Critical Pedagogy vs. Initiation into Academic Discourse

My question was “Why is it that they [critical pedagogy versus initiating students into academic discourses] are always discussed as an either/or proposition? And most importantly, why is it that the goals of students are nearly always absent from the conversation.” Since I posed that question initially, I have noticed several things that I think address this issue through our readings, discussions and blog postings.

The discussion about whether to resist or initiate students into the academic discourse is discussed as an either/or proposition is, ironically, a function of the discussion taking place within the academic discourse. The academic world is built upon a continual renewal of knowledge that must be refreshed and developed. A positive benefit of this pressure to innovate has been the effusion of cross-disciplinary ideas, so that advances in one field can be brought to bear on the questions and issues of another. Given this pressure, it’s little wonder that the ideas espoused in Marxist thought would make their way to pedagogy. The social, political and economic lens through which Marxism filters the world was already embedded within an academic discourse as it came to influence other fields. Academics are fluent in their own discourse and, as such, use the language that is available to them and that most clearly expresses their message. Furthermore, that message is received, interpreted and retransmitted by other academics. So in the end, it seems logical that a discussion about resisting a discourse has taken place mostly within the discourse it seeks to resist. But that doesn’t really address why it’s an either/or proposition.

An academic in search of an argument will quickly find that he or she is also in search of a job. Each of us, as academics, has something to contribute to the conversation based on our individual perspectives, but the pressure is always to find something new to say. A difficult feat when the conversation has been ongoing for any period of time, particularly now that we are able to store and access a written record of our knowledge in the field that stretches across time and geography. Most graduate students can relate to the pressure of taking old ideas and finding new ways to apply them, not to mention the difficulty presented by the prospect of trying to find anything original to say. Most of us have sat in a seminar with at least one or two students who seem intent on taking arbitrary positions for the sake of being controversial. In some ways, this is the business of academics: to shake up the old order and at the very least force the dominant voice to continually justify it’s approach.

In the hands of someone like Paolo Freire, the result can send tremors throughout a field and cause an entire generation of academics to question the prevailing wisdom. To truly be effective though, such paradigm shifting ideas need to be well-supported and address specific issues seen within a field. Academic discussions are often based upon tightly controlled (and sometimes contrived) environments that allow researchers to focus on specific areas which they hope to impact. These environments have the benefit of freeing researchers from the muddied reality present in everyday life. As a student, I have often found that the arguments that seem paradigm shifting are the most compelling, but as a teacher, it is difficult to maintain too much purity in any one approach. In either case though, it is an opposing viewpoint that makes the most impact. All of our problems in the classroom will be solved if only we do X. This appeals to our sense of order much more than the more nuanced approaches that most of us know the classroom requires.

It also necessarily leaves students out of the equation because it seeks to control for variables as determined by researchers. Students’ needs are as diverse as the number of students within a classroom. This makes it easier to focus on what the teacher is doing rather than on what students’ hope to achieve. And based entirely on my own experiences, there is also a certain amount of arrogance on the part of teachers and researchers. Whether that arrogance is well-intentioned is not for me to decide, but it does exist. We, as teachers and academics, do have a certain degree of expertise in terms of what we are preparing students for and consciously or not, we justify the decisions we make based on that expertise and our own experiences in academe. From there, it is an easy leap to viewing our decisions about what’s best for students as self-evident. We may think “Of course students want to question the prevailing power structure of society,” because that is in fact a goal of our own.

In fact, students some times have considerable interest vested in perpetuating that structure. But it is easy to dismiss students’ interests because we know that if they knew better, they would see it our way. And I believe that is probably true, but part of getting students to see it our way is allowing them to take their own journey and arrive at their own conclusions. It may just be a desire to see the best in people, but it’s a leap of faith that I feel comfortable making. Until students get to a place where they are able and desire to question the prevailing power structure, I feel it is important to address students’ needs as defined by the students. That doesn’t preclude a critical approach, but it allows room for gaining fluency in the predominant discourse and encouraging students to question the power and authority vested in the institutions they attend.

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