The House That Race Built: Critical Pedagogy, African-American Education, and the Re-Conceptualization of a Critical Race Pedagogy

By Jennings, Michael E.; Lynn, Marvin | Educational Foundations, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The House That Race Built: Critical Pedagogy, African-American Education, and the Re-Conceptualization of a Critical Race Pedagogy


Jennings, Michael E., Lynn, Marvin, Educational Foundations


Critical pedagogy has been widely characterized as a crucial construct in challenging the inequalities that have evolved in the context of schooling in the U.S. Evidence of this can be found in critical pedagogy's attempt to offer critique of the analytic connections between race and education within the context of the African-American struggle for humanity. In particular, critical pedagogy has functioned as a discourse on schooling and inequality that has developed in tandem with theories of race and pedagogical practice in ways that reflect the context of African-American education. This work expounds upon our previous scholarship to offer a broadened conception of critical race pedagogy that incorporates central aspects of critical pedagogy but is drawn from African-American epistemological frameworks.

Origins of Critical Pedagogy within Critical Theory

Critical pedagogy has maintained its status as an important component of educational research and inquiry since the early 1980s when critical educational theorist popularized the concept in academic writing (Bennett & LeCompte, 1999; Sleeter & Bernal, 2004). Since that time, these theorists have continued to struggle with the central question of critical pedagogy: "Whose interests are served?" (Bennet & LeCompte 1999, p. 250). In answer to this query, Gordon (1995) asserts that "Critical theory seeks to understand the origins and operation of repressive social structures. Critical theory is the critique of domination. It seeks to focus on a world becoming less free, to cast doubt on claims of technological scientific rationality, and then to imply that present configurations do not have to be as they are" (p. 190). Not only do critical theorists attempt to discover why oppressive structures exist and offer criticisms of their effects; they also explore the ways in which we can transform our society. In this sense, critical theory is not simply a critique of social structures it is an analysis of power relations that asks questions regarding: what constitutes power; who holds power; and in what ways power utilized to benefit those already in power.

Critical theory emanated from "the Frankfurt School" under the auspices of cultural theorists Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, and Walter Benjamin) worked together at the Institute for Social Science Research originally located in Frankfurt, Germany. The group began to form under the leadership of Max Horkheimer in the 1930s but later changed location several times throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Eventually, the group returned to Germany during the early 1950s (Giroux, 1997; Bennett & LeCompte, 1999).

Although no single or unifying theory emerged from their work, the Frankfurt School generated a strong set of critiques arguing that social phenomenon could not be understood solely through the use of scientific methods. This was an important challenge because the use of scientific methods in analyzing social phenomenon was widely thought to be scientific, objective, and value-free (Bennett & LeCompte, 1999). Instead, the Frankfurt School researchers felt that both social phenomenon and the scientific research methods used to explore them were tied to social and historical contexts that made neither of them neutral or value-free.

Other individual theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas, and Michael Foucault also played important roles in the development of critical theory. Antonio Gramsci (1971) was an Italian theorist and activist who explored the ways in which individuals were active rather than passive agents in the face of even the most oppressive conditions. He coined the term "hegemony" to describe the complex process that allows dominant groups to establish and maintain control of subordinates by using specific ideologies and particular forms of authority that are reproduced via social and institutional practices (Leistyna, Woodrum, & Sherblom, 1996). …

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