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Kincheloe, Joe L. (2008). Critical Pedagogy (2nd Edition). New York: Peter Lang

Pp. 202         ISBN 978-1-4331-0182-3

Reviewed by Rucheeta Kulkarni
Arizona State University

September 24, 2008

Hope is alive, but it must be a practical and not a naïve hope.  A practical hope doesn’t simply celebrate rainbows, unicorns, nutbread, and niceness, but rigorously understands "what is" in relation to "what could be."  (p. x)

With an authorial voice that blends conversational simplicity with visionary philosophy, Joe Kincheloe introduces the second edition of his Critical Pedagogy.  After outlining the deepening crises of this nation’s actions at home and abroad—including preemptive wars against imagined enemies, scripted curricula for deprofessionalized teachers, privatization of public schools, and corporate ownership of the news media—he tells the reader not to despair but to hope.  He writes this edition of the primer for the same reason that he recently founded the Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy at McGill University: to bring together diverse peoples to resist the oppressive political and educational status quo, and to develop the social and educational imagination that “despite the darkness around us can change the world in general and education in particular” (p. x).  Kincheloe’s own example of working with “practical hope” is evident throughout this text.  His primer serves the function of introducing a new set of educators and scholars to the history and foundations of critical pedagogy, but goes beyond this traditional goal of the genre by calling on readers to question the field itself, to take part in making it ever more rigorous and innovative, and to join in a critical conversation about teaching, learning, researching, and living in the 21st century.  “What else are you going to do with your life?” he asks.  “Be a cog in the engine of the mechanisms of the dominant power that harm people in all of our communities and around the world.  I hope not” (p. xi).  For any reader who aspires to do meaningful and transformative knowledge work, it is hard to refuse Kincheloe’s invitation into the ideas of critical pedagogy.

The intended audience of this volume includes varying levels of experience in education and familiarity with critical pedagogy.  Together, the five chapters provide this diverse readership with a comprehensive and thought-provoking overview of the historical roots, contemporary work, and future directions of the field.  Readers new to critical pedagogy are welcomed with an authorial willingness to define terms and to speak openly, sometimes bluntly, about contemporary problems.  Veterans of the field are also welcomed and challenged to help critique and improve critical pedagogy.  Throughout, Kincheloe’s goal is to “provide tools that will help implement a pedagogy that promotes social justice, cultivates the intellect, and expands the horizons of human possibility” (p. 45).  He emphasizes early that while he strives to provide a fair picture of the field, this is not a neutral account, and should be read—like any other text—with a critical eye.  As he models the self-reflexivity of the critical scholar, he calls on the reader to practice the habits of a critical thinker.

Joe L. Kincheloe

In Chapter One, Kincheloe provides a lengthy and broad overview of the central characteristics of critical pedagogy.  These characteristics include: a social and educational vision of justice and equality, the belief that education is inherently political, dedication to the alleviation of human suffering, the concept of teachers as researchers, an explicit focus on the oppressed, a critique of positivism, an emphasis on understanding context, and resistance to dominant power.  The chapter shows how critical pedagogues view schools, students, and teachers.  Through this lens, schools are political institutions, capable of reflecting, extending, and mitigating social stratification.  Students—particularly the least empowered ones—do not need to be “saved,” disciplined, and spoon-fed with back-to-basics curricula, but rather respected, treated as experts in their interest areas, and inspired to use their education to improve the world around them.  Teachers are scholars and models of rigorous thinking, capable of directing their own professional practice; they are researchers of their students and guides in students’ exploration and critical analysis of the world.  Critical researchers and policy-makers serve as allies in these teachers’ efforts, seeking out and amplifying voices that have long been excluded from the curriculum, demonstrating the failure of positivist approaches to education, exposing the biases of dominant models of schooling, and finding the “holes” through which schools can become sites of liberatory rather than oppressive education.  Here, scholars give up the “attempt to dominate and control the world” (p. 39), and strive to understand their own contextual locations.

After broadly describing the way critical pedagogues look at the world, Kincheloe explores the field’s historical foundations in Chapter Two.  Here, he introduces the people and ideas that have shaped critical pedagogy, and highlights the field’s commitment to innovating and evolving to meet the challenges of the time.  He describes the foundational critical theory work of the Frankfurt School, explains how some of these early ideas were critiqued and reformulated by the postdiscourses—postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postformalism—and then lists a set of “elastic, ever-evolving” concepts included in an evolving notion of critical pedagogy (p. 50).  The second half of the chapter describes several important figures in critical pedagogy, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois, whose writing preceded the Frankfurt School and anticipated many of the most powerful aspects of critical pedagogy, to Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, whose work has shaped the modern field.  The list represents a diverse group of scholars and contributions, and provides a useful overview for those new to the field.

Kincheloe’s third chapter, “Critical Pedagogy in School,” begins by describing the contemporary situation, characterized by a lack of—and often a restriction on—questioning of educational purpose.  Kincheloe asserts that questions of power and justice are completely ignored in the dominant culture’s conversation about educational policy and classroom practice.  He points to standardized tests and curricula as “technologies of power” (p. 109), systematically ranking and sorting students and diminishing the chances that marginalized students will gain confidence in themselves as shapers of history.  As he moves to the need for a critical teacher education, Kincheloe suggests that schools of education must help teachers develop all the types of knowledge—normative, empirical, political, ontological, experiential, and reflective-synthetic—that are required to answer different educational questions.  Throughout the chapter, Kincheloe emphasizes that teaching is a sophisticated act, exemplified by the notion of praxis, or the process of action, reflection, and action, where theory and practice are in catalytic dialogue.

Chapter Four, “Critical Pedagogy and Research,” is intended to “contribut[e] to the critical pedagogical goal of producing knowledge that leads to the end of human suffering” (p. 126).  Kincheloe approaches this goal by connecting the bricolage model of research, marked by methodological and theoretical eclecticism, with critical multiculturalism, concerned with developing a literacy of power and taking action against inequality.  He defines critical researchers as bricoleurs, who, like the French handymen who used whatever tools were available to complete the task at hand, come from a wide diversity of backgrounds and employ an equally diverse set of approaches to understanding and acting on social problems.  Most importantly, bricoleurs value those whom and with whom they research, and work with keen awareness of their own location in the social web.  They constantly seek more rigorous, innovative means of understanding, exposing, and resisting oppression.  Kincheloe stresses that this work is desperately needed now: “The future of knowledge is at stake,” he writes.  “Few times in human history has there existed a greater need for forms of knowledge work that expose dominant ideologies and discourses that shape the information accessed by many individuals” (p. 130). 

The final chapter in this primer introduces what Kincheloe calls a postformal critical psychology of complexity.  This is critical pedagogy’s approach to cognition, which attempts to blur boundaries between cognition, culture, epistemology, history, psychoanalysis, economics, and politics.  Unlike the positivist conception of intelligence as a thing of measurable quantity, generally found at greater levels among the privileged few, critical psychology sees intelligence as learnable and taught in many different places.  Like other aspects of critical pedagogy, theories of cognition are informed by a vision of human beings as dynamic and powerful: “To be human is to possess the power to change, to be better, to be smarter, to become a transformative agent” (p. 175).  As he describes this new approach to psychology—long the domain of positivist research—Kincheloe stresses that this is not a call to abandon rationality, but to develop more rigorous, contextualized understandings of human cognition and production of the self.

By the end of this book, readers may find themselves feeling strangely hopeful despite their new awareness of how dominant approaches to education and research perpetuate inequality.  A quick look at the website for the Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy confirms Kincheloe’s claim that people all over the world are thinking about, grappling with, and remaking the ideas presented in this primer.  As demonstrated by the website’s online dialogue about the book, some readers will be inspired but overwhelmed by the breadth of ideas and critiques presented in this text.  Teachers interested in critical pedagogy will find the book useful in redefining their approach to the profession, but much less useful in supporting their day-to-day classroom work.  Those who are unsympathetic to the causes of the political left will quickly abandon this book, since the first page presents a sharp critique of the United States’ war in Iraq.  However, those who share Kincheloe’s political concerns will find much of use from this explanation of critical pedagogy.  Readers weary of scholarship that provides empty praise for concepts like multiculturalism and diversity will appreciate the way this primer sketches a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the power of difference for achieving liberatory goals.  Similarly, those frustrated with alternative research approaches which deconstruct positivism and offer in its place only relativism and flimsy “feel-good” methodologies, will welcome Kincheloe’s deep and persistent commitment to methodological, theoretical, and intellectual rigor.  Perhaps most importantly, teachers and researchers alike will find that this text positions them as partners in work that is practical, rigorous, and profoundly hopeful.

Rucheeta Kulkarni

About the Reviewer
Rucheeta Kulkarni is a PhD candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program at Arizona State University.  She is a former middle school teacher and is currently working on a dissertation about the experiences of low-income minority youth attending college preparatory charter schools.  Her research interests include school choice policies, multiculturalism in schools, and heritage language education.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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