responsibility as an "agent" and that of a "target." For example, I keep thinking about what I can do as a teacher to empower students in my classes. On the other hand my students need to think about what they can do given whatever opportunities that they will have. Since I know you are interested in other languages and other cultures, perhaps you have the perspective of racism and classism in other cultures? I have. In fact, I expressed in class today that I think we observe systemic racism in the US because it is a characteristic of our human nature. I have found it in every culture I have explored and lived in. I used the word, "hamartia" in the classic and Koine Greek sense to describe our human inaction on the "moving walkway." I feel like there is much finger pointing at white males in America as being somehow different from any other person in the world with respect to our human nature, because we have privileged status. I don't believe this is so and my living extensively in another country gives me empirical evidence. What would African society look like if Europeans had been taken there as slaves? If Blacks or Native Americans were the privileged class in this country would the situation be any different? On the one hand there is no way to answer that. But, based on my understanding of human nature I would say no. I think a solution does require those in positions of power to realize that they do not occupy those positions because some inherent quality in themselves, but because they have been given that position in order to serve and care for more people. My feeling is that we as teachers have the responsibility to act as "cultural brokers," as those who can help our students with learning skills and knowledge that will give them more options in life, in spite of systemic racism. I want to find some point of light in it that will inspire me to action rather than paralyze me with guilt. So thanks for your critical eye on the material we are reading.

  4. There are much stronger dimensions that could use a critical pedagogy framework. Here are a few examples:

    - Ever worked with unschooler kids (totally self-directed)? Imagine pedagogies that don't assume mandatory education ("involuntary clients"). Now look at conventional pedagogies critically from THIS point of view.

    - Read "Shakespeare in the bush" for a cultural example. Race-schmace... it's CULTURE.

    - Systematic differences between mathy and nonmathy people. I am tracing the way people communicate with babies and toddlers. The differences are unbelievable. Already at 3-4 years of age you can really see the results in "mathematicians' kids." Native languges can't happen after the age of seven, and math never becomes native for the majority of people

    - The digital divide and all that: digital natives, 2.0 vs "people of the book," content consumers vs. content co-creators...

    Often, focusing on race and ethnic issues perpetuates the issues because of all the attention people pay; whereas focusing on content-specific issues strengthens these content topics.

  5. Ryan, Thank you for the critical thinking and comments. I've spent this week reflecting on issues that regrettably, I've been rather naive about (i.e. advantaged or disadvantaged classes). For me, all thoughts and opinions are noteworthy, as I make my way through some uncharted waters.

  6. Ryan, Fantastic stuff. It's nice to read such a thought provoking post about an issue that seems to touch each of us. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more of your critical thinking.

  7. Hi Ryan, thanks for this post. While reading the Bartolomé and Schmidt articles this week, I felt as if I were re-reading some of the texts I encountered in comp-lit, history, and political theory classes as an undergrad. Critical theory has been incredibly valuable in helping me understand systemic racism and structural oppression. I think you're onto something when you critique the way that these writers stir up inter-group hostility by condemning privileged white culture. That physics law, "energy is neither created nor destroyed," comes to mind. Does the law of conservation of energy hold true as a law of conservation of power? Does empowering minorities mean disempowering privileged whites? We have to realize that the power of privileged groups thrives upon the social and economic oppression of the people at the lowest economic status, who are largely non-white. The racial dimension of critical pedagogy, uncomfortably, makes sense. As long as these structures are in place, I think we have to admit that it is very much a racial issue.