In plural societies, regarding education, there is always a question of whose culture is being transmitted via whose language, whose values, knowledge, and beliefs. In most schools across the globe, the dominant culture’s interests predominate and determine what is taught and learned through formal education. The key components of multicultural education are the educational system itself, the teacher, and the learner. Traditionally the system and the teacher share the same dominant culture and the learner does not (Banks, 2016).
McLeod (1984) identified three types of multicultural schooling: ethnic specific, problem oriented and intercultural. Ethnic-specific schools, at least partially convey one culture’s history, values, language, and religion generally to preserve that particular culture or provide alternatives to learners who may otherwise go without a voice (e.g., historically black colleges and universities in the US). Problem-oriented education is targeted toward specific groups who are struggling with particular issues such as a secondary language acquisition or disadvantages due to poverty. Intercultural schools emphasize intercultural knowledge and competence in tandem with the social and emotional aspects of interacting with culturally different people. Intercultural schooling is the closest to the ideal of multicultural education because it contains both cultural maintenance and participation. Without both, groups can become encapsulated in their own cultures or forced into assimilation.
Multicultural education must accommodate sociocultural conditions, including changing demographics, globalization of society, and evolving technology, which shape contemporary learning (Merriam, 2018; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2012). With regard to the changing demographics, we have more adults than youth, more older adults, we are more highly educated people, and there is increasing cultural and racial/ethnic diversity. Although the changes and diversity bring new possibilities for global interaction and expanding learning modalities, they also may have a ‘splintering’ and ‘fragmenting’ effect on society where minorities and marginalized people may have less access to educational resources and may experience oppression from the dominant groups (Merriam, 2018). Within such a framework, education cannot be separated from its political nature. Every teacher has opinions, ideologies, and values that are transmitted whether they are aware of it or not. Critical theory and social change education offer important insights for education and learning concerning the political realm including sociocultural issues, globalization, oppression, and power within society.
Critical theory originated from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School is an informal name given to members of the Institute for Social Research (Instituí für Sozialforschung) at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. The designees of the Frankfurt School were considered neo-Marxist and therefore ardently anti-capitalist. The School emphasized social theory, sociocultural research, and philosophy and became known for critical theory that focused on radical social change and was the antithesis of ‘traditional theory’ in the positivistic and scientific notions. The emphasis of critical theory in general is the analysis and critique of power and oppression in society. At its root, critical theory aims for human emancipation from any circumstances that cause enslavement. Critical theory emerged as a critique of capitalism and emphasizes social inequality, the dominance of a single ideology, and the potential impact of critical thought in the world (Brookfield & Holst, 2018).
There are many ‘critical theories’ that have been developed as a result of various social movements all of which attempt to eradicate domination and oppression. All critical theories share the emphasis on decreasing hegemony and increasing human freedom with ‘utopian hopes for new social responses in an alienated world’ (Sorrell, 2006, p. 135). As such, approaches like feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and queer theory can all be considered critical theories. Social change education, an educational application of critical theory, concerns itself with challenging injustices across social, economic, and political realms (Barton & Walker, 2017). Much of the theoretical basis of critical theory and social change education comes from Jürgen Habermas and Paulo Freire.
German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas was a later student of the Frankfurt School and is said to be one of the more activist members from that school. Drawing heavily on the ideas of Marx and yet rejecting some of Marx’s work, Habermas’ approach is described as a creative blend of systems theory, pragmatism, and analytic philosophy all with the intent of application to society (Bernstein, 2014). Habermas was interested in a more equitable society and he believed that this could be achieved by empowering the members of society to action through self-reflection and dialogue. Habermas believed that we lack freedom in society and that powerful ‘systems’ (government, corporations, media, etc.) are manipulating individuals and therefore not meeting our needs. Habermas believed that communication has become a controlling tool primarily used to satisfy the selfish interests of the communicator regardless of the recipient’s needs or interests (Bernstein, 2014). He said that we have to engage in ‘communicative action’ (a coming together to engage in dialogue for the purpose of common action) in order to become empowered against the hegemonic system. This theory of communicative action examines everyday communication practices, and Habermas believes that reason comes out of mutual understanding within ordinary human communication.
Welton and others have brought Habermas’ version of critical theory to adult education and have pointed to the applicability of Habermas’ ideas like reflective discourse and learning communities (Merriam et al., 2012). Habermas identifies ideal conditions for authentic reflective discourse (dialogue, discussions) to occur: comprehensibility, sincerity, truth, and legitimacy. According to Habermas, this notion of discourse should involve an honest attempt to put aside bias and be open to all sides of an argument in order to come to consensus (Merriam et al., 2012). In terms of learning communities, Habermas says we should determine whether institutions are enabling us to reach our full potential - the idea of learning organizations follows in this tradition. Additionally, in the Habermasian tradition, adult educators have been accused of being too concerned with planning classes or arranging classrooms and not considering more ‘political’ issues like accessibility of education for some people (Merriam et al., 2012).
Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and activist who proposed a social emancipatory view of learning, sometimes called popular education or liberating education, also called social change education or critical pedagogy. He follows in the footsteps of Habermas because the basis of his approach is ‘critical’ in nature and follows the premise of critical theory in terms of critiquing the oppressive systems of society. Freire rose in distinction during the 1960s and 1970s when anti-colonialism was strong in developing countries. Freire examined education in terms of its emancipatory potential, which appealed to the oppressed masses in developing countries. He emphasized that ‘knowledge’ came from those in power so people need to deconstruct that knowledge and create new knowledge that is liberatory in nature. Freire found traditional educational practices constraining and non-liberating because he believed the oppressed had been conditioned to identify with the oppressor and view them idealistically (Taylor, 2017). Freire reasoned that if the oppressed wanted freedom they had to use critical consciousness to examine things as they truly exist in society.
Freire is well known for his participatory model of literacy described in his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968 and in English in 1970. Overall,
Freire critiques the dominant ‘banking model’ of education and says that education in general is suffering from ‘narration sickness’ (2018). He says that traditional education is one-way with the teacher narrating the content to the students - the passive recipients who should memorize the content and repeat it back to the teachers. This ‘banking’ idea is that teachers ‘deposit’ ideas into the students who become ‘depositories’ and ‘automatons’ waiting to be filled with the knowledge and wisdom of the all-powerful teachers, which inherently is an oppressive model. Freire insists that such a banking model goes directly against the idea of dialogue and gets in the way of a critical orientation to the world (Freire, 2018). Students are controlled, knowledge is static, the teacher is the authority, and the realities of life are trivialized resulting in a dehumanized and paternalistic model that reinforces the inequalities and injustices of society.
Instead Freire calls for a ‘problem-posing’ (authentic or liberating) education where ‘men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation’ (2018, p. 56). Problem-posing education starts with a transformation of the teacher-student relationship whereby teachers become both teachers and learners and vice versa. Dialogue is an essential process within this model, and the relationship between teachers and students is ‘horizontal’ rather than hierarchical. In this model, the educational situation is marked by posing problems that relate to the real world and critical reflection about these problems that results in a continual creating and recreating of knowledge by both teachers and students. According to Freire, problematizing is a three-phased process that involves asking questions with no predetermined answers. Phase one is a naming phase where the problem is identified. Phase two is the reflection phase to discover why or how the situation can be explained. The third phase is an action phase marked by questions about changing the situation or considering options.
Ultimately such a model, according to Freire, is a ‘revolutionary futurity’ because teachers and students learn that dominant ideas can be challenged and oppressive systems transformed, which helps them move forward and transcend the past (Freire, 2018). Some scholars have mistakenly labelled Freire’s educational ideas as too laissez-faire; however, Freire says that problem-posing education is purposeful and rigorous. The teacher still gives structure and helps to facilitate the direction of learning through constructive feedback and goal setting.
Although critical theory and social change education certainly have their critics, the approaches bring more to the table as compared with other theories about addressing the changing diversity and sociocultural-political issues within education and learning - their intent also includes the spread of democratic values and processes toward a better world (Brookfield & Holst, 2018). The strength of such approaches is that they critique the existing hegemony in the hope of transforming society for the better for all people even the disenfranchised or marginalized. The main weaknesses seem to be that such approaches are not always pragmatic and although they call for change do not always offer specific strategies for effecting change (Merriam, 2018).