The Torn Halves of Critical Pedagogy

“Whose side are you on?” asks the critical pedagogue as he declares emphatically that he is on the side of the students. It sounds as if something like a civil war has broken out in education – a pedagogic equivalent of the class struggle – with the students ranged against their opponents, who presumably are the teachers, or the teachers who have not yet declared that they are on the side of the students. But where are the barricades? Where is the pedagogic class war that forces us to take sides?

No, the struggle, such as it is and for the time being at least, is not one between students and teachers. It is elsewhere, within critical pedagogy itself. What we see is an antagonism between two schools of critical pedagogic thought – two critiques of education.

There are two sides opposed both to each other and to a third: the established form of schooling. Each of the critical camps frames the establishment somewhat differently. On the one side are the libertarian pedagogues, who take issue primarily with the authoritarian form of that established form of education. On the other side are the culture critics, who are more concerned with its content and what it lacks.

The libertarian critique roots out whatever can appear to be authoritarian in education. Anything that speaks of a hierarchy and rank and a vertical ordering is suspected of being oppressive. The stance of teachers who still haven’t replaced the verb “teach” with “help learn” is the most obvious target; as is the use of the lecture format, with its tyrannical insistence upon the silence of the learner. Other concerns include the design of the physical space in which learning is to take place. Liberty-friendly spaces need to put people and everything else of significance on the same level. Then there are the newer concerns about whether optimal use is being made of the latest liberating forms of technology. Mobile devices, for instance, allow learning to happen in the places and at the times that most suit the learner. Are they being used in the best way?

Hence, the talk of the libertarians is primarily about methodology. The content of education goes uncriticised as long as no attempt is being made to teach a particular set of values, especially moral values, beyond the non-authoritarian insistence upon a universal niceness. An attempt to teach moral values, not as an object of academic study, but as something expected to shape the character of the learner would be unacceptable. Liberty requires a space free of all value-laden impositions, leaving the learner free to develop whatever value attachments they happen to have.

On the opposite side are the culture critics. They see mainstream schools as training grounds for the sort of people Max Weber described as “specialists without spirit”, ready to take their place uncomplainingly in a scientifically managed society. The cultivation of a now unsayable spirit and the promotion of the culture to which it belonged has largely been abandoned. From within that scientifically managed society – the Weberian iron cage – it is very easy for the culture critics to appear to have a pathological fixation on some imaginary past when, in Yeats’s words, the falcon could still hear the falconer, the best still had their conviction, the centre held and things had not yet fallen apart. As presented by people like Allan Bloom, the conservative case can seem like a rather blunt insistence upon the value of things like the old Great Books, disregarding the fact that the forward-looking, liberated students are no longer interested in them.

The impression one gets, especially from the libertarian side of the conflict, is that you are either for the liberty of the learner or you are for Culture and Tradition and the particular moral values belonging to that tradition. It is a strict either/or, like the choice between the future and the past, or the choice between democracy and aristocracy. But this ignores the fact that some people (the author included) are on both sides. By way of a confession we want to suggest in the first instance that the two sides are really torn halves of an integral whole. They belong together. The apparent either/or is false.

We confess that we warm quite instinctively to talk of a libertarian pedagogy, and it seems patently obvious that any theory of education formulated after 1789 has to begin from a concern for human freedom. But we have also been moved by things like the TV series “Legacy” with, for instance, its hymn to the faith of the Mayans, who remained true to their culture despite the lure of the cosmopolitan materialism of the invaders, retaining an identity rooted in the sort of past rejected out of hand by the revolutionaries who insist that to be free we must reset the calendar to year zero and live henceforth in a permanent present. The call of liberty and that of culture are heard by the same ear with equal intensity.

Mayan culture

Our hypothesis is that liberty and Culture really belong together. The current opposition of the two camps rests upon a mistake – an erroneous idea of liberty. And the mistake is not simply theoretical, but exists as a felt dissatisfaction with the historical project to which we belong. Is our feeling for the Mayans not a symptom of that malaise? Aren’t the failings of this liberty responsible for a nostalgia for a way of life, like that of the Mayans, that can carry great burdens and accept limitations instead of fighting against them all the time? Isn’t there a hint of something wrong with the imaginary idea of freedom so central to our lives (and to our libertarian pedagogy) if we forward-looking lovers of liberty find ourselves dreaming of the Mayans, or, like Coppola, looking for traces of wisdom in the ancient Hopi prophecies?

No, it is not a matter of taking sides; rather it is a matter of beginning to see an error in an idea of liberty that is assumed to be antithetical to all Culture. Yes, the concern for liberty – for the agency of the learner – is fundamental, but have we really understood what that liberty consists in?

One way of broaching the problem with this idea of liberty is to look at the assumptions built into it regarding height. There is a ban on the pedestal and the podium or anything that might put the teacher or another student or a book or anything else of value on a height above the learners. Liberty thrives along the horizontal; the vertical oppresses it. There can be no suggestion of a higher culture to be valued over and above a lower one – impressions once taken for granted while human civilisation understood itself to be engaged in a collective struggle with the forces of barbarism. There must be no talk of high things that might impose themselves on the learner and imply a judgment against whatever the student is currently attached to.

At this point, we have a second confession that might be relevant. The infant and junior schools we attended had a modern design with low ceilings, in line with the best post-war, student-centred pedagogy. Aged 11, we were taken on a visit to a grammar school that was supposed to be our next place of learning. We sat in the main hall for some time. What struck us was the high ceiling with its arched wooden beams and ornate carvings. That ceiling spoke to us wordlessly. Looking back, it seemed to speak of heights yet to be attained. Whatever was said by the teachers during that visit has been long forgotten, but the impact of that imposing high ceiling remains indelible, despite the fact that we never saw it again.

Our hypothesis is that if we were able to become autonomous learners, it was partly thanks to that ceiling. Imposing heights are not necessarily antithetical to the long process of liberation.

The libertarian pedagogy is right to begin from the concern for liberty, but wrong to assume that human liberty requires the lowering of all ceilings and a ban on all teacherly talk of heights – all heights regardless of whether they are the Aztec heights dripping in blood, or the saintly heights of those denouncing the savagery.

The ceiling for us is a hint that liberty requires a culture. The ceiling is a cultural artefact that, in the right circumstances, can acquire the ability to speak to a young soul, conjuring up an image of moral heights yet to be achieved – heights that will require a long and patient education. But to appreciate this we need to go beyond the ultra-thin notion of liberty defended by the libertarians, who leave liberty as a mere presupposition of all constructive activity, as if the paradigm of the free spirit were a child building something with Lego. The libertarian pedagogues need to think more about how liberty makes itself felt within the psyche. If there were a psychology of liberty, we might understand better the link between liberty and culture.

Nietzsche is still a great source for flashes of insight into how liberty makes itself felt in our internal lives. He suggests that free spirits feel an imperative: “Be thyself! All that thou doest and thinkest and desirest, is not thyself!” The imperative operates like a sword, splitting the self – a split between what one is and what one might be – between an “is” and an “ought”. A goal appears which is far off, and moving towards it will involve shedding or changing much of what one presently is. Nietzsche suggests there is something like a ladder here: “a ladder on which thou hast all the time been climbing to thy self: for thy true being lies not deeply hidden in thee, but an infinite height above thee.” Liberty exists, in other words, as a striving towards what is best. A movement with a very definite directionality: upwards. To this extent at least, liberty is vertical.

Nietzsche’s suggestion (heretical for the libertarians) is that this split within the self is opened by an instinct for reverence: “an involuntary falling silent, a hesitation of the eye, a cessation of all gestures, which reveal that a soul feels the proximity of something worthy of respect.” (Beyond Good and Evil #263) A high ceiling, perhaps, might elicit that instinct. Yes, it will impose itself on those below and could thereby injure the agent’s satisfaction with herself and her present narrow horizons, but that kind of injury is essential to the liberating process to which education at its best belongs.

Ceilings and all the attendant ideas of what is sublime and worthy of reverence belong to a culture that unrepentantly praises what is high. Liberty – the freedom of the spirit – needs such a culture. The heretical consequence of this is that the justifiable demand for more democracy in the classroom needs to be coupled with more aristocracy as well (taking the word in its Greek meaning, where αριστος signifies simply what is best, not a hierarchy of privilege that must be protected from critique). Liberty requires a culture with a rare combination both of the horizontal and the vertical.

Liberty needs culture, but it needs a culture that respects liberty. There is no reason for the cultural conservative not to afford that respect, and what is best in the cultural conservative case continuously refers back to that value. The best of Allan Bloom’s argument, for instance, is guided by a concern for liberty. Here is a quotation from near the end of The Closing of the American Mind, where Bloom is discussing the sort of diluted post-modern philosophy that libertarian pedagogy rests on:

The interpreter’s creative activity is more important than the text; there is no text, only interpretation. Thus the one thing most necessary for us, the knowledge of what these texts have to tell us, is turned over to the subjective, creative selves of these interpreters, who say that there is both no text and no reality to which the texts refer. A cheapened interpretation of Nietzsche liberates us from the objective imperatives of the texts that might have liberated us from our increasingly low and narrow horizon. (p380)

The case rests ultimately on a concern for the liberation of the students. If the prevailing media environment tends to close people’s minds and leave them in siloes where the best of the past and the best of what is foreign to them never register as significant the cause of liberty retreats. The cause for concern is ultimately a loss of liberty, not the dust gathering on the Great Books. What hope is there for liberty – for the freedom of the spirit – if the prevailing culture is forever bracketing, marginalising, ironizing or simply drowning out all serious talk of what ought to be?

The case of the cultural conservative can be reconstructed so that it advances the liberty of the individual and opposes instead (to borrow a very useful term from Herbert Marcuse) a one-dimensional culture, reminding us how important to liberty is the retreating second dimension – a rather vertical dimension.

The second dimension is sustained only if considerable significance is given to the conversation about what ought to be. The grave error of the libertarian position is its ban on the richest possible moral education. Although the ought is supposed to be passed over in silence out of respect for liberty, the result is that the way is cleared, not for liberty, but for whatever thoughtless forces happen to have the upper hand.

Bloom complained of a culture that had a very clear and distinct idea of what a perfect body was, but had no idea whatsoever of the perfect soul (COTAM. p69). A predominantly technical education excludes all questions of the spirit insofar as they are not required for the most efficient functioning of the organisation (like the team spirit, for instance, that every organisation requires, and the general niceness required to minimise the most costly forms of antagonism). Perhaps the freest spirits – the students who are the paragons of liberty – are those who, in a different age, would have chosen to study the perfections of the soul. That is now impossible, not just because the culture that prides itself on its technical sophistication has decreed that the soul is best regarded as a mere fiction, but also because of the pedagogic assumption that all teacherly talk of the perfection of the soul offends the liberty of the learner.

No one argues with the need for the best possible technical education, but all talk of a moral education is deemed suspect as soon as it goes beyond the thinnest and flattest possible principles, such as “live and let live”, “learn and let learn”, “tweet and let tweet”. For the libertarians in particular, the idea of a richer moral education which will begin (but not end) with some very specific ideas about what is best in life and which will encourage a strong moral critique of the dominant trends is anathema. Liberty, they assume, is a given that must be respected as it is, and the only moral education required is the two-minute lesson in mutual respect and universal niceness. No, if liberty exists as a split within the self as it opens to intimations of heights – moral, not technical – yet to be achieved, the cultivation of liberty requires a culture that is unafraid to speak of moral heights, of the perfections of that fiction essential to a life of freedom: the soul.

Liberty exists within the students as a yearning to be other than they are – an inclination that needs to be elicited by so many external things that can easily be misinterpreted as obstacles. Might it not be that the most liberated students are already doubting their earlier preconceptions, and occasionally want to remain silent for an hour while those who have thought more deeply and perhaps also experienced more deeply speak about what they have learned? If so, what effect are the pedagogues having when they tell the children that the practise of remaining silent for an hour is wrong? Do they really advance the cause of liberty?

It is not a question of simply asserting a very particular interpretation of a very particular tradition on a group of students. Instead the need in the first instance is to show students that there has been a long conversation about the highest ends of our human endeavours, and to create the impression that one of the highest things they could aspire to would be to participate in that conversation. The project is an open-ended one and its advancement requires the freest possible spirits.

A final point: If the concern for liberty in education needs a broader culture outside education, then there are no quick fixes and the problem is more complicated than the libertarians have been making out, with their impression that it is enough to dismantle the remaining vertical structures within the educational establishment. Without a strong culture in a decidedly two-dimensional society the liberty-loving teacher is in a difficult position, because, as Bloom said, the soil for the best sort of education is depleted. Referring to tertiary education in America in the 1980s, Bloom said this:

Today there is less soil in which university teaching can take root, less of the enthusiasm and curiosity of young Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, whose eros makes him imagine that there are splendid satisfactions in store for him about which he does not wish to be fooled and for knowledge of which he seeks a teacher.”(p62)

Is the soil any richer now? The greater financial pressures on students, forcing them to view their education as something that must be monetised has certainly made things worse, but have the other developments, e.g. in consumer electronics, really done much to give back some of the lost fertility, helping to raise the expectations of the young that there are indeed splendid satisfactions in store for them in the best possible education? Has the dominant culture helped in that regard, or has it convinced the cynics that they are right to be cynical and right to see education as merely training for a job that has absolutely nothing to do with the deepest needs of a fictional soul, talk of which is, in any case, fit for nothing more than satire? The deeper problem facing education has to do with this broader culture – the soil in which a teaching that is not just a training in technique might take root.


Photo credit: Janet Jarman

written by Torn Halves on January 7, 2016 in Edtech and education and pedagogy with no comments