Tag Archives: Paulo Freire

Beyond Caricatures: On Dewey, Freire, and Direct Instruction (Again)

A former colleague while we both taught high school in rural South Carolina, Ed Welchel, and I addressed [1] the continuing importance of both John Dewey and Paulo Freire, despite the decrease in requirements for education philosophy in certification and degree programs, in “The Practitioner Has No Clothes: Resisting Practice Divorced from Philosophy in Teacher Education and the Classroom” for Kincheloe and Hewitt’s Regenerating the Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey (Progressivism) and Freire (Critical Pedagogy) share significance for how we should implement universal public education, they also share a pattern of being discounted and discredited through caricature more often than through valid criticisms of their faults.

I have noted several times the work of Lou LaBrant, who I would identify as a “true” progressive, specifically her own efforts to unmask misguided and mislabeled progressive practices (see “Masquerading”). LaBrant’s work and career help expose (i) that progressive claims have often been misrepresentative of progressivism and Dewey and (ii) that some progressives (LaBrant) offer more accurate representations of just what being a progressive educator looks like in the real-world classroom.

Complicating the matter is the century-plus struggle to reform education, which I have represented as four competing arenas (also well teased out by Jack Hassard):

Education reform camps fall into two broad categories—Mainstream and Radical—with two divisions within each broad category: Mainstream Reform includes bureaucratic reformers and technocratic reformers; Radical Reform includes libertarian reformers and critical reformers.

Whether debates are addressing Dewey/progressives or Freire/critical educators, the issues tend to focus on the role of the student, the role of the teacher, the nature of curriculum, and the nature of instruction.

As a thirty-plus year educator who has worked through my progressive stage and settled solidly into critical pedagogy, I want to highlight the central misrepresentations of Freire with the following excerpt from the co-authored chapter noted above:

“My theoretical explanation of such practice ought to be also a concrete and practical demonstration of what I am saying,” Freire (1998) explains, thus connecting the philosophical with the practical (p. 49). Without a careful consideration of what we believe about teaching and learning, we are ill equipped to measure what we do with any precision, a precision unlike the traditional view of the term (not mechanistic quantification, but holding the real against the ideal as an act of qualitative validity). Teaching and our classrooms, then, must be “something witnessed, lived” (Freire, p. 49).

The progressive challenge that pushed against the traditional and mechanistic assumptions of teaching and learning offers practitioners a consideration of alternative views of education, but without a critical perspective, practitioners are left vulnerable to a dualistic and thus incomplete understanding of a classroom that creates the conditions necessary for the pursuit of democracy and freedom. Here, we find the necessity for the critical perspective that becomes a way of being, one that is “ethical” as teaching and learning are acts of empowerment—“to ‘spiritualize’ the world, to make it either beautiful or ugly” (Freire, 1998, p. 53).

The most damning result of either/or thinking is believing, falsely, that classrooms must be either authoritarian or chaotic. Freire (1998) explains the critical alternative:

“It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all 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)

The empowering classroom is far more complex than any either/or dynamic as such dynamics oversimplify and necessarily distort human endeavors (Kohn, 1993). But it is Freire’s recognition “of being ethical” that poses the greatest argument for the need to explore philosophy fully and rigorously.

A wrestling with the ethical implications of teaching and learning exposes “the dilemma arising from the tension between authority and freedom. And we invariably confuse authority and authoritarianism, freedom and license” (Freire, 1998, p. 60). And this, I believe, is the crux of why practitioners balk at any pursuits they deem impractical. They are trapped by the false dichotomy of what a classroom can be, primarily because they themselves have experienced and excelled in those exact settings that critical pedagogy challenges for being mechanistic and oppressive. When practitioners call for “practical” over “philosophical,” that call is masking a fear of deconstructing the exact assumptions that housed their own success as students—and often their own physical and psychological safety as professionals.

The practical becomes in effect a perpetuation of the status quo, a fixed thing. A philosophical perspective, one augmented with a critical lens, however, is an embracing of a state of flux: “This permanent movement of searching creates a capacity for learning not only in order to adapt to the world but especially to intervene, to re-create, and to transform it” (Freire, 1998, p. 66). With the practical, we have a sense of security; with the theoretical, a sense of risk. The classroom that seeks and embraces risk is a classroom that confronts authority; thus, the practitioner trapped by dualistic assumptions believes confronting authority can only lead to chaos. Without a critical perspective, the practitioner is left without the possibility of authoritative (instead of authoritarian), without the possibility of freedom (without slipping into license).

Classrooms guided by practitioners who have ignored a careful consideration of philosophy—of progressivism and critical pedagogy—slip into an authoritarian, and thus oppressive, dynamic that contradicts democratic ideals by silencing students. The mechanistic assumptions of these classrooms embrace a traditional view of objectivity as both attainable and preferable to the contextual arguments made by critical pedagogy: Freire (1998) maintains “that the school. . .cannot abstract itself from the sociocultural and economic conditions of its students, their families, and their communities” (p. 62). Education without a rich philosophical understanding embraces a clinical view of humanity—oppressive in its narrow view of “scientific.” [2]

And thus we come to some clarifications:

  • Progressive educators and critical educators—while embracing many overlapping concerns, beliefs, and practices—are not the same as unschoolers, exsitential educators, and “naturalist” educators.
  • For critical educators, a teacher seeks to serve as teacher/student while a student serves as student/teacher. Key here is where authority lies (not that it is absent). Authority for a teacher should grow from that teacher’s expertise, and not primarily or solely from that teacher’s status as “teacher.” Critical educators are skeptical of authoritarianism, but embrace their authoritative status.
  • Progressive and critical educators do not reject direct instruction, but are skeptical of direct instruction that is isolated and determined for students without any evidence of student need/interest or input. Again, the problem is isolated direct instruction, and the question is not if we use direct instruction, but when, how, and why. (Read carefully again the quote from Freire [1998], p. 59.)

So rejecting Dewey/progressivism or Freire/critical pedagogy with caricatures ignores the need to criticize both on substantive grounds (bell hooks has taken Freire to task well, and Lisa Delpit has dismantled failed progressivism, for example) while also perpetuating a reality that I find most troubling: Neither progressivism nor critical pedagogy has ever had any real and substantial place in U.S. public education.

The irony of this is that those who are most apt to criticize both progressivism and critical pedagogy by relentlessly calling U.S. public education a failure are in fact criticizing the policies and ideologies they claim will “reform” schools because those classrooms have been dominated by transmissional practices, content- and teacher-centered commitments, and technocratic policies driven by prescriptive standards/curriculum and high-stakes testing.

I end, then, with the final paragraphs in the essay excerpted above:

The empowered student necessarily requires the classroom offered by the empowered teacher. Any who teaches must first work through the philosophical evolution that Dewey and Freire represent—as well as continuing beyond the possibilities offered by Dewey’s progressivism and Freire’s critical pedagogy. The pursuit of an educational philosophy, then, is a journey that inseparable from being a practitioner—not something we “finish” in undergraduate courses and then mindlessly build upon.

Choosing between the status quo (norms and traditions) and progressive as well as critical possibilities is a choice between the moribund and the fecund. Norms and traditions are moribund—but the mind requires the fecund classroom that works against norms and traditions (thus progressive and critical) instead of bowing mindlessly to them. Philosophy is not something merely academic, something that wastes a teacher’s time better spent on the practical. Again, as Freire (1998) argues, “Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply ‘blah, bah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism” (p. 30). The soul of teaching, then, is an act of the mind and the heart that rises above the limitations falsely separating theory from practice.

[1] Co-authored with Welchel, E. (2011). The practitioner has no clothes: Resisting practice divorced from philosophy in teacher education and the classroom. In Eds. J. Kincheloe & R. Hewitt, Regenerating the philosophy of education: Whatever happened to soul (pp. 43-54). New York: Peter Lang USA.

[2] See Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. (Trans.) P. Clarke. New York: Rowman & Littlefield;

Kohn, A. (1993, September). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/cfc.htm


Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)

If The Onion Gets It … : “when the mist distorts the outline of the cypress trees”

The power of ideology makes me think of those dewy mornings when the mist distorts the outline of the cypress trees and they become shadows of something we know is there but cannot really define. The shortsightedness that afflicts us makes our perception difficult. More serious still is the way we can so easily accept that what we are seeing and hearing is, in fact, what really is and not a distorted version of what is. This tendency to cloud the truth, to become myopic, to deafen our ears, has made many of us accept without critical questioning the cynical fatalism of neoliberal thought, which proclaims that mass unemployment is an inevitable end-of-the-century calamity. Or that the dream is dead and that it is now the era of the pedagogical pragmatism of the technio-scientific training of the individual and not of his or her total education (which, obviously, includes the former). The capacity to tame, inherent in ideology, makes us at times docilely accept that the globalization of the economy is its own invention, a kind of inevitable destiny, an almost metaphysical entity rather than a moment of economic development, subject to a given political orientation dictated by the interests of those who hold power, as is the whole of capitalist economic production. What we hear is that the globalization of the economy is a necessity from which we cannot escape. (p. 113)

Pedagogy of Freedom, Paulo Freire (2000)

Paulo Freire died in the spring of 1997 while preparing to teach in the fall of that year, resulting in the publication of  Pedagogy of Freedom. Freire’s passage above, then, grew out of the billowing storm called “accountability”—anticipating, ironically, the inevitable expansion of test-based assaults on students, schools, and teachers (at least students, schools, and teachers in the public/state systems throughout the world).

As philosophical text, Freire’s final testament has likely (and probably now) falls on deaf ears, increasing the irony: We (especially in the U.S., and especially teachers) are too practical for all those big words and all that deep thinking.

However, Freire’s essential confrontation of fatalism seems to be obvious enough for The Onion [1] to recognize.

Consider New STEM Education Initiative Inspires Girls To Earn Less Than Men In Scientific Career:

“If America intends to maintain its status as an international research leader, we must do more to encourage young women to enter careers in engineering and technology where they’ll be paid, on average, $4,000 less than their male peers for doing the same work,” said program director Elizabeth Grant, stressing that the strategy would include inspirational K-12 classroom visits by female scientists, televised ad campaigns, and mentorship opportunities targeted at showing young girls that they too could attain a position in which they have fewer opportunities for professional advancement relative to men and are regarded as less competent by their superiors.

And ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations.

The same sort of uncomfortable dark satire could be written about school discipline impacting African American and Latino boys and the mass incarceration of African American young men [2]—or the relentless bloodlust for war already catalogued in satire by Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and many others.

It seems to me, then, if The Onion can recognize and confront the fatalism existing in and fostered by capitalism and consumerism in the U.S., then the rest of us should be able to do the same—and then to take action against the paralysis of that fatalism.

Or we could just follow The Onion and Funny or Die on Twitter.

[1] My points here are couched within an important caveat: Please do not ignore that satire in the U.S. is corporate satire. While popular outlets such as The Onion and Funny or Die as well as popular satirists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are apt to confront well ideas ignored among the so-called serious media, these outlets and entertainers are, nonetheless, part of the corporate (neoliberal, Freire would say) problem also. See my Legend of the Fall series as one example of that concern.

[2] The Onion has already shown they get Teach For America: Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major and My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids (with the brilliant by-line “By Megan Richmond, Volunteer Teacher”).

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.

“They ask only opportunity”: Helen Keller and Those Who Will Not See

The evolution of my fully understanding formal education began when I was very young and learning moment by moment at the feet of my mother, who taught my sister and me to play canasta (a complicated two-deck card game related to rummy) and love Dr. Seuss well before we started first grade.

Of course, I thought I knew something about school after 16.5 years that culminated in my undergraduate degree, and then I began to teach. That led to another delusion about my understanding formal schooling—until I became a father.

By third grade, my daughter was teaching me lessons about school I had only come to understand at the edges. One of those lessons involved her class reading The Miracle Worker in their textbook. I watched my daughter being taught the passive radical myth (which I have connected with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus; and also explored in the ways Pat Tillman’s life and death have been manipulated)—Keller reduced to a caricature of simplistic moral lessons aimed at feeding children in the U.S. the myths that deform (see Paulo Freire).

Helen Keller, however, was someone quite different—a true radical in thought and action. Below is an updated reposting of a blog from June 29, 2012, exploring the power in Keller’s voice, one marginalized, ignored, silenced.

Helen Keller could not attend the 1906 meeting of Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind. In a letter, Keller implored Mark Twain to speak on her behalf: “But, superfluous as all other appeals must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.”

In these words echo Keller’s ironic awareness of the invisibility of women who are silenced.

About the need for advocacy for the blind, Keller wrote in part:

To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness [emphasis added]. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

This message of empathy and advocacy speaks beyond the turn of the twentieth century and beyond the challenges confronting the blind. In the twenty-first century, Americans are not fully human unless they are workers first. Without work, Americans struggle to have adequate and affordable health care, to feel basic dignity or security.

In the twenty-first century, people and children increasingly trapped in poverty are the targets of derision and marginalization as this country has maintained a war on the poor and not on poverty.

Those Who Will Not See: The Privileged

Let’s imagine, now, Keller’s words rewritten to address the advocacy needed for adults and children trapped in poverty:

To know what the poor person needs, you who are privileged must imagine what it would be not to privileged, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what poverty means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The privileged man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident impoverishes him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of people trapped in poverty. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the poor along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their opportunity you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

The U.S. is not a land of opportunity, but a land of privilege begetting privilege at the expense of the impoverished and the swelling working class and working poor. The privileged berate public institutions, such as universal public education, and the people who dedicate their lives to public service, such as the teachers in those schools.

The privileged rail against universal health care and day care because they were raised with both and maintain both regardless of their behavior.

The corporate consumer culture has tied all basic elements of human dignity—an income, retirement, health care, security—to employment rendering a hard day’s labor essentially a kind of twentieth-century wage-slavery.

American workers are shackled to their status as workers, a condition that benefits mostly the owners, the bosses, the privileged.

If American workers were provided the basic dignities of being human independent of their work, those workers would have autonomy—something historically afforded by unions and tenure (the anathemas of corporate consumerism)—they would have voice, they would have the authentic freedom and choice flippantly championed by the privileged.

Keller’s impassioned plea about the need for empathy at the foundation of advocacy speaks to the same empathy needed against the arrogance of privilege that has corrupted the American character and the American Dream.

“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected,” mused Oscar Wilde.

America remains a shining possibility, but it is destined to remain only a possibility as long as those with power continue to lead but refuse to see that the true character of a country’s people is revealed each day among that country’s workers and the conditions of their labor.