Teaching in a Post-Truth World, or, What Critical Pedagogy can do for us

“…teaching was not a job like any other job, but a crucial site of struggle.” (Giroux, p.160)

Life in Higher Education gets tougher every day: resources are low, our authority is undermined, and the pile of marking only gets bigger. As will become clear in the reading for our next SoTL session, Henry Giroux understands this point of view – and if he can’t make us feel better about these things, he can at least determinedly hold our hands along the way.

Of course, for Giroux, as for others working in the sub-field of critical pedagogy, teaching is a ‘site of struggle’ not just because it is hard (although he has plenty to say about that), but because it ought to be hard: the struggle is one which recognises, problematizes, and exposes what we do when we teach. To generalise a little, critical education theorists view teaching (and, indeed, knowledge) as historically, culturally, socially, and politically rooted and interest bound. ‘Learning’ should thus be conceived of as a construction which is at once a product of, constitutive of, and operates within a complex and largely invisible nexus of power relations. Critical pedagogy as a sub-discipline is fundamentally concerned with recognising and understanding this relationship; in some authors, we could add changing or subverting it.

At its core, this standpoint asks us to interrogate our assumptions, to expose the ‘hidden curriculum’ of what we practice as educators – and to teach others to do the same. As Giroux puts it, “critical pedagogy attempts to understand how power works through the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge within particular institutional contexts and seeks to constitute students as informed subjects and social agents.” (Giroux, p.157). To some of us, this concept of education may be time-worn old news (if old news that ought to be placed on the desks of senior figures in government). To others of us, it may be conceptual garbage or badly-worded jargon. Either way, critical pedagogy would invite us to compare notes and engage in forthright discussion, and in that sense deserves an outing at the SoTL Network.

Our reading for the session is a chapter extracted from Giroux’s 2011 volume, On Critical Pedagogy, and acts as a useful introduction to the subject area, if one very much coloured by Giroux’s particular style and approach. As far as it relates to higher education in the West, critical pedagogy has arguably become removed from its roots in theory and political protest and become more related to critiques from within the institution – authored by those working in the institution, and often squarely directed at the institution. The objectivity of such critiques may be open to question, even as the issues raised (managerialism, neoliberalism, marketization etc.) may very well resonate with us. Even so, there remain difficult questions here, which, if we accept the principle that they ought to be asked, require us to think in quite a deep way about the very purpose of our teaching. In the final analysis, does higher education act “to empower the student”, or does it operate as “social control […] as a moral gatekeeper of the state?” (McLaren, p. 71)

Questions to consider:

Do you agree with Giroux’s particular vision of the world, and of the state of higher education? Are these views universal, or specific to the North American political environment? Does he give any kind of solution to, or way out of, the problems he exposes, and how practicable or desirable might such solutions be? Is this line of thinking a useful approach to education?

One of the criticisms leveled at critical pedagogy is the difficulty of application, particularly (though by no means exclusively) in subject areas in which consideration of critical theory itself is not an underlying concern or goal. If critical pedagogy is a project of intervention, what should those interventions be? How ought they to be determined, and by whom? What, if anything, do you consider to be the particular application of critical pedagogy in your subject area and in your teaching?

If you do recognize the position of being a critical educator, what do you do about students who refuse to engage, or are otherwise uncomfortable with, this way of thinking? Is our desire for students to become critically-aware thinkers and practitioners permissive or coercive, and can a refusal to think critically be itself a viable critical position?

Finally, does critical pedagogy have an ‘endpoint’ – and what would it be?

Reading:

The reading for the session can be found as chapter 4 of Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy: “The Promise of Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Globalization: Towards a Pedagogy of Democratization.” This volume is available electronically through the University library. The chapter is essentially a reprint of a 2004 article, published as “Critical Pedagogy and the Postmodern/Modern Divide: Towards a Pedagogy of Democratization”, Teacher Education Quarterly (Winter 2004), pp. 31-47. The article version is available through Paperpile.


Meeting Report 

Having so far focused mainly on research grounded in quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the turn for this SoTL Network seminar to (polemical and politically partisan) critical theory resulted in something of a split in the group’s reactions. Some were deeply familiar with the broad principles of Critical Pedagogy or related fields and identified threads and connections with their research, teaching practice, and broader debates within their disciplines.  Others found Giroux’s writing impenetrable, obscure, and his arguments lacking in any grounding or substance.  One member noted the irony of Giroux’s central claims to promoting the democratization of education and self-positioning as a “public intellectual” being couched in such opaque language.  The group agreed that many of Giroux’s objectives were desirable: to help students develop as critical thinkers and autonomous learners, and to foster in them a spirit of critical inquiry and genuine curiosity in the world (which many in the seminar felt had been a driving motivator in their own decision to pursue an academic career). However, there was less consensus on how one might integrate Critical Pedagogy into the curriculum, with some even questioning the ethics of doing so on the grounds of its overt political partisanship. The overarching questions for the seminar thus became: Who is Giroux’s intended audience for this article, and how exactly is his theory to be applied in practice? Is Critical Pedagogy more relevant to some disciplines than others?  Does political partisanship belong in the curriculum? Is it even relevant to Higher Education contexts, or does it more properly and effectively operate outside of, or at least on the fringes of them (for example, through outreach activities and political activism)?

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Many of the issues raised by Giroux pertain to wider debates on “Social Justice in Education,” which have developed in tandem with the emergence and development of public education since the nineteenth-century, and indeed which forms a significant research strand here at York.  Historically, and especially in relation to schools, the debate has circulated around questions of whether the purpose of education is to inculcate students into “the way the world is” or whether it should drive progressive social change that redresses entrenched social inequalities. Educational policy in the UK in recent decades has tended to navigate a narrow path between both positions, proposing that formal education can somehow achieve both aims. Policy examples of this in Higher Education contexts might include those pertaining to Widening Participation or Equality and Diversity more generally.

Proponents of Critical Pedagogy, however, would argue that these policies are part of a neoliberal trend that pays lip-service to social justice while doing nothing to challenge the ideological and institutional structures, including formal education ones, which fundamentally serve to sustain inequality. Their solution is to ensure a more robust address of social justice issues through a radical reconfiguration of education across all levels: questioning claims to the possibility of being “value-neutral” in our teaching to instead ensure that the social and political is consciously brought to the foreground of everything we do. As one member of the group explained it, sharing a story by Robert E. Peterson from The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2009), a child brings a stray dog into the classroom on Monday morning. The traditional teacher calls animal control to have it removed. The progressive teacher uses the children’s interest in the novelty to engage them in their lessons, perhaps by asking them to draw, write about, or even measure the dog. The critical pedagogue asks “why are there so many stray dogs in our [poor] neighbourhood?” (305)

The critical pedagogue’s objective is to encourage a mode of critical thinking that “connects the classroom with the experiences of everyday life (37)”. Paulo Freire, one of the founding theorists of field writing in 1968, presents this as a student-centered approach, which opposes what he describes as the traditional “Banking Education” model that sees students as containers into which educators deposit knowledge like so much small change.  Such a system, he argued, encourages passive, rote learning and regurgitation of knowledge while diminishing any capacity in students for critical thinking, personal ownership of knowledge, and genuine learning. Giroux’s aim in this article is to draw this theory into Higher Education contexts, where the “experience of everyday life” for staff and students is determined not so much by poor neighbourhoods and stray dogs, but by a neoliberal ideology in which “market discourse” becomes the sole marker of worth for everything: identities, academic practice, learning, and even democracy itself. (Giroux specifically identifies the Economist Milton Friedman as a “neoliberal guru” whose claim that “profit-making is the essence of democracy and accumulating material goods the essence of the good life” must be challenged (39).) Consequently, the transformative possibilities of education are lost, pedagogy becomes “technical practice” reduced to “a matter of taste, individual choice, and job training” (45).  Students respond by approaching learning with their own strategies of resistance, which can range from cynical detachment through to outright hostility and “dropping out.”

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It is here that we found ourselves in what is becoming familiar territory for the SoTL Network in attempting to define “good” learning and teaching; albeit from a different, and unfamiliar for many, perspective. It is one that asks us to think more critically and objectively about what impact our own political and ideological positions and biases have on student learning, especially given the uneven power dynamic that exists between teachers and students, and to “make visible” the unequal and potentially oppressive social and ideological structures within which we operate as teachers and learners.

There were some very evident disciplinary differences in response to the article. Almost everyone in the seminar working within the humanities and social sciences was aware of some variant of “social justice” debates in their discipline (even for those who might never have used this term to describe them). This was far less the case with STEM disciplines, albeit one noted that consideration is given in teaching in their department to the ethics of biomedical science pertaining to race, gender, and LGBT identities. It was more challenging for us to envisage how Critical Pedagogy would apply to numerical and technical fields.

The arts, humanities and social sciences seemed like a more natural home for Critical Pedagogy given its emphasis on shared discussion and debate. However, it was acknowledged that engagement with issues of social inequality even in these disciplines was often tokenistic. Survey modules might have a week here and there dedicated to one of the “isms’, or individual academics with research interests in these topics might offer an optional module on the same. Thus, issues of social inequality and justice that Giroux and his fellow Critical Pedagogues put at the front and centre of the curriculum are side-lined and reductively diminished to an increasingly and almost absurdly long list of “social identity” categories and sub-categories, which students and teachers alike can choose to engage with or not, depending on their degree of personal, political and/or intellectual investment in them. Consequently, the inclusion of social justice issues in the curriculum fails to challenge the “Banking Education” model because it has merely changed the political stamp of the coin being deposited.  While some might well benefit even from such tokenistic representation, others could respond with a heightened sensitivity and discomfort to their own social marginalization, while still others could respond cynically in interpreting it as an imposition of “political correctness” from a left-leaning academia.

One member of the group was skeptical of what they interpreted as Giroux’s coercive, polemical tone. Who are we to dictate to students our own political worldview? Is it right that (Higher) Education be so explicitly partisan? What if others in academia, including students, are as overtly and consciously partisan to a competing ideology to that underpinning Critical Pedagogy? Indeed, we noted that only last February a self-identifying right-leaning undergraduate student took offense at a poster advertising a seminar for staff and PhD students at his university on “dealing with right-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”. In his article for The Telegraph (2017), Howard argued: “Surely […] the university classroom is supposed to be a place of discussion and debate of all opinions, even uncomfortable ones?”

Responses to these points varied. Many felt that there was indeed a place, if not an obligation, in Higher Education to bring these issues to light. Not, however, as a pedagogical imposition from teacher to student, which we agreed was rooted in the very kind of oppressive, artificial authority that Critical Pedagogy seeks to challenge. Rather it should depend on facilitating reflection and conversation among students. To this end, there was some agreement on Giroux’s point, citing Robert Mikilitsch, that “teacher authority cannot be merely renounced as an act of domination, but should be addressed dialectically” (42) Or, as one member put it, resisting the commodification of Higher Education requires ensuring we are “making conversations, not products.” It was suggested the University could hold an induction for all new students that encouraged them to reflect on their “privilege” and/ or their “intersectionality”; a reference to identity-politics theories that emerged in the late 1980s that seem to have become common currency within contemporary socio-political discourse, especially among internet-savvy Millennials. It was also suggested that teaching should be foregrounded by an opportunity for students to self-declare their sense of identity in order to share and reflect on their own, specific cultural experiences.  This would, it was argued by some, potentially redress the fact that students have little opportunity to share their own cultural and social experiences with their institution and enable them to relate their learning to their own life experiences. Meanwhile, as teachers, we should be alert to our own discipline’s history, and be aware of our own biases, life experiences, and relationship to this history. In order for true student-centered education to occur, it was argued, the teacher should aim to “disappear” from learning conversations.

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It was more difficult to see how such a discursive approach to teaching could be integrated into technical and numerical disciplines. A paper by Lawrence M Lesser and Sally Blake (2006) was noted, which discusses Critical Pedagogy teaching mathematics and statistics. They argue that the traditional assumption that mathematics is value-free disguises its gatekeeper function in formal education to uphold the belief that only some students are capable of numerical learning, thereby preserving it as “elite” knowledge and depriving many of the capacity to challenge “the numerical lies and obfuscation thrown at them on a daily basis” (citing Frankenstein, 350). Strategies they propose to improve student engagement with mathematics and reconnect it to lived experience include using data sets and examples of real social and political issues of relevance to students’ lives. Examples include: looking at racial disparities in mortgage approval decisions, at body measurement averages in relation to children’s dolls, considering estimates of probability that a typical death penalty case resulting in execution came to the correct decision, or using scatterplots to consider whether butterfly ballots in the 2000 Florida presidential election confused voters. Lesser and Blake’s arguments seemed to correlate strongly to Giroux’s point, citing Roger Simon, that education always presumes a vision of the future arising from present realities, even if this vision is veiled; and that questions educators must ask is who does this vision serve and who does it fail? (33)

One objection to this approach was practical, and related to previous discussions in the SoTL Network on the differences between the US and UK Higher Education models, particularly in our discussion of Alverno: that the highly specialised nature of British degrees left very little time and space for deviations from a packed core curriculum. In their response to this objection, Lesser and Blake seem to assume a process of learning across a diverse curriculum more typical of US Higher Education institutions, where students engage with a range of disciplines prior to selecting a degree major. Under this system, it seems slightly more plausible (assuming a will to develop a Critical Pedagogy curriculum) that space could be found to integrate students’ personal reflections on lived experience with gaining skills and knowledge in “hard” disciplines through interdisciplinary practice. To give a hypothetical example: As interesting as it would be to do so, under the British system how much time could a lecturer feasibly devote on a statistics module from three contact-hours a week to, say, facilitating extensive student discussion on voting (or not) and for which political party in the 2017 General Election, how their own decisions pertain to their personal worldview, whilst simultaneously teaching them how to apply, and to think critically about, the statistical methods that pollsters use to determine electoral voting patterns demographically by age and educational attainment?

For one member, this practical tension shared some common ground with what Stephen Jay Gould (1997) has described as “non-overlapping magisteria.” Gould was thinking specifically about the arenas of science and religion, proposing that while religion had no right to claim insight into factual truths, science likewise had no right to claim insight into moral truths and human values. From this perspective, and to paraphrase Karl Popper (2005), politics has as little place in the laboratory as God. The critical pedagogues would no doubt disagree.

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We noted that much of many of the principles discussed by Giroux are already suggested in higher education debates that propose a social-constructivist over a positivist, didactic approach to teaching and learning, including working with students as partners in curriculum design. However, it was felt that that HE institutional systems and contexts militated against this: modularisation, quality benchmarking, standardisation, and so on. It was noted, for example, that a paper from 1989 describing an attempt to implement Critical Pedagogy in a course on “Media and Anti-Racist Pedagogies” the result looked very like anarchy: not in the idiomatic sense of the word, but rather in the political sense that every moment of teaching required perpetual negotiation between all agents as equals. Interestingly, no mention is made in the paper about assessment. (Ellsworth 1989) In comparison, attempts to increase student-centered, active learning in University programmes through initiatives such as problem-based learning, engaging “students as partners” in teaching and learning, or even outreach activities with the wider community seem to fall far short of Critical Pedagogy’s radical claims.

The problem could well be, as was noted, that such initiatives become quite quickly aligned to more mainstream policy agendas and institutional strategies. There was some discussion on what constituted a “Public Intellectual” in context of the Research Excellence Framework that could see such work being recast as an Impact Case Study. Does this context inevitably compromise Critical Pedagogy activities? Or is there potential to repurpose institutional tools to more subversive ends in the manner proposed by Guy Debord and the Situationist International?  Do students themselves wholly and consistently identify with a national discourse that positions them as utilitarian consumers of higher education demanding “value for money” over the more idealistic educational and political possibilities described by Giroux?

These tensions were also evident, it was argued, in Giroux’s self-positioning as a public intellectual given his professional position as an academic, holding professorial chairs since 1992. In contrast,   Freire focused much of his life’s work teaching and pushing for educational reform outside of conventional educational institutions with the aim of improving adult literacy rates amongst the working class poor. Staunchly Marxist and anti-colonial in his politics, he was briefly imprisoned for his beliefs and lived as a political exile from his homeland through the 1960s and 70s. Even as someone who is allied to the politics driving Critical Pedagogy, Ellsworth argues that both the integrity and political validity of Critical Pedagogy is tarnished by its elitism, its abstraction and its use of obscuring terminology that disguises its intent “to appropriate public resources (classrooms, school supplies, teacher/professorial salaries, academic requirements and degrees) to various ‘progressive’ political agendas that [critical pedagogues] believe to be for the public good.” (301) The charge of elitism was also raised in this seminar in relation to the suggested scorn attached to ideas of vocational training in Giroux’s article, which many felt could have been considered with greater critical nuance.

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How to write a conclusion for a discussion where so little consensus was reached? Perhaps, in the spirit of Critical Pedagogy, it is inappropriate to even try. Any conclusion would risk imposing some kind of final word on an agreed position when agreement was never actually reached in a discussion that instead circled around some rather intractable ethical, political and social issues. What was evident was that the questions Giroux’s article provoked have extensive reach in terms of thinking about the relationship between ideology and education and of the University to society at large.


Work Cited

Ellsworth, E (1989) “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy”. Harvard Education Review. 59.3. 297- 324.

Friere, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Bergman Ramos. M. Harmondsworth. Penguin.

Giroux S J “Critical Pedagogy and the Post/Modern Divide” (2004) Teacher Education Quarterly. 21:1. 31-47.

Gould, S J (1997) “Nonoverlapping Magesteria” Natural History. 106. 16-22.

Lesser L.M. & Blake S. (2006) “Mathematical power: Exploring critical pedagogy in mathematics and statistics” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies. 5.1. 349-368

Howard, H (2017). “Right-wing students at Sussex? Your professors think you’re a problem that needs “dealing with.” The Telegraph. 21 February. Web.

Peterson, R. E (2009) “Teaching How to Read the World and Change It: Critical pedagogy in the Intermediate Grades” in Darder, A, Rorres RD & Baltodono M (eds)  The Critical Pedagogy Reade. New York & Abindgdon: Routledge.  

Popper, K (2005) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London and New York: Routledge.

 

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