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The Purpose of Education – Critical Pedagogy for the Democratic Society

January 17, 2012

The Purpose of Education – Critical Pedagogy for the Democratic Society Education has been immersed in conflict for decades. John Dewey in 1938, after twenty years of experience with the progressive schools and twenty years of criticism of his theories, wrote.

“It would not be a sign of health if such an important social interest as education were not also an arena of struggles, practical and theoretical. . . It is the business of an intelligent theory of education to ascertain the causes for the conflicts that exist and then, instead of taking one side or the other, to indicate a plan of operations proceeding from a level deeper and more inclusive than is represented by the practices and ideas of the contending parties. . . .It means the necessity of the introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice.” Or to a raising of the consciousness of present conditions and insight into needed/desired changes. Many of the conflicts surrounding education are the result of multiple points of view as to the purpose of education, the definition of knowledge, and the arguments over which knowledge or whose knowledge is of most worth. Ira Shor echoes John Dewey: For over a century, mechanical factory models of teaching and learning have been at war with critical, interactive education. This paper will take the position that the purpose of education is to enable individuals to reach their full potential as human beings, individually and as members of a society; this means that these individuals will receive an education which will enable them to think and act intelligently and purposefully in exercising and protecting the Rights and Responsibilities claimed by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the American Dream. When we look at the big picture – Society – we see schooling not as a neutral island separate from, but as an integral part of, Society. Those in power make decisions which directly impact students and teachers daily – from salary decisions to materials to certification standards to testing. One cannot deny that education is political. Critical Pedagogy is education; it is political. Critical Pedagogy is a pedagogy designed for the purpose of enabling the learner to become aware of, conscious of, conditions in his life, in society, and to have the necessary skills, knowledge and resources to be able to plan and create change. It is consciousness-raising. Critical Pedagogy, as does Critical Theory, strives to help one see the true situation, often being a form of oppression resulting in decreased freedom, and to help one understand that this can be changed – in other words it reveals possibilities, the learner is able to discover the possibilities and then act on them. Some say that it is not the responsibility of the school or of teachers to do this. But Critical Pedagogy does NOT recommend that the teachers impose upon students their (teacher’s) beliefs about what is, what is wrong and what could be. That is exactly what Critical Pedagogy is opposing. “The tendency to form attitudes which will express themselves in intelligent social action is something very different from indoctrination, just as taking intelligent aim is very different from firing BB shot in the air at random with the kind of vague, pious hope that somehow or other a bird may fly into some of the shot.” Rather, it is intended to allow the student realization that he is not powerless. It is intended to enable the student to think critically, to make decisions, to take action, as opposed to either passively receiving and adopting canonized modes of thinking and living which serve to maintain the status quo, or being alienated from society and schooling because the student’s experiences, culture, voice, and beliefs are different from those of the school. The student is unable to make those vital connections between what he is supposed to learn and his own experiences, which was one of the main tenets in John Dewey’s theory of education. Dewey explains that there is an intermediary between aimless education and education that indoctrinates and inculcates. “The alternative is the kind of education that connects the materials and methods by which knowledge is acquired with a sense of how things are done and of how they might be done; not by impregnating the individual with some final philosophy . . . but by enabling him to so understand existing conditions that an attitude of intelligent action will follow from social understanding.” John Dewey defined an undesirable society as one which internally and externally sets up barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. He further stated that a society which makes provision for participation for the good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is democratic. “Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.” Thomas Jefferson declared, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the people . . . [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” The Ordinance of 1787, wherein the state of Virginia ceded the land northwest of the Ohio River to the United States, Article III states “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Our country was founded on the positive value of change. Heed the words of Noah Webster in his new speller appearing in 1783; he opens his new book with these words: The author wishes to promote the honor and prosperity of the confederated republics of America, and cheerfully throws his might into the common treasure of patriotic exertions. This country must in some future time, be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements, as she is already by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions. Europe is grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny – in that country laws are perverted, manners are licentious, literature is declining and human nature is debased. For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the Old World, would be to stamp the wrinkles of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth and to plant the seeds of decay in a vigorous constitution. American glory begins to dawn at a favorable period, and under flattering circumstances. We have the experience of the whole world before our eyes; but to receive indiscriminately the maxims of government, the manners and the literary taste of Europe and make them the ground on which to build our systems in America, must soon convince us that a durable and stately edifice can never be erected upon the moldering pillars of antiquity. It is the business of America to select the wisdom of all nations as the basis for her constitutions – to avoid their errors – to prevent the introduction of foreign vices and corruptions and check the career of her own – to promote virtue and patriotism – to embellish and improve the sciences – to diffuse a uniformity and purity of language – to add superior dignity to this infant empire and to human nature. These words express hope, dreams, and possibilities as well as a thorough criticism of the past and of what is. What kind of men and women were able to think these thoughts, write these words, and commit to the actions they chose? Men and women who knew how to think critically, and men and women who were much more than basically literate, men and women who were not afraid to speak out and question authority, who valued what they considered to be their inalienable Rights – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. What kind of men and women will it take to see to it that these goals are upheld and to ensure that this country, this society, stays on course as it changes? The men and women needed are those who know how to think critically, who have courage, and are able to think, read, write and speak critically. Contemporary thinkers are addressing the issue of democracy. John Rawls writes: Now the serious problem is this: A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines. No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by nearly all, citizens. Fenstermacher supports Rawls’ view. He explains that Rawls founds his problem on the acknowledgment of difference, on the growing legitimacy of pluralism, on the burgeoning of special interests, and on the impact of postmodern thought on our views of knowledge, morality, and politics. Fenstermacher’s concern is a “serious skepticism about e pluribus unum – and calls for us to figure out whether it is still possible to have unum in a world that is so importantly and purposefully pluribus. If this problem is to be confronted and resolved in a manner consistent with the tenets of a liberal democracy, we must prepare tomorrow’s citizens to understand it and come to grips with it. To do this successfully, we cannot merely select some of our citizens to do this work, say the well-off and politically savvy, for this problem is about the rights, privileges, and identities of everyone. If not everyone is involved in its resolution, it is unlikely that it will be resolved at all.” Rawls has defined a situation wherein the members of each and every comprehensive doctrine must seek and find a common basis for preserving union. Fenstermacher sees only one way to make such a situation possible: prepare all the people to undertake this search and resolution. “Education is the only way I know to do that.” Henry Giroux says it so well . . .”We want to argue that part of the growing crisis in public education centers around the declining competence of students and others to effectively interrogate and communicate ideational content. In other words, in jeopardy is not merely the ability of students to be creative, but the very capacity for conceptual thought itself. Moreover, since democratic social, cultural, and political forms depend on a self-motivated and autonomous public, the precondition for which is critical thinking, the crisis at hand may be the very survival of democracy itself.” Dewey had the same concerns in 1958 when he wrote “Only as the coming generation learns in the schools to understand the social forces that are at work, the directions and the cross-directions in which they are moving, the consequences that they are reproducing, the consequences that they might produce if they were understood and managed with intelligence – only as the schools provide this understanding, have we any assurance that they are meeting the challenge which is put to them by democracy.” We live in a society which is continually evolving and yet, somehow, it has become generally accepted that schooling should not change. Many still hold expectations that what “used to work” remains appropriate. But we are not the same, we are different. The world is different. Does one refuse to wear a pair of new shoes when one pair is worn out or outgrown? It doesn’t mean the old shoes are bad, they just don’t serve their purpose any longer. Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy are based on the premise of continual change. Perhaps Critical Pedagogy will help us to prepare the citizens of tomorrow for the inevitable changes they must meet.

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