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Critical Teaching for Social Change
By Ira Shor
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1992 Ira Shor
All rights reserved.
Education Is Politics
An Agenda for Empowerment
Schooling and the Politics of Socialization
What kind of educational system do we have? What kind do we need? How do we get from one to the other?
Can education develop students as critical thinkers, skilled workers, and active citizens? Can it promote democracy and serve all students equitably?
These big questions preoccupy many people because schooling is a vast undertaking and mass experience in society, involving tens of millions of people, huge outlays of money, and diverse forces contending over curriculum and funding. All this activity converges in schools, programs, and colleges, where each generation is socialized into the life of the nation.
About the role of education in socializing students, Bettelheim said near the end of his life, "If I were a primary-grade teacher, I would devote my time to problems of socialization. The most important thing children learn is not the three R's. It's socialization" (quoted in Meier 1990, 6).
He urged teachers to encourage students to question their experience in school: "You must arouse children's curiosity and make them think about school. For example, it's very important to begin the school year with a discussion of why we go to school. Why does the government force us to go to school? This would set a questioning tone and show the children that you trust them and that they are intelligent enough, at their own level, to investigate and come up with answers" (Meier 1990, 7). A school year that begins by questioning school could be a remarkably democratic and critical learning experience for students.
Bettelheim's concern for the critical habits of students also preoccupied Piaget, who emphasized the restraint and imposition in the socializing function of schools:
To educate is to adapt the child to an adult social environment.... The child is called upon to receive from outside the already perfected products of adult knowledge and morality; the educational relationship consists of pressure on the one side and receptiveness on the other. From such a point of view, even the most individual kinds of tasks performed by students (writing an essay, making a translation, solving a problem) partake less of the genuine activity of spontaneous and individual research than of ... copying an external model; the students' inmost morality remains fundamentally directed toward obedience rather than autonomy. (1979, 137–38)
Piaget urged a reciprocal relationship between teachers and students, where respect for the teacher coexisted with cooperative and student-centered pedagogy. "If the aim of intellectual training is to form the intelligence rather than to stock the memory," Piaget wrote, "and to produce intellectual explorers rather than mere erudition, then traditional education is manifestly guilty of a grave deficiency" (1979, 51). The deficiency is the curriculum in schools, which he saw as a one-way transmission of rules and knowledge from teacher to students, stifling their curiosity.
People are naturally curious. They are born learners. Education can either develop or stifle their inclination to ask why and to learn. A curriculum that avoids questioning school and society is not, as is commonly supposed, politically neutral. It cuts off the students' development as critical thinkers about their world. If the students' task is to memorize rules and existing knowledge, without questioning the subject matter or the learning process, their potential for critical thought and action will be restricted.
In a curriculum that encourages student questioning, the teacher avoids a unilateral transfer of knowledge. She or he helps students develop their intellectual and emotional powers to examine their learning in school, their everyday experience, and the conditions in society. Empowered students make meaning and act from reflection, instead of memorizing facts and values handed to them.
This kind of critical education is not more political than the curriculum which emphasizes taking in and fitting in. Not encouraging students to question knowledge, society, and experience tacitly endorses and supports the status quo. A curriculum that does not challenge the standard syllabus and conditions in society informs students that knowledge and the world are fixed and are fine the way they are, with no role for students to play in transforming them, and no need for change. As Freire (1985a) said, education that tries to be neutral supports the dominant ideology in society.
No curriculum can be neutral. All forms of education are political because they can enable or inhibit the questioning habits of students, thus developing or disabling their critical relation to knowledge, schooling, and society. Education can socialize students into critical thought or into dependence on authority, that is, into autonomous habits of mind or into passive habits of following authorities, waiting to be told what to do and what things mean.
From another point of view, the politics of education have been discussed by Apple (1979, 1982, 1988), who emphasized two aspects of teaching which make it not neutral:
First, there is an increasing accumulation of evidence that the institution of schooling itself is not a neutral enterprise in terms of its economic outcomes.... While schools may in fact serve the interests of many individuals, empirically they also seem to act as powerful agents in the economic and cultural reproduction of class relations.... [Second], the knowledge that now gets into schools is already a choice from a much larger universe of possible social knowledge and principles.... Social and economic values, hence, are already embedded in the design of the institutions we work in, in the "formal corpus of school knowledge" we preserve in our modes of teaching, and in our principles, standards, and forms of evaluation. (1979, 8–9)
The contents included and excluded in curriculum are political choices while the unequal outcomes of education are not neutral either. But even though the subject matter and the learning process are political choices and experiences, Apple also observed that there was no simple socialization of students into the existing order and no automatic reproduction of society through the classroom. Education is complex and contradictory.
Questioning the Status Quo: The Politics of Empowerment
Education can be described in many ways. One way, suggested above, is to say that education is a contested terrain where people are socialized and the future of society is at stake. On the one hand, education is a socializing activity organized, funded, and regulated by authorities who set a curriculum managed (or changed) in the classroom by teachers. On the other hand, education is a social experience for tens of millions of students who come to class with their own dreams and agendas, sometimes cooperating with and sometimes resisting the intentions of the school and the teacher.
The teacher is the person who mediates the relationship between outside authorities, formal knowledge, and individual students in the classroom. Through day-to-day lessons, teaching links the students' development to the values, powers, and debates in society. The syllabus deployed by the teacher gives students a prolonged encounter with structured knowledge and social authority. However, it is the students who decide to what extent they will take part in the syllabus and allow it to form them. Many students do not like the knowledge, process, or roles set out for them in class. In reaction, they drop out or withdraw into passivity or silence in the classroom. Some become self-educated; some sabotage the curriculum by misbehaving.
To socialize students, education tries to teach them the shape of knowledge and current society, the meaning of past events, the possibilities for the future, and their place in the world they live in. In forming the students' conception of self and the world, teachers can present knowledge in several ways, as a celebration of the existing society, as a falsely neutral avoidance of problems rooted in the system, or as a critical inquiry into power and knowledge as they relate to student experience.
In making these choices, many teachers are unhappy with the limits of the traditional curriculum and do what they can to teach creatively and critically. Whether they deviate from or follow the official syllabus, teachers make numerous decisions—themes, texts, tests, seating arrangements, rules for speaking, grading systems, learning process, and so on. Through these practical choices, the politics of the classroom are defined, as critical or uncritical, democratic or authoritarian.
In class, as Apple suggested and as Giroux (1983) and Banks (1991) have also argued, the choice of subject matter cannot be neutral. Whose history and literature is taught and whose ignored? Which groups are included and which left out of the reading list or text? From whose point of view is the past and present examined? Which themes are emphasized and which not? Is the curriculum balanced and multicultural, giving equal attention to men, women, minorities, and nonelite groups, or is it traditionally male-oriented and Eurocentric? Do students read about Columbus from the point of view of the Arawak people he conquered or only from the point of view of the Europeans he led into conquest? Do science classes investigate the biochemistry of the students' lives, like the nutritional value of the school lunch or the potential toxins in the local air, water, and land, or do they only talk abstractly about photosynthesis?
Politics reside not only in subject matter but in the discourse of the classroom, in the way teachers and students speak to each other. The rules for talking are a key mechanism for empowering or disempowering students. How much open discussion is there in class? How much one-way "teacher-talk"? Is there mutual dialogue between teacher and students or one-way transfers of information from teacher to students? What do teachers say about the subject matter? Do students feel free to disagree with the teacher? Do students respond to each other's remarks? Do they act like involved participants or like alienated observers in the exchange of comments in the classroom? Are students asked to think critically about the material and to see knowledge as a field of contending interpretations, or are they fed knowledge as an official consensus? Do students work cooperatively, or is the class a competitive exchange favoring the most assertive people?
In addition, the way classrooms, schools, colleges, and programs are governed is political. Is there a negotiated curriculum in class, or is a unilateral authority exercised by the teacher? Is there student, teacher, and parent co-governance of the institution or an administrative monopoly on power?
School funding is another political dimension of education, because more money has always been invested in the education of upper-class children and elite collegians than has been spent on students from lower-income homes and in community colleges. Moreover, testing policies are political choices, whether to use student-centered, multicultural, and portfolio assessments, or to use teacher-centered tests or standardized exams in which women and minorities have traditionally scored lower than men and whites.
In sum, the subject matter, the learning process, the classroom discourse, the cafeteria menu, the governance structure, and the environment of school teach students what kind of people to be and what kind of society to build as they learn math, history, biology, literature, nursing, or accounting. Education is more than facts and skills. It is a socializing experience that helps make the people who make society. Historically, it has underserved the mass of students passing through its gates. Can school become empowering? What educational values can develop people as citizens who think critically and act democratically?
Values for Empowerment
Empowering education, as I define it here, is a critical-democratic pedagogy for self and social change. It is a student-centered program for multicultural democracy in school and society. It approaches individual growth as an active, cooperative, and social process, because the self and society create each other. Human beings do not invent themselves in a vacuum, and society cannot be made unless people create it together. The goals of this pedagogy are to relate personal growth to public life, by developing strong skills, academic knowledge, habits of inquiry, and critical curiosity about society, power, inequality, and change.
The pedagogy described in this book is student-centered but is not permissive or self-centered. Empowerment here does not mean students can do whatever they like in the classroom. Neither can the teacher do whatever she or he likes. The learning process is negotiated, requiring leadership by the teacher and mutual teacher-student authority. In addition, empowerment as I describe it here is not individualistic. The empowering class does not teach students to seek self-centered gain while ignoring public welfare.
Students in empowering classes should be expected to develop skills and knowledge as well as high expectations for themselves, their education, and their futures. They have a right to earn good wages doing meaningful work in a healthy society at peace with itself and the world. Their skills should be welcomed by democratic workplaces in an equitable economy where it becomes easier each year to make ends meet. To build this kind of society, empowering education invites students to become skilled workers and thinking citizens who are also change agents and social critics. Giroux (1988) described this as educating students "to fight for a quality of life in which all human beings benefit." He went on to say, "Schools need to be defended, as an important public service that educates students to be critical citizens who can think, challenge, take risks, and believe that their actions will make a difference in the larger society" (214).
Further, McLaren (1989) discussed this pedagogy as "the process through which students learn to critically appropriate knowledge existing outside their immediate experience in order to broaden their understanding of themselves, the world, and the possibilities for transforming the taken-for-granted assumptions about the way we live" (186). Banks (1991) defined empowerment in terms of transforming self and society: "A curriculum designed to empower students must be transformative in nature and help students to develop the knowledge, skills, and values needed to become social critics who can make reflective decisions and implement their decisions in effective personal, social, political, and economic action" (131).
The teacher leads and directs this curriculum, but does so democratically with the participation of the students, balancing the need for structure with the need for openness. The teacher brings lesson plans, learning methods, personal experience, and academic knowledge to class but negotiates the curriculum with the students and begins with their language, themes, and understandings. To be democratic implies orienting subject matter to student culture—their interests, needs, speech, and perceptions—while creating a negotiable openness in class where the students' input jointly creates the learning process. To be critical in such a democratic curriculum means to examine all subjects and the learning process with systematic depth; to connect student individuality to larger historical and social issues; to encourage students to examine how their experience relates to academic knowledge, to power, and to inequality in society; and to approach received wisdom and the status quo with questions.
For this empowering pedagogy, I will propose an agenda of values, each to be discussed in detail, which describe it as:
A Door to Empowerment: Participation
In elaborating these items, I start with the participatory value because this is an interactive pedagogy from the first day of class. Participation is the most important place to begin because student involvement is low in traditional classrooms and because action is essential to gain knowledge and develop intelligence. Piaget insisted on the relation of action to knowing: "Knowledge is derived from action.... To know an object is to act upon it and to transform it.... To know is therefore to assimilate reality into structures of transformation and these are the structures that intelligence constructs as a direct extension of our actions" (1979, 28–29). With a Deweyan emphasis, Piaget reiterated that we learn by doing and by thinking about our experience.
People begin life as motivated learners, not as passive beings. Children naturally join the world around them. They learn by interacting, by experimenting, and by using play to internalize the meaning of words and experience. Language intrigues children; they have needs they want met; they busy the older people in their lives with questions and requests for show me, tell me. But year by year their dynamic learning erodes in passive classrooms not organized around their cultural backgrounds, conditions, or interests. Their curiosity and social instincts decline, until many become nonparticipants. It is not the fault of students if their learning habits wither inside the passive syllabus dominant in education.
Excerpted from Empowering Education by Ira Shor. Copyright © 1992 Ira Shor. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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