Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism

Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo

Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2007).

A radical consciousness, which includes a working knowledge how capitalism operates, does not come to us without help from teachers and their teachings. Within the field of critical pedagogy, Peter McLaren has been pushing at the boundaries of acceptable educational theory for over twenty years, starting with his first book, Cries from the Corridor (now self-critiqued and republished as Life in Schools), which documented his teaching experiences throughout the late 1970s in the Jane-Finch district of Toronto (home to Canada’s largest government housing complex).

Since the early 1990s, McLaren has produced a huge output of writings aimed at developing a revolutionary Marxist pedagogy, steeped in Freirean philosophy and critical of the political bankruptcy of public schools and teachers’ colleges throughout North America. Overall, he has been both captivating and convincing in arguing for the radical reorientation of public schooling and pedagogy. His present book, co-authored with colleague Nathalia Jaramillo, continues in this tradition, offering four no-holds-barred essays which apply a Marxist humanist perspective to issues ranging from the Bush administration’s politics of conservative Christianity to the challenges of organizing civil society in a time of permanent war.

McLaren and Jaramillo start with the notion that there is a “crisis in global capitalism” related to rising unemployment, wage-stagnation, and deepening poverty. These trends are taking place alongside booming corporate profits, the financialization of the global economy, and new powerful ruling class formations. Nowhere is the crisis more evident than in what occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. Described as a literal assault on poor African-American populations, McLaren and Jaramillo write that “it was an attack on hope: Hope that the United States had overcome its historical legacy of racism, hope that educated journalists had moved beyond portraying life in the United States with brutally overt or subtle racist stereotypes, hope that capitalist democracies had made necessary headways in ending poverty, hope that the government could muster whatever it took to care for its poor and dispossessed in a time of emergency” (7f). The Louisiana scenario called into question the very legitimacy of capitalist democracy in the 21st-century US; hence, argue the authors, one of the fundamental tasks of critical educators today is to make explicit connections (in instances like Katrina) between capitalism and the destruction of the ecosystem, the failure of the US government to provide for the affected populations, and the panic-driven racialization of these populations in the mass media (when it came time to allocate blame for the post-disaster tragedies).

For the US, the other major tragedy unfolding is the current war in (and on) Iraq. McLaren and Jaramillo view the occupation of Iraq as the logical outcome of a super-militarized style of capitalism that is applied in order to consolidate power, secure resources, control markets, and realize profit. Particularly challenging to the authors is the fact that “the most formidable military presence ever known to humankind” is “one that is fundamentally unopposed” (25). They recognize that the war reflects more than just a right-wing administration obsessed with destruction and death; rather, it is the expected outcome of a capitalist system rife with contradictions and conflict. It is the system itself, not merely its political elites, that needs to be understood.

McLaren and Jaramillo are greatly concerned with the ideological politics of the Bush crew. The current religious push is alarming not only because it confuses and disempowers the most marginalized sectors of society (mainly, the poor and the working class, often in communities of color), but because at the end of the conservative Christian argument for “religiosity” and “morality” lies a justification of the market and the “divine right” to launch wars in the name of “bringing freedom” to strategic parts of the world. At home, extensive efforts have been made to culturally identify with the base of evangelical Christians in order to garner their support while carrying out economic policies that are pro-business, anti-labor, and anti-democratic.

Throughout their discussion, McLaren and Jaramillo insist on the relevance of critical pedagogy. As the larger conflicts of the society are always present in its classrooms and public spaces, the authors view radical pedagogy as crucial to developing a socialist consciousness amongst students, workers, and activists. How can this pedagogy begin to be practiced? In response, the authors theorize an educational Marxist humanism “grounded in a critique of the material social relations and practices associated with contemporary capitalist formulations” (106). This begins with the introduction of more radical discourses into educational literature and teacher education programs, not for the sake of promoting a narrowly political “agenda,” but to counteract the conservative offensive taking place in the arena of higher education, led by individuals such as David Horowitz.

Critical pedagogy reveals the social relations and institutional structures that mediate how educators approach the concept of curriculum, design, evaluation, and classroom instruction, in order to help students locate their agency so that they can act more coherently as individuals growing up in social conditions not of their own making. This pedagogy operates from the understanding that the basis of education is political, in the sense that “education” is always for the benefit of someone and serves some specifiable interest, and that spaces need to be created where students can be given the opportunity, resources, skills, and vocabulary to imagine a world outside of capitalism’s law of value. These are spaces in which alternatives to capitalism and capitalist institutions can be discussed, debated, and struggled for while developing an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-patriarchal approach to reading the word. As McLaren and Jaramillo see it, a critical pedagogy against capitalism, empire, and imperialism is a pedagogy that works in the interests of working people, empowerment, and democracy. It is a pedagogy for socialism.

It goes without saying that these are not easy times to be a critical educator in the US. Public schools play a crucial role in introducing individuals to the capitalist understanding of how society is most efficiently organized in the workplace, in the home, and in civil society. Teachers who commit themselves to challenging and questioning “business as usual” often find themselves under attack. McLaren and Jaramillo explain that “where classrooms once served as at least potentially one of the few spaces of respite from the ravages of the dominant ideology, they have now been colonized by the corporate logic of privatization and the imperial ideology of the militarized state. Teachers are left suspended across an ideological divide… as they are reminded by their administrators and government officials that to bring ‘politics’ into the classroom is unpatriotic” (33).

In January 2006, McLaren learned first-hand what happens to intellectuals who question the capitalist commonsense when he came under a nasty attack at the University of California-Los Angeles (where he teaches) by a conservative alumni association. News of the incident, characterized by intimidation, witch-hunting, and a trashing of academic freedom, spread widely. McLaren was spitefully named the #1 professor of the “Dirty Thirty,” an accusatory list of UCLA professors castigated for their supposedly politically-biased and ideologically-extreme activity in the classroom. The website responsible for the attack,, proclaims its dedication to “exposing UCLA’s radical professors,” includes slanderous profiles of so-called “dangerous elements at UCLA,” and originally offered cash payments to students for information supplied on “radical professors” before the university deemed such an on-campus political spy program illegal. They have since changed their offering to “free advice in reporting, documenting, and publicizing abusive professor behavior.” Joseph McCarthy would have been proud of such disciples.

In the context of the conservative backlash against progressive and leftist thinkers in the academy, McLaren and Jaramillo’s writings on pedagogy and praxis are important in the sense that they unapologetically interrogate and critique global capitalism, in the interests of fostering a critically-literate and politically-empowered student populace. Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire is not merely a work of radical educational theory. It is infused with activist sensibilities and directly connected to the material conditions of the world as we experience it today.

Reviewed by Andrew Michael Lee
University of California at Santa Barbara

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