Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (2)

A Philosophy of Praxis: Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy and Hope 

Bryant Griffith
Kim Skinner 

There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope….What kind of educator would I be if I did not feel moved by the powerful impulse to seek, without lying, convincing arguments in defense of the dreams for which I struggle, in defense of the “why” of the hope with which I act as an educator? – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope

Questioning, compelling, and original, the emotional and intellectual impact of Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo’s latest endeavor is both disorienting and powerful. Composed by two vocal leaders in the field of critical pedagogy, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism (2007) furthers attempts to make the pedagogical more politically informed. The authors’ deep personal engagement with the discourse of critical pedagogy creates a work that addresses the ever-shifting realities of the field and schooling itself, both in the United States and a global context. In their photographically documented visits with radical teachers and scholars in North America, Latin America, and other parts of the world, the globetrotting authors have illuminated for the reader in this volume how capitalism, education, and technology go hand-in-hand.

The collection of essays and the accompanying authors’ photo travelogue make visible the vital struggle for critical educators today in the face of neoliberal globalization. While not opposed to globalization per se, what the authors find problematic is the globalization of capitalism. McLaren and Jaramillo suggest that while critical educators continue to attack standardized testing, pedagogical authoritarianism, rote learning, and the muting of student voices, they have not overwhelmingly challenged the formal structure of the capitalist system, combating the privatization and businessification of schooling. While critical educators “have celebrated diversity and creativity and fought against racial segregation and racism, sexism and homophobia” (p. 34), they have not contested the transformation of the social relations of production as a step towards social justice.

The revolutionary critical pedagogy of McLaren and Jaramillo seeks to encourage and provoke questioning, to elucidate what is problematic with existing social injustices. According to McLaren and Jaramillo, “The actions of human beings are what shape history. Both Freire and Dunayevskaya stress here that the educator must be educated. The idea that a future society comes into being as a negation of the existing one finds its strongest expression in class struggle. Here, we note that dialectical movement is a characteristic not only of thought but also of life and history itself. And here the outcomes are never guaranteed” (p. 108). The task of contemporary critical educators is to work with students to build revolutionary consciousness, never abandoning a vision for the radical transformation of society. “For critical revolutionary educators, the struggle for inclusive democracy stipulates working with students to build revolutionary consciousness and collective action,” a challenge which can be produced most effectively within the framework “of an intergenerational, multiracial, gender-balanced, transnational and anti-imperialist social movement. This will not be an easy task, especially at this current moment of political despair that has infected much of the educational left. It will require radical hope” (p. 54).

Hope, one of the most fundamental of McLaren and Jaramillo’s themes, is a theme that resounds with those in the trenches trying to make a difference and embodies the aspirations of those seeking a transformative education for their students. McLaren has always believed educators must value the knowledge acquired in the field, but must be wary not to engage in the “mythification of popular knowledge, its superexaltation” (Freire, 1994, p. 84). McLaren and Jaramillo embrace the hope and dreams espoused by Freire, believing like Freire that dreaming is “a necessary political act, it is an integral part of the historico-social manner of being a person…part of human nature, which, within history, is in permanent process of becoming” – we need to remember that “there is no dream without hope” (pp. 90-91). The authors’ return to hope paints a colorful picture of what is and isn’t problematical, thus giving the reader a sense that all is not lost.

“Hope is the freeing of possibility, with possibility serving as the dialectical partner of necessity. When hope is strong enough, it can bend the future backward towards the past, where, trapped between the two, the present can escape its orbit of inevitability and break the force of history’s hubris, so that what is struggled for no longer remains an inert idea frozen in the hinterland of ‘what is,’ but becomes a reality carved out of ‘what could be.’ Hope is the oxygen of dreams, and provides the stamina for revolutionary struggle”. (p. 55)

McLaren (2007b) continues his adherence to hope as he observes critical educators today in the process of crafting their own dreams of a global community that is bending towards social and economic justice. Their dreams are “reflected in the mirror of Freire’s pedagogical dream, one that is inspired by a hope born of political struggle,” grounded in the faith of “the ability of the oppressed to transform the world from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be,’ to reimagine, re-enchant, and recreate the world rather than adapt to it” (p. 302).

Echoing Henry Giroux’s persistent call for teachers to be at the forefront of promoting conversations and actions which address social and political issues, McLaren and Jaramillo focus in this book on the need for critical educators to embrace and include teachers, parents, and students. The authors believe communities and schools must promote grassroots movements in education, as an expression of their commitment to a more just society. Grassroots constituencies have the ability to contest curriculum and policies, to enter debates, and make decisions collectively. Needed around the globe, grassroots education movements are fundamental to bringing everyone back into the education equation. Critical educators, according to McLaren (2007b), “cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch this debate over the future of education as passive spectators. We need to take direct action, creating the conditions for students to become critical agents in social transformation” (p. 310).

In the United States, our classroom environments are controlled by government funding, curriculum standards, testing mandates, and a neoliberal agenda. Our classrooms have been colonized, according to McLaren and Jaramillo, and our classrooms that once “served as at least potentially one of the few spaces of respite from the ravages of the dominant ideology, have now been colonized….Teachers are left suspended across the ideological divide that separates reason and irrationality, consciousness and indoctrination” (p. 33). Teachers are encouraged to avoid “politics” in the classroom by administrators and government officials; bringing politics into the classroom is considered unpatriotic.

But while teachers are encouraged to keep all that is political out of the classroom, the inverse is not happening. With the passing of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Act in 2001, standards-based education reform (formerly outcome-based education) was enacted across the nation. This reform movement is based on the belief that all students will succeed if goals are set and students are held to high expectations based solely on performance on criterion-based assessments. NCLB reduces student learning and effective instruction because teachers are coerced “to teach to the test.” NCLB, under the guise of championing the poor and underprivileged, has requirements for schools that are federally funded (i.e., Title I) that vary from the guidelines for other public schools not receiving federal funds. Education has become a commodity, and the narrow guidelines of the NCLB Act for what counts as “scientifically based research” affects and limits literacy initiatives, what traditions of research which will be funded, and what language arts programs can be used in federally funded schools. McLaren and Jaramillo depict the NCLB Act of 2001 as “a historical apparatus that serves to exert control over the largest and most vulnerable segments of the population in the interest of promoting capitalist consumption and the reproduction of the law of value and the value form of labor” (p. 65). The winners of this legislation are the testing industry; the losers are the poor, whose federally funded school curriculum is now even further removed from their lived experiences.

So what can be done? McLaren and Jaramillo assert that critical educators and critical citizens must heed a call for action. They challenge the official social imaginary of the NCLB act and contend:

“We need more than pamphleteers and protesters to bring about another social order. We need critical citizens capable of and willing to exercise their agency on behalf of a world without capitalist exploitation. A central challenge for critical educators today is to reject the dematerialized understanding of the sociohistorical ground upon which the Bush regime rests its case for the NCLB….Teachers need to reject their role as amanuenses of history, as clerks of testing regimes, as custodians of empire, and assume a role of active shapers of the historical present”. (p. 85)

By articulating the defining principles of many national policy initiatives today (i.e., English-only propositions, NCLB, and anti-immigrant initiatives), McLaren and Jaramillo illustrate how implicitly and explicitly Latina/o students have been the target of “the politics of erasure.” These policies are “unilaterally designed to erase students’ native language, national origin, and cultural formations” (p.99). The aims of education in this framework are to assimilate and acculturate the growing Latina/o population into the dominant ideology. Latina/o students are subjected to a pedagogy of dehumanization when educated in monolingual schools that encourage them to adopt “ways of being” that are both foreign and alien.

McLaren and Jaramillo call for a critical revolutionary vision of an educational system and society that “is driven not by a master narrative of liberation, but by a meta-narrative of hope and solidarity” (p. 86). While critical pedagogy has been accused of emphasizing ideology over inquiry, criticalists know that there are no ideologically free research practices. The authors explain, “The theoretical languages we use in our pursuit of knowledge about the social world become attributes of the actions of that world, they become part of our own self-comprehension….Seemingly objective facts are always already socially and historically produced or mediated” (p. 96). The authors argue that ideology then, realizes its goal when it is able to eradicate the evidence of its presence; ideology is always present, though frequently one is only aware of its presence retrospectively.

Critical pedagogy, McLaren and Jaramillo assert, emerges in the “everyday struggle on the part of the oppressed to release themselves from the burdens of political détente and democratic disengagement. It is anchored, in other words, in class struggle” (p. 49). The authors believe critical pedagogy must reconstruct the context of class struggle so that it includes school sites. The endless subordination of “life in schools” needs to face resistance as the process of schooling is increasingly “corporatized, bussinessified, and moralized.” As indicated by McLaren (2007b), critical pedagogy is in no way “commensurate with the attention it excites in the academic literature, yet it continues to provide an important site of praxis-making which can be used to educate and agitate about crucial issues that affect our collective future” (p. 311).  Critical educators, together with critical students, parents, and citizens need to move from criticism of class exploitation and social injustice to the search for a collective transformation.

Critical pedagogy: where are we now? We are in the schools, we are in the classroom, we are in the teacher education program, we are in grassroots organizations, we are in the communities – we are naming ourselves, and we aren’t quiet anymore. – Shirley Steinberg

We believe that critical pedagogues, like many academics, have been preaching to their believers. One of the objectives of critical pedagogy should be to reach out to graduate students and teachers in the field to engage them in conversations about the ways critical pedagogy can and should play a central role in educational praxis. More than a pedagogical practice and a way of knowing, dialogue is (Freire, 1989) “the encounter between [humans], mediated by the world, in order to name the world” (p. 76). Educational praxis is the agent for reflecting and acting upon the world as a means to transform it.

Steinberg (2007) considers critical pedagogy to be “a transgressive discourse, practice, and fluid way of seeing the world” (p. ix). Critical pedagogy continues to view the aims of education as emancipatory. Giroux (1994) offers, “Pedagogy in the critical sense illuminates the relationship between knowledge, authority and power” (p.30). The heart of critical pedagogy is now and has always been the teaching for social justice. Critical pedagogues are empowered by addressing the anger felt from the practices of social injustice around the globe. Creating a space for insurgency and critique, practitioners of critical pedagogy have, as argued by Steinberg, “the right to be angry, and to express anger, anger at the uses of power and at injustices through the violations of human rights. Critical pedagogy isn’t a talk – liberals talk. Critical pedagogy takes language from the radical – radicals must do” (p. ix).

From my perspective, a vibrant, relevant, effective critical pedagogy in the contemporary era must be simultaneously intellectually rigorous and accessible to multiple audiences. – Joe Kincheloe

Critical pedagogy, according to Joe Kincheloe (2007), recognizes the complex nature of the difficulties faced by educators who seek to promote economic and sociopolitical justice, intellectual development in individuals, institutional academic rigor, and the construction of practical transformative knowledge. Kincheloe maintains, “The pedagogical and research agenda of a complex critical pedagogy for the twenty-first century must address these realities as it constructs a plan to invigorate the teaching and study of such phenomena” (p. 16). Questions concerning power, justice, and praxis have been asked before in different times and locales, and continue to be the focus of critical pedagogy today. We agree with Kincheloe that critical pedagogy must not be sought only within the boundaries of the school; that critical pedagogy serves cultural workers, teachers, parents, students, and indeed all who engage in social activism outside the borders of the school. As advocates of critical pedagogy, we, like Kincheloe, “understand that no simple, universally applicable answers can be provided to the questions of justice, power, and praxis that haunt us” (p. 16). In spite of the absence of uncomplicated solutions, attempts at the questions advanced by the practice of critical pedagogy must continue to be aggressively explored, pursued, and unraveled.

For teachers to engage in the practice of critical pedagogy they must first clearly understand their role in and outside of the classroom; they must realize that situating critical pedagogy into practice will not be without challenges in today’s educational climate. As McLaren (2007a) states in his latest edition of Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, “resistance to the forces of colonization within and outside the US mainland carries a price” (p. 254). In spite of the difficulties of his context, Freire (1989) established classrooms where teachers played a key leadership role while respecting student autonomy. The result was the shared construction of critical knowledge built upon student knowledge. Emphasizing the importance on teacher/student collaboration, Freire posited, “I cannot think authentically unless others think. I cannot think for others or without others…Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry [people] pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (p. 7). Critical pedagogical conversations permit students and teachers to construct shared meanings, to analyze and critique in a spirit of collective learning and understanding. Just as relevant in today’s global classroom, Freire’s pedagogical vision of the connection between teacher and student is both transformed and transformational.

McLaren and Jaramillo focus critical educators on both the hope and the struggle ahead in their book,Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism. Critical pedagogy remains a source of hope and possibility for educators engaged in struggles against oppression in their classrooms. The time has come for teachers and educators to embrace critical pedagogy with a renewed interest and sense of urgency. As critical pedagogy comes under increasing attack by reactionary ideologies and ideologues, its message only becomes more urgent and important in these troubled and dangerous times.

The underlying theme of this book and other recent works by the authors is how capitalism functions in North America, as well as global contexts. For McLaren and Jaramillo, revolutionary critical pedagogy must progress beyond an understanding of what is problematic in today’s schools and society to an attitude of action that uproots the sexism, racism, homophobia, oppressed nationalities, and exploitation of contemporary capitalist society. As always, McLaren and Jaramillo’s view of the role of critical revolutionary pedagogy is informed by a “class-conscious ideology.” This work is a source of inspiration, of imagination, and most importantly, of hope. “The voices and actions of critical educators will become more crucial in the days ahead. Whatever organizational forms their struggles take, they will need to address a global audience who share a radical hope for a new world” (p. 57). Critical pedagogy is well-argued by the authors as a vehicle of great consequence in the construction of a socialist future.

Bryant Griffith is professor of Philosophy and Curriculum Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. His scholarship focuses on a wide range of social, cultural, and technological issues in education.

Kim Skinner is a Doctoral Student in Curriculum and Instruction at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her scholarship focuses on critical issues in literacy education.


Freire, P. (1989). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. (Original work published in1970)

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. (R. R. Barr, Trans.) New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. A. (1994). Disturbing pleasures: Learning popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Kincheloe, J. (2007). “Critical pedagogy in the twenty-first century: Evolution for survival”. In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. 9-42). New York: Peter Lang.

McLaren, P. (2007a). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

McLaren, P. (2007b). “The future of the past: Reflections on the present state of empire and pedagogy”. In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. 289-314). New York: Peter Lang.

Steinberg, S. (2007). “Where are we now?” In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. ix-x). New York: Peter Lang.

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