Getting Started: things to read and things to know about critical education

Aug 21, 2009

CEN Fortnightly Post, #4

The Last Fortnight...

One of the questions that is regularly asked by the students I work with relates to how critical pedagogy might be ‘done’ and when ‘being critical’ should be deployed. Jon Austin and I were having a chat yesterday about a person we encountered a few years ago who used to arrange his classroom in a circle and would call this critical pedagogy (even though there was nothing specifically ‘critical’ in his pedagogy or the way he encountered ideas). Unfortunately for this character, there is nothing specifically magical about sitting in circles, and in-and-of-themselves circles don’t form an antidote to uncritical, unthinkingly reproductive and transmission oriented pedagogical practices (you can marginalise and disenfranchise just as effectively in a circle as you can in rows, or under a tree).
What I’m getting at here is that there is a mystique sometimes associated with criticality. While it sometimes provides some ego-inducing kudos to be able to work in areas that are perhaps associated with trendy teaching approaches and ‘cool’ content, the downside is that the actual, genuine criticality core to critical pedagogy is sometimes lost in the translation. It is perhaps easy to inhabit the image (and do things like set up classrooms in a circle), but far harder to genuinely ‘live’ criticality.
What is at stake here is a ‘critical attitude’- a way of being that encompasses a whole way of life. This on the surface of things may seem a little daunting and totalising (‘you mean, we don’t get a break from being like this?’ I hear you say), but it is about realising that the world isnt a neutral place. It isnt fair, and it does marginalize some folks (perhaps even you and me at times). We live in systems that are by nature competitive and are ordered against a logic of individualism (this is the nature of the late-capitalist, neo-liberal world we inhabit). The reality is that we cant all be equally comfortable in this contemporary world- it is simply set up so this cannot happen (for us to be wealthy means that there must be someone who isnt, to indeed provide the basis for us to measure our wealth). We can choose to ignore this, or we can accept that something must be done.
Here is where criticality is fundamental, and why it must always be put into action. Criticality is about recognising mechanisms of power in all aspects of our world- whether they be via what a line of erotically dressed toy dolls say about what we collectively think about female sexuality and the sexualisation of children (yes, I’m referring to those damn Bratz dolls) through to violent attempts to repress voters rights in a national election (ala Afghanistan right now). Sites for critical interrogation present themselves in all aspects of our world and must be explored, challenged and transformed.
This is not to say that you should develop a cynicism for the world or that we should automatically castigate little girls (or boys) for finding joy when playing with a Bratz doll- in some ways, I’m arguing quite the opposite. It is from questioning regimes of power that structure our world to serve the interests of the few that hope for something better might truly occur. From this, I would suggest then, that being critical (and more specifically, being a critical pedagogue) is about conceptualising and hoping to put into action a more participatory and democratically engaged view of the world.
So where should this be done? Should you be looking for the next revolution to jump on board with, or is it just as (if not more) important to deploy your criticality in those quieter, more localised experiences? While large-scale, high profile demonstrations and campaigns are important, so to is the challenging of a throw-away sexist/racist/ageist/classist comment heard on the street, or the day-to-day work done with a group of students. Again, the ‘attitude’ of being critical arises here, as it is how you contemplate the world, go about questioning it and then ultimately affect change that is important.
So what do you reckon? How might you live critically but also exist as a member of the social networks you are part of? Is it easy to live critically, or does it take courage to question and challenge? So many questions.

1 comment:

  1. I think the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook can be a great way to commence the foray as a critical pedagogue. By commenting on current events through a critical website such as Freire Project run through McGill University in Canada, and linking comments and blogs through to Facebook profiles, it can serve as fodder for discussion around those not normally associated with critical pedagogy. If you like, it can be a somewhat safe way to start to present critical analyses of current events and the media at least to your online friends. Then once you start to get more confident you can branch out and explore critical pedagogy with your students. I also think the documentary which appeared on ABC1 recently (Consuming Kids: The Commercialisation of Childhood) would be a great starting point for an exploration with your students on issues of consumerism, race and gender. Using popular culture such as music videos and movies and TV shows are also great ways to explore these themes critically, as it starts from a more engaging aspect for the majority of students.