Social Justice and Critical Pedagogy

Social Justice, Critical Pedagogy

The social fibers in our society seem to be unraveling and the ruling class is scrambling to keep it together, as they fight over how to handle gaping social conditions. Historically oppressed minorities and immigrant groups are reminded daily how little they are valued by this society. We are in the midst of a system of mass incarceration and a scourge of unaccountable police murder and brutality, viewed online like the public executions of the past; cities across the country are seeing rebellions and riots. Refugees flee their homelands to come to America, the very place responsible for the policies that forced them to leave in the first place are rejected and sent back callously. If not, they are forced to eek out an existence in the shadows of society as family bonds are fractured and relatives are deported. The numbers of homeless are swelling as tent cities of mentally ill, drug addicted and struggling people, dot the urban landscape.  This is the richest, most powerful country in the world with a wealth gap that is beginning to mirror that of the underdeveloped world.

As a society, we have no answers to these problems. As educators, with access to the future of this nation, what has been our response? Since we as, teachers are generally regarded as ideological custodians of the system, largely, it has been as tools in the reproduction of the status quo that got us to this point. In recent decades, we have seen an attempt to separate from that tradition with Social Justice education. Social justice education is a means to encourage students to analyze the world and see their place in it as an agent of change for a more just world. What does a social justice framework mean?

Cal State Channel Islands school of Education website says,“According to Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar in education, a social justice framework is one that “actively address[es] the dynamics of oppression, privilege, and isms, [and recognizes] that society is the product of historically rooted, institutionally sanctioned stratification along socially constructed group lines that include race, class, gender, secual orientation, and ability [among others].  Working for social justice in education means guiding students [and often being guided by students] in critical self-reflection of their socialization into this matrix of unequal relationships and its implications, analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, and the ability to challenge these hierarchies.”

Social justice education in my understanding, borrows primarily from Paolo Freire’s “conscientizacao” or raising of consciousness, central to critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is defined by Wikipedia as, “a teaching approach inspired by Marxist critical theory and other radical philosophies, which attempts to help students question and challenge posited “domination,” and to undermine the beliefs and practices that are alleged to dominate”.

The point is to join students in recognizing and acting to change material social conditions facing the oppressed. The consciousness being promoted by Freire is in part, class consciousness. This is what is missing from most of the social justice inheritors of Freire’s legacy, a thorough analysis of capitalism and its role in promoting the inequality that we encourage students to challenge.

Social justice education should not simply be bourgeois, liberal identity politics. As a social studies teacher, it is important to view history and society from the vantage points of historically disadvantaged groups like women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people etc. This is why the movement for ethnic studies is positive. However, in all the talk about safe spaces and micro-agressions that seem to be popular today, we may be missing the macro-agression of class oppression. We forget that the gripes associates with all these oppressed groups stems from a capitalist superstructure.

The Need for Class Consciousness

With all of our great intentions we run the risk of giving our youth a fractured view of the world and the workings of class oppression. Aside from teaching the youth to view the world from their own social station as minorities, women or LGBTQ, etc. we should also draw lessons from what these groups have in common as “oppressed people” and about class struggle.

I work in the most depressed neighborhood of our local community and all my students think they are middle class. Of course most are not. The more astute of my students recognize that racial and gender discrimination exist. They do not recognize how this is linked to capitalism or their role at the bottom of it. There cannot be a real grassroots movement to empower the poor among the youth if they all think they are middle class. This society teaches them that poverty stems from character flaws instead of the nature of the system. As a result, they do not want to identify with being poor. They do not wish to carry the flag or the social burden of being lower class.

As educators, we should not want our students to analyze the symptoms of the capitalism as separate and unrelated, oppression of blacks over here, women over here, etc. They must be encouraged to question the legitimacy of the entire system, not just the way it affects particular groups. We are afraid to deal with the topic of class struggle unless we’re referring to the a struggle for poor folks to get into the middle class. Never is it analyzed as a social dynamic, complete with power relations and consequences that affect their lives. They have been taught in school that this system works like a referee, fair and consistent, rewarding those who work hard, not as a tool of the ruling class to protect their interests.

What we do not recognize is that inequality is in the fundamental nature of this system. We treat inequality as if it were some type of mistake. The official view of history posits that overall, the system works, but there are some kinks in it. America is trying to live up to their claims of equality in the declaration of independence, but there is just some historical baggage there and the people just need to participate more to help America get over the historical humps of white supremacy, class oppression and sexism. On the contrary, such inequality and oppression comes from conscious policy in the interests of the ruling class, not bad laws or voter apathy.

Ethnic Studies and Identity Politics

We are seeing a push for Ethnic Studies in high school curriculum. This is a positive development, but what must be addressed is the tendency for such courses to fragment history and view it from a single perspective which can encourage isolated identity politics instead of solidarity. Of course there is value in analyzing history from a particular ethnic standpoint, but within an overall critical, historical analysis that transcends any particular historical narrative.

What is important in history, be it ethnic studies or not, is a historic, systemic analysis of governing institutions and class dynamics. This can highlight how the system actually perpetuates inequality and needs it to survive. The system itself is the problem, it needs dismantling, not fixing. It is built on inequality. Critical pedagogy recognizes the dialectical relationship between the subjective and the objective. We need to see how the system operates wholly, along with the perspective of any particular group.

At best identity politics and similar manifestations mitigate the effects of this system on one’s own people. The legitimacy of the system itself must be challenged outright. It is too big and complex to challenge from such a narrow perspective. My position is not that ethnic studies and identity politics are harmful or unnecessary. My point is that we need more. We need these perspectives to supplement a well rounded analysis of the system towards the people in general. Any understanding of the workings of a complex system needs to be understood from the outside in, not the inside out. One cannot understand the body by looking only at the liver and its relationship to the rest of the body; one has to study the workings of the body as a whole and then focus on a particular area.  


If critical pedagogy matters, it should be a radical thrust in education to foster solidarity, not just liberal identity politics, we have plenty of that. Freire’s work was part of a larger social movement to challenge the status quo, not just fit in it, or make it work better for us, or make its effects less severe on a particular group. Though not openly advocated, his philosophy has the potential to sow the seeds of rebellion. This is a line that we cannot be afraid of if we want to raise consciousness, if we want to change the world.

We cannot water it down. In my experience, it seems as though Social Justice education is an attempt to engage in critical pedagogy without the attachment to radical tradition. He writes about the relationship between the people and the operations of the system as being dialectical. We must see our society from the ground level as well as from a bird’s eye view and how the viewpoints are related.

Teaching as a Politcal Act

I do not care for this post-modern, reductionist attack on objectivity that is quite fashionable these days. It is my view that teachers should value objectivity. This is the only way to understand the world as it is. Part of the problem is that objectivity has been mistaken for neutrality, or non-controversy. In the interest of this false concept of objectivity, we often water down our content to avoid controversy or stirring emotions. It’s history, if people aren’t rubbed the wrong way from time to time, ‘you ain’t doing it right’. We should want our students at times to feel confused, emotional, angry, curious, helpless at the state of the world because there are lessons waiting at the other end, when they come to terms with those feelings. Above all, we want to inspire and empower them to change the conditions and challenge the oppressive legacy that history has left them. . If we want to change our current society we must realize the historically oppressive roles played by every American institution (economic, education, health care, social service, housing etc.) and view them today as a culmination of that history, not something separate from the history that produced them. We cannot teach them that our institutions are neutral when they are apart of a legacy of race and class oppression.

Once students gain an objective analysis of history, they can then find their subjective place in challenging it. We must do away with teaching history as some feel good, slow and constant struggle for progress, culminating into this great, equal, pluralistic democracy, one big happy family with all our problems left ‘back in the old days’. We must help them to draw a line between oppressor and oppressed and know where they stand, then and now. It is harmful to teach about the ‘founding fathers’ as collective heroes of the nation, this is a falsification of history and psychologically damaging to youth of African, Indigenous and even European backgrounds.

The struggle between the social forces of oppressor and oppressed is not about stale events in history that happened a long time ago, and must not be taught as such. It has to be framed as an ongoing, protracted, struggle, a struggle that we are all either engaged in on some level, or tacitly supporting the status quo. School culture, with its police, administration, teachers, objectively represent the status quo. As an institution of the ruling class, a central purpose of the educational system is to promote and protect their interests and perspective. The inclusion of oppressed peoples in that institution does not change this central point; it only gives it nuance

Our students are behind enemy lines and so are we if we engage in true education for liberation. The goal of succeeding in those institutions without any critical analysis places one on the side of this historically oppressive establishment. The students themselves and their oppressed communities are a legacy of the historically oppressive nature of American capitalism. The goal of the school system is in part for the children to accept as normal the ideology and program of a system predicated on their marginalization. This is the gap that has to be bridged, so of course students of oppressed nationalities often do not perform well, many recognize a schism between their communities and the school system (and justice system, which are currently merging) but cannot articulate it. We must help them find their voice that this system is constantly trying to bury that finds expression in “misbehavior”.

School and instruction are not neutral. Teaching social studies is a political act. The instructor can perpetuate the status quo, thus supporting the continued oppression of students or actively engage students in challenging what they have been taught by modeling through questioning and dialogue the fundamental paradigms and assumptions undergirding American society, culture, economy. We do not want to promote the swallowing whole of a basically colonial style education.

A History class should encourage students to view their world in a historical context, instead of viewing the present as separate and divorced from the past that produces it. The student of oppressed nationality should be equipped to view their relationship with present day institutions such as the criminal justice system, school system, economic systems, etc. in the context of a history of oppression that has ebbed and flowed over hundreds of years to culminate into the present conditions. After sitting in a history class and being taught the brutal history that produced them, they still often identify with the same oppressive institutions. This is a cruel miracle of the educational system to be able to teach history and still alienate students from their own history and simultaneously bind them to the same historical institutions that have so damaged them.

Black and Brown students often refer to ruling class, White America’s exploits in the past as what “we” did. “Our country expanded westward” or “We conquered Mexico” , “Our Constitution…” etc. represents a psychological disconnect from history and identification with one’s oppressors, a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. History, if taught critically places the oppressed in opposition to the traditions and exploits of the oppressing culture. They should be challenged recognize their place in history and be able to say, “No, the imperialist, white supremacist, America conquered westward. This is not my legacy. My legacy is in opposition to racism and imperialism and this relationship remains so today”. The schools have created and maintained an unhealthy psychological identification, among oppressed students, with their own oppression. There must be a separation from the actions of the dominant culture by the oppressed, the latter, who were actually victimized by these phenomena. The effect of not doing so, teaches the oppressed to view history and themselves through the eyes of their oppressors, which teaches them to view themselves as deficient.

Critical pedagogy should also place White students on a historical trajectory as well. This psychological separation from history allows White students to separate themselves from history and not see themselves and their privileges as part of a historical process, thus encouraging a disengagement from the world today and their responsibility in either dismantling or maintaining this position. They should be challenged to either continue and support the traditions of white supremacy, reaction and oppression or join in another tradition of freedom fighting and standing with the oppressed; they can be aligned with the traditions of John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison and others. White people are probably more alienated from their own history than those who have been oppressed by it. They take no responsibility because “I wasn’t there”. White students, in order to combat their relative alienation from people of color should be encouraged to see history through the eyes of the oppressed as well as oppressor. It is imperative that they be put in a position to “choose sides”. It is important for all students but perhaps even more important for white students. Their lack of identification with their history is also a psychological sickness perpetrated by school system.

The propagation of the idea of America as this meritocracy, or land of opportunity can be potentially crushing to youth of oppressed nationalities, particularly African Americans. It perpetuates the idea of black inferiority, as if it is deficiencies in their own devastated communities that made them poor and lacking, when it is the working of American capitalism that has caused such deprivation. Whatever dysfunction that exists among the oppressed flows from their oppression which shapes their experience, culture and values. The assumption that “everyone can make it in America” grows from the experience of middle class, Euro Americans and is thus the default point of view in America, and by extension, the educational system. It takes a level of critical struggle to deconstruct this myth, to actually look at the operations of this system and its effects on poor and oppressed people. To repeat this line and encourage students to blindly accept it is to promote a sort of psychological warfare, where some people view success as separation of oneself from their community, from their roots, instead of standing with them in opposition to oppression. This cannot be done if they don’t know they are oppressed.

We teach and learn America’s economic history, and history in general as divorced from the realities of today. Students should be able to link “deindustrialization” to decrepit conditions in inner cities. Students should learn about how drugs come into their communities, or the effects of job discrimination up to the present day. These things are directly tied up with their everyday realities. American oppression is not something that used to exist and it should not be taught that way. This is done to maintain an asymmetrical balance of power and ruling class domination.

Historical traditions and ideologies have present day manifestations. Somehow, the way history has been taught has separated the present from the past giving students the impression that everything wrong with the world “back then” has been all fixed somehow. We have not equipped them to recognize how the problems of society did not go away, but have simply morphed with the times. They are not unrecognizable to the student who has been taught critically. Today’s students have to recognize that institutions and practices can be traced back to earlier times. They are not new.