Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy

As teachers, we are encouraged to instil in our students a critical attitude towards the text (in the multi-modal sense, including television, film, web pages, music, art and other forms of expression). This attitude is covered by the term Critical Literacy. Such a critical approach is what we expect of all functioning members of a democratic society, which is why we want our young people to imbibe it. By the same token, therefore, we teachers should adopt a critical attitude to our own profession and our working practices. Unsurprisingly, there is already a body of literature devoted to this topic, which is referred to as Critical Pedagogy.

Critical Pedagogy reminds us that all institutions are marked by relations of power: this applies to education as much as to government, industry, the military and the media. Indeed, it could be argued that education plays a special role in the transmission of power relations to future generations, given the immaturity and malleability of the minds in question. The power that teachers exercise over their students is easily recognised, but there are also power relations between junior and senior teachers, between teachers and the principal, between the principal and the school council or board, and between the individual school and the system to which it belongs. This is not to say that power is bad in itself, just that we need to take a critical attitude towards its exercise, whether by ourselves or by others.

I was reminded of this by a recent Classroom 2.0 email about an interview with John Taylor Gatto. Gatto spent thirty years teaching in the New York public schooling system, and was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Gatto is critical of compulsory schooling, defends homeschooling and unschooling, and has published books with titles like Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Underground History of American Education (2001), and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2008). A basic summary of his ideas, in his own words, can be found here.

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto (1935-): American author, former school teacher, and social critic

This in turn brought to mind a book I read when I was studying philosophy in Dublin twenty years ago. Ivan Illich first published Deschooling Society forty years ago this year. The book still sits in my bookcase, but the Wikipedia article reminds me that Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Learning Webs’ and suggests the use of computer technology to support independent learning:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich (1926-2002): Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and social critic

Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it. One blog post opts for a negative verdict, while a 4 May comment on the Facebook page devoted to Illich, suggests a more positive interpretation – Leigh Blackall asks:

Tell me Illicheans.. what would he say about social media and networked learning through such popular internet? On the one hand I see him as dismissing it as false, but on the other, in particular chapter 6 of Deschooling, he would surely embrace it?

And Christian St responds:

This came to my mind instantly when reading Deschooling society. Illich proposes computer-aided peer matching based on the common interest to discuss a certain book, article, film etc… In my opinion, this has Web2.0 written all over it. The next step after peer matching is to arrange a face-to-face educational meeting. I wonder if providing the possibility to “meet” via chat or videoconference is somehow contrary to Illich’s vision. Surely face-to-face communication is ideal, but it severely limits the choice of potential peers.


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9 Responses to “Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy”

  1. stephen Says:

    a very timely post, which i found while googling “weapons of mass instruction” gatto “deschooling” illich.

    interesting comments. thank you.

  2. Aveirl Says:

    Interesting post particularly in the context of the web filtering discussion in class this week…another power war.

  3. Mark Pegrum Says:

    Unequal power relations are a function of all societal institutions, including education, and I fully agree that a critical attitude towards the exercise of power is essential. Of course, educators find themselves in a strange position, given that education walks a fine line between reproducing the status quo, on the one hand, and creating open spaces for challenging it, on the other. That’s why it’s become such a political football – whether you want society to stay the same, or to change, education is your best starting point for long-term results. In some ways, therefore, educators have to act as a buffer between politicians and students, but at the same time it’s unavoidable that teachers’ own values will inform the teaching and learning environments they establish in their classrooms. We certainly need a critical attitude towards the exercise of that kind of power. (Interestingly, this links up with some comments made on Sara’s blog post about critical literacy – check it out if you haven’t already.)

  4. Simon Kidd Says:

    Mark, what you said there reminded me of something written by Matthew Lipman at the start of his Thinking in Education

    There are three key models of private and public institutions in our society. The family represents institutionalized private values. The state represents institutionalized public values. And the school epitomizes the fusion of the two. As an amalgam of private and public interests, the school is no less important than the distinctively private or the distinctively public. In some ways it is the most important of all, because through it past and present generations deliberately and consciously attempt to stamp a design upon the future. Yet in all three institutions – family, government, and school – practice and policy conflicts abound, for each family and each government administration would like to shape succeeding generations in its own image, but the facts of social change – growth, regression, aimless or orderly drift – conspire to defeat such aspirations.

    The school is a battleground because it, more than any other social institution, is the manufacturer of the society of the future, and virtually every social group or faction therefore aspires to control the school for its own ends. Not that this is generally acknowledged. The received opinion has it that the schools reflect the accepted values of their time; they are not to challenge such values or suggest alternatives to them. Many parents shudder at the notion that the schools will take it upon themselves to become initiators of social change, because they fear that this will merely mean that the schools will have been captured by this or that social faction seeking to impress its will upon the world.

    If, then, the school is looked upon as the representative of all social factions rather than of any one in particular, it is able to retain its claim to legitimacy in a democratic society, because it will not have surrendered its claim to impartiality. On the other hand, it will tend to be under these circumstances a very conservative – even traditionalist – institution.

    And this is, in fact, what the school is in our present society. As for the schools of education that prepare future teachers, they probably do not see themselves as suppliers of technical personnel to school districts that constitute the market for such personnel. Yet school districts specify what textbooks they want taught and how they want them taught, and it would be unlikely that they would hire prospective teachers who have been trained to teach very different books in very different ways. So schools of education justify their resistance to change on the ground that it would be a disservice to their students to prepare them any differently, despite the fact that few professors of education have full confidence in the methods of teacher preparation they employ. But schools of education are not alone in this; school districts excuse themselves on the ground that textbook and test publishers provide them with no feasible alternatives, and the publishers in turn point out that they are circumscribed by state departments of education and defended by the research that emerges from the schools of education in these same states. And so each factor sees itself as fixed in its position and helpless to change. For all practical purposes, therefore, critics from the outside are wasting their breath. Considerations like tests and texts and turfs – in short, economic and bureaucratic considerations – have locked the system in place so that, like a boat with a jammed rudder, it is only free to move about in circles.

    Were these the only considerations, the situation would be much more dismal than it actually is. The allegiances that keep the members of the family cemented together are kinship, child-rearing necessities, the economic division of labor, and sexual interdependence. The primary governmental allegiance is to consensus, in the name of which virtually any military or economic policy can be justified. (The courts represent a partial exception to this generalization, since constitutionality and precedent must also be taken into account. But the laws followed by the courts are consensus-generated.) The schools, on the other hand, have a very different criterion to which they can appeal, and that is rationality. (2nd edition, 2003, pp. 9-11)

    For those who want to read on, the remainder of page 11 can be seen on Google Books (linked from the book title above).

    I’ve had a read of Sara’s Critical Literacy post and added my own comment to the thread.

  5. Mark Pegrum Says:

    That’s a really interesting quote, Simon. Thanks for posting it! In terms of the divided purpose of education I mentioned in my earlier comment – preserving the status quo vs opening spaces for challenging it – it’s certainly true that most educational institutions, most of the time, err on the side of conservatism. It is, after all, the path of least resistance. But then again, it’s hard to foster questioning attitudes, creativity and innovation in a top-down way, so to some extent there’s an argument for leaving enough space in the system that dedicated teachers and dedicated students can find their own ways of posing questions about, and to, the status quo.

  6. Mark Pegrum Says:

    Btw, Simon, I’ve also added a response to your comment on Sara’s Critical Literacy post.

  7. Weapons of Mass Instruction « Simon Kidd Says:

    […] Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would […]

  8. Education and the Internet – Part 1 | Simon Kidd Says:

    […] an earlier post, Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy (2010), I observed that social critic Ivan Illich had anticipated at least one aspect of the […]

  9. Www.Ccmcf.Org Says:


    Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy | Simon Kidd

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