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The Critical Classroom

If we want transformative classrooms to help movement-building to resist the corporate university, how shall we approach this work as educators? Revolutionary theory is a tool for transformation, but to make it mass-based, popular education is necessary.

People can come to analysis and theory through different paths. Some come through studying social and political theory in the academy. Others come through the social struggle itself and the need to have the wisdom of past generations. The existing body of theory and the reflection process are located in the particularity of the group’s experience. The people themselves are developing their collective analysis and leadership. They make the change.

In locating intellectual and political practice in the university setting, the critical classroom is a necessary site of struggle. In this context, there is no such thing as the neutral classroom or objective professor. This is an important point. Students and teachers are conditioned to think that the texts, the writers, the experts are “objective and unbiased.” Those of us with an oppositional viewpoint are treated as “subjective and biased.” Many decades of objective knowledge have been critiqued in the sciences and social sciences. But this way of thinking still persists.

Those involved in transforming the curriculum understood that knowledge is situated. Power, interests, and particularity structure our understanding of the world. For example, the English canon was decided by an elite group of white men at Ivy League institutions.

The critical classroom is a space where activists, scholars, and students co-create knowledge for working toward social transformation. It is also a space where we draw upon the knowledge and histories of communities in struggle. The voices of those in struggle do matter. For example, we would teach Mumia Abu Jamal in a criminal justice course, or Ida Wells-Barnett in a course on black history or women’s history. But the point is how this knowledge and these ideas are used, not just that they are used. Are they being used to challenge traditional assumptions as an oppositional force? Are they being used to center discussion and analysis around movement-building?

Relationship-building between scholars and students and the broader community is also essential for scholar activists. Each organization has its own mission and purpose, and professors sending their students into the community need to understand each organization’s goals.

Today, the language of the university speaks about community engagement, service learning, and community-university partnerships,  i.e., the public university. This language and the practice that informs it are profoundly and intentionally flawed. This is driven by a history of universities exploiting historically marginalized communities through both, research “on” these communities and by geoexpansionism into these communities.

In the service learning model in its most vulgar form, professors can get by without having a relationship with the communities where their students are supposedly “helping,” though some faculty do bring in some analysis of why these communities are in need.

But faculty should not be deluded that by doing this alone these communities will be transformed. At its best, this can contribute to critical consciousness-raising.

If we don’t struggle around the difficult and messy relationships between the academy and the community, we cannot build a movement that scholar activists are a part of. This cannot happen unless scholar activists go into spaces that are community and movement-building and make the commitment to listen first, to recognize and accept the leadership of the community, and to be there for the long haul.

A lot of the internalized oppression among historically marginalized communities plays out as deference to “experts.” The most accessible model we have is to be like the oppressor. Scholars have to resist this trap and its privileges of class, race, nationality, and gender.


Liberatory Learning and Teaching
We offer a theory and practice of liberatory learning and teaching, which is democratic and rooted in the ongoing struggle. It is based on shared power and equality and the transformation of society and the world. The philosophical and theoretical underpinnings are dialectical and historical materialism. Theory and practice are united in the production of knowledge and other forms of consciousness grounded in people’s lived experience and the organization of social life to meet human needs. History is the unfolding of human agency, especially of those most marginalized, to create another world.

This historic moment of renewed social struggle compels us to re-center our curricula, syllabi, and pedagogies around movement-building. This means building community change beyond service learning. Relationships and partnerships between scholar activists and grassroots activists and organizations must be nurtured over the long haul. They will be grounded in trust and shared power and resources. Indigenous knowledge and community-based knowledge will exist in a catalytic relationship with scholar-based knowledge—with keen attention to language, framing, presuppositions, discourse, and the matrix of power of current understanding. The dynamics of the classroom must generate student agency. Facilitation and engagement, peer evaluation, lived experience, and a dialogical teacher-learner/learner-teacher process will be the reality.

This article is excerpted from the Project South Critical Classroom Toolkit, which is available for purchase at:

 Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide is a leadership development organization based in the Southern United States.

Download or view a pdf of this article (272KB).

Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits