Critical thinking as critical pedagogy

Critical pedagogy is defined as the use of higher education to overcome and unlearn the social conditions that restrict and limit human freedom. According to one of its major proponents, it is "an educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power," and the ability to take "constructive action" in relation to education and society at large (Giroux 2010).

Like the approach taken by Barnett, Johnston, and others in their account of criticality, critical pedagogy takes the view that critical thinking needs to be broadened beyond skills and dispositions. It sees the account of critical thinking as comprising skills-plus-dispositions as very much concerned with the individual. Like the adherents of the criticality approach, the critical pedagogues include the importance of action. However, unlike adherents of the criticality approach, they consider social institutions (and society more broadly)—not merely individuals' actions—to be a vital factor for critical thinking. This broadens the notion of critical thinking even further than any of the views previously discussed.

This is clearly an extension of the account of the radically transformed student within the criticality perspective; indeed, it extends radical educational transformation to society at large. The critical pedagogues see critical thinking to be not about mere argument analysis, or dispositions, or individual actions (although these too are important). They see critical thinking to be principally about "the critique of lived social and political realities to allow greater freedom of thought and action" (Kaplan 1991, 362). Specifically, the critical pedagogues are alert to the presence of ideology in discourse and social institutions and see education as a critical and active engagement with such ideologies.

The key theorists in this area are Freire (1972), McLaren (1989), and Giroux (1994; 2005). In an illuminating article by Burbules and Berk (1999) a number of distinctions are made between the critical thinking movement (incorporating the "skills-based" view of critical thinking and the "skills-plus-dispositions" view) and the critical pedagogy movement.

The critical thinking movement theorists had taken the adjective "critical" to mean "criticism" (becoming aware of weaknesses in some claim or argument). Their aim was putting logic at the service of clear thinking. The critical pedagogues, by contrast, took "critical" to mean "critique" (i.e., identifying dimensions of meaning that might be missing or concealed behind some claim or belief or institution) (Kaplan 1991, 362). Their further understanding is that such concealment serves an ideological function, masking an underlying state of affairs. Their aim puts critical thought at the service of transforming undemocratic societies and inequitable power structures, that is, not simply educating for critical thinking or even enabling individuals to embody a critical spirit, but educating for radical transformation in society as well. They see the critical person as resisting the ideological hegemony of capitalism, a hegemony that foists conditions favorable to the maintenance of the capitalist system onto unwitting members of society. Here, higher education becomes a vehicle for combating perniciousness—as they see—inherent in capitalist society. They see advertising, for example, as encouraging and fostering increased material consumption while simultaneously reinforcing the myth that large corporations are there to serve their customers, when they are, in fact, serving their own interests, and maximizing profit, often at the expense of both customers and the social good (Burbules and Berk 1999, 50).

The critical pedagogues accordingly believe that the aim of education should be about turning students against the idea of being trained for the economic needs of large corporations. The followers of the critical pedagogy movement see the role of higher education not as reinforcing but as dispelling these uncritical attitudes and questioning these assumptions. They see the role of higher education as working within higher educational institutions to identify and critique power inequities in society, the myths of opportunity in capitalist economies, and "the way belief systems become internalized to the point where individuals and groups abandon the very aspiration to question or change their lot in life" (Burbules and Berk 1999, 50). Thinking critically, for the critical pedagogists, is a matter of recognizing, critiquing, and combating societal formations (really deformations)—including discourses—that maintain the capitalist status quo. This can be achieved by developing students and their teachers not only as critical intellectuals (Giroux 1988) but also as critical activists. This is clearly a very different sense of critical thinking than the other camps identified earlier here.

Like Barnett, the critical pedagogists see action as an intrinsic, not separable, aspect of criticality. However, they take critical action much further. They see action as important not merely for encouraging students' personal individual critical comprehension of, and reaction to, events, but as a justification for wholesale social and political change. As Burbules and Berk put it, for them: "challenging thought and practice must occur together . . . criticality requires praxis—both reflection and action, both interpretation and change . . . Critical pedagogy would never find it sufficient to reform the habits of thought of thinkers, however effectively, without challenging and transforming the institutions, ideologies, and relations that engender distorted, oppressed thinking in the first place—not an additional act beyond the pedagogical one, but an inseparable part of it" (1999, 52). Critical pedagogy, accordingly, becomes a way of alerting students to the indoctrination that is felt here to be endemic in society and of combating it—so, deliberately and systematically deploying the potential of higher education as a transforming device in society.

For the critical thinking movement, this is a misguided stance. It amounts to taking for granted and prejudging the conclusions to an issue (that society is inequitable, that society is ideologically saturated and so on, and that society is characterized by undue repression). It is itself equivalent to indoctrination.

However, in the critical pedagogy movement, raising the issue of the social conditions of freedom is essential to critical thinking. True critical thinking, for the critical pedagogists, involves liberation from an oppressive system as a condition of freedom of thought. As Burbules and Berk put it: "Critical thinking's claim is, at heart, to teach how to think critically, not how to teach politically; for Critical Pedagogy, this is a false distinction . . . self-emancipation is contingent upon social emancipation" (1999, 55). In the words of the Critical Pedagogy Collective (echoing Dewey): "Education is not preparation for life— education is life itself" (2013).

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