Students at my university are required to attend Cultural Life Programs (CLPs) as part of their graduation requirements. Once several years ago, I was the featured speaker at a CLP on education reform, and during that talk I noted I was against accountability.

The Q and A prompted by the talk was vibrant, but after the talk, I was approached by a colleague who asked if I were being provocative—not serious, in other words—about being against accountability. I assured him I was in fact against accountability, which left him so frazzled the discussion ended there.

After posting a blog about critical pedagogy and the Other, I received similar and numerous comments about critical thinking—educators who likely believe that they and I are mostly in agreement on education but cannot fathom my rejecting how traditional schooling approaches so-called “critical thinking skills.”

As well, the Twitter conversation among Angela DyeSherri Spelic, and me exposed the need to examine more fully the concept of the Other.

First, there is no way to frame identifying and teaching (as well as lessons involving worksheets and testing) critical thinking skills and remain critical.

The essential flaw with critical thinking skills (see HERE and HERE) is, as I noted in the previous post, the reductive nature of a technocratic approach to knowledge, teaching, and learning. In other words, to isolate (and thus, approach analytically) a series of “critical” skills in order to deposit them in students in the hopes that those skills added up equal critical thinking is the problem.

And as I have noted about accountability, that skills approach is at least the dominant, if not the only way in which “critical thinking” is framed in traditional schooling.

Being critical is not a collection of isolated skills, but a way of being that can be fostered, not imposed (see Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education). Therefore, at best we can model being critical and provide for students examples of critical confrontations such as Ta-Nehisi Coates on the film Crash or Son of Baldwin on Straight Outta Compton.

Let me stress, then, that my rejecting the technocratic approach to “critical thinking” cannot be solved through technocratic means: defining, teaching skills, etc.

Next, and more complex, I think, is the concept of the Other in terms of how that relates to critical pedagogy.

My critical scholarship and my critical public work prompt oddly parallel responses, for example.

Traditional scholarship frames my critical work as the Other because critical perspectives reject the norms of the academy—quantitative data and objectivity most significantly. Instead, critical pedagogy starts here:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

The claimed apolitical pose of traditional scholarship marginalizes as the Other critical perspectives. However, Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes.

But my public work is often challenged for being too academic, too scholarly since critical perspectives are prone to wax philosophic (using “the Other,” for example) or depend on terms such as “hegemony.”

Regardless of the context, then, critical perspectives are themselves likely to be marginalized (not rigorous or too esoteric), ignored, or silenced—especially as Dye and Spelic have stressed if you are a woman, or even more significantly, if you are a black woman.

And therein lies the next level of the Other I haven’t teased out well enough so far.

Yes, critical perspectives are brushed off as the Other, but more importantly, to be critical means to always listen [1] to, consider, and be empathetic to the perspective of the Other.

Being critical means that we take the pose of the Other in all the forms that exist. This requires the setting aside of ones privilege and even ones status as the Other.

It is in that context that Paulo Freire confronts how norms act against the Other:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

Being critical is about self-awareness, empathy, and the perpetual state of questioning the nature of assumptions in the context of how those assumptions work to perpetuate power as well as to deny power.

Being critical becomes in traditional contexts, both academic and public, simultaneously the state of being the Other as well as assuming the perspective(s) of the Other.

Posters, worksheets, skills lists, and tests—none of these address being critical because all of these are trapped inside the so-called objective and analytic assumptions about knowledge, teaching, and learning.

They are as lifeless as they are void of critical—and they do not serve students or anyone well.

Any questions?

See Also

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

[1] For example, in whose interest is it to shame a writer for splitting an infinitive? And what is the historical and linguistic context of that so-called rule? How does focusing on a linguistically questionable construction allow the masking of the substance of the claims?