A Life on the Fringes: My Road to Critical Pedagogy

By Shapiro, Svi | Tikkun, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

A Life on the Fringes: My Road to Critical Pedagogy


Shapiro, Svi, Tikkun


A Life on the Fringes: My Road to Critical Pedagogy

In the most recent period of my life I have begun to give serious thought to the relationship between my own Jewish identity and the radical educational project that I have been committed to over many years. Whether this is because of aging (as Erica Jong says, "the older we get, the more Jewish we become"), the feminist invitation to be forthcoming about our biographies, or the postmodern moment that gives so much attention to marginality, I am not too sure. Probably all of these reasons are at work and others besides. It is hard to deny the impulse that seems to grow as one gets older to find some integrative threads to our lives so as to bind together the disparate pieces of our precarious subjectivities.

It is also a curious, if little commented on fact, that while the "postmodern moment" has meant an unparalleled acknowledgment of the salience of "difference" and the "other" in the constitution of our social world, within critical educational studies at least, this has not included much about Jews as either an oppressed or marginalized group. Whatever the reasons Jews have for identifying themselves with a radical or critical project in education they have, for the most part, been silent about their own Jewish identities and the effect of these identities on their lives and beliefs. This is no small matter. After all, what is at stake here is whether we honor the legacy and experience of Jewish life and its potentially rich contributions to the renewal of a progressive culture in America (to say nothing of achieving a degree of personal integrity in our own lives). Sadly, even where Jewish experience with its distinct structures of feeling and intellect has powerfully helped to shape the political and ethical outlook of educators, it has remained, at most, a shadowy influence. Such teachers have typically not sought to ground their moral outrage or political commitments towards social justice and change in their own historical or existential experience.

My Own Road to A Critical Pedagogy: Life on the Fringes

It is perhaps of interest that for a long time my own road to critical pedagogy seemed to be related only very marginally to something Jewish in my experience. More recently, however, through a fairly intense process of study, reflection, and conversation, I have begun to encounter the dense and undoubtedly powerful effects of this experience in the shaping of my own language of critique and possibility in the field of education. There is, for example, the effect of living in what Isaac Deutcher referred to as "the interstices of a society" in the making of a Jewish radical consciousness.

While my parents were born and grew up in London, the children of recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, for them the English were always the goyim--people quite different from themselves. They consciously marked themselves as living at the cultural periphery of a society. Notwithstanding the considerable common ground they shared with other working class Londoners in language, attitudes, and outlook, the latter seemed to exist on the other side of a powerful, if invisible, social and cultural divide. My parents, for example, shared the same peculiar political outlook as many of their non-Jewish neighbors--consistent in their support for Labour Party candidates and in their sense of reverence for Royalty (my own early and more radical socialism that argued for the end of monarchy was little tolerated at home). Despite our constant and thorough involvement in British life--in work, school, neighborhood; attention to the news, radio, and television entertainment; interest in sporting events; the sharing and celebration of the calendar (one, of course, organized around Christian holidays)--nothing fully eliminated the invisible but powerful marker of difference that one crossed on entering our home. It was, as Zygmunt Bauman has remarked, as if we lived in, but not of, the society. …

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