Educating for Politics: How Critical Social Justice Politicizes the Classroom and Indoctrinates Students
by Mike Young
Essay originally from Counterweight.
Setting the stage
I think the only universally shared memory we have is the elementary school fire drill. We all remember the principal over the intercom, the loud buzzing of the alarm, and the teacher announcing that we are to put down everything, get in line, and walk single file toward the exit. Anyone who went to public school or worked in an office building has done this so often that for many of us the sound of the fire alarm means, “time for a fire drill” and not, “there’s a fire”. This has gotten to the point where when there actually is a fire, someone has to say “this is not a drill”; a phrase that is used with such frequency it has become almost cliché.
This is how I feel about discussing education.
Various theories about how our education systems are falling apart, being subverted by various interests, and failing our children, have circulated for years in various quarters. In fact, there is an entire industry of books claiming to know what is wrong in education.
In light of that, I have no idea how to write this essay without blending into the chorus of voices who think one thing or another is wrong with schools. In a world where “this is not a drill” is so cliché that it gets used to announce the arrival of the latest celebrity couple, I don’t quite know how to ring the alarm in education without sounding like, well, an alarmist.
With that said, I think there is a significant problem in education, and I would like to write about it without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. So, I will try to lay this out as clearly and carefully as I can, with an eye to being as level headed as possible. I will also cite relevant portions from the relevant literature. It is my hope that when all is said and done this is not treated as yet another fire drill.
A new theory emerges
There is a school of thought in education, which I will refer to as the Critical School of Education, and its proponents seek to use education as a vehicle for spreading their political ideology and worldview. Those who endorse the Critical School of Education do not think the goal of education is to teach children to read, write and do math while helping to prepare them for life in the world, but rather see education as a “site of political struggle” and a vehicle for radical social change. To put it bluntly, these thinkers believe the role of the teacher is not primarily to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but instead to teach students Critical Social Justice. The theory of teaching they use to justify this is called “Critical Pedagogy”.
I realize this sounds like a conspiracy, but I can’t do anything about that. What I can do is to take you through a brief survey of the relevant literature so you can see exactly how this is happening. I do not mean to alarm you, but I do mean to raise an alarm. Critical Pedagogy, much like other Critical Social Justice literature, is difficult to read, full of jargon, beset by abstract theories, and in many places disconnected from the world. Its adherents sometimes admit as much. That said, I will quote them at length so no one can accuse me of misrepresenting them.
A wonderful and clear survey of how Critical Pedagogy developed comes to us in the 2016 book The Critical Turn in Education by Isaac Gottesman. What makes the book so useful is that Gottesman is not trying to provide a massive and exhaustive survey of the entire field of education, but rather a brief and readable survey of key concepts in Critical Pedagogy and how they fit together. This means the book is clear; it says the quiet part out loud.
Gottesman begins with the following quote:
“To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States[sic], “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom” (p. 263). After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor.
The turn to critical Marxist thought is a defining moment in the past 40 years of educational scholarship, especially for educational scholars who identify as part of the political left. It introduced the ideas and vocabulary that continue to frame most conversations in the field about social justice, such as hegemony, ideology, consciousness, praxis, and most importantly, the word ‘critical’ itself, which has become ubiquitous as a descriptor for left educational scholarship. Initially sequestered in curriculum studies and sociology of education, today critical scholarship is frequently published in the journals of some of the field’s most historically conservative areas, such as educational administration and science education. The critical turn radicalized the field.
The initial claim of Gottesman’s book is that Critical Marxist thought has radicalized the field of education, and Gottesman is in favor of this development. Now, as you will see, it is not the case that the field of education has become straightforwardly Marxist, and I am not arguing that, but that is where the story begins.
The focus on Marxism in the Critical School was most pronounced in Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist who also worked as an educator. Friere’s most influential contribution to the Critical School’s Critical Pedagogy comes in the form of his book The pedagogy of the oppressed. Freire argues that teaching is a political issue, teaching methods are a political issue, and that educational theories generally are also political theories. Freire thought that inherent in any education system are assumptions about people, authority, the use of power, and what counts as a good life. Freire thought that education was inherently political and that education is to be used as part of a program of radical social change.
Freire claimed that the role of the teacher is to bring political awareness into the classroom, creating in the student an awareness of politics and a critical awareness of where they were located politically according to Marxist political theory. In other words, the goal is to have students become critically aware of the political situation so they can create the revolutionary change the Marxists sought. As Gottesman puts it:
For Freire, being critical thus meant recognizing oppression, acting against it, doing so in solidarity with others who seek revolutionary change, and doing so continuously. It is this critical educational process that Pedagogy of the Oppressed [sic] articulates as the most important feature of constructing movements for radical social change.
In practice, this type of thinking gets put into practice in the form of radical teachers using their classrooms as places to teach radical fringe left politics to students. And Freire is no obscure scholar. His work has been cited more than 440,000 times. For some context, Albert Einstein has been cited around 137,000 times.
Freire took the first step towards the politicization of education, something which Henry Giroux, Freire’s greatest and most prolific disciple, would openly acknowledge. When Freire first wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s his work was ignored, but in the ‘70s and early 1980s it was Giroux who played a key role in bringing Freire’s work into mainstream education colleges.
Giroux first read Freire in the early 1970s when someone gave him a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed while he was working as a high school teacher. He then left teaching and went into the academy where he began making use of Freire’s work. He finally met Freire in 1983 and worked with him to help disseminate his work in North America. Giroux himself said Freire was his greatest influence and gives him credit for marking the moment when Critical Pedagogy came into its own. If Freire lit the match of Critical Pedagogy Giroux poured gas on the fire.
Giroux took the substance of what Freire was doing in Brazil and then adapted it in a more nuanced way to an American context. Giroux wanted to move away from the kind of economic reductionism of the Marxists who he thought were reducing complex social phenomena to the fallout of economic issues like poverty.
Giroux made two major moves which I think will help us understand what he was arguing. The first is to argue that teachers are not and should not be politically neutral and that politics is central to teaching. The second is to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory.
According to Gottesman:
Giroux sought to develop a Critical Pedagogy, an approach to education that, on the one hand, rooted itself in the critical Marxist tradition’s conception of the power of human agency and in its theoretical analysis of ideology and culture, and on the other hand, embraced, counter to the position of many in the Marxist tradition, the possibility of social reform and the realization of democratic socialism through complete engagement with the liberal public sphere and thus the institutions, including the modes of production, of the liberal nation-state. For Giroux, Critical Pedagogy was not a project committed to revolutionary Marxism, an intellectual and political tradition that deeply influenced Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; rather, Critical Pedagogy was a project committed to socialism through radical reform.
So, according to Gottesman—who agrees with and affirms the use of Critical Pedagogy—Giroux wants to use education to bring about socialism through radical reform. The goal is to “free” people from having to live in a western capitalist democracy.
I would be tempted to say “this is not a drill” if it were not so clichéd.
Further, Gottesman isn’t taking Giroux out of context in his assessment. Giroux says explicitly in his 1988 book Teachers as Intellectuals: “The neo-Marxist position, it seems to us, provides the most insightful and comprehensive model for understanding the nature of schooling and developing an emancipatory program for social education.”
To be clear: Henry Giroux is arguing that the role of the teacher, whether in the university or in the public elementary school, is to use their classroom to teach revolutionary politics to the children so they grow up to create some kind of socialist society. He thinks that the goal of education is not math, writing, or reading (although those are useful tools). The real long-term goal of education is to teach children the politics and ideology of the radical left. This is what he is explicitly arguing.
Giroux wants to move away from the economically reductionist view of traditional Marxism and move toward something that operates directly on the social and cultural level.
The second major move Giroux made was to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory. Giroux wanted to use the tools of Critical Theory and postmodernism to attack and dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism. He began his work by attempting to theorize Critical Pedagogy through the lens of Critical Theory, but eventually brought in the machinery of postmodernism as a way of trying to dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism.
Giroux explains why he uses postmodernism in his 1992 book Border Crossings:
Rather than separating reason from the terrain of history , place, and desire, Postmodernism argues that reason and science can only be understood as a part of a broader historical struggle over the relationship between language and power. This is not merely an epistemological issue, but one that is deeply political and normative. Gary Peller makes this clear by arguing that what is at stake in this form of criticism is nothing less than the dominant liberal commitment to Enlightenment culture. He writes:
“indeed the whole way we conceive of liberal progress (overcoming prejudice in the name of truth, seeing through the distortions of ideology to get at reality, surmounting ignorance and superstition with the acquisition of knowledge) is called into question. Postmodernism suggests that what has been presented in our social-political and our intellectual traditions as knowledge, truth, objectivity, and reason are actually merely the effects of a particular form of social power, the victory of a particular way of representing the world that presents itself as beyond mere interpretation, as truth itself.”
By asserting the primacy of the historical and the contingent in the construction of reason, authority, truth, ethics, and identity, postmodernism provides a politics of representation and a basis for social struggle.
As you can see, Giroux wants to use postmodernism as a way of going after the Enlightenment liberal assumptions that our current society is based on. So he turns to postmodernism and in the process affirms two ideas:
- the postmodern idea that such things as knowledge, truth, objectivity and reason are not absolute and universal.
- that the Enlightenment liberal vision of truth, reason, knowledge, and objectivity has come to prominence only because liberals have exercised social power to make those ideas prominent.
In affirming those two ideas Giroux has fully imbibed the postmodern line of thinking that says the Enlightenment view that knowledge is obtained using reason, science, rationality, and objectivity is in fact false.
Further, Giroux thinks that in undercutting the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism, postmodernism provides a framework for his political struggle against Enlightenment liberalism. It is clear then, that Giroux’s goal here is nothing less than the overturning of the Enlightenment liberal order in favor of some form of socialism that is informed by both postmodernism and neo-Marxism. If this sounds like what we often refer to as “wokeness” or “Critical Social Justice” that is because that is what this is.
What the theory looks like in practice
So far I have only discussed the work of two academics. I have not shown the entirety of the scholarly literature that justifies hijacking the education systems to indoctrinate children into Critical Social Justice because it is too large for a single essay to chronicle. However, there are literally thousands of published academic papers, studies, and books arguing that teaching is a political act and that teachers should teach politics. A brief snippet of news stories of this occurring in schools can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Now I’d like to show you an example of how this is actually implemented in the classroom
In the 2015 book edited by Todd Horton and Lynn Lemisko entitled Educator to Educator, Lynn Lemisko argues in an essay she contributed that it is the role of the teacher to “look past” the official curriculum in order to “trouble” dominant narratives.
What does it mean to look beyond the curriculum? Well, what she means is that she is going to use the mandated lesson plan to teach her political ideology and worldview. She is going to do exactly what Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux advocated for: she’s going to use her classroom as a place of politics. Now, she is not going to refuse to teach the curriculum, she is going to teach past the curriculum. She is going to add her opinion and editorialize the lesson according to her world view.
As an example, let’s look at how Lemisko takes a simple class exercise about the value of technology, and she shows teachers how to hijack it to make it about Critical Social Justice instead (emphases mine):
One of the more difficult approaches to ‘looking beyond’ involves teacher candidates in examining resources, curriculum documents and practices for their silences – that is, what is left ‘unsaid?’. That which is left unsaid arises from the taken-for-granted notions of dominant culture. These implicit notions are hard to uncover because societal or cultural presuppositions are so deeply embedded within our thinking that we do not recognize that which is left out. When educating for social justice, teacher educators need to help teacher candidates learn to focus on both what is explicit (said or visible) and what is implicit (not said or invisible).
So the first thing Lemisko is going to do is tell teachers to refocus their teaching from things that are in the curriculum, to things they think are being left out. That is step one. She continues (emphasis mine):
I have asked teacher candidates to critically examine social studies curriculum documents and suggested learning activities and resources using this double focus. For example, we have examined together a learning activity connected to exploring the concept ‘interdependence’ that is suggested in the Saskatchewan Grades 1 – 5: Social Studies: A Curriculum Guide for the Elementary Level (1995). The explicit purpose of this activity, titled “Doing without” (p. 28) is to have learners identify some specific technologies and contemplate what life would be like without these. However, what is silenced or unsaid in this learning activity is a set of classed attitudes about easy accessibility to wealth and resources…
In this section she shows them how to further alter the focus of the activity for the children. The exercise was supposed to be about what life would be like without technology. Lemisko wants teachers to instead focus on what she thinks are attitudes about wealth and resources. She continues (emphasis mine):
In critically examining this suggested activity to find the ‘unsaid’ about socio-economic class, I ask teacher candidates to read the scenarios, think about the implicit assumptions that underpin the descriptions, and prepare to discuss questions such as the following:
What is assumed about accessibility to the resources and technology discussed in the scenarios?
What is assumed about what the families of grade four students must/should have if they need to imagine ‘doing without’?
Here Lemisko tells her teachers in training to ask questions about socio-economic class, rather than what life would be like without certain forms of technology. She wants them to read the activity through the lens of Critical Social Justice rather than through the lens of “what would life be like without this technology?” In getting her teachers in training to do this, she moves the purpose of the activity away from “find out what life would be like without technology” to “let’s talk about class, attitudes, fairness, and Social Justice.”
As you can see, what Lemisko is doing is trying to teach her teachers in training to use the curriculum in ways it was never designed. The goal of the technology activity was never to have a conversation about Social Justice, it was to make the kids aware of technology and its impact on them. It was never meant to be an activity to “make visible” various injustices that the Critical Social Justice movement blames on Enlightenment liberalism.
This is not what the curriculum was designed for, and it was not what the parent signed up for when they decided to send their kids to a public school.
Why the theory goes wrong
The current push to bring Critical Social Justice into education is a terrible idea. Let me explain.
The first point is a fairly straightforward one: it is immoral and illiberal for people to use the public school system to force a certain set of values on children behind their parents’ backs. Simply put, there is no justification for using public schools as a soapbox for a particular ideology. The liberal way is pluralist without being relativist, and that means that schools are places where we teach the children how to engage with each other on liberal terms with respect and civility. Liberalism admits of a wide swathe of values and seeks to equip children with the tools required to think clearly about the world. For a group of people to decide to embed themselves in the school system and use it as a platform to indoctrinate children is unacceptable.
There is a second point about the quality of education and how it suffers when politics are brought into the classroom.
One thing we all intuit naturally when we demand silence in order to concentrate, or we ask not to be distracted, or turn down the radio when looking for an address, is that in order to learn well we need to be able to focus and concentrate on the thing we are trying to learn. We must be able to pay attention. If our attention is divided we are liable to miss out on valuable information.
The modern world is a difficult one, and it requires that our children learn the skills necessary to get by in a world that is driven by technology. In a time when information is the coin of the realm, numeracy and literacy are incredibly important for flourishing. When someone takes a curriculum that is built to discuss technology and redirects the conversation toward their own political ideology, they are teaching their politics at the expense of preparing the child for the world.
It does no good for Lemisko, Giroux, and Freire to think they can weave Social Justice through the curriculum without compromising it. The resources in the classroom are not infinite and neither is a child’s attention span. In making space for Critical Social Justice, something else must be lost. To argue otherwise is to get something for nothing.
What we can do about it
To finish, I’d like to gesture broadly at what can be done.
First off, when this stuff makes it into the curriculum or classroom it is usually a small group of activists that are pushing it. Administrators who do not realize what is happening, or are easily swayed, can give in under the pressure. It is important to be involved in the school board, Parent Teacher Associations, and to make sure you know what children are being taught at school.
When a large organized group of parents makes themselves clear in rejecting this nonsense, that is very often enough to get the administrators to back down and remove the Critical Social Justice indoctrination from the curriculum.
It is important to get other parents who are concerned together. School board meetings, social media campaigns and school board elections are great places to make your voice heard and to let the people who make schooling decisions know this is unacceptable and to hold them accountable. Having organized groups that can carry out various tasks is important. Campaigns to get people onto the school board take time and volunteers, letters to teachers need to be coordinated, getting enough people at meetings to show the school board that the issue is important to parents takes planning. For all these reasons you must be organized.
In these matters the Critical Social Justice activists will not stop pushing. Their entire reason for being revolves around implementing Critical Social Justice in every area of everything in which they are involved. Their entire lives are devoted to this. If we are to be effective we must be as vigilant in our attempts to save our liberal democracy as they are in their attempts to tear it down.
To conclude, I want to simply say that I am not against justice, or fairness, or equality of opportunity. It is not my goal to tear anyone down and I realize that many of the people who teach Critical Pedagogy are well-meaning. One can’t help but listen to Henry Giroux speak and realize that he cares deeply about people. The problem is not that he doesn’t care, the problem is that his ideas are flawed. And for that reason we must keep Critical Pedagogy out of the school system.
Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/wokal_distance.