Friday, February 6, 2015

#moocmooc & Critical Pedagogy

I'm following #moocmooc's exploration of critical pedagogy, and this week I read Chapter 4, "The Promise of Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Globalization" in Henry A. Giroux's On Critical Pedagogy (2011). As near as I can tell, Giroux's argument goes something like this:
  • We are under the threat of a neoliberalism that is 
    • dismantling the safety net of the state, 
    • defining democracy in terms of profit-making and market freedoms, 
    • diminishing civil liberties, and
    • thus robbing us of "the ethical ideal of intervening in the world" and insisting that we "adapt both our hopes and our abilities to the new global market."
  • To counter this worldwide threat, we educators need new educational approaches that should both resurrect the "blemished traditions of Enlightenment thought" (freedom, equality, liberty, self-determination, and civic agency) and engage various post-modern discourses (feminism, postmodernism, critical theory, post-structuralism, neo-marxism, etc) that expand Enlightenment thought.
    • avoiding the split between "modernist material politics" and "postmodern cultural politics" by recognizing "how each works through and on the other within and across specific historical contexts and social formations" and
    • affirming modernity's democratic legacy while rethinking it in light of the postmodern insistence "that democracy is never finished and must be viewed primarily as a process of democratization."
  • Educators must define "the pedagogical as a political practice while at the same time making the political more pedagogical" as "pedagogy has less to do with the language of technique and methodology than it does with issues of politics and power." Giroux sums up education as "a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations and must be understood as a cultural politics that offers both a particular version and vision of civic life, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment."
  • Learning must be "linked to social change" and pedagogy must regenerate both "a renewed sense of social and political agency and a critical subversion of dominant power itself", for "learning is not about processing received knowledge but about actually transforming it as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice."
In the rest of his article, he addresses the implications of his definition of education for students, teachers, and society.

On the whole, I agree with Giroux, but this leads to one of my main problems with this article: It is needlessly abstract and neither education nor politics are abstract. They are very concrete. I suspect that if I did not already agree with Giroux, then this essay would not persuade me to accept critical pedagogy. At best, the essay tweaks some of my understanding of critical pedagogy, but it does not connect me to it very well—not nearly so well as Paulo Freire does. Freire leaves chalk dust under my fingernails, Giroux does not.

This is most unfortunate, because if critical pedagogy is to have any chance of success then it must succeed with the fourth-grade teacher who is trying to decide if she should focus less on penmanship and more on keyboarding skills or the college biology professor debating whether or not to allow cell phone use during her exams. I suspect that these issues on the ground seem more to do with the language of technique and methodology than [they do] with issues of politics and power, and Giroux would not likely convince those teachers otherwise—at least not with this essay alone. Perhaps this is not Giroux's intention, though his article seems to have an argumentative edge to it, but I wish he had connected better to the classroom.

A second issue for me involves framing education in opposition to a particular social movement: in this case, neoliberalism. I am not a neoliberal, but I have to ask if I could be a neoliberal and pursue a critical pedagogy at the same time. I think I could. I would not be a fundamentalist, but I could pursue a line of critical inquiry that agreed with neoliberal conclusions about the role of capital and the market in society and the implications for people and education. My own thinking has taken me in a very different direction, but some very smart, critical thinkers happen to be neoliberals, which is what makes them so dangerous to my mind.

This leads me to a third issue with Giroux's argument, and I'll stop here: he comes too close to privileging critical pedagogy above all other pedagogies. For me, this privilege is too close to fundamentalism which sanctions one view, one system, to the exclusion of any other and has the primary objective of protecting itself from outside influence, with the concomitant tasks either of proselytizing those outside or of destroying them. While Giroux certainly does not go this far and while he does say that critical pedagogy should always scrutinize its own methods and madness within the local context, I still sense something in his presentation of a blessing and privilege above other views, and I still suspect that he would not mind too much if neoliberalism disappeared. I would have preferred that he talk in terms of the current affordances of critical pedagogy (and perhaps this is implied) while acknowledging that whatever affordances we have now are likely to be impediments in the not too distant future. Our rock-solid physics will almost certainly be overturned by the next Einstein. Critical pedagogy will be rendered irrelevant by the next Freire. Such knowledge keeps us humble, I think, without undermining our agency. We have to make decisions with the full understanding that eventually they will be seen as wrong.
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