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Critical Pedagogy and its application to contemporary education

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Critical Pedagogy and its application to contemporary education

Critical Pedagogy has its roots in the well-known Frankfurt School and had its peak in the 1960s to 80s in the western world. In this paper, the essential concepts of Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy will be defined on hand of their historical roots as well as their main propagators such as Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, later Paulo Freire and modern-day Henry Giroux. Subsequently the meaning and impact of these theories on contemporary education will be explored on the example of Saint Mary's University. Lastly, suggestions of coeval critical pedagogist Henry Giroux will be considered with a personal proposal and interpretation of education for the future.

Critical Theory has its origin in the 1930s in Germany and was mainly shaped by the theoreticians of the Frankfurt School. It followed Karl Marx's critique of society and capitalism, particularly from the “Thesis on Feuerbach”, where he argued: “The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Burbeles and Burk 1999). The idea was to develop a critique of the contemporary era, especially society and culture. The first main theoreticians were directors Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer who argued that Marx's lessons did not emphasize enough the importance of culture and media as catalyzes of capitalism, for example advertising to prompt consumption (Burbules and Berk, 1999). Comprised of Jews, Marxists, scientists, economists and intellectuals such as author Erich Fromm these philosophers founded the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923, hence the name (The Frankfurt School, 2010). It was an independent institute with the goal of making sense of and interpreting 1920s post-World War I Germany (BBC 2010). They saw critical theory as necessity to be dynamic, constantly moving and critiquing ideology and the individual with the goal of social emancipation and future interest in the oppressed (Kritische Theorie; The Frankfurt School BBC 2010).

After the takeover of the Nazis, the Frankfurt School first and foremost Adorno had to escape persecution for religious and political reasons and emigrated temporarily to the United States (The Frankfurt School Youtube). There it became more liberal, that is to say they redefined the opposite of an 'authoritarian personality' as 'democratic' as opposed to 'revolutionary' as it was termed previously. This was due to the American ideals of liberal socialism as part of the 'New Deal' policy, although they kept their 'cultural Marxist' objectives (Atkinson 1999). In 1950 the institute returned to Frankfurt with now Jürgen Habermas as its director and most influential figure (The Frankfurt School mingo).

For education this meant the emancipation of the student, to think critically and also critically self-reflect in order to prevent another Auschwitz as Theodor Adorno put it (Cho 75). Yet he argues that the conditions which lead to the Holocaust are still present in the school and education systems (Cho 76). Post-Auschwitz education should thus focus especially on early childhood education and then “general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible, a climate, therefore, in which the motives that lead to the horror would become relatively conscious” (Cho 85). The education of his era, Adorno termed 'half-education', a standardization of education that leaves people largely uneducated and breeds them into consumers rather than raising them towards a critical consciousness with a potential of skepticism (Cho 86). This anti-intellectual milieu of alienation may then turn into paranoia and could easily be used for anti-semitism and physical violence. Constant critical self-reflection would thus be needed to prevent another genocide (Cho 87-88).

Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire picked up on the tradition of critical theory, further extended it to education and was hence one of the founders of 'critical pedagogy'. He initialized an extensive literacy program to help the poor become politically mature. For his radical believes and actions he was jailed by the Brazil military junta in 1964, then exiled. He returned to Brazil and shaped its politics after 1980 until his death in 1997 (Giroux 2010). According to Henry Giroux, Freire believed that education is political for it offered students the conditions for self-reflection and a self-managed life, to ask themselves what it means to be citizens and expending their participation in a substantive democracy (2010). Critical education should then be a basic element of progressive social change and radical democracy.

Critical thinking in education, Freire argues, allows students to recognize connections between their individual problems and the broader social contexts in which their experiences are embedded. He calls the process of realizing ones own consciousness 'conscientization' which is also the first step in becoming aware of ones own power, 'emancipation' to take action against oppression and to liberate education (Critical Pedagogy on the Web). The greatest barrier would be the believe in the inevitability of developing a critical consciousness and a necessity of the status quo. Freire's commitment in spreading literacy is due to the belief that illiteracy equals powerlessness and dependence. Through literacy training then a sense of individual and collective self-esteem and confidence can be achieved with a potential desire of changing oneself and one's social group (Burbules and Berk 1999). Another essential method of conscientization or cultural education for change is dialogue as Freire elaborates in his 1970 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970a, 47). For the process of learning itself he suggests to read and write for oneself rather than monotonous learning by heart in order to learn critical, independent thinking and an objective viewpoint. Further the emphasis is on personal experience to challenge 'common sense' and intervene. As his Frankfurt School forerunners and coevals, Paulo Freire saw the main threat of democracy in the rise of extremist groups, in his case as critique of his era, the rise of the military-industrial-complex with the increased power of the warfare state (Giroux 2010).

Critical pedagogy then is specifically concerned with fostering a critical consciousness in citizens, overcoming ignorance and enable them to actively resist oppressive power effects and seeking social justice since the theory sees society as being fundamentally divided in relations of unequal power, as does critical theory (Burbules and Berk 1999). In his “Lessons from Paulo Freire”, Henry Giroux defines the education approach as an "educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action" (2010). It was Giroux who with his work in the 1970s and 80s shaped today’s concept of critical pedagogy by bringing together the work of the Frankfurt School, Freire and Pierre Bourdieu. For the necessity of critiquing culture as stated earlier, Giroux joined the field of Cultural Studies which combines different subjects such as feminist-, social-, political-, philosophical and literary theory among many others but concentrates on ideology, social class, gender etc. rather than anthropology. Giroux especially focuses on his concept of radical democracy in terms questions of justice, liberty and equality (The Freire Project).

According to critical pedagogues, ideology critique would eliminate 'false consciousness' and allow individuals to resist oppressive regimes of power (The Frankfurt School mingo). It thus attempted to eliminate inequalities on the basis of social class especially, later gender, race and sexual orientation were added. According to current critical theorist Peter McLaren, critical pedagogy was initially known for neo-Marxist cultural theory, now, however is often influenced by post-modernism, social-democratic or even liberal perspectives (McLaren 344-346). In general, however, critical pedagogy now and back then seek justice and emancipation by working within the educational institutions to challenge false myths of opportunity and bring together members of an oppressed group for critical consciousness of their situation as starting point of their liberation process (Burboles, Berk 1999). Emancipation in this context means the liberation of adolescents from conditions that limit their rationality and the with that associated societal action. This emancipatory pedagogy is supposed to contribute to the democratization and humanization of all aspects of life (Kritische Theorie).

Concrete examples of putting these ideas into practice would be a system of “power-sharing” in the education institution. Current critical pedagogy theorist Ira Shor suggests for instance a physical organization in the classroom where students and the teacher sit in a round circle and interact freely rather than having the teacher as authoritarian figure standing in front. Further, students could have an intake of how they would like to be evaluated (Critical Pedagogy: An Overview). In contrast to the past where many teachers were indoctrinating students to accept their personal viewpoint, in this new classroom setting pedagogues would encourage students to share their point of view, be critical of common conventions and norms.

In this sense all classroom members could develop a collective or form an identity to communally challenge their own viewpoints (Moisi 494). On a wider scale, teachers could make connections with the local community, especially progressive community organizations or local council meetings and establish links between the school and content of the classroom agenda and the surrounding social and cultural milieu, Moisi notes (497). This may bring together the civil society and the education system and thus encourage students to take part in civic actions as theorists Marcuse, Freire and Giroux have proposed (Moisi 498).

Modern critiques of this approach include feminist critiques as well as racial minorities who argued that most of the traditional propagators of critical theory and critical pedagogy were all white, male and of bourgeois origin. Further, others argue that there is a lack of other ethnic groups, that the authors are too rationalistic and exclusionary (Burboles, Berk 1999). Freire himself stated that critical pedagogy had been domesticated and reduced to a student-directed learning process devoid of social critique and Giroux later added that nowadays it was no longer a radical critique to enhance democracy as it was still in the 1970s and 80s but rather to improve student's self-image by bourgeois educators with a lack of critique of global capitalism (McLaren 346). Additionally, Tyson argues, that although there is substantial critique of advertising and media culture in critical pedagogy, fine art and aesthetic experience is missing out (38, 2010). A last substantial critique comes from observers as well as students who claim that although critical theorists Adorno and Freire advocate a constant self-critique, they never undertook one themselves (Tyson 38; Cho 89).

Contemporary critical pedagogy, however, does usually include anti-racist, feminist, post-colonial, ethnicity and age theories. Themes in current critical thinking address the rise of a military-industrial complex and a warfare state, that Freire saw increasingly approaching before his death (Giroux 2010). Since education is also impacted by capitalism, the rise of globalization and neo-liberalism is in the heart of critical theory. McLaren sees the problem in the corporate-state-military-media-complex and a culture of resulting violence that could be limited by dialogue (Critical Pedagogy, Social Justice and the Struggle for Peace 2009; Moisi 497). Associated with that violence and brutality which came to the core of late-capitalist society itself (Cho 80) is Adorno's warning of preventing more genocides through critical education to form democratic minds which is still in relevant today in places such as Darfur, East Timor, Rwanda and most currently Iraq (Cho 75). Education itself became more multicultural but because it is part of the world economy, it yet lacks the discussion of linking racism with capitalist social relations (Critical Pedagogy 348, 350).

Henry Giroux also elaborates that current universities are dominated by a conservative ideology and run for profit for the post-secondary education system largely moved from being a public to being a private good. Today’s campuses are corporatized for the global market, especially, he argues, because students are educated to compete with the fast-growing Chinese markets. This specialization in the capitalist system leaves no space for freedom and autonomy as a collective goal and administrations would lack the understanding of education as a necessity for strengthening democratic thinking and imagination (2010). Cho concludes that these are all symptoms of a sick society (80).

What then is the situation in our universities, especially Saint Mary's University (SMU)? Freire's predictions and Giroux's observations can indeed also apply to SMU with corporate sponsors such as the Sobey family, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal, Aramark among many others (SMUSA). Programs that encourage critical thinking such as Women's Studies get cut or are made impossible to major in whereas programs such as Management, Accounting or Business administration get sponsored and encouraged in order to recruit for the global economic market. At the same time tuition fees are increasing, as is university president Colin Dodd's income which makes it the second highest in the province (CBC News).

Critical Pedagogy as such is partially applied, especially in the International Development Studies program. Students are encouraged to think critically and question culture, society and the global capitalist system. Also, especially higher classes are held on a square table in seminar format and discussions are welcome and instructors do not impose an opinion of their own. Yet, students usually have no impact in the design of the class syllabus or evaluation. Also, more connections to local marginalized communities such as Africville could be made. Ideally, post-secondary education should be costless and Arts programs more promoted so that students learn critical self-reflection as Adorno and 'conscientization' as Freire would phrase it in order to become critical, democratic thinking citizens that contribute to the democratization of society and mental liberation from capitalism, especially on campus.

A step in that direction could be, as Giroux suggests, more connections with classroom education and the local community. Concrete positive current examples of this are the formation of a community garden on campus and a food co-operative to become independent from the corporate food system. This means, community workshops, buying local, organic food from farmers in order to become independent from the capitalist influences on campus. Professors then could educate students on these issues and visit the community garden and encourage students to take civic action for their emancipation. Future connections could also be made with local anti-racist and feminist struggles and initiatives for an equal access to material resources. Although such issues might occasionally be addressed, they should according to Peter McLaren be not only informative but performative (346, 348). Attempting to run SMU democratically would mean being student and faculty-run as a collective. Doing so everybody involved would directly phase the challenges that capitalism imposes on them since the university administration and corporations would try vehemently to prevent this.

This paper outlined the concepts of critical thinking in education by introducing critical theory and critical pedagogy on hand of their historic origins and main former and current contributes. The main ideas were introduced with concrete examples. Current developments in the field have been mentioned and a critical analysis of education at SMU followed. Suggestions for the future in order to form a transparent, free and truly democratically run campus closed the essay.




Works Cited


Atkinson, Gerald L. “About the Frankfurt School,” Frankfurt School, August 1999. Web. Retrieved 18 March 2012. http://frankfurtschool.us/history.htm


BBC Radio 4. “The Frankfurt School.” Audio broadcast, published 14 January 2010. Web. Retrieved 18 March 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pr54s


Burbules, Nicolas C. And Repert Berk. “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits,” in Critical Theories in Education, Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds. NY Routledge, 1999. Web. Retrived 15 March 2012. http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/burbules/papers/critical.html


CBC News. “Salaries of N.S. University Presidents,” 16 January 2012. Web. Retrieved March 16 2012.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2012/01/17/ns-university- president- salary.html


Cho, Daniel K. “Adorno on Education or, Can Critical Self-Reflection Prevent the Next Auschwitz?” Historical Materialism. 17, no. 1 (March 2009): 74-97. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. Retrieved 20 March 2012.


Giroux, H. “Lessons from Paulo Freire,” Chronicle of Higher Education. 27 October 2010. Retrived 15 March 2012.


Danaher, P. A. “Review of Pedagogy and the University: Critical Theory and Practice-Continuum Studies in Education,” Higher Education Research & Development. 27, no. 4 (2008): 418-420. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost. Retrieved 20 March 2012.


The Frankfurt School. “The Frankfurt School,” uploaded by Eidos84, 1 December 2010. YouTube. Retrieved 19 March 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=pbVTb0wgeyk


Freire, Paulo. “Pedagogy and the Oppressed,” The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 1970. Google Books. Retrieved 18 March 2012. http://books.google.ca/booksid=xfFXFD414ioC&printsec=frontcover&source=gb_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false


Freire Project. A dialogue between Joe L. Kincheloe, Canada Research Chair in Critical Pedagogy and Henry A. Giroux, Gobal Television Network Chair in Communication Studies. “Henry Giroux: Figures in Critical Pedagogy,”uploaded by freireproject, 7 December 2007. YouTube. Retrieved 19 March 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvCs6XkT3-o


Gabbard, David. “Knowledge and Power in the Global Economy: Politics and the Rhetoric of School Reform,” Psychology Press, 2000. Google Books. Web. Retrieved March 17 2012. http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id= DCQ1lBbUucoC&oi=fnd&pg=PA345&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false


Gur-Ze'ev, Ilan. “Adorno and Horkheimer: Diasporic Philosophy, Negative Theory, and Counter-Education,” Educational Theory. 55, no. 3 (2005): 342-365. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. Retrieved 20 March 2012.


Krawitz, Rudi. “Kritische Theorie.” Web. Retrieved 19 March 2012. http://www.krawitz.de/Kritische%20Theorie.pdf


Lewis, Tyson. “The Future of the Image in Critical Pedagogy,” Studies in Philosophy & Education. 30, no. 1 (2011): 37-51. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. Retrieved 20 March 2012.


McLaren, Peter. “Critical Pedagogy, Social Justice and the Struggle for Peace,” uploaded by VICTORYOVERVIOLENCE, 1 June 2009. YouTube. Retrieved 19 March 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5K0Ep8UgMQ


Moisi, Olli-Pekka. “What it Means to be a Stranger to Oneself,” Education, Philosophy and Theory. 41, no. 5 (September 2009): 490-506. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. Retrieved 20 March 2012.


Palmer, Joshua. “Critical Pedagogy: An Overview.” Case Western Reserve University Press. 29 October 2004. Web. Retrieved 18 March 2012. http://www.case.edu/artsci/engl/emmons/writing/pedagogy/critical.pdf


The Paulo and Nita Freire Internationsl Project for Critical Pedagogy. “The Freire Project.” Web. Retrieved March 18 1012.


Saint Mary's University Student Association. “SMU Sponsorship/Corporate Involvement.” Web. Retrived Matrch 14 2012. http://www.smusa.ca/sponsorshipcorporate-involvement



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