Critical Pedagogy

Paulo Freire’s vision for education is certainly compelling. Freire writes that too many teachers try to put themselves on a pedestal of invincibility from which they gaze arrogantly down on students. Many teachers assume that their job is to pass down information to students in a purely replicatory, rather than critical way. In this view, students are viewed as empty receptacles who should accept the information in the most docile fashion possible. Freire writes that teachers should accept much greater humility, should step off the pedestal, and should see themselves as entering into active and equal relationship with students.

While I think that there is a lot to be said about the power of genuine intellectual humility for modeling the type of curiosity that drives classroom learning, I do wonder about some of the statements Freire makes that imply that teacher/student boundaries can be completely dissolved (p. 68 of “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education). In my opinion, proper boundaries are necessary precisely because teachers hold power over students. The relationship is not an equal one in terms of the power over grades, recommendations, and academic and professional futures. Of course, with the rising importance of student course evaluations, there is a case to be made that students are now “grading” their professors as well. Some professors grumble that this trend of the rising importance of course evaluations has made students feel more entitled, as if they were consumers, to have a perfectly curated educational experiences. However, I think it is only fair that professors should be evaluated to some degree, and that this element of reciprocity remain in place. Nonetheless, I think it is important to be clear that these roles are different and the responsibilities are different, and the reciprocity remains quite limited. Teachers have an enormous amount of control of how they organize the class, select content, and manage social groups in the classroom. Students still have agency, of course, in relation to choices about how much to study or whether to attend class regularly. But the scope of these choices isn’t the same. My point is that teachers need to be aware of the power they wield. Are they importing their own personal biases in a way that overpowers the voices of students? Are they playing favorites with students they feel friendlier with? Perhaps some of these tendencies are human nature, but as a teacher I feel that actively maintaining professional boundaries with students in the context of the teacher-student relationship is incredibly important for making sure that fairness and respect is achieved.

At other points, I did worry about whether Freire’s comments could be used to encourage ideologically enthusiastic teachers to “indoctrinate” students with their personal political positions (I don’t think this is Freire’s position, but I worry it could be used that way). I am certainly sympathetic with Freire’s main point that powerful elite classes in society do not want students to learn critical thinking skills or to be exposed to political thinking. I also agree with Freire that the “banking” model of education–the model of depositing information uncritically–is a huge problem, made worse by standardized testing, consumeristic marketing of education, and other neoliberal values. In “Teaching is a Human Act,” Freire continues this discussion through an examination of the ideologies that are reproduced in the educational system. In this reading, Freire states more clearly that teaching is a political act that depends upon “unmasking” the dominant ideologies (p. 91). While Freire is careful to say that this political attitude should not be authoritarian, doctrinaire, or elitist in the way that it is presented, I worry about how these ideals would be applied in practice. Specifically, I worry about whether it is really so simply to be a passionate, activist, politically engaged teacher who actively challenges political authorities without in some ways reifying one’s own political views. This may not even be intentional! But from my understanding, there is some debate within various contemporary area studies departments about how much political advocacy is acceptable and how dissenting viewpoints should be managed. If the teacher perceives the student’s viewpoint to represent the oppressive, dominant class of society, should the student be shut down? Doesn’t it simply give the teacher more authoritarian power if they are allowed to decide which political viewpoints get to be expressed and which are out of bounds?

My personal approach to this is to include some politically touchy subjects on my syllabi, but to try to emphasize to students that I am introducing these topics to open up conversation, rather than to impose my own views. Of course, I could be criticized from this angle for being too wishy-washy or unclear about my stance about issues on which I feel strongly. Should teachers be honest about where they are coming from politically? Can they do this without inadvertently using the power of the teacher role to reify their own viewpoints, and discount others? My own view is that while there are some fringe views which are too extreme to be welcomed in a classroom, teachers should try to be tolerant as much as possible in relation to opinions that are offered by students in good faith. At the same time, by framing questions in certain ways or introducing certain readings, it is obvious that I am shaping the political framing of the discussion. In other words, as a teacher, I am not neutral. Some of the most controversial topics I have introduced include, for instance, postcolonial theory and feminist theory. Sometimes I am frustrated when I don’t think that students are “getting it,” but I try to remember that their learning process doesn’t have to be the same as mine.

Finally, I wish to comment on Freire’s discussion of freedom in the “Human Act” essay (p. 98-99). Freire is careful to point out that he conceives of freedom as having necessary limits. Thus, he doesn’t encourage an unethical freedom that can contribute to the validation of authoritarian tendencies, for instance. However, again, I wondered if there are some tensions we should worry about between Freire’s meanings and intentions and the reality of how this would play out in practice. On p. 98, Freire discusses the importance of autonomy in the formation of a mature human. Again, I recognize that Freire himself recognizes the importance of various limits to temper this freedom. However, I worry about his words being used by others to support libertarian projects which disavow social responsibility or social relatedness. I would like to see Freire define freedom more clearly not just as the absence of oppression from elites, but also as a state of mind. Many ancient religious traditions believe that it is through personal self-discipline that we can achieve spiritual freedom, which is freedom from attachments, cravings, and aversions in the mind which we allow ourselves to be controlled by. This spiritual elucidation of freedom can be traced to Greek/Stoic as well as Buddhist/Indian contexts. I think that may be what Freire is thinking of as the highest manifestation of freedom, but I would like to see this more clearly emphasized to help to prevent the more libertarian, anti-social implications of elevating autonomy and freedom.

4 thoughts on “Critical Pedagogy

  1. I appreciate your cautionary approach to creating boundaries with students as well as including controversial subjects in your classes. In my post, I wrote about bringing my “whole” self to my teaching. As a disabled academic, my mere existence within academia is historically controversial. Disabled folx were the first group to have eugenic practices inflicted on us. Prior to the eugenics movement, we were locked away in institutions, hidden from society. When I teach courses, my disabilities are an essential part of my teaching role. I name my disabilities and I give students space to share their access needs with me. In my mind, the act of being openly disabled gives students the opportunity to bring their full selves to my classes. When I think about Freire’s point of blurring boundaries with students, I take it to mean giving students the chance to be who they are in my classes. I want my students to bring their full identities to my courses. I want students to bring their own unique world view to course discussions. I also see my students as co-learners with me. I find when I lead course discussions and ask students to share their thoughts, we learn from one another. Although I am still the main discussion facilitator and I give the course grades, I think learning along side students builds a respectful learning community. I think professional boundaries are important, but not to the extent that course materials and discussions restrict students from bringing their entire identities into the classroom.


  2. I understand the concern about a teacher becoming an ally to a student means the potential for correcting other students. I think correcting oppressive behavior can be done through curriculum and course structure. If a teacher is directly addressing a student about their views that might not be the best approach because sometimes there has to be consideration about whether the course is designed to teach students about multiple views. Also, this country makes issues of humanity and equity political issues. I would beg to differ that helping students become aware of difference is what teachers are empowered to do, and it’s not imposing a political view. If teachers view their position as being empowered and qualified to assign grades and make recommendations then that’s different than viewing that position as one of power. We understand the teacher role holds a certain level of credibility but our “teacher lens” determines how we view teacher and student.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and I agree that basic human equality is never up for debate. I think the problem that I was worrying about was whether it is fair to use teaching to promote broad political views (such as critiques of capitalism) where people can disagree in good faith.


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