Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey and Critical Pedagogy

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_230



This entry explores the relationship between key points in John Dewey’s philosophy of education and that of Critical Pedagogy. Throughout the entry, pertinent similarities and differences are highlighted. More specifically, a foundational theme within this exploration is underscoring education as a social function and process through which it becomes a political enterprise and cultural project. Education is contextualized within the latter frameworks as a cultural project without end. However, as Dewey and critical pedagogues, alike, point out, this project is fraught with complexity, struggle, resistance, rigid parameters, and injustice. The rich prospect of such a successful cultural project also ignites a deep sense of hope, meaning, change, and promise for future generations. Through this analysis, both philosophies will be seen as complimentary and connected sets of ideas that strengthen one’s understanding of education as a agent of social transformation.


The struggle between the traditional and progressive thoughts on education is always present and continues to this day. It is important to contextualize this struggle in relation to many of the educational themes in this article and the challenges that face education today. The crux of the struggle revolves around a challenging issue for most, change – specifically social change by way of education. These two extreme opposites (traditionalists and progressives) espouse different educational methods for pedagogy and learning. Dewey, of course, faced these struggles and was criticized for being progressive. Dewey found, as modern educationists and critical pedagogues have, that traditional teaching and learning styles are less successful given contemporary diverse learning styles. The various ways in which people learn have changed, and because of that the pedagogy must also adapt and improve to meet those new challenges. The notions that the teacher is the authoritative figure in the classroom and that all students learn by rote memorization have gone out the window. Those traditional notions have been replaced by experiential learning, the teacher being seen also as a student, teaching not just subjects but people and Critical Pedagogy. The very idea of the “classroom” or learning environment has been extended to the schoolyard, the family, the street, the workplace, and within everyday social interactions. Individuals in the society are all teachers and students. Education is a crucial part of experience, and experience is a crucial part of education.

The word “progress” in progressive education is important here. Progress implies change or development, or movement. Tradition implies something that is set, static, accepted custom or habit or something that is not changed or something that is clung to. In modern society, people are becoming more critical of knowledge, ideas, policies, identity, and authority. They are very interested in “progress” and knowing what things are made of. The cultural context of education in everyday life shapes and informs individual’s notions of social change, freedom, power, and knowledge. Briefly examining Critical Pedagogy’s relationship to Dewey presents an opportunity to continue redefining and critiquing the social role of education and the social institutions that threaten progress toward a critical cultural pedagogy and social transformation.

Critical Pedagogy

The development of Critical Pedagogy as a movement, field of scholarship, and practice is informed by a long history of progressive thought on education. Although it is somewhat disputed, Henry Giroux is credited with being the first scholar to recognize and use the terminology, Critical Pedagogy, in his book Theory and Resistance in Education (Giroux, 1993). Critical Pedagogy means various things to various people. There is widespread agreement that it is an ongoing, evolutionary movement that is concerned with schooling’s (education’s) relationship to social structure, power, knowledge, authority, political interest, social control, and oppression. There is no single, fixed, authoritative definition of Critical Pedagogy for it would undermine its open and flexible nature. Specifically, Critical Pedagogy is concerned with how, why, and what kind of knowledge should be taught and learned and who has the power and control to make those decisions. For critical pedagogues, critically examining knowledge’s social utility is paramount. critical pedagogues concern themselves with questions like “Who controls the means of control for the production of knowledge?” “How is knowledge made and by whom?” “Why do students learn what they do in school?” “Who creates the curriculum?” “Does schooling serve to liberate, or oppress students, and teachers?” and “What is the purpose of school?”

At root, Critical Pedagogy is the study of oppression in education. The leading figure and founding father for Critical Pedagogy was Paulo Freire. In some way, it is the study of how gender, race, class, colonialism, power, and sexuality mold the nature of education, its purpose, and its transmission. Also central to its mission, Critical Pedagogy promotes both teacher and student scrutinizing and questioning why certain knowledge is being learned or taught. With this, the accent on liberation and freedom of inquiry is extremely important. Critical Pedagogy strongly resists assumptions that education is objective and value free.

Through the Critical Pedagogy lense, education is seen as factory through which people become enslaved because of what they have or have not learned through being manufactured on the educational assembly line. Within Critical Pedagogy, both teacher and student are key agents in social change. It requires that people realize that learning is fundamental to the notion of agency and agency is essential to the notion of politics.

Critical Pedagogy’s philosophical lineage is rich and interdisciplinary. While it could be argued that the idea that learning is tied to agency dates black to Plato’s cave, Critical Pedagogy has developed most directly from critical social theory of the twentieth century. Of course, key to the development of Critical Theory was the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School theorists were concerned with the critique of social structure and institutions. Largely, these theorists built upon the work of Karl Marx dealing with sub- and superstructures of society. Key figures in the early years of Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and more recently, Jürgen Habermas.

Critical Theory has a keystone concern for social change through democratic means and social inquiry. However, the qualitative outcome depends upon the knowledge and education of a given people. This is where Critical Pedagogy is very important to Critical Theory’s goals for social transformation. Freire outlined how cultural domination drives education and serves to oppress and alienate. Other very important figures in Critical Pedagogy such as Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks have taken Freire’s work even further.

Critical Pedagogy’s major values are liberation, social justice, consciousness, discourse, praxis, critique, reflection, Democracy, and social change. In order to do Critical Pedagogy, one must accept a couple of notions. The first is that oppression does exist. The other is that the transformation of the oppressed is possible, i.e., those oppressed are able to free themselves from their oppression. Critical Pedagogy points to how the standard way in which people learn is undemocratic. They learn undemocratically because the means through which they have been taught are undemocratic. It is unengaging, and students do not have a voice. Freire refers to this as the banking concept of education whereby a teacher is at the front of room, keeper of all the knowledge, and the students have no say or voice in raising questions. Social change must occur through what critical pedagogues call “praxis.” Praxis is a cyclical, pedagogical marriage of critical reflection and action. Through praxis, then, agents can transform reality and liberate themselves from oppression. This dialectical process is without end and paramounts to Critical Pedagogy’s success and ongoing development.

John Dewey

John Dewey was a prolific writer and thinker. He is widely known among many other things as the father of progressive education. His philosophical investigations ranged from art and aesthetics to science and logic to social and political critiques to education and learning how we learn. He has been called the father of progressive education. Dewey, however, was also extremely interested in the social life of the human. Social philosophers consider him to be a key figure as well. Dewey was excellent at connecting concepts in order to understand them more fully, i.e., seeing how one idea spawned from another. He was as much a naturalist as he was a pragmatist. Academic disciplines did not concern Dewey. He was writing in a time when there were no such disciplines as Sociology, Psychology, etc. Everything was fair game.

On the whole, Dewey is applauded for his efforts and thoughts on education, yet his philosophy of education needed a social philosophy. What he had to do was to tie education to far-reaching social and political concerns of the day. Some have said that the only comparable philosophy of education to Dewey’s is located with Plato. Plato, like Dewey, tied education to political leadership and social process. Plato, unlike Dewey, was not a fan of Democracy, and neither was Aristotle. The main reason for this is because both Plato and Aristotle felt that in a Democracy freedom is given to a people who do not have the education or understanding of how to use their freedom wisely. The result of the uneducated masses will be abuse of their freedom and shall be followed by tyranny. Dewey, in a way, was responding to the ancient’s concern for Democracy. He believed that Democracy was the most promising of all forms of government because of the freedom it afforded the masses. However, he understood that the ideal form of education needed Democracy and Democracy needed education. One cannot exist without the other. He fully understood that education was linked, by its very nature, to the political and social life of any community.

One of Dewey’s most revered works is Democracy and Education (Hickman, 1996). Dewey once alluded to the fact that no other single work of his captured the entirety of his position quite like Democracy and Education (Hickman, 1996). In that work, Dewey makes a very important statement that is radical. He states that “with each generation Democracy must be born anew, and education is its midwife” (Hickman, 1996). Taking this notion further, then, Democracy is characterized by constant change with each new generation. However, this presupposes the fact that the old generations have imparted or transmitted the appropriate set of intellectual habits to the new generations so that not only Democracy can be born anew, but also, preceding that, education has been born anew. The reconstruction of education must take place prior to the Democracy’s new birth.

Dewey applied pragmatism in a special way by using a scientific approach to solve problems in education. Education is an instrument for Dewey, and an important feature of this instrument must be the use of intelligence. The main tool used for the clarification of new ideas, for problem solving, is human intelligence. One of the central goals of education, for Dewey, is the development and maturation of human intelligence, creative Democracy, and living “Democracy as a way of life” (Hickman, 1996). Intelligence, then, calls for special ways in which one organizes responses to certain impulses; at the elemental level, intelligence is discernment in recognition. Thus, intelligence must be critical. Intelligence arises when one is in the face of conflict. It is the mediating faculty because there is no mediating faculty in the push of an impulse. Reaching a resolution through intelligence is not enough; one needs to proceed to act upon the resolution. So, for Dewey, intelligence, by its nature, must be critical. An important point to understand here is that intelligence for Dewey was not individual. It was social. So, any form of intelligence is social in nature for Dewey. The nature of knowledge for Dewey, as it is with Critical Pedagogy, is social.

Intersections and Conclusions

As can be seen, there are many points of agreement and overlap between Dewey’s thoughts on the social function of education and Critical Pedagogy’s. The shared values between these two schools of thought include but certainly are not limited to: Democracy, freedom, schooling, experience, communication, community, construction, deconstruction, reconstruction of knowledge, ideology, hegemony (Dewey might say “social control” instead), critique of social institutions, critique of social custom and habits of thinking, and change. Both perspectives understand that society is a function of education and education is a function of a society. Furthermore, it is understood in each case that pedagogy is central to politics.

Both viewpoints work from the position that education and teaching is always political and teachers and students are political operatives. Thus, freedom and liberation are extremely central to both agendas. It understood in both philosophical contexts that freedom is something that must always be sought, cultivated, but also something that does not come without ongoing struggle and resistance.

While Dewey is often regarded as instrumentalist, he knew that knowledge was more than just an instrument. One cannot arrive at any knowledge (whatever that is or means) without understanding. Understanding is a prerequisite of knowledge for Dewey, as well as Critical Pedagogy. The schools are responsible for guiding the understanding of cultural forces at work and the commensurate direction these forces are aimed at. But sometimes schools translate what knowledge is into merely information. Understanding, especially in this case, is not the same thing as knowledge. Understanding, in this context, should be taken to be a continual development, whereas knowledge could be taken to mean “information.” Guiding that understanding is crucial to both perspectives. The method for guiding understanding in both cases should be critical of the source of where the “information/knowledge” is coming from, why it is important, and if it is accurate based on realities of social life. Information is one thing; doing something with the information is another. This critically intelligent conduct or action is at the heart of both perspectives. Specifically, the connection between Dewey’s Pragmatism and Freire’s “praxis” is evident here.

In the vein of understanding, the concern in both cases goes beyond mere critical thinking and goes to what critical pedagogues call “critical consciousness” (Freire, 1998). Dewey won’t use that language but does use terms like consciousness, awareness, and attentiveness. Through this notion of critical consciousness, which Dewey promotes but uses different terms, is a way to get individuals to learn about themselves, their world, their relationship to others, and how to change the world through changing themselves. This goes to the point that both camps understand that knowledge is socially constructed and transmitted. In that way, then, knowledge should be deconstructed and reconstructed and by so doing creates the opportunity for social reconstruction, i.e., new ways of understanding what was understood and identifying what has yet to be understood.

Dewey and Critical Pedagogy take that stance that one must be critical of everything, including one’s own ideas, beliefs, and knowledge. More broadly, both perspectives felt an educational system that promoted an ongoing critique of social institutions and self to be necessary. Key to the success of this ongoing critique is the important notion of inquiry. Dewey, like Charles Sanders Peirce, felt that the road to inquiry must never be blocked; it must always be wide open. Critical Pedagogy also supports this. Paramount to promoting, cultivating, and growing this sense of critical, open inquiry is an education and pedagogy that fosters this in students and to-be teachers.

In Dewey’s way of thinking, an ongoing, critical social transformation is needed with each new generation. What Dewey calls for is very radical for his time. He calls for a constant re-evaluation of one’s habits, customs, values, social institutions, and knowledge. critical pedagogues agree with this and recognize that it requires free inquiry, unlearning, a plasticity of habit, and a cultural yearning for transformation and change. Without this, one of Dewey’s greatest fears could be realized, “social arterial sclerosis” (Hickman, 1996). Thus, with the sclerotic condition of social institutions comes the inevitable and ongoing oppression that will only serve to render progress impossible.

Although the similarities between both viewpoints, on the whole, outweigh the differences, there are points of departure and weakness within each. One obvious difference is language and vocabulary. Another difference is scope as well. While Dewey was a true holistic philosopher, he was but one human being whereas Critical Pedagogy is a broad school of thought on a very broad topic – education. Critical Pedagogy also has its critiques ranging from feminist critiques, to poststructuralist concerns, to the problem of language. It should be expected that Critical Pedagogy be critiqued by critical pedagogues, other disciplinary scholars, and society, in general.

Dewey has also been deemed to be not radical enough for some critical pedagogues. He has been criticized for not focusing more on gender, race, class, educational access, oppression, economic status, and power relations in education and social structure. The latter point has especially been acknowledged by pointing to how far Michel Foucault takes the notion of power. Some scholars within Critical Theory feel that Dewey’s position overly paternalistic, which could perpetuate issues of social justice.

While Dewey is in no way bulletproof, he did treat many topics such as prejudice, justice, pluralism, political control, and even poverty in many of his writings. However, he did not treat the topics to the level of refinement that modern critical theorists do. Key to understanding Dewey’s position on creative Democracy and Democracy as a way of life is noting that the both notions are built upon and flourish from unique individual differences within a society. Individuals, for Dewey, are only able to realize their potential through others. Learning comes through difference and is directly linked to social change.

Dewey has much richness still to offer Critical Pedagogy. One, of many examples of this, is Dewey’s understanding philosophy of human nature. The paramount importance of progressive educational ideas focused on social reconstruction, transformation, or change depends upon changing one’s human nature. Among many other benefits, Dewey offers Critical Pedagogy a deeper understanding of human nature, experience, social reconstruction, and the “social continuity of life” (Hickman, 1996). Concurrently, Critical Pedagogy has much to offer Dewey scholars in terms of refining and rethinking education’s relationship to human suffering, power, oppression, privilege, gender, race, and class. Integrating the intellectual fruit of each viewpoint will serve to further expand, liberate, and progress one’s conception of the scope and bottomlessness of education as a cultural project.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Tennessee-KnoxvilleKnoxvilleUSA