It seems to be a sport of increasing popularity amongst certain academics (yes, it must be said, statistically mostly male and white): to lament the downfall of individual achievement and lambast the advent of a totalitarian neo-Marxist identity-driven political ideology on university campuses. In that line of thought, a piece recently published by Dr. Brian Godor in response to a call for the decolonization of education at EUR ticked the usual boxes of criticism levied against Critical Education. Such a response paints a singularly depressing picture of Critical Pedagogy as an emancipatory fantasy of activist-teachers who distort ‘truth’ to indoctrinate students into their own agenda. Given the complex, diverse and sometimes obscure ideas that support Critical Pedagogy, ranging from classical Marxism to postmodernism, it is hardly surprising that this approach falls prey to such caricaturing.

This monochromatic view unfortunately does not do justice to the incredible power of critical pedagogy, insofar as it responds to the challenges of our times, in unraveling emancipating knowledge to humans of all colour, creed, and gender. It is time to stand up and defend Critical Pedagogy.

The Game is Rigged

There are those who would believe that oppression is a thing of the past, that slavery, racism, gender inequality are all relics of an unenlightened age and we now live in a gloriously meritocratic system. Critical theorists aim to shed that illusion by revealing the truth of oppression – whether this is modern slavery in Central Africa and Central Asia in mines of coltan, mica and other precious minerals used in consumer goods; police brutality against African Americans and persistent latent racism in Western society; or violence against women ranging from honour killings and rape to endemic sexual harassment against women in the work place, emancipation is not nigh, and the fight is on-going.

“Critical theory provides the key to disentangle facts and reconstruct how they fit together” – Ginie Servant

At the core of the oppressive system is an economic system that rewards not merit, but wealth, meaning that the rich inevitably get richer. And if the poorest do make it out of abject poverty, their political and social emancipation is curtailed by the staggering inequality that make the people at the top unimaginably richer, and therefore more powerful. When the effects of climate change and other environmental degradations resulting from our economic system really impact on people’s lives globally and massively, the poor will suffer substantially more than the wealthy. The economic game is rigged in favour of an ever-dwindling pool of people, and Critical Education aims to address this head on.

The Teacher is a Hinge

Critical Education aims to spur students to change the rule of the game, but to do so, one must first understand the rules of the game. That is why Critical Pedagogy uses a dialectic approach, confronting students in an uncomfortable to-and-fro between the “all-is-for-the-best-in-the-best-of-worlds” narrative they have absorbed since childhood and the reality of the rigged game. What a student does once the conditions of reality appear to him is up to him.
The true critical teacher cannot indoctrinate the students into a course of action if he is to stay true to the critical ideal. The role of the teacher, in the words of the father of critical pedagogy Paulo Freire, is to act as a “hinge” that helps to articulate the student’s thoughts. The teacher asks the questions that the student does not ask himself. But he does not impose, dictate, or otherwise purport to convert students into one mode of thinking or action. In that regard, one might venture into a lecture hall in first year economics, in which students are being told that humans are self-interested, all knowing, rational, calculating beings, and wonder, between the critical teacher and his questions or the lecturer and his charts and graphs, who is guilty of indoctrination?

The Tricky Question of Facts

The argument will go that the economist is talking about facts while the critical teacher is imposing a biased perspective. Beyond the misjudgment that the critical teacher imposes, the question of the neutrality of scientific facts needs to be addressed. Opponents of Critical Pedagogy unfortunately conflate the Critical Theory’s position on the social nature of facts with the accusation we claim there are no facts at all. It is not the validity of facts that Critical Theory questions, it simply asks us to look at the intimate relationship between power and knowledge, and how facts so constructed influence policy decisions and impact the lives of ordinary people, according to their socio-economic status. Critical Education asks students to look at what the status of “fact” permits an idea to do or enact upon people under the guise of scientific neutrality.

“We ask students to look closer at how facts are constructed” – Ginie Servant

Dr. Godor in his piece asked: “when I look at a square, I see roundness?” – Critical theory answers: “When I look at a square, I ask why we came to think of this shape as a square, who came up with the concept of squareness, what purpose and interest it serves, who wins and who loses from the square’s squareness.”

Critical Theory Works

The call for a renewal of critical education was made in the particular context of the decolonisation of education, by which is meant the introduction and confrontation of diverse narratives alongside (and not in replacement of) the usually taught euro-centric theories. Dr. Godor and similar critics have opposed this call on the grounds that it “does not work”, citing its failure to provide satisfying study achievements. Leaving aside for now the question of study achievements, which evidently reveal only what the evaluator has arbitrarily decided upon as the criteria for success, the studies used to discredit Critical Pedagogy concern progressive education. This is a mix of pedagogies of Deweyan and Humanist heritage with an emphasis on self-directed, life-long learning, advocated by institutions such as the United Nations, the EU and the OECD, which have been coopted into the neoliberal narrative. Critical Pedagogues squarely oppose progressive education, accusing it of perpetuating the individualistic, competitive narrative of consumer capitalism. Instead, Critical Pedagogy (developed in the West but also in rural Brazil) seeks to emancipate humans from this reductive individualistic narrative by offering them the possibility to confront their social situation together within their communities and decide for themselves the course of action that will change the rules of the game to redress oppression.

The success of programmes within a group of universities calling themselves the Critical Edge Alliance, whose students combine theory and action to revive derelict areas of Copenhagen, promote fair living conditions for marginalised communities in Mumbai, and foster the reintegration of incarcerated youth in the US while spurring deep, reflective, theoretical contributions from students, is a testimony to the potential of the method for thinking and making a fairer world.

Ginie Servant – is senior lecturer at Erasmus University College and postdoc researcher associated with Aalborg University
Phyllis Livaha – is senior lecturer and Tutor coordinator at Erasmus University College
Christian van der Veeke – is senior lecturer and Coordinator, Tutor & Student Profile Track Coordinator at Erasmus University College