|Science and social justice|
The strange case of Lindsay Shepherd and Laurier University hit the news in 2017. During one class in order to illustrate how gender pronouns have caused controversy, Shepherd, a 23 year old teaching assistant, showed a clip of Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The clip was of a TV show in which he discussed his opposition to legally enforced gender pronoun use.
After the class, a student (allegedly) complained about the video and the university launched an enquiry. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting and was castigated by her employer for showing the video. The conversation, which Shepherd recorded, included this exchange:
Rambukkana: So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, and I understand that you’re trying to-
Shepherd: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rabukkana: Okay, “In the spirit of debate” is slightly different than “This is a problematic idea that maybe we want to unpack”
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides.
The ‘critical’ schools
the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.
an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe (2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners…The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of their gender, class, race, etc
…basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.
I recently had a couple of papers published. One was titled ‘a critical look at NLP in ELT‘ and the other ‘A critical examination of perceptual learning styles in ELT‘. Both of these papers use ‘critical’ in the sense of something akin to scientific skepticism. Questioning the veracity of claims, asking for evidence to support arguments and evaluating claims. I would guess this is what most people understand ‘critical’ to mean.
In contrast, the ‘critical’ in Critical Pedagogy means something akin to ‘Marxist’. Proponents can be a bit coy about this, but Scholem (in Hammersley) notes that after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Marxists of the Frankfurt school fled to the US, a country not particularly welcoming to Marxism. There they adopted the term ‘critical’ to describe the kind of research they were interested in. Freire’s critical pedagogy is an example of this:
Freire’s philosophy was continuous with what has been euphemistically termed “western” Marxism, which embraces the quest for a sufficient theory of subjectivity identified in the post-war periods with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology.” (Aronowitz)
- a concern with power relations in society (oppressed/oppressor dichotomy)
- a concern for a more ‘equal’ society
- a goal to not only criticise society but also to change it (praxis)
- a belief that examining society’s power structures will lead to actual social change
- an anti-capitalist (anti-neoliberal) ethos
- A dialectic approach
Critique of this program […] has tended to centre on the mechanisms of meta-analysis. We consider what Visible Learning puts to work in relation to cultural politics and find it closely aligned with agendas of neoliberalism, sexism and ableism…
That is, they are not going to criticise Hattie for factual errors but rather for having the wrong ideology. The journal in which it is published, ‘discourse studies in the cultural politics of education‘ may just sound like any other journal name but if we examine its scope we note that it:
adopts a broadly critical orientation, but is not tied to any particular ideological, disciplinary or methodological position. It encourages interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of educational theory, policy and practice
it is characteristic of CDA, and of much ‘critical’ work in the social sciences, that its philosophical foundations are simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic. This reflects the fact that, in many ways, the term ‘critical’ has become little more than a rallying cry demanding that researchers consider ‘whose side they are on’.”(1997:244)
Freire deals only in vague generalities. Oppression is never clearly defined. Freire concentrates on the oppression of the poor and fails to deal realistically with oppression as it is found at all levels of society. It is a mistake to see only the poor as oppressed and all others as oppressors. (Elias 1976)
If we start from the position that women are part of an oppressed class, then our research will tend to look for examples that support that narrative whereas a fact based approach may tend to throw up problematic data. For instance, a recent trend on twitter was for female PhD holders to affix ‘dr’ in front of their names. This was in response to a viral tweet from ‘Sci Curious’ about how male colleagues were far less likely than female colleagues to correctly address a female colleague. When the researcher actually checked her emails she found no difference.
Widdowson, responding to a critical paper, characterises such approaches as having an ‘epistemological intolerance‘ noting that:
There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard.
The spread of a critical approach
|slides from RadicalKent EAP conference|
There is also a real danger that as critical approaches becomes influential, research which discovers uncomfortable truths will be censored or suppressed. There is evidence that this is already happening (see here and here). Alice Dredger‘s book Galileo’s Middle Finger documents a number of cases of this kind. She argues that Good research has “to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second”.
I think it’s possible to worry that women or PoC often suffer discrimination without believing that there is a systematic ‘neoliberal’ conspiracy at work to keep them under the boot. It’s also possible to want to improve the world without assigning yourself either oppressor or oppressed status. As Widdowson puts it, “you do not have to be a critical linguist to have a social conscience”.
*It has been pointed out to me that the wording of this is not quite accurate. Freire does seem to talk approvingly of Mao’s China up to 1985 and never walks those comments back, but he doesn’t actually quote Mao in the main body of Ped of Opp.