The best way I can express it, I think, is that I have always wanted to be smart.
“Always” in the sense of whenever I first had something like independent awareness, which I assume occurred gradually as my autonomous self slowly and painfully separated myself from the powerful urge to remain at the center of my mother’s universe.
I idealized being “smart,” and thus “knowing stuff,” as essential for that autonomy.
I have never wanted to be smart to lord it over others (although I am still accused of being arrogant, a misreading of passion, I think), but I have always sought out and consumed knowledge as my lifelong quest to be my own person.
This urge has put me in a sort of Emerson/Thoreau camp that cherishes the individual mind and rejects organizations and group-think—a sort of libertarian intellectualism that now sits uncomfortably where that intellectual individuality has led me.
Over my first couple years of college—spent at a junior college where more of my energy was dedicated to playing pick-up basketball and drinking beer than my studies—I was eagerly reading and studying on my own existential philosophy and literature.
On the day Ronald Reagan was shot, I sat in the college library reading Sartre.
My mind and soul teetered on a dangerous edge during my teen years and into early adulthood; I was a perfect candidate for the sort of adolescent Ayn Rand know-it-all-ism many young white men fall into—and never escape.
Something, maybe just dumb luck, never allowed me to stop learning and thinking; something never allowed me to think I was “finished” learning or to assume that my current state of knowing was finished.
This is where my story includes Karl Marx. This is where the story of my mind looks absolutely nothing like what conservative Americans think Marxism and “critical” look like.
I found a copy of Marx’s non-economic writing that included a section on education. Having grown up in the rural South in the 1960s and 1970s, I picked up Marx with all the misconceptions you can imagine about communism, socialism, and such.
That paperback still sits on my shelf in my office and is heavily underlined with (mostly embarrassing) comments scribbled in the margins.
Just as I self-taught about existentialism, I was becoming a Marxist educator on my own time while I went through my final 2.5 years of college, majoring in secondary English education.
My certification program was extremely moderate even though my education professors were uniformly white progressives who tip-toed around being confrontational or in any way revolutionary.
These experiences were steeped in idealism and painful naivety.
I entered the K-12 classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, none the less, with the belief that I could help change the lives of my students and even change the world. This ambition was based on my own experiences since my life was profoundly changed by formal education, teachers and professors, and my own relentless self-education.
That belief was grounded in wanting not to shape what my students thought but in helping them develop the tools needed for how to think independently, including how to step back from beliefs and assumptions about the world in order to make their knowledge their own.
As an English teacher, I knew those tools were mostly literacy—reading and writing as essential for human autonomy and dignity.
Over about a decade, I did this work often badly but with a great deal of earnestness. College had humbled me so I was determined to help my students avoid skipping off to college with the sort of redneck provincialism that had shot out of my mouth in several college classes.
Again, contrary to what conservatives often claim, the only places I was indoctrinated had been in my home, my community, and my church. The students in my hometown had also experienced mostly authoritarian homes, authoritarian schools and classes, and authoritarian churches.
They had lived unexamined lives because that had been demanded of them.
At times, then, I was a very unpopular redneck among rednecks.
Things changed dramatically for me as a person, an educator, and a scholar when I entered my doctoral program in 1995.
Dots were connected from those naive days reading the non-economic writings of Marx and discovering that a complex and vibrant world of Marxist education scholars existed.
Reading Paulo Freire was switching on a light in my brain and my soul. Freire had thought through all the lazy and careless ideas that had led me to the classroom. But Freire also confirmed that my intentions were valid even as they needed a great deal of development and rethinking.
Another decade passed before one of my scholarly mentors, Joe Kincheloe, wrote exactly what it means to be a critical educator, an explanation that expresses almost perfectly the critical educator I had become:
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.Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer
Critical pedagogy was, then, a body of thought that aggressively rejected indoctrination and recognized that traditional approaches to education were in fact mostly indoctrination, as Kincheloe adds:
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.Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer
In the most succinct expression of what it means to be a critical educator, Kincheloe concludes, ““Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”
As a critical educator whose teaching and scholarship are informed by Marxist ideology (although not exclusively), I enter my 40th year watching conservatives and Republicans present a cartoon version of what I actually practice in order to institutionalize further the indoctrination they seek.
Who’s indoctrinating whom?
If Republicans and conservatives have it their way, it will be conservatives indoctrinating everyone.
So here are the commitments of my work as a critical educator and scholar, commitments that refute the many and ugly lies coming from Republicans and conservative talking heads:
- The most sacred thing is the autonomy of the human mind and life, especially when a person with power has authority over children and young adults.
- The work of being “critical” must interrogate the role of power in all human action—who has power over whom and why.
- Any idea or system that has become “normal” or dominant must be challenged regularly in order to protect the sacred nature of human autonomy.
- All human interaction is political and no human action is “objective.”
- The needs and interests of all and the needs and interests of one are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated realities that must be openly and freely negotiated by humans with protected autonomy (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
- Love and kindness are the very best qualities of humans.
And the ultimately irony, I think, is that we critical educators are the ones most dedicated to the pursuit of democracy, as Freire expains:
To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)Teachers As Cultural Workers, Paulo Freire
Today in the U.S. we have a choice to make between “the myths that deform us” and the possibility of a democracy yet realized.
But without critical education, there will only be those myths.