He may look like Santa Clause and he has been accused of being "red" but Paulo Freire rejected Communism despite his neo-Marxist methodology.
The major theorist behind critical pedagogy has been the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. However, the history of critical theory begins earlier. The earliest theorists were part of the Frankfurt School in Germany. Heavily influenced by the diagnostic methods of Marx, they believed that the traditional German approach (modeled after a factory) had to be replaced by a more humane, democratic and critical system.
It is not suprising that this theory began in the early 1920’s. The entire world was questioning theories and skeptical of powerful social instutions, after facing the bloodiest war in global history. After all, in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the early notions of quantum mechanics were both challenging the Newtonian system. In art and music, modernism, with its avante garde approach had overthrown the harsh confinement of a Victorian system. Throughout the world, intellectuals began to advocate socialism and Marxism. It is understandable that, with this new modern worldview, critical pedagogy would change educational theory.
With the rise of Hitler, the Frankfurt School fled throughout the world. Although this first appeared to destroy the theory, the diaspora of academics meant that the seeds of critical theory were planted in unusual places. In the 1960s, another period of questioning and change, Jergen Habermas emerged as the leading voice of critical theory.
However, it would be in the unexpected nation of Brazil that the greatest critical theorist would emerge. Paulo Freire lived in the impoverished town of Recife, where his family went from solidly middle class to scraping by in poverty. Though he later donned the same scruffy beard, Freire differed from Marx in that he actually experienced poverty first hand and developed his theories from his work with labor unions. His major focus was adult education and empowering the poor through literacy skills. Freire was the first to develop the “base groups” which would become a permanent fixture for years to come in Latin America. Freire’s work inspired people in a fields, from the development of Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church to grass roots political parties to alternative adult education programs.
Currently, the most famous critical theorist is Henry Giroux, who serves as professor at Penn State University. Giroux uses some of the neo-Marxist approach, but has been heavily influenced by post-colonialism (Especially Edward Said and Noam Chomsky) in their criticisms of hierarchical structures. Many postmodernists have borrowed from and transformed some of the key tenets of critical pedagogy in order to create a new system of education.
Oddly enough, some of the leading practices in this style of education come from the postmodern evangelical Emergent Church movement. Here the pastor engages in a dialogue with a small group as they grapple with how challenge social structures. Using Freire’s Axis-Praxis cycle, they attempt to connect their theology with the realities of life.
Picture of Girox (left) and Chomsky (right)