Critical pedagogy is an emancipatory approach to education. The practice maintains that methods of teaching and learning must respond to the current social, political, and historical climate by modeling the dynamics of a more just world. It is grounded in recognizing the humanity of both students and educators. The framework began through Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire’s participatory adult literacy projects in the 1940s and 1950s. These projects were the basis of Freire’s foundational text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which proposes methods to contextualize and humanize educational communities.
I’m speaking with Antonia Darder, a Puerto Rican scholar, poet, and activist who is an endowed chair of ethics and moral leadership at the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor in Education at San Francisco State University and a high school teacher in Oakland, California. Darder is the author of three books on critical pedagogy, most recently A Dissident Voice, and Duncan-Andrade is the author of The Art of Critical Pedagogy—his research interests include urban schooling and curriculum reform. Below we discuss approaches to critical pedagogy, the importance of educating in political crisis, and the structural barriers universities have institutionalized to accessible, critical education.
The College Hill Independent: How do you see critical pedagogy fitting into the current political moment? Are there different demands on those involved in educational communities?
Antonia Darder: What happens when someone like Trump comes into the White House is that we begin to experience a great deal of pressure, and that pressure begins to be felt more broadly than just by those who have historically lived in economically, culturally, and politically oppressed conditions. In that respect, I’m glad about it. I hope that maybe it will be a historical moment that will be catalytic and push us toward a more humanizing understanding of ourselves. I hope that we will begin to understand that we need to find another way of creating community across difference rather than having the annihilation of difference.
People have taken critical pedagogy and reinvented it in relationship to disability studies, in relationship to feminism, in relationship to racialized populations, and that is a really wonderful phenomenon. My hope is that people can become a bit more politically mature in understanding critical pedagogy and understanding its possibilities not as a formula and end-goal but as a set of principles that can help us think differently about the world.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade: A lot of the suffering that we see around the world is the direct result of the colonial project. One of the mistakes that’s made by educators in this country is operating from an ahistorical perspective. If you’re going to talk about a project of freedom or democracy you have to go back to the foundation. Public schools in this nation were founded as a colonial project, and we’re making all these adjustments in schools to the curriculum and the pedagogy without actually interrogating the foundation, the purpose. What are public schools for? Why do we send kids to public schools for 13 years? If the answer to that question isn’t to create wellness and justice, then everything that you do going forward is going to be corruptible. We keep measuring all these things that are really a measure of compliance with the historical imperative of the colonial project, which is to create institutional rationalization for inequality.
The Indy: Could you speak to the tension of thinking about critical pedagogy as an object of study versus thinking about it as a set of tools or a worldview?
AD: I think that critical pedagogy is mostly a way of thinking about the world. It’s not a formula of how to make sense of it, it’s just saying that in order to make sense of the world, we must engage a multiplicity of dimensions and relationships. There’s a tendency for people to look for formulas. So much about this is being able to think in a multi-dimensional way, with greater complexity, with greater ambiguity, rather than to look for certainty in ways that actually end up functioning in a pretty authoritarian manner. There’s got to be a moral compass. Within critical pedagogy that moral compass begins with the notion that education must be uncompromisingly focused on engaging the oppression that the majority of people in the world are subjected to. Part of this is understanding that in order to create an inclusive world, we have think about how our system continues to produce have-nots. Critical pedagogy also requires a redefinition of what it means to have, which requires stepping outside capitalist logic.
We need to think about the political economy in a different way. We need to think about the needs of communities differently. We need to think about solving problems in a way that is grounded more in the realities of the lives of the people who are most affected by political policies.
The Indy: I think that part of that project is opening up our definitions of value, and identifying how we’ve internalized the logic of a capitalist economic system in our thinking about relationships and communities. How might the university community be able to provide channels for that cognitive work to happen in service of liberatory education?
AD: This issue is far greater than a cognitive issue. We are struggling to find the language that critiques and engages the problematic roots of certain questions. How can we work in the interests of democratic life and a more humanizing education?
JDA: I think critical pedagogy has to start somewhere, and I think we see that perhaps best modeled in departments of Ethnic Studies or departments that are explicitly taking on forms of structural inequality in our society. But Ethnic Studies runs the risk of being trapped in its own department and then facing the narrative of, “Oh, if you want to talk about these things you go to Ethnic Studies, but in history or literature or sociology or psychology we don’t have room for that—you have to go to Ethnic Studies to have that conversation.” If we have these spaces in universities where we can have these critical conversations, what does it mean for those conversations to become a part of an institutional culture? What does it mean to have this frame as a normalized part of every instructional paradigm?
The Indy: How do you navigate the tensions of being committed to emancipatory pedagogy, or education that confronts inequality, in the context of a university that continues to reproduce systemic oppression?
AD: Well I don’t think you can go anywhere and not hit contradictions and conflicts. You can’t even do it in people’s personal lives, let alone the lives of institutions. It’s first and foremost recognizing that these contradictions are going to be there, and they are, to a certain extent, fundamental. I am very frustrated with these universities—I think one of the greatest problems we’re dealing with is that they were set up for the elite, and when you go to their foundations you find that they weren’t for women, they weren’t for people from subaltern [lower-status] classes. They perpetuate a particular culture of dominance.
But you also see a kind of democratic rhetoric that moves through the university. So you’ve got a tension between the dominant paradigm of the institution and these liberal values that have followed these institutions since their inception. And suddenly there’s a whole larger societal push to be more accessible. One of the powers of hegemony is that it adjusts to and accommodates the pressures that are being put on it while discarding that which would require deep structural change. Educators are struggling with what’s on the surface. It’s tough because you often can get a certain amount of change on the surface, but then you begin to see that it’s just changing the surface and the problems are still being carried out with the same values, ambitions, and perspectives that in the end leads to the same kinds of exclusion.
Somehow we have to get down to what is informing a university’s values and relationships and behaviors. We have to create a more dialectical relationship between how we engage the surface questions and the ethical and cultural questions undergirding the surface that determine who’s in control, where the money goes, how the elements of power are configured, what legitimate knowledge is considered to be, and what is alternative.
The Indy: I’m thinking about the idea that philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs has written about politics as a living practice that exists on every scale of our lives, and the incredibly hopeful potential of that kind of all-pervasiveness of the political. What are your thoughts?
AD: I keep looking for the power of solidarity. How do we build solidarity around difference? We have differences that we have to respect and they don’t have to destroy our capacity for solidarity. Part of the struggle is addressing both intellectual formation and the kind of bankruptcy of community that seems to come along with intellectual formation. If you’re my comrade, if you’re my sibling in the struggle, then I have to care about your evolution. And I should be able to expect you to care about mine. This is what community is about. It’s a lot of what Paulo Freire meant when he talked about the issue of humility. For him it had to do with understanding ourselves as interconnected. Once we see ourselves as interconnected then there’s a sense that in order for me to continue my journey—I need you and we need each other. Our paths cross from moment to moment. Somehow the things we do are beyond simply ourselves.