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Critical Pedagogy: Justice Through Education

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Critical pedagogy is an ideal of democratic schooling which aims to challenge inequity and is committed to social justice. Critical pedagogy aims to challenge inequality through uncovering, learning, and then challenging systems of oppression. Critical pedagogy also relies upon the assertion that difference is socially constructed and that students must engage in open dialog discussing their differences with the goal of a more democratic society (Goodburn & Ina, 1994).

One of the key features of critical pedagogy arises as a critique of the traditional model of education which reinforces societal and cultural inequities. Critical pedagogy claims that the traditional model of education must be transformed to foster democracy and egalitarianism rather than capitalism. Critical pedagogy aims to address inequality as it relates to gender, race, and other disparities. Our society maintains oppressive structures which reinforce inequity and maintain systems of oppression. Racism, for example, permeates throughout society and is evident in racial disparities in education and employment rates.

For example, according to the 2017 Race Disparity Audit, “the ‘employment rate gap’ – the difference between the employment rate for the whole working age population and that for all ethnic minorities (other than White ethnic minorities) – was 10 percentage points in 2016” (Race Disparity Audit, 2017). In addition to racism, sexism is another important factor that leads to differential treatment and economic outcomes.

For example, according to a 2017 study, “women working full time in the United States typically were paid just 80 percent of what men were paid” (AAUW, 2017). This 20% gap in pay was given to women who did the same jobs as men, yet they we compensated significantly less than men for the same amount of work. These statistics point to how larger prejudicial treatment results in inequitable social outcomes as a result of hegemonic order; Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci explained hegemony as the domination of society through structures which maintain established social order and the class interests of the dominant group (Gramsci, 1971).

Critical pedagogy aims to challenge hegemonic processes which perpetuate the marginalization of subordinate groups through educational practices designed to foster a more democratic society. Critical pedagogy asserts that traditional models of education reinforce the oppression of disenfranchised people and reproduce inequality rather than combating inequality. In Education and Power, educational theorist Michael Apple “points to the existence of a hidden curriculum whereby students are socialized and behaviorally conditioned to accept hierarchical structures of power” (as cited in Braa & Callero, 2006). Another leading theorist in critical pedagogy, Ira Shor, describes the traditional classroom as an authoritarian environment where students are “conditioned to become passive, conformist, and obedient members of society, thus generating easily manipulated workers and passive, apathetic citizens” (as cited in Braa & Callero, 2006).

Critical pedagogy has thus arisen due to a critique of traditional models of education. Proponents of critical pedagogy argue that traditional models of education services to reinforce capitalist systems of oppression and don’t foster a truly democratic learning environment. Additionally, traditional models of education assert that teachers distribute “facts” which are free from prejudice, and create a learning environment free from challenge or questioning. Therefore, traditional models of education place the teacher as the ultimate authority figure who is the absolute source of knowledge and power within classrooms. One of the leading advocates of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, claims, “Leaders who do not act dialogically but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress” (Frier, 1972, pp. 178). Freire argues that educational leaders who do not incorporate and listen to the views of their students reinforce a system of oppression and do not allow for differing viewpoints or perspectives within learning environments. To combat inegalitarianism, Frier argues that critical pedagogy must incorporate dialog where learning and exchange of ideas in the classroom is more fluid to incorporate the viewpoints of those who are oppressed; this will, Frier argues, create an environment full of critical thinking and engaging students of varying identities (Frier, 1972).

Frier and proponents of critical pedagogy argue that the classroom should be a space where critical thinking prospers rather than a place of obedience and mindless memorization. Freire argues that critical pedagogy “makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle, this pedagogy will be made and remade” (Frier, 1972, pp. 48). Thus, critical pedagogy argues that in order to combat oppression, those who are oppressed must learn about how they experience injustice in order to challenge their own oppression, and teach others how to foster a more egalitarian society. In order to challenge hegemonic systems, both the oppressed and the privileged must understand their positions within society in order to challenge inequity.

Therefore, critical pedagogy argues that education should enlighten students about systems of inequity in order to challenge prejudice and produce social change.

Henry Giroux, another prominent proponent of critical pedagogy, also argues that critical pedagogy should be “providing students with the knowledge, skills, and critical sensibility they need to be able to think dialectically” (Giroux, 2001, pp. 161). In order to move beyond their own confounds and achieve upward mobility, critical pedagogy maintains that students should be educated about their history to move beyond their social positions. Open dialog encourages critical thinking and empowers students to become active rather than passive learners (which the traditional model of education favors).

Therefore, critical pedagogy challenges the antiquated assertion that education should be passive in favor of dialectic learning and instruction which highlights systems of inequity in order to challenge these systems. Critical pedagogy asserts that education should foster equity with the goal of social justice. In order to support the freedom and equity for all, critical pedagogy states that educational systems must foster dialog in working to unearth systems of oppression and prejudicial treatment.

Another key tenet of critical pedagogy is the use of praxis. Praxis refers to the actual application of knowledge to practice in the real world. Rather than providing factual information that lacks real-world application, praxis aims to transform social structures through collective efforts (Feagin & Vera, 2001). Therefore, many teachers in favor of critical pedagogy may have a component of community involvement incorporated in their course. Incorporating community action transforms the ideas and resources they have learned from just theoretical components into action. Critical pedagogy use of praxis attempts to empower students, understanding the inequities and injustice, into transforming communities and challenging injustice when they see it in action.

Critical pedagogy attempts to transform the student from a passive participant (as is the case in traditional education) in the educational process into active proponents of social change. Dean Braa and Peter Callero, professors in the sociology department of Western Oregon University, applied critical pedagogy successfully to their sociology curriculum (Braa & Callero, 2006). Over the course of three semesters of sociology courses, Braa and Callero implemented core tenets of critical pedagogy into their classroom. The first weeks of class were conducted analyzing readings and discussing the history of community organizing in the United States. Then, students were encouraged to work together to identify an aspect of their community that they would most like to change. Despite the student’s differences of “religion, gender, sexual orientation, politics, race, age, lifestyle, and personality and identified the experience of rental housing (both on and off campus) as the most pressing common problem” (Braa & Callero, 2006, pp. 361). Then, students worked together and walked through neighborhoods on campus asking tenets what their main housing concerns were in order to determine what their main areas of concern were. Through analyzing the tenant-landlord relationships, Braa and Callero noticed that their students began to uncover more fundamental issues of power favoring landlords and were able to achieve a number of goals throughout the semester which improved the conditions of tenets in the area.

Therefore, as Braa and Callero explained, critical pedagogy can be applied in educational settings and create an environment which challenges hegemonic processes, uncovers systems of oppression, and most importantly inspire students to enact change. As Braa and Callero’s students worked together to combat injustice they experienced within their community, they learned how to problem solve and campaign for disenfranchised people; thus, critical pedagogy proved successful in creating social change. Therefore, applying critical pedagogy to classroom curriculum can create environments where students are empowered to think critically, advocate for justice, and enact real social change. In conclusion, critical pedagogy creates a more democratic learning environment than traditional models of education and fosters dialog between students and teachers.

Critical pedagogy challenges the many ways in which traditional education reinforces systems of inequality and maintains that education should create engaged and active students dedicated to equity and social change. Critical pedagogy creates a model of education where students are transformed into engaged activists and are constantly questioning, challenging, and advocating for change in society. Critical pedagogy maintains that educational systems and teaching models must foster justice and equality to create a more democratic society for all.

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