Critical pedagogies in higher education


I have just returned from the 3rd Annual Critical Pedagogies Conference held at Liverpool Hope University. I was there for the first one, two years ago, and it has become a highlight of my academic calendar. The conference is supported by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain.

What is critical pedagogy?

How to explain this? Critical pedagogy is a term created by Paulo Freire, whose seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed remains a cornerstone of the discipline. Although Freire’s work was written within the context of post-colonial Brazil and the domination of indigenous populations (and their education) by a white post-colonial elite, it has had great resonance for many different contexts. The work of bell hooks has introduced the perspectives of race and gender, while Henry Giroux‘s work has brought critical pedagogies up to speed with a North American context.

Key to the idea of a critical pedagogy is the concept of critical consciousness (conscientização) one the one hand, and solidarity with the oppressed on the other. In this context, our aim as teachers is not to transmit a truth which arrives from above, unquestioningly, but to instil criticality into our work and our students’. This criticality should go beyond that which is required for interpretation and analysis of data/sources/evidence, but should be a key characteristic of their lives as critically thinking citizens in a democratic society.

Another interesting aspect is the need to move beyond the limitations of power and authority to enact an open and democratic classroom.

What does all this have to do with higher education I hear you say? Well, where once Citizenship Education was a key element to education from early years onwards, we now focus on employability and ‘soft skills’ which make our students more ‘useful’ to the economy. Don’t get me wrong: I fully acknowledge the need for students to be able to find employment, but that is not the sole purpose of education. It’s not even the main purpose. In its latest White Paper, the government puts this right by having very little reference to criticality, citizenship or democracy, but a whopping 53 instances of the word ‘market’. That, and the increasing push for quality assurance, monitoring and measurement systems serve to shrink the space for democracy and freedom in our classrooms and institutions. Freedom of speech is already under threat in this brand-aware environment. This is just another encroachment of the neoliberal into the public space, one more step towards the eradication of the latter.

So this is where critical pedagogies come in. How can we ensure the democratic public space is not sacrificed at the altar of marketisation? How can we help instil in our students a sense of ownership, direction beyond marks/CV-building and ‘social mobility’? How can we protect ourselves and each other from victimisation and the dehumanising effect of neoliberalism?  Well, the answer lies in small steps. Just try to enact a democratic classroom, try to limit the impact of a neoliberal agenda where possible. Educate yourself and your students, your colleagues. Working from within is harder, but is the only way.

Highlights of the conference

The conference itself was an interesting mix. Most papers were able to offer a philosophically-grounded approach to how we ‘do’ education in a critical and democratic way. I particularly enjoyed the keynote speeches by Peter Roberts (Christchurch NZ) and Judith Suissa (IoE). Peter’s talk focused on the theme of despair and hope which comes with critical consciousness, especially in the work of three thinkers: Leo Tolstoy, Miguel de Unamuno, and Paulo Freire. The despair felt by the first two bordered on the existentialist, and indeed Tolstoy seriously considered suicide after finding it difficult to come to terms with the finality of death and the lack of meaning in his life. Unamuno’s work dealt with the idea of suffering as a necessary component of life, without which happiness is rendered meaningless. Peter finished on a hopeful note, focusing on Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope and how no matter how desperate critical consciousness makes us, we can and should still be hopeful for a different future. A key element here was that critical consciousness is a threshold: one cannot go back from it. These are very relevant emotional processes for teachers, especially for the ones who come to harsh realisations about the state of higher education and its privileging of research over teaching (in elite institutions).

Judith Suissa‘s excellent talk discussed the process of critical consciousness and solidarity with the oppressed outside the classroom, as found in Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of OthersJudith’s talk helped us see critical pedagogy “in the streets”, and was grounded on the work of Rebecca Tarlau on critical pedagogy and social movements and Jose Medina’s work (The Epistemology of Resistance). She also drew the connection between anger and hope, emotions which Judith (and Freire) suggest should be combined.

Other highlights included Cristina Cammarano‘s talk on the critical, yet powerless, students, and the moral dilemma for the critical teacher who supports her students towards critical consciousness, only for them to discover the despair and powerlessness which may follow (as Peter told us earlier). Caroline Obiageli‘s talk from Nigeria via Skype discussed the theme of educative entertainment and especially how entertainment can be the vehicle for concealed learning purposes. What little I caught from Andrew Brogan‘s talk on the ‘exilic’ classroom, I found very thought-provoking, as Andrew explored the theme of classrooms as safe spaces where democratic practice can be enacted, based on the works of De Certeau, and in particular the concept of ‘wiggery’, after De Certeau’s la perruque, a form of subversion using the resources available. Ruth Heilbronn’s work also got a mention here.

Ana Lucia Souza de Freitas discussed the relationship between Freire’s work with that of Gert Biesta, and especially the theme of ‘risk’ in education. Louise Jackson and Jonathan Owen Clark discussed critical pedagogy within the context of art education.

Penny Enslin‘s keynote speech focused on themes of colonialism and postcolonialism, drawing from both British and South African contexts. This is particularly relevant in an age of dramatic expansion for British and American institutions into ‘new markets’.

Conclusions and action

On the whole this was a full-on two days which as usual gave me some time and space to think, question my practice and learn new things. I came back armed with another handful of new references for things to read. It also made me realise that some colleagues in philosophy work on an abstract plane for so long that they forget its significance or connection to reality. There were a couple of moments when I wondered what such examples were doing at a critical pedagogies conference. The irony was lost on such colleagues. I will say no more, as this was a mere side-note to an otherwise excellent conference. Indeed, I return to this conference year after year because it’s a relatively small one, everybody is down to earth, friendly and welcoming, and I make many useful contacts.

I also came away feeling that we could do with something more focused on higher education. Ultimately critical pedagogy is about praxis, taking action (or committing ‘wiggery’!) within one’s context. It’s also about irreverence, especially towards anything which some people may consider ‘canonical’ in the field of philosophy, and that does include Freire. It’s about a ‘smash and grab’ philosophy, an ‘edu-punk’ approach as a good friend once said, where we utilise what’s useful, always with a critical eye and aware of the limitations.

At a time when the White Paper is diminishing the teacher’s and learner’s freedoms in a very overt manner, we can at least attempt to identify our predicament and mitigate its consequences. In a discussion over a pint with an esteemed colleague, we thought that the time is right for an HE-focused critical pedagogies conference to take this plan forward.

Things for me to read

Nicholas C. Burbules and Rupert Berk (1999).Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits. Published in Critical Theories in Education, Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds. (NY: Routledge)

Martin Carnoy (1974). Education as cultural imperialism (Longman)

Seewha Cho (2010). Politics of Critical Pedagogy and New Social Movements. Educational Philosophy and Theory,Vol. 42, No. 3, 2010
doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00415.x

Michel de Certeau (2002), The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press)

Kevin Harris (1982). Teachers and Classes: A Marxist Analysis (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Ruth Heilbronn (2012). Teacher Education and the Development of Practical Judgement (NY: Bloomsbury)

Linda Keesing-Styles (2003). The Relationship between Critical Pedagogy and Assessment in Teacher Education. Radical Pedagogy.

Gustav Landauer (2010). Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader. Edited by Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland: PM Press)

José Medina (2011). Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance: Counter-Memory, Episte-mic Friction, and Guerrilla Pluralism. Foucault Studies, No. 12, pp. 9-35, October 2011

José Medina (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. (Oxford: OUP)

Bill Readings (1997). The University in Ruins (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press)

Dean Spade (2011). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law (NY: South End Press)

Rebecca Tarlau (2014). From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of “Framing,” and Social Change. Educational Theory, Volume 64 Number 4