Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

North American Critical Pedagogy

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_232



Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of North American scholars (including Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Bell Hooks, Ira Shor, and Donaldo Macedo) began, in Paulo Freire’s words, “to reinvent my writings and research on literacy and pedagogy so that they may be applied to North American struggles for liberation in schools, the workplace, the home, and universities and colleges” (Freire 1993, p. ix). In a sense, then, Joe Kincheloe is right to demand that Freire “and his South/Latin American colleagues and progeny” be recognized as the originators of critical pedagogy (Kincheloe 2007, p. 11). In another sense, however, it is this “translation and reinvention” of Freire’s work into a North American context itself that has come to form the core of critical pedagogy – indeed, the very term “critical pedagogy” does not appear in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but was coined by Henry Giroux in 1983 (in an article appearing in Harvard Educational Review that August, which also formed the bulk of chapter 3 of a book, Theory and Resistance in Education, appearing a month later). Regardless of whether one considers North American critical pedagogy to be the “core” of the discipline or merely an offshoot of Freire’s work, it is clear that Freire’s work could not simply be imported wholesale into the North American context; as Freire himself has said, “It is impossible to export pedagogical practices without reinventing them” (Macedo 2007, p. 394). This work of adaptation, translation, and reinvention thus marks out a North American “Freirean tradition” of critical pedagogy that is distinct from both its inspirations and its international cousins. This entry will identify the key themes and concepts of North American critical pedagogy and place them within the specific context of the political, institutional, and theoretical conjuncture of North America in the 1980s and 1990s, the key decades for critical pedagogy’s development.

The Theoretical Context

Seehwa Cho (2013, p. 20) suggests that North American critical pedagogy is best understood as a critical offshoot of earlier, mostly neo-Marxist, theories of education. Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education was presented nominally as a contribution to a preexisting field known as “radical pedagogy,” rather than as the inauguration of a new field. Giroux seems to have coined the term “critical pedagogy” for three major reasons. First, Giroux’s book is devoted to criticizing predominant trends within radical pedagogy, and his chief suggestion is that these theories need to be more self-critical; hence, a “critical pedagogy” would be a radical pedagogy that is more critical.

Second, Giroux’s main major source of inspiration – the theorists he turns to for resources to rebuild radical pedagogy – is the Frankfurt School; the term “critical pedagogy” seems to have been coined above all to draw the connection with critical theory and above all the work of two theorists, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas, whose work Giroux cites most extensively. Like Freire before him, Giroux looks back to Marcuse for the latter’s blending of psychology and Marxism. In Habermas’s work, it is above all the analysis of the public sphere that interests Giroux, and Theory and Resistance in Education ends with a suggestion that schools ought to function as a form of public sphere (allowing for open and critical discussion) as a way to revitalize democracy.

Finally, Giroux seems to have coined the term “critical pedagogy” because the major new task he outlines for radical pedagogy in his 1983 work is the incorporation of ideology critique into pedagogy. And so “critical pedagogy” is radical pedagogy that is not only self-critical and inspired by critical theory, but is also a pedagogy of critique. Following Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the “culture industry,” critical pedagogy develops an ideology critique through critical engagement with popular culture. By helping students to think critically about their own culture, critical pedagogy aims to develop critical consciousness, or “conscientization” – this is North American critical pedagogy’s translation or reinvention of Freire’s conscientização (itself a translation of Fanon’s concept of conscienciser).

In this early work, Giroux is also already drawing upon the other two major theoretical sources of North American critical pedagogy: British Cultural Studies and French Theory. While Giroux’s 1983 text engages mostly with Althusser and Bourdieu, the full range of French Theorists have been regular reference points for critical pedagogy over the last 30 years; Giroux’s introduction for the 2001 reprint of Theory and Resistance in Education begins with a quote from Bourdieu and ends with a quote from Derrida (Giroux 2001, pp. xix, xxxi). Of particular importance for critical pedagogy have been two major theoretical “imports” from the French: the notions of power and reproduction. Drawing mostly upon Foucault’s work, critical pedagogy has made use of a notion of power that is both restrictive and productive – not as two opposing possibilities of power, but as two sides of the same coin. Power in this sense is what subjects students to the status quo, but also makes them subjects empowered to meet, challenge, and even overthrow it. This dialectic is important for critical pedagogy’s engagement with the theory of reproduction – borrowed from both Foucault and Bourdieu. Schools have been presented by most radical theories of education as institutions engaged primarily in reproducing the status quo and relations of domination. Critical pedagogy is animated by the attempt to find resources within the school and schooling for resisting, interrupting, and even undoing this process of reproduction. Theory and Resistance in Education devotes significant space to developing a theory of resistance – and this in turn has been followed up by the work of Giroux (e.g., 1997a), McLaren (e.g., 1997), Hooks (e.g., 1994), and others to develop a pedagogy of “hope,” “dissent,” and “transgression.”

The engagement with British Cultural Studies grew directly out of both the attempt to find resources for resistance within the theory of reproduction and the engagement with popular culture as a privileged site of ideology critique. The most significant influence of British Cultural Studies upon North American critical pedagogy has been the turn to Gramsci. Antonio Gramsci of course had some things to say directly about education, but it is the neo-Gramscian theory of hegemony, read through the lens of Cultural Studies, that has been most significant for critical pedagogy, as a way of analyzing the intertwined forces of culture, ideology, domination, and consent.

To flesh out Cho’s picture, then, we could say that North American critical pedagogy has emerged out of neo-Marxist education theory by way of these four major theoretical “supplements”: Freire’s Brazilian school (including Augusto Boal); first- and second-generation Frankfurt School critical theory; British (Birmingham-school) Cultural Studies; and French Theory. But theoretical development does not happen in a vacuum; it is driven by material conditions, and the specific ways in which these sources have been drawn upon and brought into dialogue cannot be fully understood without examining the political and institutional context of North American critical pedagogy’s development.

The Political Context

Freire’s inspirational works were written in the context of the radical uprisings of the late 1960s, and the Frankfurt School works that have proven most influential on critical pedagogy – Marcuse’s late work and Habermas’s early work – both arose in dialogue with and even response to the student movement. By contrast, critical pedagogy emerged in North America during the ascendancy of the “Conservative Restoration” (Shor 1992). By the 1980s in North America, there was neither a revolutionary organization nor a radical counterculture left to carry the hope of a genuinely oppositional politics. The development of critical pedagogy – and especially of the “language of hope” – must be understood within this context. Critical pedagogy was from the beginning framed as a critical response to the “pessimism” of reproduction theories in sociology of education; the complaint was that such theories provided no resources for individual human agency – especially the agency of teachers – for radical social change. Critical pedagogy’s search for a “language of hope” is an attempt to find a theory that will empower teachers and students to overturn the status quo, an attempt to revitalize resistance and agency in the face of the retrenchment of radical politics during the 1970s. But the North American political context has not only shaped critical pedagogy’s demands for optimism, it has also had a substantial effect on the content of critical pedagogy.

A century and a half of red scares, violent repression, and covert manipulation has all but eradicated any organized tradition of communism, socialism, or anarchism in North America (and especially the USA); but – despite institutional resistance and even violent, organized suppression – the twentieth century saw the increasing strength and diversity of non-class-based oppositional politics in the USA, including political movements organized around feminism, racial equality, and LGBT issues. Within this context, it is perhaps natural that the theoretical-political basis for critical pedagogy has shifted from Marxism toward “post-Marxist” critical theory. But these movements are also testament to the realization that the struggle against economic exploitation is by no means incompatible with other forms of exploitation and discrimination – and, more generally, that struggling against one form of domination is no safeguard against the reproduction of other forms. For critical pedagogy, this political context has been reflected in theoretical debates; starting in the 1980s, critical pedagogy has been criticized by feminists (e.g., Luke and Gore 1992), postcolonial and critical race theorists (e.g., Ladson-Billings 1997), and so on. While some of these criticisms have been presented as attacks on the tradition of critical pedagogy from the outside, most have situated themselves firmly within the tradition. The work of Bell Hooks (1994, 2003) is exemplary in this regard: unflinching in her criticisms of critical pedagogy with respect to both race and gender, Hooks nonetheless makes it clear that she sees her own work as falling within the Freirean tradition. In turn, other “canonical” figures within North American critical pedagogy – like Henry Giroux (1997b) and Peter McLaren (1997) – have taken the challenges of feminism, critical race theory, and other “marginalities” very seriously. This has meant above all reinventing Freire’s pedagogy, which (especially in his earliest work) framed oppression in the fairly orthodox Marxist terms of class and economic exploitation. The turn to postmodernism within critical pedagogy (including the neo-Gramscian theory of hegemony and the Foucauldian theory of discourses and regimes of truth) can be seen as a response to the need for post-Marxist critical tools.

The North American political context has also meant that critical pedagogy tends to frame its positive vision in terms of democracy rather than socialism or revolution. This democratic frame has in turn allowed critical pedagogy to reach back beyond Freire and the Frankfurt School to embrace the work of early American progressive education theorists like John Dewey. Dewey’s vision of education as the preparation for free, democratic life has become a founding tenet of critical pedagogy, and his conception of inquiry as communal problem-solving has been productively blended with Freire’s problem-posing method (if not without a certain creative violence to both theories). The embrace of Dewey’s democratic vision alongside the postmodern, diversified conception of domination has come to form the ethical “core” of critical pedagogy: its positive politics are best and most cohesively framed in terms of the aims of flourishing democracy and universal freedom.

At its best, critical pedagogy thus reframes the notion of revolution in terms of democracy and equality and links the fomentation of student critical consciousness with the radical democratic reform of society. At its worst, however, critical pedagogy becomes a rehashing of identity politics, a reaffirmation of liberal-American individualism, and even a student-centered teaching method stripped of all political content. And so dissatisfaction with post-Marxist, postmodern politics has arisen among certain critical pedagogy theorists. Gregory Martin (2007, p. 339) charges that “critical pedagogy in its current manifestation has been scrubbed clean of its social consciousness and is no longer a material force for social change.” And no less central a figure in North American critical pedagogy than Peter McLaren (1998, p. 448) now claims that critical pedagogy is no longer a viable platform for social change. This group, following language proposed by Patricia Allman (2001), has started referring to itself as “revolutionary critical pedagogy” – or, more simply, “revolutionary pedagogy.” Will revolutionary pedagogy split off from critical pedagogy as a new discipline, the way critical pedagogy split away from radical pedagogy? Or will this be another internal(ized) critique, similar to the debates about feminism, race, and culture in the 1980s and 1990s? It may yet be too early to tell; but McLaren seems to suggest in his recent writings that he already considers revolutionary pedagogy to be a new discipline, distinct from critical pedagogy: “There is, for lack of better terms, left-liberal critical pedagogy, liberal critical pedagogy, conservative critical pedagogy, and variants of each of these. In opposition to these there is revolutionary critical pedagogy, which myself and others have been trying to develop” (McLaren 2010, p. 6).

The Institutional Context

While the political and theoretical context sets critical pedagogy radically apart from its inspirations, it is the difference of institutional context that has had the biggest influence on how Freire’s work has been “reinvented” or “translated” within the North American context and explains much of the way the theoretical context has unfolded: While Freire and his colleagues went out to rural areas to work with adult, illiterate farmers, North American critical pedagogy has been predominantly taken up within secondary and postsecondary schools.

The most immediate consequence of this institutional setting is that critical pedagogy was immediately pulled into debates about curriculum and school reform. The Culture Wars that raged in academia in the 1980s coincided with the first growth and development of North American critical pedagogy within education and humanities departments in colleges; critical pedagogy was thus informed by, and in turn contributed to, debates over “the canon.” Michael W. Apple’s notion of a “hidden curriculum” (Apple 2004; Apple draws the term from Philip W. Jackson) has become critical pedagogy’s most significant novel contribution to this debate. The “hidden curriculum” refers not only to the values that are implicitly imparted through curriculum choices, but also to the lessons imparted by environment, forms of discipline, classroom structure, etc. Of course, Apple (2004, p. 46) is quick to add that “historically, the hidden curriculum was not hidden at all, but was instead the overt function of schools during much of their careers as institutions.” By expanding focus beyond the content of the explicit curriculum, critical pedagogy’s concept of “hidden curriculum” is a way of setting the Canon Wars into a larger context.

Finally, critical pedagogy’s development within the institutions of secondary and postsecondary education in North America means that it has had to grapple with issues of compulsory education in a way that Freire’s work never did. Children in the USA are required by law to attend school until the age of 16, and whereas Freire and his team taught farmers to read as a way of enfranchising them, North American critical pedagogy has been predominantly focused on educating students who are already nominally enfranchised and who have some baseline literacy. Thus, critical pedagogy’s focus has shifted toward questions of critical cultural literacy, the “hidden curriculum,” and the role of educational institutions in the reproduction of social relations. But this context has also had the important yet ambiguous effect of pulling critical pedagogy into debates about school reform. The push in education over the last few decades toward standardized, high-stakes testing, the assault on teachers’ unions, and the deprofessionalization of teaching are all obviously antithetical to everything critical pedagogy stands for. But in this context, it has been easy to champion Paulo Freire’s work as a set of teaching methods and as an opposing proposal for school reforms. It remains highly questionable whether critical pedagogy could inform a national project of school reform without becoming domesticated as a set of student-centered teaching methods and dropping most of its political content. But nor does it seem that critical pedagogy can simply watch from the sidelines as neoliberals dismantle public education in the USA. And so Henry Giroux, among others, has attempted to lay out critical pedagogy’s position within the contemporary educational context. His introduction to the 2007 collection, Critical Pedagogy: Where Are We Now? cites the danger of what Giroux calls the conservative “attack on higher education” and exhorts his peers to “mobilize to protect the institutionalized relationships between democracy and pedagogy” (Giroux 2007, p. 4) – a relationship which Giroux has of course been championing since his earliest work on universities as a form of the public sphere. While the terms of the debate remain problematic for critical pedagogy as a practice, Giroux’s work has been uncompromising in the demand that critical pedagogues act as public intellectuals, and not merely as teachers within their respective (institutionally recognized) classrooms.


Critical pedagogy today is an international and diverse movement. Though undeniably a part of this international movement, and in constant dialogue with its international peers, North American critical pedagogy can be seen to form a relatively coherent subset, staked out through its application of the general principles of critical pedagogy to the specific political and institutional conjuncture of the USA and Canada. For the reader who is entirely unfamiliar with critical pedagogy, the goal of this entry has been to lay out the key concepts in a way that briefly indicates how they have been put to work. For the casual reader of critical pedagogy, the major goal has been to clear up the hasty assumption that authors like Giroux, McLaren, Hooks, Shor, etc. are simply “importing” and directly applying the work of Paulo Freire; rather, the Freirean tradition of North American critical pedagogy must be seen as an attempt to reinvent Freire’s work within the North American context. This context was dominated during the first two decades of North American critical pedagogy’s development by the Culture Wars and the Conservative Restoration. Today, in addition, the neoliberal war on education (including the school reform movement at the primary and secondary levels, and the corporate takeover of the university at the postsecondary level) has come to dominate the landscape. In response, critical pedagogy has followed the general trajectory of critical theory: from Western Marxism into post-Marxist multiculturalism, and now into schisms between left-liberal, radical, and even conservative factions. While the temptation is to follow one of these streams as the “genuine” expression of critical pedagogy, the split itself must be seen as expressing the truth of the movement; as an ongoing conversation between public intellectuals and committed educators, and as a movement devoted to overthrowing hierarchies (of oppressors and oppressed, but also of leaders and the led, teachers and students), the fragmentation of critical-pedagogical “schools” is a reflection of the various and conflicting demands of the social and political situation upon education and democracy today.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New School for Social ResearchNew YorkUSA