Education theory as a weapon of liberation
Review by Spyros Themelis
Nowadays it is becoming increasingly rare to find intellectually stimulating works that also engage in political committed analysis of modern societies. Peter McLaren and his companeras y companeros have given us a compelling and high-quality book* that manages to balance both of these elements skilfully and with great success.
In more than 500 pages we have an uncompromising and refreshing volume which is certain to have a lasting impact upon educational theory, politics and pedagogy. However, its reach is not restricted to academia nor is it directed at a specific audience. Rather its broad range appeals equally to all those who have not lost hope for the transformation of society.
There are five different sections in this volume, each one having a distinct thematic priority but underpinned by the same principle: the realisation of the corrosive and alienating influence of neo-liberalism, postmodernism and capitalism in our lives and the urgent need for critical resistance and active participation in a project of social transformation. This is a project that "transcends the limits of historical structures" and requires "agency as a form of both intellectual labour and concrete social practice, in short a social praxis". In harmony with his previous works, Peter McLaren's writing is characterised by a materialist conception which rejects the pervasive neo-colonial attitudes and forms of oppression, a view (and a way of living) that his co-authors seem to share.
The first section deals with educational policy, the politics and the praxis in critical pedagogy. The authors exemplify, in a disciplined and rigorous manner, the current educational conditions as much in the United States as elsewhere. Neo-liberalism's invasion into schools and educational sites, its colonising and undemocratic pedagogies, its humiliating, market-driven educational policies, are laid bare in order to expose the ideological arsenal that props them up.
Above all there is the belief that educators can bring about this change. Critical educators are those who can align themselves with the possibility of the restoration of historical materialism, those who can arise above the "crisis of credibility of the socialist project" and who believe in the "power of collective struggle".
In the second section, the contributors lay the foundations for revolutionary or critical multiculturalism. Educators are encouraged to re-orientate their pedagogy and embrace revolutionary or critical multiculturalism in order to reconstitute the ills inflicted by capitalism. Social injustices, racism and "whiteness" are all the outcomes of capitalist social relations which remain to be radically challenged and displaced through the practising of revolutionary multiculturalism.
It is suggested that the neo-colonial relations of exploitation, domination and alienation will have to be overturned. Critical educators face the challenge of shaping decolonising pedagogies and allowing for possibilities to see outside the social universe of the capital. Karl Marx's last sentence of the Communist Manifesto could be nowhere more appropriate than here: "The proletariats [and the educators] have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."
The progressive ideas and inheritance of five influential intellectuals are developed in the third section. The relevance of Gramsci's theory about the role of intellectuals in respect to ideology and hegemony is proposed as a means of change for educators who want to face the new challenges. The anti-foundationalism and "Jacuzzi populism" of the modern philosopher Rorty are exposed, although the need for philosophy in critical pedagogy is recognised. Such an approach is provided by Paulo Freire's revolutionary humanism and commitment to democratic socialism. The section is completed with a succinct sketching of Harvey's historical materialism and "real-and-imagined geography of radical hope".
In section four the politics of popular culture are unravelled and deconstructed in the light of critical pedagogy. All four papers deal with a different aspect of popular culture and the stimuli provided come from diverse geographical and social areas. Topics such as "cool violence" or "queer theory" are elaborated and the authors do not hesitate to delve into their murky waters from a Marxist perspective.
Finally, in the last section Peter McLaren participates in four "critical dialogues". Each interview is a stimulating debate where the participants build on a topic with coherence and passionate engagement. There is no better way to end such a book than these interviews which can be viewed as an invitation to enquire into McLaren's inexorable and relentless commitment to critical pedagogy and hope for the radical transformation of society.
This volume is a unique opportunity to delve into the thought and struggle of a man who has spent most of his life in a project to which he remains loyal: the radical displacement of capitalism and its ills and the struggle for the emancipation of people from all the oppressions of modern life.
Educators are positioned at the core of such a struggle and critical pedagogy is seen as their uppermost weapon. Life and critical pedagogy cannot be separated as they both gaze to the future with optimism but without neglecting the past. At least for all those who can cope with losing their chains.
Peter McLaren and Companeras y Companeros: Red Seminars: Radical Excursions into Educational Theory, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy Hampton Press, 2004. $39.50 ISBN 1-57273-571-6