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 his line of thinking a useful approach to education?

One of the criticisms levelled 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 recognise 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 ‘end point’ – 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.

Works Cited:

Giroux, Henry. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Continuum International, 2011.

McLaren, Peter. “Critical Pedagogy: A Look at the Major Concepts.” The Critical Pedagogy Reader ed. Antonia Darder, Marta P. Baltodano and Rodolfo D. Torres. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. pp. 61-83.

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