Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Disrupting the Gaze That Condemns: Applying a Critical Literacy Perspective to Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Disrupting the Gaze That Condemns: Applying a Critical Literacy Perspective to Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye

Article excerpt

What is Critical Literacy?

Critical pedagogues believe that education should provide all students the opportunity to question, discover and transform their futures. The principles and practices of critical pedagogy are designed to help students become critical thinkers/readers/consumers of the word and the world. Through deconstruction they learn to separate themselves from the values, institutions, and ideologies that shape them. Broadly stated, critical pedagogy interrogates power structures in American education in order to challenge the status quo and enact social justice for underserved populations. Critical theorists assume that teaching is a highly political act and that all knowledge is socially, politically, and culturally constructed. Consequently, educators must be aware of the ways they are preserving existing power relations by privileging what Freire calls the "banking system of education," wherein teachers deposit knowledge into students' heads as if it is an uncontested fact. The "hidden curriculum," or the unintentional messages and consequences received by the banking method, has led to the marginalization of poor, minority, and learning disabled students. Thus, education has become (or continues to be) a vehicle for socialization and social control.

Within the broader framework of critical pedagogy, critical literacy is a vehicle through which teachers challenge the status quo. Critical literacy aims to: challenge the status quo by disrupting commonplace notions of socially constructed concepts such as race, class, gender, and sexuality; allow for a multitude of viewpoints; raise socio-political issues located in texts; and promote social justice through political activism (Lewison, et al., 2002). The critical reader understands that howwe read is as important as what we read and asks questions about the construction of texts, knowledge and power relationships: Who is the intended audience? What is the hidden agenda? How does the text reflect and shape notions of power and privilege? What is included? What is excluded? How is the text trying to position me? One of the goals of any critical pedagogy is to instill "critical habits of mind" (Shor, 1992, p.4) that can be applied in and out of the classroom, across various texts, and throughout one's life.

In addition, critical literacy redefines literacy to include print and non-print texts and the attitudes, behaviors and values that accompany each discourse event. Literate students in a post-modern world are expected to learn to read from different perspectives, express themselves in diverse styles, shift between varied discourse events, and translate from one sign system to another: "To be literate means being able to engage in a range of literacy practices drawing upon different sets of skills and processes suited to those particular practices" (Stevens & Bean, 2007, p. 18). Thus, the teachers and students must learn how to read the "word and the world" (Freire and Macedo, 1987). If we only rely on traditional texts, such as canonical literature, to inform our understanding of reading, we ignore other equally important but nontraditional texts, such as TV, advertising, music, clothing, film, art and other sign systems.

Developing "Critical Habits of Mind"

She became what is known as the ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all of her needs. (Morrison, 1994, p. 127).

How can teachers develop a student's critical perspective on literacy? Before students can engage in the deconstruction and reconstruction of their worlds, they must develop "critical habits of mind" (Shor, 1992, p.4) or a way of thinking about reality as socially and culturally constructed, mediated by language, texts, and other artifacts both reflecting and shaping our lived experiences. Once students understand that their way of life is not "natural," but literally "man-made" they can begin to problematize taken for granted assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and other linguistic constructs designed to maintain the status quo. …

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