"We are living in a period of profound challenges to traditional Western epistemology and political theory" that are in evidence in every aspect of modern life, and that are especially profound in the field of education (Weiler, 2003). The single most profound aspect of these epistemological, social, and political changes is based in the ironic history of postmodernist movements: An oppressed group may not understand the roots of their disenfranchised position, nor be able to conceptualize ways to address what appears to be a normative condition. Tacit agreement exists among powerful or influential contingents that their worldview is to be dominant. Although certainly not universal, there is an enduring social undercurrent that tolerates oppression when it benefits one class of people over another, particularly when the social majority identifies with or strives to become a member of the powerful group. Indeed, these tensions are evident in the socio-economic divisions that have come to characterize contemporary partisan politics in the U.S.A.
Feminists are challenging the institutions and theories that uphold and defend the status quo, and they are also examining "the critical or liberatory pedagogies that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s" (Weiler, 2003, p. 12). Weiler asserts that feminist interests are aligned with "the vision of social justice and transformation that underlies liberatory pedagogy" (2003, p. 12). However, feminists are bound to a trajectory that has and will continue to engage in "a shattering of Western metanarratives" (Weiler, 2003, p. 12). The feminist pursuit of social and political equality, social justice for all oppressed groups, and continuous validation of feminist knowledge are at once bound by and transforming critical and liberatory pedagogies (Brady, 2003).
Critical theory is based on the idea that oppression or disenfranchisement of a group or an individual occurs through externally imposed or internally imposed factors (Freire, 2000; Giroux, 1983). The social justice pedagogy or critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and theorist, was the platform from which critical theory found its voice (Freire, 1970). In Freire's own words,
In the case of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I started to write it exactly at the beginning of 1968 -- at the start of the second or third year of my exile. What happened? When I left Brazil and went into exile, I passed my time firstly learning to live with a borrowed reality, which was the reality of exile. Secondly, I struggled with my original context, which was the context of Brazil, and which I saw myself forced to abandon. From afar, I began to take stock of Brazil, and therefore to take stock of and analyze my earlier practice, discovering in it new things that the context of borrowed reality was making me discover. So there was a moment, naturally, when I began to arrive at a more radical understanding of my work. (Torres & Freire, 2003, p. 100)
Critical pedagogy aims to address social problems and balance social inequities that are grounded in the abuse of power (Freire, 1970). Freirean critical pedagogy is a means by which marginalized population can be empowered to act against coercion and oppression (Freire, 1970). In as much as identify formation is tied to perceptions about one's place in society, it is also connected to the ability to be self-interrogatory.
Ira Shor, a critical pedagogue, offers this definition of critical pedagogy.
"Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse" (Shor, 1992, p. 129).
Undergirding critical pedagogy is the idea of unlearning, which is one step in the process that reveals the impact mediation has on what information is available, known, interpreted and disseminated (Freire, 2000). From this, it is apparent that the division between the conventional wisdom of a shared culture and activist criticism is deep and vast. Enculturation does not include an evaluative process of unlearning, nor does it even suggest that it might be needed.
Drawing from the work of Freire (1970), Giroux (2003), and Osborne (1991), critical theory proponents consider institutional culture as a form of pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, then, examines the relationships between students and teachers and between learning and teaching. Critical theorists working in educational institutions seek to nurture cultural perspective and cultural criticism in students and the general population, thereby enabling them to resist the sociopolitical and economic functions of the popular culture. Freire (1970) argues for the autonomy and individual responsibility of learners and "a universal human ethic that is lived in pedagogical practice" (Hebert and Sears, 2002). Osborne (1991) takes a socialist democratic perspective and proposes "careful and deliberate attention to the teaching of thinking in the context of valuable knowledge" (Hebert and Sears, 2002).
Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed was intended to address the dual problems of illiteracy and oppression through the application of one technique designed to teach adults to read and write. This pedagogy is dialectical as it proposes both "reading the text" and "reading reality" thereby giving an impression of being grounded in hermeneutics (Peters & Lankshear, 2003, p. 174).
In the field of education…there has been little or no explicit recognition of either the importance of hermeneutics -- its potential for transforming the way educational problems are identified and approached -- or its intellectual heritage and philosophical underpinnings…[yet, there is a] substantial hermeneutical ingredient in the work of Paulo Friere. (Peters & Lankshear, 2003, p. 174)
The hazard of this hermeneutical approach, as critics of critical pedagogy are quick to point out, is that educators may set themselves up as the only people in the lives of young people who have achieved sophisticated levels of critical consciousness and "whose job it now is to enlighten his or her students so that they can be transformed and emancipated" (Guerra, 2004, p. 21). This difficulty brings the argument full circle where it lands squarely within the bounds of feminist pedagogy.
Feminist theory "has increasingly been influenced postmodernist and cultural identity theory" which, "like other contemporary approaches, validates difference, challenges universal claims to truth, and seeks to create social transformation in a world of shifting and uncertain meanings" (Weiler, 2003, p. 12). According to Weiler, these profound changes can be seen in education at two levels: In praxis, where formerly silenced and marginalized groups challenge dominant views of epistemology -- particularly with regard to traditionally endorsed approaches to teaching and learning -- and in theory, as evidenced by the thinking of Giroux (1991) and others who challenge the claims to universal truth. The interdependency of the global world today is still based on the exploitation of oppressed groups yet this interdependent "system at the same time calls forth oppositional cultural forms which give voice to the conditions of subaltern groups" (Weiler, 2003).
It is at this juncture that educational theory and praxis give evidence of a nexus with Freire's assumptions about the experience of oppression and goals for liberation. It is here, too, that feminist pedagogy can build on Freire's ideas about conscientization and enrich his pedagogy of the oppressed to embrace a broader and culturally more complex configuration of liberatory pedagogy. Wielder proposes a three pillar approach for melding feminine pedagogy with a pedagogy of the oppressed: (1) Both the role and authority of the teacher must be questioned and transformed; (2) Personal experience as source of knowledge must be validated by institutions; and (3) The perspectives of people who differ with regard to class, race, gender, age, and culture must be honored and explored (2003, p. 12).
Freire viewed education as a platform for social engagement with the power to enable improvements in the whole of social through transformative praxis. Freire did not share the popular contemporary view of education merely as an avenue to individual advancement within the social structure. In fact, Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed illustrates the difficulty that must be faced when conscientization results in new awareness from a personal perspective but seem not to open to a more universal critical consciousness. Freire argues that "…intersubjectivity, or intercommunication is the primordial characteristic of this cultural and historical world…[consequently, this process] of human communication cannot be excepted from socio-cultural conditioning" (Freire, 1973, pp. 73, 82).
Post-modern critical theorists warn of a "theoretical myopia" ((Gaudino & de Alba, 2003, p. 134)). "In criticizing the ethnocentrism of Western (European) rationality, they actually situate themselves within its very limits by ignoring the diverse roles ethnic minorities can play in the process of shaping a new political-social project for the new century" (Gaudino & de Alba, 2003, p. 134). In order to foster critical analysis within indigenous education, it is essential to build public spheres of resistance. Students must be moved from a position of naivety to one of critical consciousness. Core to this strategy is the successful promotion of more critical…