After several decades of existing on the educational fringe, it is safe to say that critical pedagogy
has entered the mainstream in the United States, with over 7,000 titles alone which address the
topic offered on the major book retailer Amazon.com. Academic conferences such as the
American Educational Research Association regularly feature hundreds of sessions related to
critical pedagogy and there are special interest groups solely devoted to scholarship in the field.
Critical pedagogy and its left-centrist derivative “social justice” is also applied to previously untouched contexts, from teaching math (Gutstein, 2005; Leonard, 2007) to physical education
Social justice has even been incorporated into business and sustainability degree programs, including the concept of servant leadership (Rego, Cunha, & Clegg, 2012). The graduate students that we encounter typically have at least some working familiarity with multiculturalism and critical pedagogy, usually having been exposed to Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux’s writings at minimum.
Though encouraging to witness as an alternative to the exclusive focus on traditional educational
theories such as behaviorism, the mainstreaming of critical pedagogy in the United States isn’t
without its problems, its practitioners’ accommodation to capitalism chief among them. For
example, even though there remain alarmist right wing detractors (Buchanan, 2006; Herrnstein &
Murray, 1994; Huntington, 2007), multiculturalism on the whole has been easily absorbed by the
corporate sector which sees an interest convergence in cracking down on workplace
discrimination in order to preserve the bottom line. Put simply, bigotry is no longer profitable.
Capitalism has also shifted gears by altering the methods of maintaining workplace culture,
particularly in the higher-paying job sector. Instead of being subject to top-down management,
employees are now ‘associates’ who work in ‘teams’ and engage in democratic decision making
(Bolman & Deal, 2013). Elements of critical education have played a role in building worker
consent in such settings.
What this means is that we cannot rely on mainstream notions of critical pedagogy alone to
withstand the intensification of austerity that has been launched directly at the working class in
the United States. Rather than serving as a means of resistance, schools are only aiding in this
process by softening the blow, so to speak:
The educational left is finding itself without a revolutionary agenda for challenging in the classrooms of the nation the effects and consequences of the new capitalism. This situation is only exacerbated by the educational left’s failure to challenge the two-party system that is organically linked to the exploitation of human labour and the well-being of corporate profits.
Consequently, we are witnessing the progressive and unchecked merging of pedagogy to the productive processes within advanced capitalism. (McLaren, 2005, p.24).
For example, “corporate greed” is pointed to as the problem (Huffington, 2007; Rose, 2005;
Sanders, 2011), not capitalism itself, as if there were a gentler version out there somewhere that
we have somehow drifted away from. In a similar manner, critical pedagogy can be employed in
attempts to reform a capitalist school system without directly challenging capitalism itself.
A Marxian reclamation of critical pedagogy is therefore essential in order to distinguish the
dialectical from left-liberal and neoliberal discourses. For example, English and Mayo (2012)
note that the field of adult education used to have more clearly articulated Marxist principles
which have now been turned into market-oriented concepts like ‘lifelong learning’ as a way to
impose austerity onto workers who now have to fund their own workplace re-training.
The ideology of lifelong learning has now placed people in the roles of consumer and producer, not active citizens. Even citizenship itself is transformed by capitalism into a rejection of collectivist solutions and an embracing of the lone wolf, or atomized citizen, who comes out of his/her burrow every four years to vote. Similarly, Malott (2013a) explains how this easily leads to a disabling form of pragmatism:
It therefore seems clear that even much of the educational left, especially in the United States, have conceded to the inevitability of capital thesis. Consequently, it is not uncommon to hear those on the left proclaim that, the Wal-Marts aren’t going anywhere. They will always be here so we should put pressure on them to be socially and environmentally responsible. (p. xvi).
Against the tide of capitalism, Gramsci’s (1971) conception of the intellectual is important here.
Rather than being a representative of the ruling class or defending established hierarchies as is
often presented in popular culture, the intellectual, as Gramsci views it is socially transformative
and works to build connections between people for larger political purposes. Public intellectuals
are cultural workers who are able to use their educational credentials to assist with legitimating
struggles. In many respects, these intellectuals are attempting to defend what makes us human
against the continual onslaught of capitalism:
Gramsci for his part saw a wide-ranging cultural activity within and across the entire complex of civil society, as a key element in his strategy for social transformation in western society, where a
war of position, as opposed to a war of manoeuvre (frontal attack) was to be waged. (English & Mayo, 2012, p.49).
As an opening to this academic work, a review of McLaren’s (2005) ten characteristics
of a revolutionary or Marxian critical pedagogy is helpful for the purposes of distinction from
First, critical pedagogy is reflective and does not present itself as eternal, always existing, or disconnected from history. It rejects religious and idealistic notions of a permanent or natural human condition or ‘human nature.’
Second, critical pedagogy meets the local needs of people and considers the importance of social context while not walling off people into local or isolated groups, as is often done with postmodern identity politics.
Third, critical pedagogy, while emphasizing the importance of the scientific method, is careful to not conflate biological with cultural and political practices that only serve to reinforce inequality in the name of objective rationalism. It therefore rejects notions of inherent differences between racial groups, ethnocentrism, and other ways that science has ‘dressed up’ oppressive practices.
Fourth, critical pedagogy attacks the notion of normative intelligence “and the ways in which
‘reason’ has been differently distributed so that it always advantages the capitalist class” (p.94).
This makes practices such as standardized testing open to question.
Fifth, critical pedagogy accounts for the move from industrial capitalism to its current, neoliberal global form. This creates challenges in communicating how the working class is still the working class even if the outward appearance of labour has changed.
Sixth, rather than presenting itself as multicultural, critical pedagogy goes further and is openly anti-homophobic, anti-sexist, and anti-racist.
Seventh, critical pedagogy not only addresses questions of meeting human needs, but seeks to
ensure human survival in the face of environmental destruction, even if this means challenging
Eighth and ninth, critical pedagogy does not seek to work within the existing capitalist system,
but openly advocates socialist democratic solutions in terms of distribution of existing resources.
It rejects locating the source of global poverty in overpopulation and other racist memes and
instead asserts that capitalism itself needs to move to the next economic and social phase of
meeting all human needs, not just the needs of a few.
Finally, critical pedagogy places its alliances with the oppressed, and isn’t particularly interested in giving the oppressor ‘equal time.’ Standpoint epistemology (Wallace & Wolf, 2005), which not only respects but privileges the experiences of the working class, can be an essential component of communicating the tenets of critical pedagogy in a Marxian manner. This does not mean that all working class viewpoints are emancipatory, but it does mean that for a dialectical critical pedagogy the burden of proof of oppression is no longer on the oppressed, who have historically had to work overtime in order to demonstrate that their grievances have merit. Instead, the oppressor should be compelled to demonstrate that oppression does NOT exist.
This chapter opens with Panayota’s overview of the history of critical pedagogy and cultural
studies in the United States, along with key tenets of each. Next, important challenges for and
critiques of critical pedagogy are presented by Jean Ann, including from the field of
postmodernism. Though not tied to formally organized schools or programs, some individual
examples of revolutionary/Marxist critical pedagogy-in-practice in various K-adult contexts are
described by Faith. Finally, questions about vitality or the ability of critical pedagogy to endure
in the face of intensified capitalism are posed by Doug.