by Trent M Kays
What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?—Paulo Freire
I had a dream recently. I awoke in my dream, and I walked into my living room. There, I saw a man wearing a black t-shirt with his back to me. I reached out for him, and he turned around, his eyes closed, with “Critical Pedagogy” written across the front of his shirt in big bold white letters. I stared at him. His eyes opened; they were completely black. As he grabbed me, he screamed out and black bile started pouring from his eyes and mouth. He fell to the ground pulling me down with him. His black eyes stared up at me as he whispered, “Liars. Liars.”
(Startled awake by my dream, insomnia set in. I was unable to fall asleep again. I wrote this after early morning meditation. After meditating for several hours, I realized I had been suffering with my understanding of critical pedagogy. I wrote the following, and it’s personal.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about critical pedagogy and exactly how the hell to define it. The pedagogy is often an enigma because everyone seems to have a different definition of what constitutes the critical in critical pedagogy. Suffice to say, the answer is not simple, but I suppose that’s a good thing because it provides academics with enough fodder to sustain discussions of it in the classroom.
That’s it, isn’t it? In the classroom. Critical pedagogy seems to be used in the classroom to highlight oppression. Critical pedagogy seems to be used in the classroom to uncover suffering. Critical pedagogy seems to be used in the classroom to talk about things outside of the classroom.
Even the university oppresses. Perhaps, all oppression begins with education. We find ourselves in a broken system with our usefulness and contribution gauged by nothing more than arbitrary rules a committee made up years ago. What do those rules mean for students? What do those rules mean for the public good? What do those rules mean for the future?
Nothing is permanent. All things end. Some things end peacefully, some things end violently, and some things just fade into nothingness.
Even the university oppresses.
I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching. I’ve been thinking a lot about my role in a broken system. I realize I am part of the problem. The fact that I am part of the system of oppression makes me culpable for the oppression carried out in its name. It’s a hard fact to swallow, and one that has kept me up many nights staring at the ceiling. How can we change a system that is so fundamental to the existence of the state without destroying the state in the process? How can critical pedagogy be critical when it is employed within an established oppressive structure?
Every day, every hour, every minute, and every second, I am consumed by the fact I am part of something that oppresses. To oppress is to do violence upon another. I am part of that violence. Every day, every hour, every minute, and every second, I am consumed by the fact I am a hypocrite. One of the things I absolutely cannot tolerate: hypocrisy. Yet, I am a hypocrite. Even the university oppresses. Even I…oppress. I am an oppressor. I am a violence doer. I am the problem. Every day, every hour, every minute, and every second, I am consumed by the fact I am what I hate: a hypocrite. Even I oppress.
I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching. What is critical pedagogy? Is it circling desks in a classroom? Is it just letting your students talk? Is it fake giving over your authority to your students? Is it allowing students to think, to be, to explore?
What is critical pedagogy?
Every day, every hour, every minute, and every second, I am consumed by the fact I am a critical pedagogue who is also an oppressor and a hypocrite. I teach my students to question everything, but then I give them arbitrary grades that really mean nothing in the great scheme of education and life. I teach my students to write for an academic audience, even though that audience is small, and ultimately trivial to most. I teach my students to never stop reaching for their dreams while teaching them in a system actively pushing them down.
The university oppresses. I oppress. My students are oppressed.
We spend so much time talking about critical pedagogy as if it was a commodity to throw about in order to gain academic currency with others in our community. Our community. Our ideologies. Our beliefs. Our lives. Ourselves. Why don’t we do something? Why don’t we change it? Why don’t we change?
Maybe we should tear it all down. Brick by brick. Tear it down. Start anew. Start fresh. Start clean. Maybe we need to wash the dirt of privilege from under our nails, maybe we need to clean the dusty hierarchies from our shoes, and maybe we need to change. We must change. We will not survive the age of transparency if we do not show the value of higher education, and its dedication to the public good.
The university oppresses. I oppress. We oppress, and we are oppressed. We work in purgatory. We work in a limbo where we must choose between being oppressed and being the oppressor. We choose. We need to choose to change. We need to choose to encourage change, and, if need be, we need to choose to force change. We need to be public figures. We need to venture out of our cloistered classrooms and offices. We need to see, and we need to be seen.
What is critical pedagogy? I’m not sure I know, but I think I know what it isn’t, and that’s a start. We need to become the change we want to see in our work, in our society, and in our world.
I will be the change I want to see in my world.
Join me, and let us strive on with diligence.
Trent M Kays is a writer, teacher, provocateur, scholar-activist, and PhD student in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication at the University of Minnesota. His work primarily interrogates the roles of digital rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the Internet in political, cultural, and social movements. He writes for both academic and popular audiences, and his writing has appeared in USA Today, The Minnesota Daily, Paleofuture Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications.
His portfolio, links to his work, and contact information can be found on his website.