education and possible revolutionary futures: The theories and pedagogy
of Peter McLaren
by Luis Huerta-Charles & Marc Pruyn
New México State University
In this article, we explore
evolutionary and revolutionary growth of North American scholar,
activist, Peter McLaren. Specifically, we will seek to chart and
discuss the arc of his development as a radical
intellectual; an intellectual who early-on embraced radical
explanations of how and why our society operates in the
ways that it does (especially in schooling contexts); and an
intellectual who has (along with other important scholars in
Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East) helped, during
the last decade, to spearhead a fresh, re-invigorated and democratic
examination of Marx, and the implications of Marxideas in education and
these times of W, ever more brutal efforts at globalization and
seemingly perpetual war. And we will attempt to do this
through two distinct, yet similar, personal lenses. We both work in the
Chihuahuan Borderlands where New México,
Texas and Chihuahua come togetherformerly referred to as the maquiladora (sweatshop) capital
of the world [now
Asia is competing for this title]. Luis came to work at New México
State University (NMSU) this year after teaching,
living, working and organizing in Monterrey, Méxcio. Marc came to NMSU
eight years ago after teaching, living,
working and organizing in Los Angeles, EEUU. We will each reflect on,
analyze and critique the major ideas and
periodsof McLaren, drawing on our own experiences as teachers, students
and activists. In the first section, Luis y
McLarenDesde Monterrey a Las Cruces,Luis will elaborate his
understandings and critiques of McLarens work within
an urban/Mexican/US context. In, Marc y McLarenDesde La Ciudad de Los
Angeles a Las Cruces,Marc will do the
same, within an meta-urban/US context.
LUIS Y MCLARENDESDE
MONTERREY A LAS CRUCES
Learning McLarens Pedagogy of Revolution
Learning is a socially and culturally constructed activity. It is shaped and determined by social, economic, cultural, political and historical factors, which are interwoven by hegemonic discourses through social practices, institutional norms and rules used by dominant groups in molding peoples subjectivity. In that way, people install into their subconscious sphere ideas and worldviews that most of the time are not of their own creation and assume identities they believe are unchangeable and natural; as if things should happen just in the way they are.
During learning processes, positioned subjects (Greene, 1995; Rosaldo, 1993) construct knowledge and bestow specific meaning to things, situations and specific events. Therefore, when learning occurs, individuals interpret anything they interact with from the perspectives and worldviews where they are positioned; that is, people use first their previous knowledge to approach the learning of any fact or relation. However, learning does not just happen inside schools. It takes place in every situation where individuals interact with each other and with any object of knowledge. This could materialize on the street, in the house, in the factories, in churches and, obviously, in schools. For that reason, we say learning is socially determined.
In this section, I try to show what happened when I was learning McLarens ideas as part of a doctoral program in which I was a student. I present some reactions and interpretations students gave to Peter's critical ideas. I recorded in my notebook several comments, rejections and some mockeries my classmates said about McLaren's theoretical elaborations. I also learned from those experiences by interrelating my situatedness as an historical Latin American student, with McLaren's framework and studentsresistances to the intellectual demands that critical theory required from them.
I have to assume, first of all, that Peter's oeuvre is challenging and difficult at the same time. It is so because it requires from its readers somehow a connectionor the willingness to connectwith the language of critique and possibility McLaren uses in reflecting on educational and political topics. As a matter of fact, some scholars (Apple, 1999) and students (Huerta, Horton & Scott, 2001) have pointed out that the language elaborated by critical theorists, such as Peter, is too abstract and confusing. Moreover, McLarens oeuvre especially demands closeness to the commitment with the hope of constructing a better, more human and just world. In this analysis, I try to illustrate that the nature of his work provokes different reactions and actions, depending from where and how individuals are as positioned subjects, and interact with Peter's reflections.
About Peter's Personal Processes
I think Peter walks his talk. In other words, he is a coherent scholar because he has done what he has said. As he says (1995), being an active social agent implies learning to live with/in contingency, uncertainty and tentatively. I believe through his intellectual-theoretical development, he has lived in that way. Frequently, McLaren has moved cautiously, combining his political educational activism with his understanding of the culturally and discursively constructed social relations within a global capitalist state (Huerta & Pruyn, 2001).
In some moments of his theoretical development, McLaren has also used some poststructuralist tools for analyzing oppressive forms based not just on social class analysis. However, he was also cautious about that and put under analytical scrutiny the poststructuralist thought he was using. Using a Marxist-based analysis, he questioned the poststructuralist perspective and criticized its emphasis in decentralizing the political struggle that mislead the critical analysis and guided it into separate and isolated struggles (1997, 2000). He says that some postmodern and poststructuralist theories unwittingly have helped to reduce the importance of some significant elements of the social critique that critical pedagogy had placed on the power/class relationship within the analysis of global capitalism. He goes further on this
"they view symbolic exchange as taking place outside the domain of value; privileging structures of deference over structures of exploitation and relations of exchange over relations of production; &encourage[ing] the coming to voice of the symbolically dispossessed over the transformation of existing social relations; &replac[ing] the idea that power is class specific and historically bound with the idea that power is everywhere and nowhere." (2000; p. 35)
In the same style, Apple (1999) criticizes these theories. He says that, even though he does not want to widen the divide among critical groups when it is time to forge alliances among them, that it is necessary to indicate some aspect of these approaches that make them inappropriate for extending their influence over struggles for social justice
"their stylistic arrogance, the stereotyping of other approaches and their concomitant certainty that theyve got theanswer, their cynical lack of attachment to any action in real schools, seeming equation of any serious focus on the economy as being somehow reductive"(p. 55)
As Peter is continuously aware of his own assumptions and the relationships they have with his own values, principles and commitment towards social justice and the construction of a democratic society, we did see him moving from critical theory to poststructuralist frameworks; and now, we see him moving from critical pedagogya theoretical corpus he helped to constructto what he calls nowadays pedagogy of revolution (McLaren, 2000). For that reason, I say he walks his talk; because he is living with/in contingency and uncertainty while he is looking for perspectives that do not corrupt his principles.
McLaren's theoretical and intellectual movements show us that he is continuously constructing and elaborating explanations for understanding the world and trying to change it for the better. He has tried not to be a static individual, because the static condition could make us to take for granted the world, as if it were unchangeable and inevitable. Therefore, we can become ahistorical subjects, paralyzed from acting to change it because it is strange to us. There is a major risk if we think in this waywe could close the door to the hope that the world could be other way. If we do not take the risk of imaging that things could be otherwise, we cannot start moving to change them, towards utopia or social dreams (Greene, 1995).
During his process of intellectual development, Peter has crossed borders as a cultural worker (Giroux, 1992). He challenges his own assumptions and asks us to engage in a reflexive analysis of our own assumptions. He even asks critical pedagogy to engage in this kind of reflexive and critical process (McLaren, 1998; 2000). Peter's reading of the world and his consequent actions, borders with what Dewey (1933) calls reflective action. Following Dewey's ideas, Zeichner and Liston (1996) say that acting reflectively implies the application of three basic attitudesopen mind, honesty and responsibility. I recognize McLaren as an open-minded intellectual acting reflectively because this kind of scholar listens to different points of view, pays attention to other alternatives and thinks about the possibility of being wrong about his/her own rooted beliefs. I believe Peter is also responsible and honest through his acts because he takes the risk of examining periodically his own actions and evaluates their results while holding the attitude that he can learn something new. To me, being this kind of intellectual means being a morally committed intellectual (Dewey, 1933; Zeichner & Liston, 1996).
About Globalization & Education
In some of his later works, McLaren (1997; 1998; 2000; Allman, McLaren, & Rokowski, 2002; Cole, Hill, Rikowski & McLaren, 2000; Fischman, 1999; Rizvi, 2002) has gone deeply into the analysis of the global capitalist society. He, jointly with other authors (Apple, 1998; 2000a; 2000b; Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999; Dijk, 1998; Giroux, 1992; 1997b; 1998), have shown how groups of power within certain contested terrainsin this case, the social relations of production and its influence on educationestablish specific networks of supporting relationships. Through these relationships, dominant groups of power use all available means for defeating or excluding all opposed voices in order to manufacture a public consent and create an hegemonic worldview that supports global capitalism.
Manufacturing public consent is a way of manipulating ideas and directing public opinion towards government or dominant business purposes (Chomsky, 1987; 1988; Chomsky, Leistyna, & Sherblom, 1995; Herman & Chomsky, 1988). Hegemony is the process of maintaining domination through consensual social practices reproduced in social spaces, such as church, schools, mass media, the political system and the family (Boggs, 1984; Brosio, 1994; Kincheloe, Slattery, & Steinberg, 2000; McLaren, 1989). Those processes represent the ability of the system to reproduce itself (Boggs, 1984).
In the process of hegemonic struggle, powerful groups gain the consent of the oppressed, who usually are not aware they are taking part in their own domination through acceptance of the values and social practices established by those groups. Dominant groups assure their worldview through given symbols, a structured body of knowledge, specific languages and social practices where unequal power relations and privileges are hidden, (Chomsky, 1988; Foucault, 1980; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; McLaren, 1989; Popkewitz, 2000; Popkewitz & Brennan, 1998a; Shutkin, 1998). In so doing, powerful groups establish alliances with sympathizing groups (Apple, 1998; 1999) for cleansing the terrain of adversarial voices. In this way, they achieve control of the means for deploying its worldviews.
McLaren has analyzed those processes and his contributions to them have been considerably ample. He has shown us how the processes of deploying the discourses and social practices derived from global capitalist worldview that have lead people to take capitalist ideology as natural transpires; as McLaren (1998; Rizvi, 2002) says, capitalism has been naturalized and integrated as part of the nature itself (Cole, Hill, Rikowski & McLaren, 2000; McLaren, 1998; Rizvi, 2002). During the 1980s and 1990s, the new capitalism became a new way of understanding the world. As was previously mentioned, neo-liberalism and the new capitalism controlled and subjugated individuals and society as a whole through organizing social practices. Neo-liberalism, new capitalism's theoretical support, became the dominant narrative of current times (Apple, 2000a, 2000b; Burbules & Torres, 2000; Freire, 1998; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996; McLaren, 1997, 1998, 2000).
As McLaren (2000; p. 20) says, neo-liberalism . . . has become the lodestar of the new world's order. The new world's/work's order shapes our society through specific hegemonic practices and ideological discourses. The result was an acceptance of new working conditions where human beings were dehumanized and considered not valuable for exploitation alone (Forrester, 1996). Now, people are considered disposable (Bales, 1999).
Within the neoliberalist perspective, the state is considered weak, an institution that gives up its social functions. Thus, under this assumption, the new capitalist landscape was characterized by fierce competition for markets, reduced wages, more temporary jobs, destruction or weakening of unions around the world, increasing unemployment, less protective labor contracts and reductionif not destructionof the welfare state (Apple, 1998, 2000a; Burbules & Torres, 2000; Forrester, 1996; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996; McLaren, 1998, 2000a). It is the maximization, by any and all means, of profit (Bourdieu, 1998). In other words, new capitalism, globalization and neo-liberalism cannibalized the social and political economy (Adda, 1996; as quoted in McLaren, 1998).
McLaren and other critical educators (for instance, Giroux, 1997a), have indicated that during the last decade, neo-liberalism and the new capitalism have influenced all spheres of our lives, more than ever. Consequently, they have clearly influenced education. Neo-liberal proposals have just been transformed into strategies for converting public schools into private spaces organized by the dynamics of management and efficiency; the ultimate return and coup of Fordism. Parentsindividualistic choice, expressed through vouchers and choiceprograms, is an example of this neo-liberal strategy for improving the quality of schools under a free market ideology (Apple, 1998; 2000a; 2000b; Cole, Hill, Rikowski & McLaren, 2000; McLaren, 1998; 1999; 2000a; Rizvi, 2002).
About Revolutionary Pedagogy
As global capitalism has brought great wealth for a few and misery for the vast majority. . .(Rivzi, 2002; p. 6), and it has generated inhuman living conditions for most people on the planet, McLaren refocuses his analysis towards the construction of alternative spaces where people can liberate themselves from hegemonic oppression (McLaren, 2002; Rizvi, 2002). As a part of his strategy for facing the conditions generated by the savage intensification of capitalism, Peter has moved his alternative educational actions from the previous notion of critical pedagogy to a different concept he calls revolutionary pedagogy(McLaren, 1999; 2000; 2002; Cole, et al., 2000; Farahmanpdur, section three of this volume.)
McLaren (Rizvi, 2002) introduces the concept revolutionary pedagogy based on Allmans (1999; 2001) notion of revolutionary critical education. This is not just an attempt to changing a theorys name. This happens as a response to the continuous and, most of the time, successful process of domesticating critical pedagogy. As McLaren (2000a; p. xxii) argues, . . .the United States has a seductive way of incorporating anything that it cant defeat and transforming that thinginto a weaker version of itself. . . .Considering this, he says that critical pedagogy has become a caricature of the initial idea that gave birth to itthe struggle for a more just society that empowers the powerless to engage in struggles for liberation. For example, the same process has happened with the ideas of Paulo Freire that have been domesticated and reduced to student-directed learning approaches; which avoid discussing or rethinking the social critique and the revolutionary agenda(McLaren, 2000a; p. 35).
Elsewhere, McLaren (1998, 1999; 2000a; Allman, McLaren, & Rikowski, 2002; Cole, et al., 2000; Rizvi, 2002) has established differences between critical pedagogy and revolutionary pedagogy. He says that critical pedagogy. . .
. . . constitutes a dialectical and dialogical process that instantiates a reciprocal exchange between teachers and studentsan exchange that engages in the task of reframing, refunctioning, and reposing the question of understanding itself, bringing into dialectical relief the structural and relational dimensions of knowledge and its hydra-headed power/knowledge dimensions. Revolutionary pedagogy goes further still. It puts power/knowledge relations on a collision course with their own internal contradictions; such a powerful and often unbearable collision gives birth not to an epistemological resolution at a higher level but rather to a provisional glimpse of a new society freed from the bondage of the past. (McLaren, 2000a; p. 185)
Educators who hold a revolutionary pedagogy perspective must face the negative effects of global capitalism. McLaren (2002; Rizvi, 2002) says that revolutionary educators ought to support collective struggles for social change. Using a Marxist-based framework, revolutionary pedagogy could help educators understand, or sometimes overcome, forms of oppression and specifically those related to the process of schooling (McLaren, 2000b). As Allman et al. (2002; p. 13) say, teachers have the capacity to work with red chalk in order to open up alternative visions to capitalism in the classroom. McLaren (2000b) states that from this perspective, teachers now have the possibility, and also the responsibility, of producing new forms of pedagogy, into which they could incorporate social justice principles in order to clash against the diseases of global capitalism and its pervasive negative effects. Within this context, it could be said that the creation of an authentic egalitarian and participatory socialist movement is one of the main aims of revolutionary pedagogy (Rizvi, 2002). Moreover, as McLaren (2000a) indicates, another important goal of this perspective is to change the conditions that generate human suffering and the construction of necessary conditions for liberation.
McLaren's ideas have been widely used in university classes, especially in teacher education programs. When I was a doctoral student in Las Cruces, New México, in several classes McLaren's books were part of the content, because critical pedagogy is one of the pillars upon which the department in which I studied, has constructed its conceptual framework. Peter's critical constructions provoked several reactions in many of my classmates. I will try to present some of the students' reactions reconstructing them from the notes I kept during the classes.
In a class, we were analyzing McLaren's Revolutionary Multiculturalism (1997). Some chapters of the book generated angry reactions from some students. Other classmates were confused and apparently more tolerant with Peter's essays; they said something like this
I can understand his criticisms but, how is it that the rap music is a way of criticizing discrimination? That's crazy! Rap music does not say anything good!
This was expressed regarding the chapter Gangsta Pedagogy and GhettocentricityThe Hip-Hop Nation as Counterpublic Sphere. However, without noticing, this student colleague of mine was bringing into the discussion their own prejudices about what she called Blackmusic. In that class some students were Latino teachers and principals, and other students were White-Anglo principals working in public schools where the population who attended those schools were basically Latino students.
Those classmates were refusing to accept something that McLaren (2002) says is necessary to do constantly to rethink and reflect on their situatedness; in other words, it is to rethink our own situation in the concrete present conditions for recognizing ourselves as a part of the society. It implies a kind of critical elaboration, what Gramsci (1971; Said, 1979) calls the making of our self-inventory. This is hard to perform because it implies the negation of ourselves, recognizing what events and situations marked and lead us to be the kind of individuals we are in this moment. When an individual starts this process, she/he ought to know that she/he will need to put under scrutiny her/his own values and beliefs. That is the hardest part, because most of the time our beliefs were constructed and shaped during our childhood and they basically represent our familial traditions; thus, questioning them is like questioning and rejecting the formation we received from our family. For that reason, it is easier for many of us to doubt critical elaborations and assumeor take for grantedthat things are really working well for all in our global society.
In this context, most of the time it is easier to criticize McLaren through denying his elaborations because they are painful for us. It is easier to say, McLaren got stuck in the 60s,than rethinking our situatedness. It is also easier to say, He is an old fashioned Marxist, who is out of place,than to analyze the challenging ideas he relentlessly throws at us. McLaren is aware of those superficial criticisms; and I say superficialnot as a way of disallowing them or excluding people who do not accept critical positions, but because students did not offer an elaborated and reflective set of arguments regarding the issues Peter was addressing in his book.
McLaren has faced several incisive and pejorative criticisms; some accuse him of being totalitarian for using old-style Marxist language (Rizvi, 2002); others negatively identify him as hippie from the 1960s. Some students in afore mentioned class tried to be tolerantwith McLaren's ideas when he criticized US discriminatory politics and social practices, as well as the logic of the capitalist system that controls social interactions. For instance, because we were located at that time in a Borderlands region, the chapter Ethnographer as Postmodern Fl-neur, provoked annoying and mocking comments when McLaren (1997, p. 103) states that he was eating menudo at Sanborns,which is a well-known restaurant in Juárez, one that is not normally accessible for poor people or popular classes. My classmates said
This is not a restaurant for a revolutionary intellectual like he say he is.
Why he was not eating menudo in the popular market, like the poor people in Juárez.
If he wants to be a revolutionary, he must go to live in Cuba, with Fidel.
As I said before, students thought they were tolerantwith Peter's ideas, because in the US everybody could think the way they want.Nonetheless, if we think a little bit on these expressions, students' tolerance is a kind of superficial tolerance; one that states, McLaren could say anything he wants ,while he did not affect my own space. I would extend this idea further saying that he can say anything while he did not affect my privileges as White-Anglo citizen.
I believe McLaren knows
about this, because he clearly and consistently advances the notion
thatpeople live in
world, not outside it. Even he asks this questionDoes anybody need to
live in a very small apartment with a small
desk, in the worst depressed situation if she/he wants to be
revolutionary? (McLaren, 2002; translation mine.) He
knows people have to live with dignity; people have to live simply.
This is something that hooks (2000, p. 43-46)
explores well as a part of the strategies the advanced capitalist
system uses for leading people to live with
conspicuous consumption, as if all people could have the same access to
commodities, as if our society were
classless. McLaren (2002) says that this is a process of being coherent
with your own principles and that process
requires from critical and Marxist intellectuals to put their
principles in praxis, walking their talks.
It is interesting to mention that McLaren (1999, 2002; Rizvi, 2002), and other intellectuals (for instance, Giroux, 1992, 2002), openly admit that many criticisms from the Academy respond to the way in which higher education institutions have become allies of business investors and supporters of neo-liberal proposals, instead of the moral witness or the critical consciousness of the social worlds in which they are situated. Even McLaren says that . . .the Academy is a vicious and hypocritical place that breeds neo-liberals masquerading as leftist multiculturalists and opportunists trying to pass themselves as selfless solidaristsin the struggle for justice(Fischman, 1999; p. 33).
The concept of revolutionarywithin the educational debate could raise many questions and doubts within the Mexican community of critical educators. First of all, I believe educators in México, as well as in Latin America, are still struggling with the concept of critical pedagogy. We need to understand that theoretical and educational processes happen in different ways depending on the context where they are taking place; for that reason, while we in México and Latin America are still trying to understand it, the recognized founders of the critical pedagogy perspective are now moving towards more advanced notions. For instance, educators still have doubts about the essence of the concept of critical pedagogy. There are several questions about how it should be carried out in schoolsWhat must the dimensions of the critical be in the practice of teaching? What is the ethical and political commitment critical pedagogy must promote among educators?
Nevertheless, our history as Mexicans and Latin Americans (see Casali & Araújo Freire; de Alba & González Arenas; and Moraes in this volume) somehow make us rethink the meaning of the idea of revolutionor revolutionarywithin the critical educational discourse. We have had to face antidemocratic and oftentimes oppressive military governments, and as consequence, we have had to fight social revolutions to sweep out government structures, and actual governments, and impose newer ones that, according to people's experiences, were in some ways also oppressive or discriminatory against non-revolutionaries or women. They were new governments constituted as the last utopia made real; but sadly, more often than notand for different reasons and under different circumstancethey neglected to fully answer peoplescalls for ending oppression and human suffering.
We need first to clarify that the meaning of revolutionary,in the pedagogical sense, is not related to the revolutionary-anarchists-approach that implies, necessarily, an overthrow and killing of authority; it should not make real the metaphor of the dialectic relationship between the master and the slave, because the slave killed the master to become the new master and subjugate new slaves. We have to deconstruct this kind of dualism. Revolutionary,therefore, needs to be understood as the recognition of the other. McLaren (Rizvi, 2002) is clear about this issue when he says that the challenge is to create egalitarian and participatory socialist movement, not just impositions of different forms of class rule.
For that reason, it is important to point out that revolutionary pedagogy is not a methodology, nor is it a set of procedures to follow. It must be mainly a philosophy, a sensibility, a way of understanding the world were we live; it is the comprehension of the relation of the subjectas individual and members of a groupwith her/his own place in a specific historical and cultural context. It is a specific way of understanding the role of teachers in relation to the social, cultural and productive forces that surround us (McLaren, 2002). Revolutionary pedagogy is, then, the philosophical orientation of teaching practices that help us achieve social, cultural, gender and sexual justice.
The conception of revolutionary pedagogy seems to entail a revolution a la Gramsci, because it must be a cultural revolution that helps people understand their situatedness in order to provide them with the necessary critical spaces where they can reflect on their own situation and imagine other alternative possibilities for changing their reality. Gramsci (1981) states that culture is not just encyclopedic knowledge we find in big classical books, rather it means organization, discipline of the self, the process of taking positions in front the world, the conquest of a higher consciousness through which we arrive at the comprehension of the historic value of our own life, our rights and our obligations. Hence, people would achieve culture within educational processes, because through learning interactions people could take possession of their own transcendental self. As Gramsci says, we cannot really know the others if we do not know perfectly enough ourselves.
Then, revolutionary pedagogy must aim to help people achieve culture in this sense, in order to make people capable of changing the conditions of their world. Gramsci hopes people and organic intellectuals could make that a new culture, the culture of ordinary people, becomes a hegemonic culture. In that way, conditions of domination and oppression could be reduced or abolished. Revolutionary pedagogy brings out again the notion of transformative intellectuals that Giroux (1988) and McLaren (Giroux & McLaren, 1986) elaborated at the close of the 1980s.
In a similar way, McLaren (1988) gives sense to his idea of revolutionary pedagogy when he expresses that all revolutions are cultural. Following Amins idea of underdetermination, McLaren states that the determinations of economics, politics and culture each possess their specific logic and autonomy. It is worth quoting him at length on this
There is not complementarity among these logics within the systems of underdetermination; there exist only conflicts among the determining factors, conflicts which allow choice among different possible alternatives. Conflicts among logics find solutions by subordinating some logics to others. The accumulation of capital is the dominant trait of the logic of capitalism and provides the channels through which economic logic is imposed onto political, ideological, and cultural logics. Precisely because underdetermination rather than over determination [an Althusserian concept] typifies the conflictual way in which the logics governing the various factors of social causation are interlaced, all social revolutions must necessarily be cultural revolutions. (McLaren, 1998; p. 447)
Therefore, revolutionary pedagogy tries to reengage us in the continuous reflection on the unjust social relations within global capitalism and invites us to stand against all the cruel living conditions that have derived from it. If we engage ourselves in the struggle (because I think it will imply a battle within ourselves and our institutions) for promoting teaching practices that hold a revolutionary pedagogical focus, we can start thinking that the world could be transformed into a better place to live. Revolutionary pedagogy is still a quest, a process in the making that is permeated with the idea of releasing the imagination, because, as Greene (1995) says
Imagination . . . is what enables us to cross empty spaces between ourselves and those we teachers have called otherover the years. . . . [It] is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities. It allows us to break with the taken for granted, to set aside familiar distinctions and definitions. (p. 3)
The challenge is in front of
us. It is up to us to face it or not.
MARC Y MCLARENDESDE LOS
ANGELES A LAS CRUCES
The Man with the Ché Tattoo
Ive been fortunate enough to know two Ché nuts personally. Well, Ché nutsmay be a little harshly put, so lets say Ché aficionados, Ché celebrants. The first can best be described as a male European North American doctoral student, Vietnam veteran and Hoosier enthusiast in his early 50s who wandered the halls of New México State Universitys Department of Curriculum & Instruction, here in the Chihuahuan Borderlands, over the past five and a half months. And he wandered in a most interesting costume (we all, of course, wear costumes), one that included items (t-shirts, bags, buttons, baseball caps, coffee mugs) honoring and celebrating his support of the ideas of Ernesto ChéGuevara, his boosterism for a certain Iowan college sports team and his military service in Southeast Asia thirty years ago. The second can best be described a male European North American professor and criticalist who regularly sported black Levis, hipster vests and black combat boots who wandered the halls of UCLAs Graduate School of Education & Information Sciencewhen it was temporarily re-located (just after one of LAs frequentalthough this one a bit more destructive than mostearthquakes) on an entire floor in a sterile business office building in downtown Westwoodwith long blond hair that half hid his face, John Lennon glasses that didnt seem to quite fit the early/mid-1990s, a hammer and sickle ring and a set of unassuming shoulders that would soon boast two tattoo portraitsone of Emiliano Zapata and another of Ernesto Guevara.
The first fellow was Randy. He died of a heart attack at 53 earlier this year. He worked as my graduate assistant. I chaired his doctoral committee. Randy was a sweet, kind, interesting, enthusiastic, bright, hard working and enigmatic guy who was really excited to be pursuing advanced graduate work in our department. He only recently joined us in education from the history department where his thesis focused on the Cuban revolution. And even though Randy only knew Ernesto for a short time, he sure loved him! I had been really looking forward to exploring his (and my own!) contradictions and complex positionalities over many cups of rich, darkly brewed coffee here in our town of 100,000 souls at Milagros coffee house. The second fellow is Peter. He is alive and well and living off of Sunset Boulevard in the belly of the beast; in the gut of capitals dream factory (where I grew up).
Why do I bring up Randy and Peters mutual admiration for Ché Guevara? For several reasons. First, Ché speaks to us. He speaks to us through his writings and speeches, but he especially speaks to us through his living revolutionary example of solidarity, internationalism, optimism, populism and activism; through his living radical praxis. Ché did not only espouse the socialist ideal of the new person, he embodied it, like Paulo Freire, like Sojourner Truth, like Miles Horton, like Emma Goldman, like Peter McLaren. Ché is a beacon on the left, a rallying Marxist fog horn, especially in these times of neo-liberalism, structural adjustment and super-exploitation. Peter serves the same function on the educational left.
Second, it was Ché that helped me, as a pedagogue, lead Randy to Peter. Ché was his introduction to left theory and practice. Then he came over to education. During our first meeting, Randy asked, Who should I read in education on the left? Who is advancing the ideas of Ché within education? Well, for me, and for so many others, thats Peter McLaren. I reached over to my bookshelftwo feet from where Im writing this right nowand pulled out Peters Ché Guevara, Paulo Freire & the Pedagogy of Revolution (2000) and photocopied (sorry, Peter and copyright lawyers!) section oneThe Man in the Black Beret. And I told Randy, Read this. And although Randys first reading of this text was not unproblematicsee belowI was able to nudge him into intellectually strolling through the fascinating and varied terrain of left educationalists. And for those seriously interested in left pedagogy, McLaren is a must read. Some begin this philosophical foray with Freire (I did; 1970, 1985) or Bigelow (1998) or Weiler (1988) or Loewen (1995) or Kincheloe (2002) or Steinberg (1997) or Slattery (1995) or hooks (1994). Randy began with Peter. And Peter began with Ché (and Paulo). But today, any serious engagement with left theory, politics, philosophy, ideology or research in education has to include McLaren. For many, it starts with McLaren. It did for Randy.
Readers, I would like to be
completely frank you. While this essay will certainly attempt to
expound upon and critique
the central ideas put forth in the work of Peter McLaren, it is largely
a personal accounting of how McLarens work has
effected me; first as a teacher, then as a graduate student and finally
as a professor.
Reading Peter McLaren
How, when, where and why did I first read McLaren? How did I first engage with his revolutionary ideas? Well, this requires a little back-story. So please bear with me.
I was a bilingual primary teacher for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s in LAs Pico Union Districtwhere working class Central Americans and Mexicans (fleeing Reagan and capitals wars of terror and economic domination) made their North American homes. I was born there, in Gotham-West; met my compañera there (at Hollywood High School, no less); earned my BA from UCLA in political science (although, really, in political activism, Bob Marley & the Wailers, red wine and the study of Marxism); became an emergency credentialed bilingual teacher (I was bilingual and wanted to work with the Central American community I had become an activist within years before); earned a teaching credential and MA in bilingual/multicultural education from Cal State Dominguez Hills (a wonderful university that serves its Latina, African American & working class community well); and began a doctorateback at my old alma matter, UCLAin the early 1990s. I began to pursue PhD work at la ucla (pronounced la uuuu kla) because of the encouragement of Max, Sylvina and Philip at Dominguez Hills; and becausedue to our strong teachersunion, United Teachers-Los Angeleswe had a strong contract at the time with the school district that would give us extra pay for completed post-graduate work. It wasnt until I began taking classes with Carl, Kris, Jeannie, Carlos, Harold and Peter, though, that I began to seriously consider professorinas a job.
I became politically activated and seriously engaged in the 1980s as an undergraduate at UCLAaround issues first of divestment/anti-apartheid in South Africa, then against war and imperialism in Central and South America and Palestine. Thats when I became a leftie. As an undergraduate I read Marx; a lot of Marxand Ché and Mao and Fidel and Braverman and Tucker and Goldman and X. In my masterswork in education, I first sought-out the leftie freaks, of course. That led me to Freire (1972) and Horton (1998) and Bowles & Gintis (1976) and Apple (1979) and Giroux (1988) and McLaren (1986, 1989, 1991). But, as is the case with many of our students (including Randy, who after reading Peters engrossing and important Ché & Paulo book (2000) was a little befuddled), I had a hard time. I was into the progressive ideas that linked dominant educational practices with capital, exploitation and oppression (through systems of socialization), but the discursive practices of these new authors (some of whom I was reading in translation), and the new, specialized vocabulary they employed, was a bit daunting to me. But I got as much as I could out of these texts at the time, reflected upon them and continued being a mostly liberalpedagogue striving to understand and birth my inner criticalist.
It wasn't until several years later, in Carl Weinbergs educational foundations class, during my first semester as UCLA doctoral student, that I re-engaged with the educational left. For a read-critique-and-report-back assignment for Carl, I drew McLaren. I went to townSchooling as a Ritual Performance (1986), Life in Schools (1989), Cries from the Corridor (1982). I also re-read Freire (1970, 1985). And I discovered Weiler (1988) and Aronowitz (1992) and Fine (1992) and Sleeter (1992). And as I journeyed through these texts afresh, I experienced a discursive and intellectual breakthroughI GOT IT! I was in the groove. I understood these folks, or at least began to. But two texts in particular were pivotal; and I happened to be reading them togetherFreires Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and McLarens Life in Schools (1989). In Pedagogy, I began to feel Freires words and experiences and vision for emancipatory education. I felt his passion, caring and revolutionary love. In Schools, I felt all the same things, andbecause of Peters amazing command of language (who Kincheloe has dubbed the poet laureate of the educational left) and his ability to combine classroom data and high brow, sophisticated forms of philosophical analysis (see Performance and Schools! Hijola!) I understood how the educational left situated itself and viewed struggle within pedagogical and other contexts.
Later, from the Chair of my dissertation committee, Kris Gutierrezan amazing and inspirational sociocultural/sociolinguistic theorist and researcherI learned that Peter was actually seeking a position at UCLA; that he was thinking of leaving the University of Miami at Oxford, Ohio, where he had worked for years with Henry Girouxanother important and foundational member of the criticalist community, some would venture an original gangsta of critical pedagogy, along with Freire, Bowles & Gintis, McLaren and Appleto come and work with us. And Peter did indeed come and join our intellectual community in the privileged hills of Westwood and Brentwood, Los Angeles, to help us understand, theorize and advance a critical pedagogy for social justice. But he didnt stay in the hills, and neither did we; nor were we from those hills. We returned to EastLos to Pico Union to South-central to Venice to Glendale to Culver City to the Valley to Hollywood. And we took Peter with us. And we did research together. And we wrote together. And we learned together. It was really something.
Thats how I first read Peter McLarenin the privileged UCLA seminar room; in my Hollywood neighborhood late at night reading on my couch with the LAPD helicopters spotlights and loudspeakers booming out, invading and harassing the Latinas and Armenians of my working class neighborhood; on the East LA elementary playgrounds and classrooms where we conducted our team research; over conversations at coffee houses in one of the worlds Queer Meccas, West Hollywood; working as his research assistant. That is how I first (successfully) began to read and understand McLaren, and critical pedagogy.
Now I live in the Chihuahuan Borderlands that surround the Las Cruces, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez corridor. And his work is as relevant and inspiring as ever. Some, myself included, would even argue that his current theorizing and writing is even more relevant today than it was in the 1980s, with his return (with a vengeance) to analyses of political economy in the face of that ugly juggernaut that is global capitalism and the reign of BabyBush.
What are McLarens central ideas? What has been the arc of his intellectual endeavors over the past twenty years? Where has he made errors? What should he be doing that he is not? Or has not? What are his strengths? His weaknesses? Although I feel that others could probably addressed this much more thoroughly and eloquently than I ever could (including Luis, above), I will give it a try.
I have known three theoretical Peters(1) populist Marxist Peter, (2) Marxist postmodernist Peter and (3) full-on Marxist Peter. And I think all three of these men have always existedand still existin this Irish/Catholic/Canadian/North American radical white boy. I also believe each of these Peters is defensible, and has made important contributions, given how and when they existed, and helpful to us as theorists, scholars and pedagogues. Of course, each is also worthy of critique.
When I began reading Peter at UCLA, then when he came to live, work and theorize with us, what spoke to me was his radicalism. What drew me, and draws so many today, is what drew Randy and Peter to Chéan unflinching and populist commitment to accurately and intensely scrutinize and critique the economic system under which most of us in the world live; the system that is at the heart of much of so much of humanitys sufferingcapitalism; an economic and ontological systema way of knowing and actingthat praises greed, individualistic accumulation and selfishness, over sharing, compassion and the collective good. Direct, honest and no-holds-barred analyses of these types speak to us. We know capitalism is wrong. We know that global economies driven by the profit imperative will lead to falsely created scarcity,perpetual war (who will be next to join Ws evil axis, Malta?), mass starvation (can 30,000 children starving to death every day in a capitalist world that produces enough food to feed them be right?) and meaningless (and dehumanizing and dangerous) forms of laboring and schooling. This is something most of us in the world experience, intuit or observe regularly (some much more than others). Of course, were hegemonized to think economic, gender, ethnic, cultural and sexual oppression is natural. But, amazingly, and despite the frustratingly effective and obfuscating cloak of hegemony, most of us know its not.
And the populist Marxist Peter on the early and mid-1980s spoke to usthose of us within, but also those of us outside of academiain a way that made analyses of political economy resonate among broad sectors; that is why his work has become so popular worldwide and translated into so many languages. The work of this Peter at this time (1986, 1989), along with that of Giroux (1986, 1988), began to extend Bowles & Gintis (1976), Apple (1979) and the Frankfurt School (Adorno, 1950, 1973; Horkheimer, 1940, 1947; Marcuse, 1964, 1987). It began to explain the daily goings-on within what Marx had described as the superstructure and Gramsci more helpfully theorized as the social hegemonic order.
The populist Marxist Peter of the 1980swhose radical, Marxist and accessible work began to focus on understanding and explaining the finer cultural and day-to-day machinations of capitalist re/productionlead naturally to the Marxist postmodernist Peter of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Beginning with his work of this period, McLaren has consistently taken seriously the claims, challenges and insights raised by theorists and researchers working in the field of postmodernist/poststructuralist social theory. He has taken from this intellectual tradition what has shown to be helpful in understanding social/economic/cultural conditions and the role discourse plays in creating, maintaining and/or restructuring relations of power between human beings. Critics claim that, for a time during this period in his scholarship, Peter was over-infatuated with French postmodernism and poststructuralism a la Foucault (1973, 1980), Baudrillard (1981, 1996), Bourdieu (1991) and Derreida (1988). It should be noted that many within critical pedagogy flirted with and attempted to address postmodernisms and poststructuralisms important challenges and ideas revolving around power, discourse and agency. But most did so at the expense of their former Marxist analyses. I dont believe McLaren did.
A more careful reading and analysis of his postmodernist/poststructuralist phasereveals Peters attempt to reconcile the important lessons of postmodernism with his firmly grounded Marxist roots and sympathies. McLaren never abandoned Marxism or historical materialist or political economic analyses. Indeed, he often successfully combined socialist-oriented educationalist activism with understandings of discursively and culturally constructed social relations, non-deterministic/non-orthodox understandings of Marxism and sensitivity to forms of oppression not based onbut still linked tosocial class (sexism, racism, homophobia, linguisism). But even during this period, McLaren was always a cautious optimist regarding the full efficacy of postmodernist/poststructuralist though. He rightfully insisted on maintaining strong connections to Marxian forms of analysis that seem to more adequately explain the current economic reality, while remaining critical of postmodernist theorys tendency to de-centralize collective political struggle and agency. He cautions (1995) that we should not forfeit the opportunity of theorizing both teachers and students as historical agents of re-sistance(P. 223; emphasis mine), as strict postmodernist/poststructuralist theory might have us do.
McLaren, like others working in critical pedagogy, draws on the work of Gramsci (1971, 1981) and the Frankfurt School (Adorno, 1950, 1973; Horkheimer, 1940, 1947; Marcuse, 1964, 1987), and also carefully in-corporates neo-Lyotardian poststructuralist per-spectives (McLaren, 1995) into his work, while con-tinually ad-vocating student agency. Synthesizing the work of these postmodernist/poststructural the-orists, and the ped-agogical theory of Paulo Freire, McLaren calls for the development within students of subject po-sitions as critical social agents, which he defines (1995) as knowing how to live contingently and provisionally without the certainty of knowing the truth, yet at the same time, with the courage to take a stand on issues of human suffering, domination, and oppression(p. 15).
In his more recent work (McLaren 2003, 2002, 2001, 1997; McLaren, Fischman, Serra & Antelo 1998), McLaren has called for a return to a Marxist- and Gramscian-inspired focus and re-emphasis on issues of working class domination and oppression by bourgeois sectorsespecially in this current climate of growing, diversifying and strengthening global capitalist/corporate power and control. If we lose sight of the central role class relations and exploitation play, in educational contexts and elsewhere, he cautions, our analyses will be incomplete and our successes in struggling for social justice few and far between. This full-on MarxistPeter much more clearly and directly sees the importance of returning to a re-imagined, a re-read and a re-invigorated Marx. The following lengthy, but illustrative, quote from Peter is indicative of this newest period
While some postmodernists adventitiously assert that identities can be fluidly recomposed, rearranged, and reinvented...I maintain that this is a shortsighted and dangerous argument. It would take more than an army of Jacques Lacans to help us rearrange and suture the fusillade of interpolations and subject positions at play in our daily lives. My assertion that the contents of particular cultural differences and discourses are not as important as how such differences are embedded in and related to the large social totality of economic, social, and political differences may strike some readers as extreme. Yet I think it is fundamentally necessary to stress this point...It is true that...poststructuralist and postmodern theories have greatly expanded how we understand the relationship between identity, language, and schooling; but all too often these discourses collapse into a dehistoricizing and self-congratulatory emphasis on articulating the specifics of ethnographic methodologies and the ideological virtues of asserting the importance of naming ones location as a complex discursive site. As essential as these theoretical forays have been, they often abuse their own insights by focusing on identity at the expense of power. (McLaren, 1997, p. 17)
In Ché & Paulo (2000), Peter presents his most radically Marxist, theoretically developed and poetically articulate vision of education for social justice and change since he became one of North Americas top educational criticalists in the mid-1980s. The thesis of this volume is that an analysis of global/late capitalism, and its socially, politically and hegemonically constructed superstructure (and this superstructures social, political and counter-hegemonic deconstructability) needs to be re-centralized within educational (and other) struggles for social justice and change; but re-centralized without ignoring forms of oppression beyond classism. Rather, sexism, racism, homophobia, linguisism, nationalism, xenophobia, ageism and sizeism need to be understood within the logic and context of global/late capitalism. These forms of oppression would most probably have a life of their own even in capitalisms absence, but they are certain to be more highly exploited within the overall struggle of global capitalist expansion and competition for markets, market share and non-unionized/underpaid workers.
What McLaren does in Ché & Paulo is clearly explain the connections between these ismsand global capitalism, using as a case study the Indigenous/worker struggle over land in Chiapas, México. Additionally, he successfully blends a Marxist analysis of our current economic and social condition with the nuanced understandings from postmodernism/poststructuralism (hence, the resonance) he developed through a decade-long study of the fieldpraising and critiquing where appropriate.
And, more recently, McLarens edited volume with Hill, Cole and Rikowski, Marxism against postmodernism in educational theory (Lexington Books, 2002), comes full circle by, in some of his most succinct argumentation to date, making the strongest possible case for a carefully contextualized and reasoned Marxist explanation for the current state of our educational system, society and world; and, even more importantly, and heuristically, how and why we should collectively struggle to build a more just order.
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In this article, we have attempted to elaborate the central theoretical ideas of Peter McLaren as filtered through our own lived experiences and struggles as teachers, graduate students and professors of education. And as grass roots political/educational/cultural movements are experiencing renewed vigor (against war), and, occasionally, success (against high stakes standardized testing), it seems to us, we should connect our activisms to sound theoretical, historical, philosophical and material explanations and understandings of how and why things are unfolding the way they are; that is, we need to continue to create a living praxis, a unity of theory and action. And McLarens elaborations of the connections between education, political economy and oppression (of all kinds) seems to us like a good place to start.
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 Some of the following text was adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming volume from Peter Lang, Teaching Peter McLarenPaths of Dissent, edited by Marc Pruyn and Luis Huerta-Charles.