Review: On Critical Pedagogy

Chris McNutt
January 26, 2019
On Critical Pedagogy by Dr. Henry A. Giroux inspires me to rally teachers and students and overthrow the government. Of course, that’s not realistic so I’ll start by overthrowing my classroom and work from there.

On Critical Pedagogy by Dr. Henry A. Giroux inspires me to rally teachers and students and overthrow the government. Of course, that’s not realistic so I’ll start by overthrowing my classroom and work from there.

Giroux’s work aims to define critical pedagogy and the societal ailes that education should solve, but cannot due to the societal pressure and culture that drives our American system. Giroux tends to be a tough read — extensive works with a plethora of in-depth analysis — but On Critical Pedagogy is short and succinct — great for a busy teacher.

As Giroux explains,

…critical pedagogy that addresses the democratic potential of engaging how experience, knowledge, and power are shaped in the classroom in different and often unequal contexts, and how teacher authority might be mobilized against dominant pedagogical practices as part of the practice of freedom.

I was first assigned this text while working toward my Master’s in Education, but the concepts were completely lost on me. The only thing I knew about school was 1) it was “alright” and I could probably do better and 2) make sure to hit the standards and assess kids, if they do well — I’m doing well. Teacher training programs tend to teach Dewey and the like, but it’s paired with applicable student-teacher, where much is lost in traditional schooling practice. Therefore, I never thought much about what Giroux’s work was saying until well after questioning — why am I a teacher?

After all, much of what I was doing each day was having students memorize information that barely anyone remembers as an adult. I may have high “achievement scores”, but I knew education meant much more than that. There has to be a deeper meaning. The current system, Giroux states,

…[is a] much-narrowed form of pedagogy that focused on memorization, high-stakes testing, and helping students find a good fit within a wider market-oriented culture of commodification, standardization, and conformity.

I never thought much about if my classroom intentionally made my job seem worthless. As an American History teacher, much of my standards could be attributed to blind patriotism — recognizing the achievements of America with some asides to our ongoing imperialist, racist, and sexist world. There are plenty of examples of this, as in On Critical Pedagogy:

…the Arizona Basic Goals Commission urged teachers to make history more practical to place stress on ‘positive’ rather than negative aspects of the American past, eschew conflict as a theme inculcate pride in the accomplishments of the nation and show the influence of rational, creative, and spiritual forces in shaping the nation’s growth.

I’ve always tried to push back against this fact, but Giroux gives a much insight into the why — the pedagogy that deciphers all this [my emphasis],

…progressive education can begin to vigorously challenge a number of dominant assumptions all policies currently structuring public and higher education, including but not limited to: ongoing attempts by corporate culture to define education as multinational operatives; escalating efforts by colleges and universities to deny students the loans, resources, and public support they need to have access to a quality education; the mounting influence of corporate interests in pressuring universities to reward forms of scholarship that generate corporate profits…Rather than providing students with an opportunity to learn how to shape and govern public life, education is increasingly being vocationalized, reduced commodity that provides privileges for a few students and industrial training for the service sector for the rest, especially those who are marginalized by reason of their class and race.

Giroux’s vision is for schools to give legitimate power to students — to have an educator who works with them to dismantle the authoritarian nature of education (and beyond) by giving everyone solid footing to understand:

As a form of provocation and challenge, critical pedagogy attempts to take young people beyond the world they are familiar with and make clear how classroom knowledge, values, desires, and social relations are always implicated in power.

This is counter to the “knowledge-driven” mentality that all students must have a concern baseline of information to be “well-rounded” and “successful.” Many educators tout the need for a liberal arts education to prepare our students to be on even-footing with everyone else. This isn’t obscure to Giroux, who calls on Antonio Gramsci, a philosopher focused on cultural hegamony, to explain how a liberal arts education is based on the control of thought. Instead of this knowledge, Giroux argues, we need students disciplined in questioning and disestablishing power structures,

Gramsci’s emphasis on intellectual rigor and discipline can only be understood as part of a broader concern for students to develop a critical understanding of how the past informs the present in order they could liberate themselves from the ideologies and commonsense assumptions that formed the core beliefs of the dominant order…

‘We must break the habit of thinking that culture is encyclopedic knowledge whereby man is viewed as a mere container in which to pour and conserve empirical data or brute disconnected facts which he will have to subsequently pigeonhole in his brain as in the columns of a dictionary so to be able to eventually respond to the varied stimuli of the external world’…

Giroux continues by comparing this to E.D. Hirsch, whose “core knowledge” argument leans on a broad array of general content so that students are prepared to succeed:

For Hirsch, the production of knowledge by the middle class is only paved with good intentions. It seems unimaginable for Hirsch to engage critically the relationship between knowledge and power or ideology and politics. To address how culture and power combined to produce knowledge that often legitimates not the general interests but particular racial, class, and gendered interests would work against his general educational program: to teach children a core knowledge base of ‘facts.’

Therefore, our use of mandated curriculum upholds the unjust societal norms many have grown to accept. Giroux wants an education that presents the unequal aspects of American society, letting students have their eyes opened to every facet of our culture. Often seen as political, these statements imply that teachers must take a stance toward injustice. In the same sentiment of Paulo Freire, who coined critical pedagogy, Giroux sees education as a political act. As he states,

In order for pedagogy that encourages critical thought to have a real effect, it must include the message that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live.

Of course, once we recognize this scenario, it’s fairly easy to complain about the problems at hand. Taking action requires guts and a vision to change the system. Although it does not offer specific changes for the classroom, On Critical Pedagogy provides an ample dosage of messages to shape a modern, empowered school. Giroux writes,

The political sphere, like most educational sites, is increasingly driven by a culture of cruelty and a survival-of-the-fittest culture.

To create a learning experience like this, we must dismantle the teacher/student dichotomy that assumes a teacher is to be automatically respected in an authoritarian way. Of course, that is not to say that a teacher should be berated or attacked on first meeting — we expect everyone in society to treat each other with a baseline level of respect — but that assumes a teacher has mutual respect for students. Too often, teachers use their power to demean children who don’t act in the fashion they would like.

In addition, a “survival-of-the-fittest” culture is upheld by grading and competitive class-rank practices. Although it would be difficult to dismantle the college admissions structure at a school level, we could rally for the elimination of grades. Ungrading is possible — schools throughout the country already do it — and their students are still successful. We cannot create a cooperative, loving school environment while having a system that says some win and some lose. We should be pushing the entire community to succeed, building an environment where we prop each other up, not promote individualistic notions.

This is backed up by Giroux, who writes,

Public schools largely inhabited by minorities of class and color fare even worse as they are subject to disciplinary ideologies and measures modeled after prisons. Consequently, there is little interest in understanding the pedagogical foundation of either public or higher education as a deeply civic, political, and moral practice — that is, pedagogy as a practice for freedom. As schooling is increasingly defined by a corporate order and a governing-through-crime paradigm, any vestige of critical education is replaced by training, containment, and the promise of economic security. Similarly, the empowering potential of pedagogy is now subordinated to the narrow regime of ‘teaching to the test’ coupled with an often harsh system of disciplinary control exerted upon not only the students but teachers as well.

For those not willing to question the system, “good teaching” is assumed as the Hirsch “knowledge-based” model. Therefore, making the proposal to ungrade or to envision a new curriculum that is not to the test is seen as radical. Therefore, this cultural norm believes the current system — the one where so many students are pushed out of schools, are labeled as failures, and are judged on assessments graded by robots (or trained-as-robotic people), is not a radical notion. And when questioned, a progressive education is deemed absurd by even thinking of such a thing.

This leads to burnout. I have no doubt that most progressive educators leave the field because they feel powerless. They went into education because the act of learning spoke to them and they wanted to share that with children. Instead, they became regimented workers who can’t dare to question what’s going on. Giroux highlights,

[Neoliberalism] thrives on a culture of cynicism, insecurity, and despair. Conscripts in a relentless campaign for personal responsibility, Americans are now convinced that they have little to hope for — and gain from — the government, non-profit spheres, democratic associations, public and higher education, or other non-governmental social forces.

Our cynical culture is not limited to teachers, as students — in my anecdotal classroom — seem much more apathetic. The world is falling apart. Media is increasingly divisive. No one is to be trusted. And education is useless. It’s incredibly difficult to engage a classroom of students — even with their best interest in mind — when they don’t trust you. And as a high school educator, I fear that for many it’s too late to have trust in a teacher. We should try as hard as possible to create these bonds, while empowering children to question us and any authority figure:

Students need to argue and question, but they need much more from their educational experience. The pedagogy of argumentation in and of itself guarantees nothing but is an essential step towards opening up the space of resistance towards authority, teaching students to think critically about the world around them, and recognizing interpretation and dialogue as a condition for social intervention and transformation in the service of unrealized democratic order.

Finally, Giroux addresses the largest criticism of critical pedagogy: is it propaganda? Are we simply brainwashing students in a different thought system? Rather than “knowledge-based” — are we just encouraging disruption?

Far from instilling propaganda in students, I think critical pedagogy begins with the assumption that knowledge and power should always be subject to debate, held accountable, and critically engaged. Central to the very definition of critical pedagogy is a common concern for reforming schools and developing modes of pedagogical practice in which teachers and students become critical agents actively questioning and negotiating the relationship between theory and practice, critical analysis and common sense, and learning and social change. This is hardly the prescription for propaganda.

I think that this disruption is justified. A simple analysis of our society is that there’s a whole host of problems to deal with, and little attention is given to most. In the education system alone, educators rarely question why they’re doing what they’re doing — and if they do, they don’t feel empowered to change anything. On Critical Pedagogy helps outline the why of education and gives hope to educators like us who want to make a change but feel powerless at times.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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