A (Hopeful) Pre-Professor’s Ponderings on the Potential of Critical Pedagogy

When people ask me what I want to be when I “grow up,” I have become comfortable with telling them I want to be a professor. After all, I see a career in higher education as one in which I can engage in what is professionally most meaningful to me: transformative research, critical pedagogy and collaborative community engagement. When I imagine myself as a scholar, I envision striving to engage students in critical thinking, assumption-questioning and engaging in difficult, but meaningful conversations, concerning important issues of difference, oppression, privilege and social justice. Thus, I have become an aspiring critical pedagogue. However, current events in my personal life, our country and around the world, have prompted me to reflect afresh on the potential of critical pedagogy.

I recently revisited the central tenets comprising my teaching philosophy and some of the authors who have informed those, including bell hooks and Henry Giroux. Reviewing hooks again has reignited my desire to engage students of all social strata in education for liberation by creating a “space for constructive confrontation and critical interrogation” for each of them (hooks, 1994, p. 36-37). Rereading Giroux has renewed in me an appreciation and respect for critical pedagogy as “a moral and political practice” that can contribute to a much-needed “discourse of educated hope” (2011, p.6). At the same time, and in line with critical pedagogy’s spirit of generative critique, Giroux’s text has also stirred in me a revitalized awareness of the potential of the “cultural apparatus” that is pedagogy to be “largely hijacked by the forces of neoliberalism” (2011, p. 7). Similarly, Giroux’s discussion of Gramsci’s concept of “the organic intellectual” has renewed my hope that multiple forms of knowledge can receive broad social recognition, particularly with understanding that is created and experienced outside of academic institutions.  Still, I am wary of the possibility that this intrinsic or experiential way of knowing can be coopted and used to patronize and subliminally degrade “other” knowledges.

Thus, I felt hopeful as I recently revisited the liberatory possibilities inherent in education that reading Giroux, Freire (2000) and hooks have inspired me to ponder since my undergraduate years. Yet, I remain unable to ignore the despair I feel as I am reminded daily how recurrent and seemingly embedded are the perspectives and assumptions that maintain oppressive forms of “education”—or more precisely, ensure cultural reproduction of dominance. This said, reading Giroux once more reminded me that, “critical pedagogy has always been responsive to the deepest problems and conflicts of our time” (2011, p. 8). As a result, I have lately found myself wondering whether critical pedagogy has the power to do more than critique. Criticism, however powerful and apt, may not be enough to overcome the longstanding oppression now assaulting public and higher “education,” whose “teachers and faculty [have been] increasingly removed from exercising any vestige of real power in shaping the conditions” in which they work (2011, p. 7).

I do sometimes wonder whether critical pedagogy will ever stimulate educators to challenge the status quo and establish, as Giroux has framed the issue, a

politics of educated hope, responsive to the need to think beyond established narratives of power, prevailing ‘commonsense’ approaches to educational policy and practice, a widening culture of punishment, and the banal script of using mathematical performance measures as benchmarks for academic success (Giroux 2011, p. 9).

I am deeply saddened by how frequently I witness in practice Gramsci’s view that today’s schooling too often “surrenders pedagogy to dull routine” (Giroux 2011, p. 56). Giroux has similarly suggested that today’s education institutions at all levels work to acculturate learners to become “cheerful robots” (Giroux 2011, p. 2). I am also keenly aware that this educational model allows those now in power to maintain oppressive control of the public (particularly marginalized “disposable populations”), on the basis of a claim that doing so represents a “commonsense” approach to maintaining law and order.

Reflecting on the potential of critical pedagogy has reaffirmed for me that education can constitute a “site of struggle” and hope, but it may also serve as a seemingly immutable mechanism for reproducing dominance and oppression. I am thankful that learning can and does occur outside of schooling, in social justice movements, the arts and community-based projects as, even when formal education fails to liberate, these contexts harbor potential to engage the public in knowledge-creation, celebration, healing and cooperation. Nevertheless, I dream of one day undertaking transformative and liberating work on the “inside” of the formal higher education system.

Though my hope is enduring, it is not naïve. I wonder what the role of critical pedagogy is for our particular era, which has been crippled by inequality, hate and institutional racism. I wonder how that approach can work to support all students in their development and questioning of ideas, while recognizing that,

all voices within the classroom are not and cannot carry equal legitimacy, safety, and  power  in  dialogue  at  this  historical  moment, [and that] there are  times  when  the  inequalities  must  be  named  and  addressed by  constructing alternative ground rules  for communication (Ellsworth 1989, p. 317).

I grapple continuously with issues related to “voice” and “safe space” as a part of my pedagogical stance and will continue to strive to continue to develop and interrogate my understanding and realization of these aims.

As I reflected recently on critical pedagogy and my own teaching philosophy, I was reminded that hooks (1994) has argued that to engage in liberatory pedagogy, educators must work to understand their students as well as themselves. hooks has suggested that many professors are “not the slightest bit interested in enlightenment,” but are rather “enthralled by the exercise of power and authority within their mini-kingdom, the classroom” (1994, p. 17). She has contended that educators concerned with teaching to liberate must be prepared to move away from notions of neutral “safe” spaces and work instead to create caring spaces. In hooks’ view, professors must also abandon a “condescending devaluation of experience” (1994, p. 88), as well as their “collective academic denial and acknowledge that the education that most … received and were giving was not and is never politically neutral” (1994, p. 30). hooks has challenged academics to go beyond the ways they were taught and to recognize that they must work instead to “build community in order to create a climate of openness and intellectual rigor” (1994, p. 40). It is only when the professoriate confronts its “complicity in accepting and perpetuating” disempowerment in the classroom, a microcosm of society, that its members can teach to liberate—in their classrooms and beyond (hooks, 1994, p. 44).


Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-325. doi:10.17763/haer.59.3.058342114k266250

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000, 30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Giroux, H.A. (2011). On critical pedagogy. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.

Natalie E. Cook, from Brooklyn, NY., is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech.  She is interested in the intersections between program evaluation, cultural relevance and social justice. Natalie earned her MS in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech in 2015. She received her BS in Human Development from Cornell University in 2012, where she studied youth development, cultural identity and intervention. As an undergraduate, Natalie served as a research assistant in the Cornell University Office for Research on Evaluation. Her experience in that role inspired her to share her evaluation knowledge with the broader Ithaca community by creating an evaluation capacity building program for aspiring leaders. Natalie is currently developing her dissertation proposal, which will involve social justice-centered evaluation capacity building with family service workers. Natalie aspires to become a professor who engages in transformative research, critical pedagogy and collaborative community engagement.

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