Critical Pedagogy or Core Knowledge?

For those of us committed to critical pedagogy (CP) as scholars and classroom teachers, Tait Coles’s call for CP instead of commitments to core knowledge (CK) is a rare moment in the mainstream press, as Coles concludes:

Education has the power to change social inequality by nurturing a generation with an educated mistrust of everything that has been indoctrinated before. This educational stance is one that we must all strive for as the moral purpose of education.

This call by Coles also prompted Twitter debates and blogs addressing CK (and E.D. Hirsch) and CP—including tweets and blogging from Harry WebbDaisy Christodoulou, and Christina Milos (see here and here), for example.

One important lesson from the debates focusing on CP and CK is that often what scholars such as Hirsch (CK) and Paulo Freire (CP) embrace is either (consciously and unconsciously) misrepresented by critics, never examined by critics, or distorted in its application by practitioners.

In short, that first lesson creates a mess for everyone involved, especially those of us who have very similar educational goals but distinct disagreements about how to achieve those goals.

I embrace CP, and like many who do, I came to CP through the traditional assumptions about teaching, learning, and knowledge. My education conformed far more closely to Hirsch’s vision of education than to Freire’s.

Thus, I began grounded in positivism, behaviorism, cultural literacy, New Criticism, and mastery learning. And as many CP scholars and practitioners have come to understand, all of these societal and educational norms have significant blind spots that work against educational goals related to democracy, liberation, community, and autonomy.

The second lesson from the debate is that CP—as is the case with progressivism—is routinely discredited by straw man claims that confuse CP with reductive versions of postmodernism and existentialism.

Setting aside the cult of personality involved in this debate (adherents to either Hirsch or Freire who feel compelled to protect the honor of the scholars), I want to address several key points about CP so that those who wish to reject CP can do so fairly—not with baseless stereotypes and straw man arguments.

First, CP is philosophical and theoretical, and thus, most of the foundational work on CP reads as philosophy and theory do—the language is often prone to technical terms, if not jargon, and the elaboration of ideas is equally dense, sometimes to the point of being impenetrable.

If we wish to discount CP for those qualities, then we might as well do so for all philosophical and theoretical examinations of knowledge—which strikes me as counter to the entire argument of CK advocates that knowledge is primary, often because that knowledge is complex, challenging.

I wish CP scholars and advocates would work to make the ideas accessible to more people, to all people, so in that part of the debate, I am certainly acknowledging the message problem found in CP.

But to careless claims that CP isn’t credible because it isn’t based on scholarship, research, sound theory, or other expectations for so-called “rigorous” standards is simply inaccurate. CP does acknowledge and include ways of knowing outside the norms critics tend to use to make those charges—which of course, proves CP’s point: Whether or not knowledge matters is controlled by whoever has the power; in other words, knowledge is never a value-free body:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)

For advocates of CP, then, the question is not about the value of knowledge—or, as many critics of CP carelessly claim, that knowledge doesn’t matter—but about who decides what knowledge matters and that education must never be allowed to be reduced to indoctrination, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

And so we come to the key problems found in CK for those of us embracing CP.

CK and cultural literacy are inherently flawed because they rest on claims that CK and cultural literacy can be easily and objectively identified. CP advocates recognize that CK and cultural literacy are suspect, as is all knowledge.

As two brief examples—both of how CP challenges CK and cultural literacy as well as how CP embraces the power of knowledge—are the work of Howard Zinn as a radical historian and Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. as a critic of Hirsch and cultural literacy.

In Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a powerful case is made for both the importance of knowledge and that who tells the story of history determines what that knowledge is. Advocates of CP are not saying knowledge doesn’t matter, but that all knowledge and truth claims are suspect and must be investigated by students, not simply determined for the learner and transmitted to the learners.

All historical claims likely benefit some group over others. Traditional history, Zinn shows us, has been told by the winners and to benefit those winners. History told from the perspective of the people (and including the voices of those people, people who have often been the losers and thus silenced) is much different than the version told from the winners and more likely to be closer to true for the great majority of people.

Provenzo offers a parallel exercise to Zinn’s wider body of work in history by demonstrating that Hirsch’s cultural literacy is bound by cultural assumptions, one of which is that cultural literacy must be passed on from one generation to the next in order to sustain that culture (and here is the most damning aspect of CK/cultural literacy for CP advocates).

In his Critical Literacy: Challenging E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and the Cultural Literacy Movement, Provenzo offers an alternative to Hirsch’s endorsing a Western canon of core knowledge. In other words, no body of knowledge is value-free; change the assumptions about what knowledge matters, and the “core” changes also.

Briefly then, CP does not reject the value of knowledge, but in fact, highlights that knowledge is foundational while always being suspect. The point of education is not to consume or attain knowledge (indoctrination) but to identify and challenge it (critical literacy)—and all students must be provided the exact same opportunities to identify and challenge the knowledge bases of disciplines.

A final misrepresentation of CP concerns the role of teachers. A common criticism of CP is that teachers play a small or even no role in the learning of students. Nothing could be farther from the truth; as well, the role of knowledge is also central to how CP defines the teacher.

CP argues that teachers should guide learning in an authoritative role (authority gained from the teacher’s status built on her/his knowledge and as a model for students) and not an authoritarian role (authority gained from the teacher’s status primarily or solely for being identified as the teacher). In CP, the ideal roles are teacher/student and students/teachers—everyone involved in the teaching-learning process are both learners and teachers, but the teacher has the primary role as authoritative in the discipline being addressed (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

As Freire (1998) argues, “Teachers who do not take their own education seriously, who do not study, who make little effort to keep abreast of events have no moral authority to coordinate the activities of the classroom” (p. 85). In CP, teachers are expected to be experts in their fields. Period.

Teachers must personify authoritative knowledge, then—which contradicts charges CP is somehow promoting ignorance. But another equally false change is how teachers interact with student learning, as in Christodoulou’s misrepresention:  Freire’s “critical pedagogy involves teachers working with the knowledge pupils already have and with the knowledge pupils are able to discover independently.”

What does Freire actually say on this?:

It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom of the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all [emphasis added] are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical. (p. 59)

Rejecting CP for not honoring knowledge, refusing some children access to knowledge, and discounting the role of the teacher in learning is simply all false, straw man arguments.

I think the best way to understand CP is to consider that Michel Foucault, a renowned French philosopher, criticized CP for being political and often polemic, but CP scholars likely cite Foucault as much if not more than any other thinker.

As included above from Kincheloe, CP is not about ignoring knowledge or even discrediting all knowledge, but ultimately, CP is this: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

And to do so cannot happen without authoritative teachers and a rich body of knowledge—one that may of course include CK, but certainly asks that we move beyond that as well.


Buras, K.L. (1999). Questioning core assumptions: A critical reading of and response to E. D. Hirsch’s The schools we need and why we don’t have them. Harvard Educational Review, 69(1).

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. P. Clarke (Trans.). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. M.B. Ramos (Trans.). New York: Continuum.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kincheloe, J. L. (2005). Critical pedagogy primer. New York: Peter Lang.


7 thoughts on “Critical Pedagogy or Core Knowledge?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights on the different approaches to teaching and learning – behavioral , progressive, DI ,constructivist , CP , CK etc . I like your approach that teaching should fit the needs of the child. A friend of mine thought the differences can be also viewed as an interest in cold cognition or hot cognition. I have understood that there is behavioral teachings within the constructivist approach – but it must be in the context of constructivism .I was wondering if you are familiar with Daniel Willingham’s writing and books. Whenever I am having a discussion about teaching and learning his approach comes up especially when it comes to factual knowledge. ‘The most consistent findings show that Factual knowledge, lots of it, is a prerequisite to higher-level thinking. – Willingham
    Is this true ? According to Edward de Bono – if we would have all the facts we would not need to think. It is the lack of facts that sends us looking for where to find info or get involved in creative thinking. Higher level thinking often involves the manipulation and comparison of facts , deducing a principle from facts . If we are not trained thinkers , a bunch of facts are pretty useless. – an eg where people get his message about facts right , but even according to him education policies wrong. His book why children don’t like school has become the ed. Bible of traditional educationalists. If you ask kids why they don’t like school , they will talk about autonomy , relevance , boredom, alienation, etc
    I am interested to hear from you – on ‘ Dan Willingham , hot vs cold cognition , factual knowledge

    1. Willingham is certainly often cited and respected. My concern is that many on the knowledge/traditional side are “trapped” in a positivistic view of everything. Measurable is certainly valuable, but not everything—especially since numbers are easy masks of the sorts of assumptions and biases critical educators challenge.

      As I examine the evidence from the CK advocates, I find works deemed “truth” are often flawed; E.D. Hirsch, Hart and Risley, Hattie, and others are cited as infallible yet their work has some credible and trouble criticism that the CK advocates never note, and will not acknowledge.

      CP argues no person or body of evidence should become a “bible” because that is where we fall down.

      CP has its own problems with the cult of personality, BTW, which discredits some CP for many, and rightfully so.

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