Critical Pedagogy as an educational paradigm

Essay. Critical pedagogy highlights the link between education and power. It is needed now as much as ever, argues Peter Mayo.


Introduction: War against children, youth and adults

The current global scenario characterised by the predominance of Neoliberal tenets centring around the market and about a view of persons as reduced to one or, at best, two dimensional beings, characterised as producers-consumers, is changing the nature of learning settings. Education has been transformed from a public to a consumption good, and, in many cases, a positional consumption good at that. (A positional good’s consumption is predicated on the denial of the same good’s consumption to others.) Public spaces in which children, youth and adults were once free to roam are constantly being privatised and commodified.

More globally, youth are frequently projected as ‘degenerate’ and as a ‘menace to society’ in the mass media, advertising campaigns, films and in criticisms of current schooling (Giroux, 2001). They are frequently the target of commercial predators who prey on their vulnerability in a variety of ways, ranging from drug availability to open bars and to encouraging them to pose for images that incite adult desire; children are mainly roped in, in the latter case, though child beauty pageants (Giroux, 2000). But of course this scenario takes a different complexion in different contexts.

In many parts of the world, the war is starker and ‘in your face,’ both in terms of bombings and collateral damage and blockades against the importation of basic necessities, including medicine, as are the wars waged in Iraq (the two wars waged by the two Bush Presidents) and Afghanistan, and more recently the siege on Gaza. Children and youth figure among the many casualties in such wars as those in Iraq. They die in their thousands, or are permanently maimed, through what is perversely dubbed ‘collateral damage’. They also die through indirect effects, such as the destruction of public infrastructure in Iraq, in the 1991 Gulf War, which led to malnutrition and deadly diseases (Giroux & Searls Giroux, 2004, pp. 70, 75, 76). Critical pedagogues refer to these situations brought about by the military-industrial complex that has rendered militarism the solution to world disputes, caused in part by unequal access to the world’s resources.

All these aspects, including military attacks on youth and children, feature in the literature of what is known as critical pedagogy (see Giroux and Searls Giroux 2004). This pedagogical approach highlights and demonstrates the link between education and power.  In the words of Peter McLaren, one of the area’s major exponents, critical pedagogy is “fundamentally concerned with the centrality of politics and power in our understanding of how schools [and I would add:  education] work” (McLaren, 1994: 167).

One author who has been consistently writing in this vein, highlighting the unsavoury aspects of what is happening to youth and children mentioned above, and by extension adults, is Henry A Giroux. He is one of the founding figures of critical pedagogy, as the already frequent quotes from his large oeuvre would suggest. The leitmotif of his oeuvre, especially his work from the late 90s onward, is that a merciless war is being waged against youth and children.  Examples of such varied and relentless onslaughts abound in his writing as he moves from analysing actual wars as in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their numerous causalities, to an analysis of more subtle and indirect wars, often based on social class, gender and ethnic grounds.

More likely, critical pedagogy exponents will also be discussing the wars being waged on religious grounds these days. And, as seen from the Kenyan university massacre case, youth are not spared in this relentless war as they were not spared, in different wars in the past, in places such as Kent State, USA, Athens Polytechnic during the resistance to the CIA backed fascist regime in Greece, Gwangju in South Korea with its massacre of protesting students, Tripoli, Libya with its public hanging of protesting students, Montreal with the gunning down of women students at the Ecole Polytechnique, and Tiananmen Square with the well known crack down and massacre of 1989.

These are all situations when youth, representing the promise of the future, are perceived as a menace to the state or groups and individuals, be they misogynists, religious fundamentalists, colonisers or totalitarian leaders (from ‘Right’ or ‘Left’). A number of these tragedies point to the presence of what is known in the critical pedagogy literature as the ‘carceral state’ characterized by a situation in which the state’s repressive forces take precedence over the ideological ones, even though the two cannot be separated except for heuristic purposes. In these cases, the state would be suffering from a ‘crisis of legitimacy,’ and the ultimate resort would be to what Mao called, so apt regarding the Tiananmen Square carnage, as power lying “in the barrel of a gun.”

Critical Pedagogy

I would argue, adding to the statement from McLaren, that critical pedagogy is a pedagogical approach that enables pupils and students to confront and question structures and processes of domination and related attitudes, assumptions, myths and specific social constructions of reality – all of which constitute ‘regimes of truth’ and crucial aspects of dominant hegemonic relationships. It is on this sort of questioning that many of the protesting students, violently attacked and killed in some of the contexts just mentioned, indulged. I would submit that critical pedagogy sees education, in its broader context and following Antonio Gramsci, as lying at the heart of the workings of hegemony (Borg et al, 2002). It is a pedagogical process targeted at the development of a critical consciousness. Broadly speaking, critical pedagogy attempts to:

Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci is one of the leading figures of critical pedagogy. / Photo: Wikipedia

  • create new forms of knowing, placing emphasis on dismantling disciplinary divisions and creating interdisciplinary knowledge;
  • pose questions concerning relations between margins and centres of power in schools, universities and throughout society as a whole;
  • encourage readings of history as part of a political pedagogical project that tackles issues of power and identity in connection with questions of social class, enabling and disabling environments, ‘race’/ethnicity, gender, colonialism;
  • refute the distinction between ‘high’ and low’ culture with a view to developing a curriculum that connects with people’s life-worlds and everyday cultural narratives and gradually move beyond that;
  • accord importance to a language of ethics throughout the educational process (adapted from Giroux, 2011).

The Critical Pedagogy concept had its origins in North America though it draws inspiration from Latin America and especially the pedagogy of Paulo Freire. In short it has a ‘Third World’ ring to it, the term being used in its political, ideological sense of belonging to the impoverished majority world. It also draws on a variety of paradigms and schools in education, not least the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse and Habermas in particular) and the work of such luminaries as Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said and Michel Foucault.

Paulo Freire, Photo: Wikipedia.

It has recently also been given a broader international dimension as light is shed on the critical education efforts of a whole range of writers on education and educators from different continents, such as Francesc Ferrer I Guardia, don Lorenzo Milani, Martin Buber, Danilo Dolci, Aldo Capitini, bell hooks, Antonia Darder, Henry Giroux, Michael Apple, Ira Shor, Peter McLaren, Nahla Abdo, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Ibrahim Abu Loghod , feminist movements in different contexts, Luiza Cortesão, Amilcar Cabral and so forth. We would include here Turkish exponents gravitating around the journal Elestirel pedagoji (critical pedagogy) and emerging from the main and left-oriented teachers’ union, Egitim Sen.  All these and many of those mentioned above feature in a reader (the introduction and specific chapters) on the internationalization of critical pedagogy (Darder et al, 2015)

Critical Pedagogy in simple terms

Critical pedagogy therefore underscores the nexus between education and power, forges the link between Education and social justice, placing the former at the service of the latter and affirms the political nature of education. “Education is politics” is the rallying cry deriving from Freire’s  belief and that of many others throughout history, notably exponents of ‘Independent Working Class Education,’ that education is not neutral and the educator must take sides:  “better a fascist than indifferent”  in don Lorenzo Milani’s words (Martinelli, in Borg and Mayo, 2007: 113), of course a statement to be taken not literally but in the spirit it is intended, a statement the echoes Gramsci’s “Odio gli Indifferenti” (I detest those who are indifferent).

Critical pedagogy is also meant to foster the development of critical attitudes, constantly raising such questions, with regard to policies, curricular decisions and teaching options, as: who benefits? Who suffers?  Who is included and who is excluded? Which culture is valorised and at the expense of which other cultures? Important Who questions to which the How question ought to be added: e.g. who represents whom and how?

It also deals with the political economy of education and education’s cultural politics, exposing the interests underlining what is presented as culturally ‘neutral,’ indicating that cultural productions are never innocent despite their lending themselves to multiple interpretations. A political cultural approach deals with such important aspects as the politics of representation or misrepresentation and also with attempts to establish, by critical educators and their students, alternative forms of cultural production that challenge the status quo, rupturing codes of domination and oppression, laying the seeds for an alternative social-justice-oriented education and society.

Culture and Language

Language plays an important role in education.  This might partly explain why critical pedagogy has attracted people from the language field or who engage with issues concerning the politics of language. Antonia Darder (2012), a Puerto Rican, and therefore an English/Spanish bilingual, insists on a need for a different way of preparing teachers as critical educators, in their work with bicultural students in the USA. Cultural choices/preferences, or ‘cultural arbitrary,’ in Bourdieu’s terms, lie at the heart of the power dynamics underlying educational encounters between educators, texts and students.

Language plays a key role in the politics of inclusion/exclusion, participation/ alienation in education and in the process of fostering a meaningful education based on praxis (reflection on action for transformative action, in a dialectical relationship not a linear sequence – Allman, 2010), as opposed to education or mis-education (in Chomsky’s terms) perpetrating symbolic and structural violence on children and youth. A critical pedagogy in the context of bicultural learning entails engaging the primary cultures of minority students in a process that does not remain at a superficial level (this has been one of the major critiques of multicultural experiences in education, seen as a form of containment and absorption) but which must go deeper. Educators are encouraged to create the conditions in which bicultural students can learn how to navigate critically in both cultures, recognizing the dominant / subordinate dialectic and ideological formations inherent in the colonial context.

Democratising the Curriculum

One key figure who has had an influence on critical education is Michael W. Apple, author of a number of books. Among other things, Apple (1990) argued for the democratization of the curriculum.  He presents the curriculum as a site of contestation mirroring other sites of struggle such as the state and the domain of textbook publishing.

Choices of content and what needs to be learned reflect struggles over whose culture and view of the world counts and whose is discarded. The greater the lobby and influence a group attains, the greater the group’s chances of renegotiating the curriculum according to its interests.  This is all part of the struggle for hegemony which is never static but constantly in flux and open to negotiation and renegotiation. The curriculum constitutes one space where dominant groups render their knowledge hegemonic and where also hegemonic contestation and renegotiation are carried out. Curriculum is therefore not only about ‘ideology critique’ in the most restricted senses associated with certain Frankfurt School exponents, but also about renegotiation of hegemonic relations, perceptions and bodies of practice.

In this regard, Apple has been detailing the economic, political, and ideological processes that enable specific groups’ knowledge to become ‘official’ (Apple, 2000) while other groups’ knowledge is ‘popular’. There are clear echoes of Gramsci here especially with regard to the Sardinian political figure’s constant fascination with and exploration of the interplay of the popular and ‘established’ forms of cultural production and how each draw from each other. And Michael Apple is a self-declared neo-gramscian theorist.

Education in the context of globalisation

The bulk of recent work from the critical pedagogy field focuses on education in the context of the intensification of globalisation. Globalisation has different facets. To begin with, there is ‘hegemonic globalisation’ (de Sousa Santos, in Robertson and Dale, 2003) with neoliberalism at its core. With its major focus on the collective dimensions of knowledge, on persons as subjects and social actors, on critical consciousness and inquiry, and praxis, Freire-inspired critical pedagogy stands as an antidote to the kind of neoliberal education that ties education to the market, sees people as individualistic and atomised (Margaret Thatcher: “there is no such thing as society”), accommodating governmentality, rather than forming part of a collectivity exercising the ‘right to govern’. It is an antidote to a Neoliberal process abetted by the spouting of clichés (e.g. “if you think education is expensive try ignorance”; “there is no such thing as a free lunch”) that become part of common sense. Critical thinking based on praxis is intended to help persons problematise issues, with a view to exposing the contradictions underlying taken-for-granted assumptions promoted through a variety of means, not least the global media and marketing mechanisms.

One other facet (Carlos Alberto Torres has identified two others, one related to the discourse around Human Rights and the other to the ‘international war on terror’) is what is known as ‘globalisation from below’ (Marshall, 1987). This second process of globalisation is engaged in by a variety of social movements worldwide who connect by using the instruments of hegemonic globalisation for emancipatory and not neoliberal ends, coming together in such events as the World Social Forums or in sites of protest and struggles as the streets of Athens, Santiago de Chile, Alexandria, Tunis, Madrid and other cities or such squares and parks as Syntagma, Zucotti, Tahrir (Martyr Square), Gezi (Gezgin et al, 2014) and Puerta del Sol. Critical pedagogy allies itself with the claims and critiques, as well as alternatives of these movements and popular forces for change. There is an insurgency about critical pedagogy that connects with the insurgency of any progressive movement involved in a struggle for social justice.

For instance, the writings of Henry Giroux, regarding the need to salvage Higher Education from the neoliberal encroachment on this public space finds echoes in the protests of students in Vienna (Mayo, 2012) and Quebec (Giroux, 2014). Similarly they are echoed in the student protests in Chile, in concert with other entities such as Chile’s major trade union (Central Unica Trabajadores) against the idea and practice of all education being a consumer good for which one has to pay through the nose (Mayo, 2012; Giroux, 2014). This is a legacy of the Pinochet regime and its bloodbath – a long-lasting war waged on the subaltern, including children and youth, dating from the time of the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government.

Critical pedagogy gains sustenance from ideas and insights emerging from the perennial war against adults, youth and children, in different contexts by drawing on some of the pedagogical alternatives provided in sit-ins, camps, refugee tents, prisons and their education committees as in Ansar III in the Al-Naqab/ Negev desert, impromptu libraries and ‘tent universities’ (as with Occupy London) . There one finds educational alternatives marked by:

  • The collective dimension of teaching/learning.
  • ‘Peer tutoring’ where people prepare and teach each other (as with don Milani’s students at Barbiana, where older students taught younger ones consolidating their learning in the process – Scuola di Barbiana, 1996; Batini  et al., 2014- with Gramsci and his fellow prisoners in Ustica and Palestinian prisoners of conscience in Ansar III in the Al-Naqab desert).
  • A genuine dialogical disposition and willingness to learn from others.
  • The educators’ humility in being disposed to relearn that which they think they already know through interaction with others.
  • Reading history against the grain – reading history against the dominant narratives that conceal the class politics involved. In my own work, I have drawn inspiration from Gramsci (‘The Southern Question’ and Notes on Italian History in the ‘Prison Notebooks’- Gramsci, 1971, 1995), where sanitized views concerning the Risorgimento are discarded to highlight the process of the North-South ‘internal colonialism’ that occurred. I also drew inspiration from the ‘anti-militarisation’ culture espoused by don Lorenzo Milani (‘Letters to the Military Chaplains and Judges’ – Milani, 1991) in which he demonstrates the class-based process of Italian imperialism that occurred at the expense of innocent Italian working class lives and those of blameless Ethiopians.
  • Reading literary and canonical works against the grain, with importance given to ‘contrapuntal readings’ in Edward Said’s formulation derived from music and literary theory; in short what is rendered implicit or understated in classic works such as Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ and its allusions to slavery.
  • Importance given to popular culture without any romanticisation.


All these are ingredients for a type of pedagogy that is critical and emancipatory, as well as anti-authoritarian in the best Freirean tradition (Freire, 1970) that sees the learner as protagonist, owner of the education process itself and therefore subject. It is the kind of pedagogy that serves as an antidote to the war on adults, children and youth, since it is intended to dignify them as subjects and social actors. This is all well and good.

However one must be wary, when engaging in such an approach, of not doing untold harm to any learning group by throwing out the knowledge baby with the ideological bath water. No matter how historically and ideologically contingent, there is certain knowledge which needs to be mastered for learners to gain the capacity to act as effective social actors capable of renegotiating relations of hegemony.

One of the challenges, in my view, is to grapple with the task of imparting and learning what Young and Muller (2010) call ‘powerful knowledge’. There are echoes of Gramsci, here, and the Unitarian School (his vision for an all-inclusive school in response to what he saw as the retrograde reforms introduced by Fascist Minister, Giovanni Gentile). The concern is with a type of education that does not sell working class children and adolescents short in comparison with middle class pupils who can still obtain these skills, irrespective of whether they are offered by the school, through their materially rewarding cultural capital and what are nowadays referred to as ‘invisible pedagogies’.

Powerful knowledge varies from context to context but would include the dominant knowledge and other forms of knowledge that have withstood the test of time and feature prominently as part of the skills required to navigate the terms of our life and politics successfully. It would today include areas such as using ICT and grappling critically and functionally with digitally mediated forms of reality construction.

Critical pedagogy can ill afford to avoid the challenge posed by the need to acquire ‘powerful knowledge’, which is, after all, the political pedagogical challenge posed in the 1930s by Antonio Gramsci, and much later, in curricular circles, by the likes of Lisa Delpit (1988) with regard to Afro-American schooling in the USA and Michael Young (2013) in the UK.  On the other hand, it has much to offer, through its emphasis on the politics of schooling, in terms of complementing this rigour and mastery of powerful knowledge with ways by which one can learn this knowledge differently, becoming critically aware of its underlying politics. One can impart ‘powerful knowledge’ differently from the way it has been conventionally taught, emphasising its ideological dimensions so that this knowledge would not remain an instrument of reproduction and domination but become, through individual and collective critical appropriation, a vehicle for social transformation for greater socially just ends.

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