Educating For Social Justice And Liberation


What do you feel about the current state of educational criticism across the world? We hear terms such as democratic schooling and progressive schooling? Are they for real? What would these look like?


Well in order to answer your question adequately, I will have to specify the context in which such ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ education takes place. The educational left is finding itself without a viable critical agenda for challenging in the classrooms and schools across the world the effects and consequences of the new capitalism. For years now we have been helplessly witnessing the progressive and unchecked merging of pedagogy to the productive processes within advanced capitalism. Capitalism has been naturalized as commonsense reality – even as a part of nature itself – while the term ‘democratic education’ has, in my mind, come to mean adjusting students to the logic of the capitalist marketplace. Critical educators recognize the dangers of capital and the exponentiality of capital’s expansion into all spheres of the lifeworld but they have, for the most part, failed to challenge its power and pervasiveness.


Today capital is in command of the world order as never before, as new commodity circuits and the increased speed of capital circulation works to extend and globally secure capital’s reign of terror. The site where the concrete determinations of industrialization, corporations, markets, greed, patriarchy, technology, all come together – the center where exploitation and domination is fundamentally articulated – is occupied by capital. The insinuation of the coherence and logic of capital into everyday life – and the elevation of the market to sacerdotal status, as the paragon of all social relationships – is something that underwrites the progressive educational tradition. What we are facing is educational neoliberalism.


What does this term mean in the context of the critical educational tradition?


As my British colleagues, Dave Hill and Mike Cole, have noted, neoliberalism advocates a number of pro-capitalist positions: that the state privatize ownership of the means of production, including private sector involvement in welfare, social, educational and other state services (such as the prison industry); sell labor-power for the purposes of creating a ‘flexible’ and poorly regulated labor market; advance a corporate managerialist model for state services; allow the needs of the economy to dictate the principal aims of school education; suppress the teaching of oppositional and critical thought that would challenge the rule of capital; support a curriculum and pedagogy that produces compliant, pro-capitalist workers; and make sure that schooling and education ensure the ideological and economic reproduction that benefits the ruling class.


Of course, the business agenda for schools can be seen in growing public-private partnerships, the burgeoning business sponsorships for schools, business ‘mentoring’ and corporatization of the curriculum, and calls for national standards, regular national tests, voucher systems, accountability schemes, financial incentives for high performance schools, and ‘quality control’ of teaching. Schools are encouraged to provide better ‘value for money’ and must seek to learn from the entrepreneurial world of business or risk going into receivership. In short, neoliberal educational policy operates from the premise that education is primarily a sub-sector of the economy. Can you be more specific in terms of what distinguishes progressive educators from more conservative ones?


The challenge of progressive educators is vigorous and varied and difficult to itemize. Unhesitatingly embraced by most liberals is, of course, a concern to bring about social justice. This is certainly to be applauded. However, too often such a struggle is antiseptically cleaved from the project of transforming capitalist social relations.


Mainly I would say that liberal or progressive education has attempted with varying degrees of success to create ‘communities of learners’ in classrooms, to bridge the gap between student culture and the culture of the school, to engage in cross-cultural understandings, to integrate multicultural content and teaching across the curriculum, to develop techniques for reducing racial prejudice and conflict resolution strategies, to challenge Eurocentric teaching and learning as well as the ‘ideological formations’ of European immigration history by which many white teachers judge African-American, Latino/a, and Asian students, to challenge the meritocratic foundation of public policy that purportedly is politically neutral and racially color-blind, to create teacher-generated narratives as a way of analyzing teaching from a ‘transformative’ perspective, to improve academic achievement in culturally diverse schools, to affirm and utilize multiple perspectives and ways of teaching and learning, to de-reify the curriculum and to expose ‘metanarratives of exclusion’.


These sound like worthwhile goals, do they not?


I am not saying these initiatives are wrong. Far from it. They are, undeniably, very important. I am arguing that they do not go far enough and in the end support the existing status quo social order. And for all the sincere attempts to create a social justice agenda by attacking asymmetries of power and privilege and dominant power arrangements in society, progressive teachers – many who claim that they are practicing a vintage form of Freirean pedagogy – have, unwittingly, taken critical pedagogy out of the business of class struggle and focused instead on reform efforts within the boundaries of capitalist society.


Your own work has been identified with the tradition of critical pedagogy. What is critical pedagogy?


Well, there is no unitary conception of critical pedagogy. There are as many critical pedagogies as there are critical educators, although there are certainly major points of intersection and commonality. There are the writings about critical pedagogy that occur in the academy, which are many and varied. And there is the dimension of critical pedagogy that is most important – that which emerges organically from the daily interactions between teachers and students. Some educators prefer the term ‘postcolonial pedagogy’ or ‘feminist pedagogy’, for instance. Some reject critical pedagogy for focusing mostly on class struggle, and embrace ‘critical race theory’ or ‘critical multiculturalism’ because they feel it focuses more on race. Some would say that critical pedagogy and multicultural education have melded together so much these days that they are virtually indistinguishable. Some might want to use the term, ‘postmodern pedagogy’.


As I recall, the term critical pedagogy evolved from the term radical pedagogy, and I came to associate both terms with the work of my dear friend, Henry Giroux, whose efforts brought me from Canada to the United States in 1985. I have attempted in recent years (with varying degrees of success) to introduce the term ‘revolutionary pedagogy’ or ‘revolutionary critical pedagogy’ (after Paula Allman) as a means of redressing recent attempts to domesticate its practice in teacher education programs throughout and in school classrooms. I would be remiss if I did not include the works of Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Guattari, Antonio Negri, and many other European thinkers who have been lumped under the label of ‘postmodernist and/or post-Marxist theorists’. Also, Feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and literary theory have made important contributions to critical pedagogy.


We can also connect critical pedagogy to the Latin American tradition of popular education, to Latin American pastoral traditions of liberation theology and to European currents of political theology. We need to recognize that political struggles of African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups have greatly enhanced the development of critical pedagogy, as have liberation struggles of oppressed groups worldwide. We need to make a distinction here between academic critical pedagogy, and the critical pedagogy engaged by oppressed groups working under oppressive conditions in the urban settings and in rural areas throughout the world.


Is critical pedagogy the same as radical education or there exists a significant difference?


Radical education is wide net term that refers to everything from liberal progressive approaches to curriculum design, policy analysis, educational leadership and classroom pedagogical approaches to more radical approaches. You will find many approaches to critical education that are anti-corporate, anti-privatization, but you won’t find many people positioning their work as anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist. It is incoherent to conceptualize critical pedagogy, as do many of its current exponents, without an enmeshment with the political and anti-capitalist struggle.


Can you share your thoughts on your idea of teachers as transformative intellectuals? How and what is needed to be done in this regard?


This is an important question. I admire Giroux’s important call for teachers to develop themselves into transformative intellectuals. To the question of what is to be done, I follow Gramsci in his concept of developing organic intellectuals. But it is glaringly evident to me that most educationalists offer a perniciously narrow reading of Gramsci that situates the body of his work within the narrow precinct of reform-oriented, counter-hegemonic practice, largely in its forced separation of civil society from the state. It should be remembered that Gramsci’s conception of the long struggle for proletarian power is one that mandates organically devised ideological and political education and preparation, including the creation of a system of class alliances for the ultimate establishment of proletarian hegemony as well as the development of workers councils.


Now, I am not saying that the struggle to build organic intellectuals today is identical to the struggle that Gramsci articulated in his day. I see the challenge of transformative (organic) intellectuals today as developing strategic international alliances with anti-capitalist and working-class movements worldwide, as well as with national liberation struggles against imperialism (and I don’t mean here homogeneous nationalisms but rather those that uphold the principles of what Aijaz Ahmad calls multilingual, multidenominational, multiracial political solidarities). Transformative intellectuals should be opposed to policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on ‘undeveloped’ countries because such measures are the actual cause of economic underdevelopment.


Transformative intellectuals should set themselves against imperialism. In discussing responses to the imperial barbarism and corruption brought about by capitalist globalization, critical intellectuals frequently gain notoriety among the educated classes. Professing indignation at the ravages of empire and neo-liberalism and attempting to expose their lies, critical intellectuals appeal to the elite to reform the power structures so that the poor will no longer suffer.


Can the existing form of schooling system lead us to a struggle for social justice?


In so far as our goal is to create a society where real equality exists on an everyday basis, it is impossible to achieve this within existing capitalist social relations. To challenge the causes of racism, class oppression, and sexism and their association with the exploitation of living labor, demands that critical teachers and cultural workers re-examine capitalist schooling in the contextual specificity of global capitalist relations. Here the development of a critical consciousness should enable students to theorize and critically reflect upon their social experiences, and also to translate critical knowledge into political activism.


A revolutionary critical pedagogy – actively involves students in the construction of working-class social movements. Because we acknowledge that building cross-ethnic/racial alliances among the working-class has not been an easy task to undertake in recent years, critical educators encourage the practice of community activism and grassroots organization among students, teachers, and workers. They are committed to the idea that the task of overcoming existing social antagonisms can only be accomplished through class struggle, the road map out of the messy gridlock of historical amnesia.


Another challenge that I have been faced with is the immediate dismissal from the teachers that these concepts look good and work well only on paper or these only work in theory but in real life situations there is no classroom application for such intellectual jargon? What would you say to that?


Well, that is a fair question. In most public schools, and in most private schools for that matter, there are no provisions for classroom applications of these concepts. There are some courageous alternative schools that are trying to employ revolutionary critical pedagogical imperatives into the curriculum, to be sure. But the public schools could not function within capitalism if revolutionary critical educators were to challenge the very foundations upon which they rest. Of course, revolutionary critical pedagogy is a dialectical approach that works with both the concepts of reform and transformation.


Reform efforts are important so that resources are distributed equally among schools in every neighborhood, so that curricula include the voices of ethnic minorities, so that there is equality of access and outcome in education. But we also look towards the transformation of capitalist social relations, at least keep that goal in sight and working in whatever capacity we can towards its realization. While such a transformation is unlikely in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime, it is important to keep the dream of another world – a better world. And, we need to believe that a better world is possible.


Can you expand on this?


The problem is that while schools should serve as the moral witness for the social world in which they are housed, they are today little more than functional sites for business-higher education partnerships. The corporate world basically controls the range and scope of the programs, and, of course, military research is being conducted on campuses. As Ramin Farahmandpur and I have argued, universities are now becoming corporations. They embrace the corporate model. We talk in our classrooms about the values of openness, fairness, social justice, compassion, respect for otherness, critical reasoning, political activism, but look at how the university treats it employees, the service workers, and the graduate students who are exploited as assistants to the professors. Many of the campus workers in the cafeterias and in the warehouses and in the offices are paid wages with which they can barely subsist, and they have few, if any, health benefits and little job security. Graduate students assistants often teach most of the classes but are paid very small wages, while the professors earn robust salaries. We need to make the university mirror the social justice that many professors talk about in their classrooms.


Recently in a talk I gave at a university in the Midwest, I talked about trying to establish more links between the university and social movements for justice that operate outside of the university; there was a lot of opposition from the professors in the audience. When I called for socialist principles and practices to resist corporate principles and practices, I was called ‘totalitarian’ by one well-known professor. When I talked about the problems with capitalism, and the relationship between the university and the corporate state, many professors became very offended. They did not like me using the word ‘state’ because, to them, it sounded too ‘oppressive’. They told me that they preferred to think of universities as places of hope. I replied that “hope does not retreat from the world, but radiates outwards into the world” and gives us the strength for a principled opposition to the imperialist practices that surround us, there were some very angry statements from the professors.


Under these circumstances, I see the role of teachers as that of transforming the world, not just describing or interpreting the world and this means understanding the ideological dimension of teacher work and the class-based nature of exploitation within the capitalist economy and its educational and legal apparatuses. For me, the most immediate challenge is to discover ways of feeding the hungry, and providing shelter to the homeless, bringing literacy to those who can’t read or write. We need to educate political workers to create sites for critical consciousness both within the schools and outside of them in urban and rural spaces where people are suffering and struggling to survive, and we need to discover ways of creating a sustainable environment. My work in critical pedagogy is really the performative register for class struggle. It sets as its goal the decolonization of subjectivity as well as its material basis in capitalist social relations. It sets as its goal the reclamation of public life under the relentless assault of the corporatization, privatization and bussinessification of the lifeworld (which includes the corporate-academic-complex).


What message would you want to convey to the EDucate! readers?


The challenge is to create an authentic socialist movement that is egalitarian and participatory – not merely a different form of class rule. This means struggling against the forces of imperial-induced privatization, not just in education, but in all of social life. In this imperially dominated world, I can say that I live in the ‘belly of the beast’. To support collective struggles for social change, to support a de-hegemonization of civil society by the economic superpowers, and to support a positive role for the national state to play – all of this requires steadfastness and focus. The struggle for co-operation, sustainable development, and social justice – which includes efforts to transform gender, political, race, ecological, and international relations – is a struggle that we should not leave solely to social movements outside the sphere of education.


Educators need to be at the heart of this struggle. This is a very difficult proposition to make here in the United States. In my travels around the country, professors in schools of education are inclined to support the status quo because of the benefits that it has provided for them. Yet currently, the top one-half of one percent of the population of the United States hold about one-third of all wealth in the United States. We have 31 million poor people, which is approximately the entire population of Canada. We have 3 million people who live on the streets. And I live in the richest country in the world. This is the belly of the beast, a beast that in the process of maintaining its great wealth for a few and misery for the vast majority, is destroying the globe.


As I have argued with Noah de Lissovoy and Ramin Farahmandpur, struggling against imperialist exploitation means dismantling a Eurocentric system of cultural valuations that rationalizes globalization as ‘development’ and ‘progress’, and portrays those who suffer its violence – especially the masses of the South – as the beneficiaries of the favors of the magnanimous and ‘advanced’. We know this to be a lie. From the belly of this lie, the effects of imperialism worldwide are recycled and re-presented as proof of the need for intervention by transnational corporate elites. Dismantling imperialism means destroying this unholy marriage of capitalist accumulation and neocolonial violence, and creating the possibility of anti-colonial reconfigurations of politico-cultural space at the same time as systems of socialist production are initiated. This is only a vision at this particular historical moment, but it is one that we must continue to defend.


In this regard, no impatient ultimatums can be delivered to the masses from the sidelines. Critique is essential, but it must arise from the popular ‘common sense’. In the terminology of Paulo Freire, the productive ground for the operation of liberatory praxis will be found in the ‘generative themes’ that are truly lived in the ‘limit-situations’ of the people. In the face of such an intensification of global capitalist relations, rather than a shift in the nature of capital itself, we need to develop a critical pedagogy capable of engaging everyday life as lived in the midst of global capital’s tendency towards empire. The idea here is not to adapt students to globalization, but make them critically maladaptive, so that they can become change agents in anti-capitalist struggles.

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