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Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities

reviewed by John T. King - June 04, 2012

coverTitle: Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities
Author(s): Sheila Macrine (ed.)
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 0230339565, Pages: 240, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Too frequently, the field of critical pedagogy suffers from two largely self-imposed limitations. First, critical theorists have a long tradition of employing arcane, overly theoretical terminology that renders much of their writing largely inaccessible to many of those whom they claim to speak to and advocate for. According to Giroux (2009), this unfortunate tendency equates to a retreat from public engagement and is counterproductive to the goal of connecting with the larger public and the issues that bear on their lives. Second, even when they are effective in shedding light on problematic power relations and social arrangements, many critical theorists prove less successful in communicating clear and compelling images of the alternatives that they are striving to bring into being. As powerful and incisive as their critiques may be, failure to provide positive, concrete, and attainable alternatives can contribute to despondence and despair rather than inspiring proactive action in pursuit of desired ends. Working in concert, these two tendencies are particularly lamentable for a field such as critical pedagogy, which aims to be, first and foremost, a praxis—a marriage of theory and practice in which theory is grounded in the lived realities of marginalized populations, and committed action is informed by deep understandings of problems and dynamics that theoretical analysis can bring to light.

Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities (2009) serves as a welcome corrective to both of these trends. Editor Sheila Macrine has assembled an impressive array of contributors from the leading vanguard of contemporary critical scholars, including Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Maxine Greene, and a never before published piece by Paulo Freire. These Macrine deftly couples with chapters from several powerful emerging voices in critical theory and educational practice. Organized into two parts, Uncertain Times: Exploring the Costs of Neoliberalism and Critical Pedagogy: A Source of Hope and Possibility, the volume fulfills two important functions. Where Part I acts primarily to enrapt and, at times, enrage the reader by illuminating the nature and devastating impacts of neoliberal policies in education and elsewhere, Part II serves to animate and guide committed action in response to those concerns. Taken as a whole, the book promises to be an important resource in the effort to marshal and unleash the human potential of educators immersed in the struggle to promote equity and justice.

The book makes three major contributions to the ongoing project of critical pedagogy. To begin, Darder (2009) argues that “we find ourselves in a new historical moment that warrants a critical rethinking of emancipatory solutions and strategies of dissent rooted in another time and place” (p. 156). This the book does nicely, with many chapters serving to situate and update long-standing critical concerns in ways appropriate to our contemporary political and historical context. Of particular note is Giroux’s analysis of the processes through which higher education has been reconfigured as a private rather than a public good, and the implication this holds for restricting access and closing a primary avenue for upward social mobility. Saltman (2009) reveals the antidemocratic and predatory nature of “backdoor privatization” (p. 30) of education and of the [mis]application of market forces and business principles to schooling through No Child Left Behind and related “accountability” measures. Other chapters function, likewise, to reanimate critical conceptualizations of class, race, imperialism, corporatization, and globalization; they also demonstrate the effects these have in radically altering the distribution of economic wealth and political power upward and in restricting opportunities for democratic opposition and dissent. The salience and urgency of these arguments have only increased in light of events since the publication of the book, most especially the battle against teachers and public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, as well as the blatant racialization of the rhetorical and legislative assault against immigrants in Arizona and Southern states.

Rather than treating these issues as discrete phenomena, the book frames them as intricately interrelated tactical elements within a long-term strategic social movement fashioned in conservative think tanks and propagated by right-wing pundits and politicians since the days of Milton Freidman. Deploying Naomi Klein’s (2008) cogent theoretical analysis developed in Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Saltman chronicles the processes whereby neoliberal policies fashion the very conditions necessary for their own ideological rationalization: first denouncing and then defunding, discrediting, and ultimately seeking to dismantle significant vestiges of the public sphere. Speaking to their own specific areas of focus, each of the authors within the volume describes the devastating effects that this self-perpetuating downward spiral has on those left bereft of the services and protections previously afforded by the public sphere and lacking in the resources to provide the now absent public goods themselves. As De Lissovoy (2009) observes, “neoliberalism intrudes power to disrupt the lives of people and communities and then retreats to abandon them to their own devices” (p. 197).

Complementing the sense of urgency and concern fostered by these critiques of neoliberalism, the chapters in Part II suggest a range of models whereby critical pedagogy can be leveraged as a source of hope and possibility. In a transcribed lecture outlining a biography of African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, Freire counsels that the seeds of tomorrow are planted in the actions of today, and thus, those involved in revolutionary projects must employ methods consistent with the type of future they are striving to bring into being. In an interview with Macrine, Ira Shor responds to this challenge by suggesting a number of approaches that can be used to launch critical pedagogy within classroom settings, ranging from using topical and academic themes to foster critical inquiry to democratizing instructional planning through after-class groups and utilizing autoethnography and transculturation to break the monopoly of dominant narratives within the curriculum. Greene asserts the efficacy of cultivating communication, community, and connection to make critical projects shared and open public spaces in and through education. Finally, De Lissovoy (2009) argues that, for all their perils, the forces of globalization can be deployed for critical purposes by developing a “technology of solidarity” (p. 194) in which young people and marginalized groups forge transnational identities and collaborations in pursuit of liberatory projects.

In this provision of alternative images and models, however, lies a seed of disappointment or, more accurately, a sense of being left wanting still more. In a volume subtitled Hope and Possibilities, the question arises as to just what form of hope the book is intended to foster. Duncan Andrade’s (2009) rich conceptualization delineates material, Socratic, and audacious elements of what he terms “critical hope” (p. 186). Material hope specifically refers to the provision of resources necessary for dealing with environmental factors that affect people’s lives adversely. For educators desperately seeking to persevere in critical projects despite the stultifying power of orthodoxy, this book may itself be regarded as a vital source of material hope. To function as such more effectively, however, greater depth and detail in presenting critically orientated instructional practices and curricular materials would certainly be a welcome addition. Whereas both Macrine and Farahmandpur warn against focusing too narrowly on teaching methods, Shor himself stresses the centrality of Freire’s “preferential option for concreteness” (Macrine, 2009, p. 120) as the basis for initiating and sustaining critical pedagogy. Thus, marshaling together more detailed analysis of exemplary resources such as those provided by Rethinking Schools, Reach and Teach, or the Southern Poverty Law Center would only strengthen the material support rendered to educators and their students.

Another direction in which the book could have gone further is in developing more fully the global dimensions of critical pedagogy. The chapter by De Lissovoy is a valuable first step; however, both neoliberalism and critical pedagogy have potent global manifestations worthy of further exploration, the urgency of which has been underscored by recent events ranging from the naked expression of neoliberal ideology apparent in the 2010 Browne Report in Great Britain, to the creative utilization of social media to organize dissent and democracy during the Arab Spring (Schillinger, 2011) and the mobilization of “student volunteer armies” in response to earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan (Ellingham, 2011). Here, too, including a close examination of concrete models for fostering critical inquiry and border-crossing collaboration among students through platforms such as Challenge 20/20 or Global Nomads would further enhance the pedagogical project advanced by the book’s authors.

It stands as a testament to the quality and contribution of the book that the most compelling criticism to level is to ask for more, please. In Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities, Sheila Macrine has compiled an important resource that illuminates and inspires in equal measure, both through the incisive critiques and hopeful possibilities contained within the chapters and, just as powerfully, through the modeling presented by the assembly of authors, each of whom embodies admirably Giroux’s call for academics to embrace a dual role as public intellectuals and citizen-scholars.


Darder, A. (2009). Imagining justice in a culture of terror: Pedagogy, politics, and dissent. In S. Macrine (Ed.), Critical pedagogy in uncertain times: Hope and possibilities (pp. 151–166). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

De Lissovoy, N. (2009). Toward a critical pedagogy of the global. In S. Macrine (Ed.), Critical pedagogy in uncertain times: Hope and possibilities (pp. 189–206). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Duncan Andrade, J. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Harvard Education Review, 79(2), 181–194.

Ellingham, V. (2011, July 7). Student Volunteer Army’s Sam Johnson challenges Gen Y stereotype. Idealog. Retrieved from http://www.idealog.co.nz/blog/2011/07/student-volunteer-armys-sam-johnson-challenges-gen

Giroux, H. (2009). The attack on higher education and the necessity of critical pedagogy. In S. Macrine (Ed.), Critical pedagogy in uncertain times: Hope and possibilities (pp. 11–26). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Klein, N. (2008). Shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

Macrine, S. (2009). What is critical pedagogy good for? An interview with Ira Shor. In S. Macrine (Ed.), Critical pedagogy in uncertain times: Hope and possibilities (pp. 119–136). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Saltman, K. (2009). Schooling in disaster capitalism: How the political right is using disaster to privatize public schooling. In S. Macrine (Ed.), Critical pedagogy in uncertain times: Hope and possibilities (pp. 27–54). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schillinger, R. (2011, September 20). Social media and the Arab Spring: What have we learned? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-schillinger/arab-spring-social-media_b_970165.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 04, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16791, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:23:11 PM

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About the Author
  • John King
    Oregon University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN T. KING is an associate professor of education at Southern Oregon University. His research and teaching interests include teaching for social justice, global education, and preservice teacher development. His recent publications include: King, J. (2012). Teaching for social justice across the curriculum: Connecting theory and Practice. In D. Grossman & J. Cogan (Eds.), Creating socially responsible citizens: Case studies from Asia-Pacific. Information Age Publishing; King, J., & Lau-Smith, J. (2012). Teaching from the inside out: Discovering and developing the self-that-teaches. In F. Korthagen, W. Greene, & Y. Kim (Eds.), Teaching and learning from within: A core reflection approach to quality and inspiration in education. Routledge; and King, J., & Thorpe, S. (2012). Searching for global literacy: Oregon’s essential skills movement and the challenges of transformation. The Social Studies, 103, 125–132.
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