Peter McLaren

PETER McLAREN

Peter McLaren from the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

Well, I think there are multiple critical pedagogies. I think there are a lot of people now writing under that term and uh the critical pedagogies that are being produced uh under the same name are very, very different. So I think that uh you have to talk about critical pedagogy in the plural. I have a particular uh approach to critical pedagogy, which is largely uh marquis driven. Um, that focuses on um class struggle. Uh, and uh other people who are dealing with critical pedagogy may emphasize other issues uh such as uh, um, you know, feminist pedagogy, gender struggles, uh struggles around race and ethnicity. Of course, I’m concerned with all of those struggles, but uh I think the primary emphasis in my work is um class struggle because I see uh the globalization of capitalism and the current crisis of capitalism as one of the most urgent uh struggles uh for educators and for the general population at large. And I see uh issues of uh gender oppression, oppression on the base of um sexual orientation uh racism or the multiple racisms that we see in society as inextricably linked to uh capitalism, That doesn’t mean I reduce all these things to simply economic transactions, but I see capitalism as um embedding these antagonisms in a very powerful way. So strategically uh my focus in critical pedagogy is to develop conditions fro students um to understand their own location, their social location um in society um and to uh help other people understand their social location and to be able to work tactically and strategically to build a society in which those class antagonisms and gender antagonisms and racial antagonisms um are overcome. So that’s critical pedagogy for me in a nutshell.

OK, critical pedagogy um I think is very much different from mainstream pedagogy or standard versions of pedagogy used in our schools I think in many different ways. Uh, I would say um in a very general sense again that uh, general approaches to teaching uh or pedagogy uh largely serve as being functionally advantageous for the uh existing relations of power and privilege that we find in the social order today. Generally uh, uh, mainstream pedagogy is concerned with, in some way, reconciling student’s subjectivities or student’s identities to the larger status quo society. Um, with in some way uh inuring or uh acculturating students to accept the general uh premises uh, uh these would be, you know, civil society, um that exists for instance that capitalism is a natural or preferable uh way of—of life um that uh the gender divisions that we find or the—the—the divisions around race that we find are somehow uh natural divisions that a quality uh has been largely uh achieved. And critical pedagogy challenges uh this approach uh on all these fronts. Uh, critical pedagogy is in some fundamental way I think a negative dialectics. That is to say it enables uh individuals to denounce the world. Um, it’s less specific when it talks about uh reshaping society. It’s less specific when it talks about how to, you know, re-imagine a world because I think that that’s something that people have um achieve in the contextual specificity of where they find themselves. So it’s basically a—I think uh as Paulo Freda would say, critical pedagogy is really I—a um—it’s—it’s—it’s a problem posing form of pedagogy rather than sort of answer providing form of pedagogy. And it’s very clear um about it’s uh politics. I think unfortunately critical pedagogy has been domesticated. Uh, uh many people uh, uh approach me in—in my—in my talks around uh the country or other countries and uh tell me about the critical pedagogy that—that they’re employing. Um, sometimes invite me to see it at work and often times I walk away thinking what’s so critical about that. I think that the work of Paulo Freda especially has been domesticated so that we find students sitting in circles and talking, for instance. This is apparently dialogical pedagogy uh because they can talk about things that interest them or are on their mind. Uh, now I call this the democracy of empty forms. I think that it uh—it has the cosmetic trappings of critical pedagogy but I don’t see it as critical pedagogy. To me there’s a problematic, there’s a political positionality to critical pedagogy which is uh a critique of capitalist social formations and cultural formations and understanding the ways in which our every day lives are implicated in the day-to-day um—in reproducing the day-to-day asymmetrical relations of power and privilege. In—in understanding how we’re implicated, sometimes unwittingly uh in these relations of power and privilege. And uh so I think that uh—that when we look at uh, uh what professes to be critical pedagogy and we look at mainstream pedagogy, there’s really very little difference except some cosmetic differences. And so that’s something that I’ve been very concerned with in my own work.

What was intended uh by the uh, uh—by Paulo Freda when he first began uh to um—to write and practice um his approach to uh—to literacy, for instance. Or when he wrote “Pedagogy the Oppressed.” That’s a very good question. I think that Paulo Freda’s early work, such as, “Pedagogy the Oppressed,” um some of his early work speaks more to a very strong uh practice of revolutionary politics. He talks in “Pedagogy the Oppressed” about the kind of pedagogy that would follow a revolution. I don’t think uh Paulo’s work was uh intended to precipitate an armed revolution. I don’t—that was not Paulo’s agenda, as I understand his work. Uh, um it was a kind of pedagogy that might follow a prior revolution. For instance, he talks uh with great admiration in “Pedagogy the Oppressed,” um about the—the Cuban revolution and uh, you know, of—of course involving Fidel Castro and uh—and Chegavara. And uh he talks with great admiration about that revolution and a pedagogy that could possibly follow that to keep the revolutionary principles alive um and—and to deepen those revolutionary principles. I think in his later work uh tried to address a lot of different um uh—um, themes that were not uh themes that he uh initially was—was addressing, uh issues of—and—and actually I think he began addressing those because of uh critiques he’d receive when he would come to uh, uh the United States, for instance. The issue of gender was largely uh absent from his earlier work. Uh, the issue of multiculturalism um and uh, um anti-racism was largely absent from his early work and he tried and I think was quite successful at addressing these in um—in the last decade of his life. But I think he uh was largely driven by uh a class politics. Um, he saw class oppression as—and this is the feeling I get from uh reading his work and of course the impression I receive from conversations with him that indeed uh class politics was the driving force of—of his pedagogy. Now does that mean that he privileged class over sexuality, over race ethnicity, uh, uh over, you know, sexism. No. But I think he saw class struggle as fundamental as—and—and class oppression as the glue, in a sense, uh that capped a gender um uh inequality in place um and that kept racism in place. Um, so it’s—it’s a difficult uh—it’s a difficult and very complex uh arena of conversation because once you start talking about class, people often feel you’re ignoring other forms of repression um, and that’s not true. So you have to be very careful when you discuss it and you have to be very nuance and—and speak about it in capillary detail because other—because people will often misinterpret what you say or misunderstand what you say.

Well, I think there’s tremendous value in that. There is a—uh, uh, uh, uh frighteningly uh disproportionate uh amount of white teachers in classrooms—in the classrooms of our—of our nation and I do think it’s a hegemonic relationship. Um, and I think it’s a major problem, especially in—well, it’s a major problem everywhere, uh schools being overpopulated by white instructors. Um, especially a problem in—in—in Los Angeles where I teach. Uh, LAUSD I think there’s—uh roughly 70 percent population are uh—are Latino—Latina or African-American. Um, so this is a major problem. And I think that uh—I think there’s a role for white folks to play in the struggle and a crucial role to play um in—by using critical pedagogy. And I think that one of the things that teachers should be struggling for is greater representation of minority—ethnic minority uh, uh, uh teachers in classrooms. That’s number one. Uh, and I think that they—I mean, I really do feel that—that—that there are possibilities, there are spaces that can be made for white teachers to provide uh spaces for uh creating forms of critical consciousness among their students. I don’t think that being white necessarily excludes them from um—from joining the struggle, but I think it’s—it’s—it’s problematic uh and I think that uh there are impasses that are very difficult to overcome uh for white teachers. Understandable impasses because um, uh, uh—understandable in a sense that uh many students uh from say uh Mexico in um, for instance, Central America, in places like Los Angeles are very suspicious of white folks, especially well intentioned white folks and I don’t blame them for being suspicious. Uh, history has shown that uh they ought to be suspicious and they ought to keep their guard up. Um, given uh—given the history of violence um towards uh, uh people of color by even well intended white folks. So I think critical pedagogy is a place to begin to enter into those kinds of discussions with teachers in teacher education programs. Now uh critical pedagogy’s been accused of being sort of uh a kind of uh, uh a revolutionary practice for white folks. Um, I don’t see that as the case. I see critical pedagogy as something that’s greatly embraced uh by um—by teachers of color. In Paulo Freda’s work um is—is an approach that is often very galvanizing in that struggle. So that uh (microphone problems) I think the—the yearning and the hunger for revolutionary change is something that can bring all of us together. I’m confident that it can um and I’m confident that uh—that we can all engage in the struggle together.

The social construct of whiteness I think, yes. Now whiteness, of course, is more than a social construct, it’s a social position uh, and I think that’s—that’s different. I think that there’s a danger in simply seeing whiteness as—as a form of—of constructed identity. The notion of constructivism has been misused, I think, in educational theory because there’s a suggestion that well, if whiteness is just a way of thinking, uh we can reprogram ourselves to think differently. But, of course, in order to abolish whiteness, uh we need to do more than simply uh, um commit uh, uh, uh—commit a form of uh, you know, of—of radical ideological intervention. Uh, there has to be changes uh in—at the level of social structure. There has to be change—fundamental institutional changes, fundamental changes in cultural formations and economic structures of—of society as well. Um, and I’ll try to explain why that’s the case in a moment. But I want to be very clear about where I stand on the issue of whiteness uh because I’ve been misrepresented um even recently in some of the literature. Uh, I strongly support uh, uh, uh John Garvey and his work on—on uh the abolition of whiteness, the abolition of the white race. I am a new abolitionist in this regard. Now within this arena of the abolition of whiteness, the abolition of the white race, there are several competing positions. One is that uh whiteness or identity as a member of the white race can be recovered and re-articulated and made into something positive. The other position is that there’s no possible way of redeeming white identity. And I very much believe uh that there is no uh, possible way of re-articulating whiteness so it becomes a positive thing. I don’t believe you can redeem or recuperate whiteness as a positive identity. Um, so that I take the abolitionist uh position very strongly. Now when I talk about the abolition of whiteness, I’m not talking about the abolition of white people. I’ve given this talk in places like uh, um, you know, uh Ohio and—and in Idaho uh and I think uh in some cases I felt they were going to run me out of the auditorium. They felt somehow—folks in the audience that I was talking about, you know somehow eliminating white people from the uh shores of the country. Uh, that’s not—I’m talking about identification with a white race. There’s no such thing as a white race. The white race was an invention, a 17th century invention. Uh, historically uh it was a way that the plan Hitocrisy could bring uh, you know, in Virginia, 8,000 indentured servants from Europe uh into their side uh to prevent rebellion that was brewing. It was called Bacon’s Rebellion, historically. That was the term. Um, and so it was a way of using white skin privilege to uh attract European indentured service—servants to this side of the plantocrisy. That was part of—historically part of what we could call the invention of the white race. You know as Nola Nasha says, um “Shakespeare wasn’t white, he was English,” for instance. Um, so I have no problem and encourage white folks to identify with their ethnic origin, but not as a member of the white race because the whole notion of the white race was historically given birth um, uh in such a way that whiteness was tantamount to uh demonizing and uh in murdering black people. So I don’t see how you—there can be any positive value attached to the notion of a white person. So that I disidentify with being a member of the white race and uh I do believe, along with Nola Nasha, that white folks need to become traitors to their whiteness. I’m very happy to be a traitor to my whiteness in this regard. Now does that make me a self-hating white person? No it doesn’t make me a self-hating white person, it makes me uh, you know, a Canadian who uh—whose adopted country is the United States uh and I come from Irish, Scottish ancestry. That’s not a problem for me. But it is a problem for me to identify with the white race because I think that’s a pernicious identification and it can only come to—to—to uh—to ill. And so that’s my position on whiteness. So yes, it is an ideology in a sense; it is a way of—of—of looking at the world. Granted that’s part of it, but its much more than that. It’s a social position. Now, um, you know, the whole notion of—of race is a problem to and I’ve written about this with uh Rudolf O’Torres um from Irvine. Uh, we’ve written about the problems of using the term ‘race’ in the educational literature uh because when you use the term ‘race’, you’re reinforcing the myth that there are separate races when we know that there are no separate races. Um, and—but then again, there’s a wrinkle in that and here’s the wrinkle, uh the term race has also been a construct around which oppressed people of color have gathered to defend themselves against the violence from white people. And so in that regard, race perhaps is—is an important term, as a term to galvanize people against, you know, uh white uh racism. I don’t know if there’s any other kind of racism then white racism. I suspect that—well, definitely white racism is the worst kind of racism one can imagine because white folks uh articulate that and practice that racism from a position, right, of dominance so that it has to be institutionally the worst form of racism that there could possibly be. Um, so uh, uh—so then again, it’s a tricky question, but I think at the very least when we use the term race, we should qualify how we’re using it so as not simply to uh reify the notion that these separate races do exist because in an anthropological sense, they don’t. But, of course, race is as Stewart Hall says, a term that largely refers to a shared history and for people of color a shared history of struggle against uh violence from white folk. So in that sense race maybe has a place in the lexicon of critical pedagogy. But these are issues that are being debated right now in the field.

Well, here’s the position I take on the kinds of questions that I would ask uh, uh teachers to consider. Here’s the position. I have to come about it in a little bit of a roundabout way if that’s OK. Uh, first of all, there’s the question, “Who Am I?” Now that question, “Who Am I?” presupposes an epistemological answer. I uh—I could answer that question um if it was posed to me in many different ways. I could use uh a feminist language to articulate who I am. I’m a member of the patriarchal uh capitalist order, um I—I—I—I fight against uh sexism in that struggle, but yes I am a male. I am a white male. And one could use a language of say feminist analysis to answer the question, “Who Am I?” I could do that. Or I could come at it from uh a marquis epistemology. Uh, you know, I’m an agent of capital or hopefully I’m an agent of—in class struggle. And I’m simplifying this somewhat. So there are many different epistemological takes I could have on the question, “Who Am I?” There’s a question that has to be asked before that question and that’s “Where Am I?” And I think the answer has to be, “I’m here and I’m here with you. I’m here for you and I’m here with you.” When a naked voice cries out in the wilderness for help we don’t stop and ask for identity papers. We don’t stop and say, “Who are you?” you know, “Are you an authentic Canadian?” You know, “Have you passed the litmus test?” Uh, “Are you uh, you know—Are you an authentic revolutionary?” Uh, “Show me your credentials.” “Are you an authentic Chicano or African-American?” Um, “Prove it to me.” Um, we don’t ask those questions. We have a preferential option for the oppressed. That’s an ethical question. The question, “Where are you?” “Here I am and I hear you and I’m here for you and with you.” Now the question is, of course, uh you know, that—“You’re here for me, does that mean you’re speaking for me?” Um, well, if asked and invited I will. If you feel I can do a good job and if you’re not in a position to speak for yourself, I’d be happy to speak for you but I’d prefer to speak with you and I’d prefer to create situation in which we could speak together. So that’s important. So the point I’m trying to make is the ethical question has to be articulated prior to the questions of epistemology. Then, of course, when you’ve taken that ethical position, right, on the side of the oppressed then you can go into your seminar room, remove yourself from the real world and discuss epistemological issues and there’s nothing wrong with that, although, not many people have the privilege of being able to do that. And then you come into the ethical, I mean you—you begin to address the epistemological issues. Now there’s also another question, which was uh—which was framed by Henry Zaru uh and I think it’s an excellent question and it goes something like this. “What has society made of me that I no longer want to be?” Now in order to answer that question, “What has society made of me that I no longer want to be?” uh it suggests that you need to understand how you come to be who you are uh and how has that happened. So you need to understand how your identity has been formed. Now, you largely do that by trying to analyze your experiences. But as Miles Horton says, “You only understand—you only learn from experiences that you learn from.” Great line from Miles Horton. “ You only learn from experiences that you learn from.” Now what does that mean? Well, to me it suggests that experiences are important. We all have experiences but equally is important are the languages we use to make sense of those experiences. Now I’ve had experiences at one point in my life, I had similar ones later on in my life and thought, but having a different more critical language. And I’m thinking, “God, I went through this experience three or four years ago but now I’m seeing it differently. I’m seeing it differently because I have a different language.” Right, uh to bring to bear on that experience. And so language is—languages do not reflect—help us reflect our experiences, they refract our experiences so that—I think that uh in some fundamental way, we need to understand the—the—we need to understand our experiences through multiple languages, multiple critical languages so that, in fact, I make available to my students, not just some orthodox discourse that I think is the correct language through which uh people can filter their experiences and re—and—and—and—and enter into a kind of a dialogical self reflection about their experiences, but I present them with multiple array of discourses which—which they can come to uh understand their experiences in a more critical way. And then, of course, uh they’re generally uh, uh—they generally find some of the language and some of the critical discourses more appealing, more urgent, and more relevant for their lives at a particular time. Uh, if someone is uh being oppressed of uh—around issues of—of—of—of uh a gay or lesbian identity, then the discourses in languages of what’s come to be called queer theory uh is a very important language of discourse. And they’re—they’re apt to be drawn to that um, and uh in a more immediate way. But uh—and that’s great. If someone is being oppressed and—and—and—and, you know, on the basis of uh—of their gender then they may be drawn uh to a feminist discourse uh more than to say a marquis discourse. But we bring these discourses into conversation with each other and we use—we read these discourses off against each other in ways that help eventually refine our understanding about how we’ve been made and how we want to change to remake ourselves. I don’t think we can remake ourselves through an act of will alone, that is to say, through uh just simply changing our ideas and our perceptions. I think we need to do it through largely a—a form of class struggle because I see the tension between labor and capital and the exploitation of human labor through capitalism is perhaps the most fundamental form of oppression um that intersect with other forms of oppression. And I think that uh that I’ve been able to shape my understanding of agency in a very particular way throughout my life and its changed over the years.

Well, I think that if you’re learning and you’re not learning how to change the world then you’re not learning. Um, critical dialogical praxis is about changing the world. Uh, it’s about developing a language of criticism and a language of hope. You need to develop two languages, I think, to be a critical agent. One, you need a language to understand and analyze uh what’s going on around you and I think the language of critical sociology, for instance, uh is a very powerful language. You need to understand, for instance, how class gratification works. You need to understand how stratification works, how tracking works in school situations, you need to understand—why it is that there’s a disproportionate number of students of color in special ed classes. For instance, um you need to understand uh why uh public schooling is giving way t the forces of prioritization today. You need to understand the corporate influence in schools, not just in public schools but also in the universities. Why that’s the case, what’s happening in the world of—of uh, global capitalism. We have to understand Neal liberalism. We have to understand how capitalism worldwide is in crisis. Uh, what the effects are in terms of uh—of our economic policy and the Mikilodorez in—in the borders between uh the United States and Mexico uh and what relationship that has to forces of prioritization in our—in schools in our communities. They’re all interconnected. Now, that’s developing a language of criticism, a language of analysis. We need the best forms of social analysis available, then we have to have—buffer that in some—well, not buffer it but when, in some sense, deepen that and redirect that form of analysis with a language of hope, or what’s been called the language of possibility. And that’s—that’s the tough one because I think that it requires a utopian vision, but what I call a contingent utopianism. That is to say, I think we can make a distinction between a categorical utopia and a contingent utopia. A categorical utopia is pretty scary. It’s close to fascism in my mind. Its “Here’s how the world should be. Here’s how we should arrange this and this and this.” Well, of course, these decisions have to be made by the people themselves who are struggling. They have to be made by the bottom up. So I prefer the notion of contingent utopia. We have a una—you know, I do believe in universal principles, universal rights. I think that’s one of many good things that came from enlightenment tradition. I’m not about to sort of totally reject the enlightenment tradition in reason, not at all. I understand its urocentrism. I understand it’s problems, but I think there is some good things that have come from the enlightenment tradition, like universal rights. So we have a sense of where we want to go. We—we have an opening. We know—perhaps we—we don’t know exactly where we want to go but we know what’s not—but we know what’s hurting people. We know what’s killing people. Um, I have a wonderful student uh in uh—in my uh classes right now. Uh, he’s uh—he’s in his mid-40’s. He uh was a high school drop out and he audits my classes. I let him sit in and help teach my classes with me right now. Uh, his name is Raphael. And uh, he poses a question to students and that question is, “What’s killing you? What’s killing you?” And so he’s—he’s able to sort of bring the whole notion of structural oppression down to the level of the person and to understand how things that are killing us inside are directly related to wider structural arrangements in the social order. So I think there are many important kinds of questions that you can pose. Um, now it’s interesting, I’ll ask teachers—I’ll say, “What should education be for?” (interruption) “What should education be for?” And very often teachers will say when I first ask them when they first enter my classroom, they’ll say, “Well, I think the purpose of education should be to help fit students into society, to help them learn how to learn, uh and to help them negotiate with the changing technologies that uh young people are going to have to confront all the way through their life-long learning.” Well, I want to do more than simply adjust students to the social order. I want to—I—I don’t want to uh in some way um help sort of uh fit students into the existing social order because why would you want to fit them into an order that’s racist practice—practice as oppression on the basis of capitalist exploitation, racist. Why would I in any way would I want to have students uh adapt to that society. I want them to be maladaptive. I want them to be maladaptive. I don’t want them to fit in uh in the sense of somehow complying with uh a social order that I find uh pernicious. Now, obviously they have to adapt to the extent that they can survive um, and of course, uh if that means learning English, if that means understanding the cultural capital of the dominant culture, so be it. But as they’re surviving, I want them to be simultaneously thinking of ways of disrupting and overturning uh structures of oppression that they’re able to identify. That’s the difference between critical pedagogy and mainstream pedagogy.

I believe that schools exist in the United States to create a citizenry that is dedicated to making the world safe for global capitalism. That’s the purpose of American schooling, to make the entire world safe for global capitalism. They’re uh—they’re absolutely hell bent on doing this. Um, the United States is the—is the global alpha male when it comes to uh, um, you know, promoting capitalism uh as a religion. Capitalism is a religion. We can see this in Miami right now with the uh Elian uh incidents where Elian is uh seen as a uh—as a miracle child who escaped getting sunburned and was rescued by two fishermen who were not suppose to go fishing that day. And uh some of the uh Cuban ex-patriots are painting Elian being raised to the sky uh into the arms of—of—of uh Jesus. Uh, this is a—a uh, uh religious inflection of anti-communism and pro-capitalism. This is a perfect illustration of the marriage of religion and capitalism. Capitalism is equated with freedom, freedom’s equated with anti-communism, and it’s all tied into some uh, uh—almost a theology. So capitalism indeed has become a theology. It is a religion here. It’s seen as natural. It is seen as part of nature itself. And I think the U.S. largely promotes this notion that capitalism is basically the best of all possible worlds and global capitalism has—is pushing this notion into the farthest corners of the globe. Not everybody has bought into that idea. There are some courageous holdouts like Cuba. Um, but they’re under tremendous pressure now. Um, so I think that uh the notion of globalization of capitalism has to be seen as a form of imperialism. It’s more like gobalization than global—globalization. And I think that it’s instituting what’s called uh Neal liberal uh education policy practice i.e. uh Neal liberalism is basically uh using uh, you know, uh—basically evaluated everything according to principals of the market. You have a strong state only in so far as it can protect the freedom of the marketplace and it means cutting back from social services, it means cutting back—it means attacking the welfare state, it means very little job security, it means very little benefits, it means a future for young people in which the kinds of job security that we enjoy will no longer be there. Uh, and what do we call this, life-long learning. Oh, it gives you the opportunity now to have 10 jobs or 20 jobs in your lifetime. Well, what that basically means is you’re not going to be able to find a job with any security that’s going to last you perhaps more than a year or two. Now this is a global phenomena and this is affecting our educational policy. We see—we see moves towards prioritization, we see—we see transnational corporations that uh almost—that—that act independently of nation states. They’re almost acting as if they are a nation state. And, in fact, sometimes they earn more money uh per year then—then many countries do. Um, and so uh they’re applying these principles of lazzie faire capitalism uh to schooling. And largely speaking, that’s going to mean greater class gratification, it’s going to mean um, uh specific forms of education for wealthy, illeats, and it’s going to mean, you know, the hold over public schools for very poor inner-city youth and its increasing class divisions uh exponentially. And it’s very pernicious and it’s all under the rules of choice. And so here we are participating under the banner of free choice but we have to understand it’s free choice within particular limits. You know, Mark said uh—that men and women make choices but in conditions not of their own making. Of course, we have the freedom uh to—to choose whether or not we want to become part of the capitalist class or the laboring class um the—you know, part of the global elite…