Chapman democracy activist offers a radical critique of capitalismOrange County Register2015-08-16 18:29:55
Peter McLaren has spent his career in the pursuit of justice – social justice, that is.
No, he isn’t Superman, though that’s an easy mistake to make considering how quickly he leaps around the globe. In the past two months, he’s been in Poland, China and Canada. This school year, he plans to visit China again and Argentina, Washington, D.C., and Mexico, all while teaching classes at Chapman. McLaren spends his time in these places giving talks, establishing centers for social justice and collaborating with those oppressed by their governments.
McLaren is the co-director of Chapman’s Paulo Freire Democratic Project and the university’s international ambassador for global ethics and social justice.
He also happens to be one of the world’s foremost thinkers on critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a cross-section between philosophy and education that works to equip students to identify oppression in the world and deal with it in a constructive manner.
McLaren has written and edited nearly 50 books in his field, and is a hotly requested speaker worldwide.
Once an elementary and middle school teacher in Canada, McLaren taught at a comfortable school in a comfortable neighborhood until one day he had a troubling thought: Social class is one of the biggest predictors of success, and it was entirely likely that those students could succeed not because of their teachers – but, perhaps, even in spite of them. McLaren decided to go somewhere where he could have a more profound effect – the inner city.
While others may have been content of helping at least one of their students, McLaren set higher standards – he wanted to make a difference for everyone. He found a bond with his students that his colleagues didn’t seem to have. At one point, he cleared everything out of his classroom and filled it with drums instead. Rather than teaching the course material, he drummed and connected with his students. Test scores actually went up.
This was the beginning of McLaren’s path of social justice. Today, he encourages critical analysis, especially of capitalism. Inspired by his mentor Paulo Freire, one of the fathers of critical pedagogy, McLaren strives to equip students with the means to make sense of their experiences and look critically at the world, possibly opening the door to a better system.
McLaren’s latest book, “Pedagogy of Insurrection,” is due out in September. In this book, McLaren draws on his background as a devout Catholic, looking at the teachings of Jesus as they relate to capitalism. In what he expects to be a controversial move, he argues that Jesus was effectively preaching communism, and that his message of love might open the way to a better ethical approach to social justice in modern times.
We sat down with McLaren to gain some insight on his theoretical work.
Q. Just for starters, how exactly would you describe critical pedagogy?
A. I think that most people mistake critical pedagogy with critical thinking. It’s part of it, but you can’t reduce critical pedagogy to critical thinking.
Critical pedagogy has an ethical foundation. You can’t move from fact to value, there’s no logical sequence that will take you from a critique of capitalism to say that capitalism, therefore, is a bad thing. That requires an ethical judgment. For me, critical pedagogy is a philosophy of “praxis.” Praxis is an interesting term – it’s the dialectical relationship between theory and practice.
Q. What are some of the key ideas you discuss in your books and talks?
A. Praxis relates to changing the world. For me, in changing the world, I name what the problem is. For me, that problem is capitalism – the production of value. Now, value and wealth are very different. Value is monetized wealth.
In my work in Latin America and with poor communities all around the world, I’ve come to the realization that critical pedagogy requires an ethical commitment. That ethical commitment is to eliminate unnecessary, needless suffering. That’s a moral posture that one takes. Liberation theology calls this a preferential option for the poor. I go farther than that, I say it’s not a preferential option, but an obligation.
Critical pedagogy is mobilized towards finding a more humane alternative to capitalism. Some critics will say that capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have so we can just try to make it better. It’s the nature of capitalism itself – the alienation of human labor, the exploitation of human labor through profit making – that makes it impossible to reform.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we give any credibility to Soviet communism or Eastern Bloc police states; they were horrible regimes that misunderstood, manipulated and misused the writings of Marx. So where do we look? Well, we can look at the Spanish Civil War, the Paris Commune and we can look at indigenous communities throughout Latin America like the Zapatistas. My emphasis is on encouraging teachers to be public intellectuals – to assume that role, not of being a clerk of the empire. Not to be a functionary of the school board, but to become transformative, critical, revolutionary thinkers who take a public stand on the issue of social justice. This notion of professors and teachers assuming a political neutrality is a falsehood because if you don’t speak out, that’s take a political position itself.
Q. Critical pedagogy is meant to instill change, but from where does that change come?
A. I take a dialectical approach. It’s not simply revolution or reform, it’s both. Dialectics is about mediation; mediation is not about juxtaposition. It’s not “either or,” it’s “both and.”
There’s an abstract utopia and a concrete utopia. Abstract utopias are when somebody has some idea in their mind of what a perfect world would look like, and it’s sometimes very disconnected from what’s actually happening on the ground at the time. Concrete utopias are related to the problems people are facing in the here and now. You do what you can within the system and have a larger, broader vision of where you want to go. Change begins with a critical consciousness, but also with a moral and ethical commitment. Join a church group, a community group, a group connected with public libraries, the university or a high school. Get involved, make a commitment to people and change.
Critical consciousness isn’t a precondition, it’s an outcome of that engagement. Otherwise, you could always say you’re not ready. There’s always another book or philosopher to read, and it delays you from taking action. Begin with the action and use the theory to refine your thoughts about that engagement.
Q. In your latest book, you look critically at capitalism through an interesting lens – the teachings of Jesus. How do you connect these two?
A. In examining the gospels and statements by Jesus, it became very clear to me that, while Jesus was not against absolute wealth, he was against relative wealth or what we call “differentiating wealth.” That is to say, you cannot be rich while someone else is poor. It became very clear through his sayings, or what have been attributed to him, it’s irrefutable that a rich person cannot get in to heaven. The kingdom of God is really a kingdom in which differentiating wealth does not exist.
We could make an argument that Jesus was teaching communism. Not the communism that came as a specter, the totalitarian dictatorships we saw with Stalin – I would not want to defend them and would never call those regimes “communist.” I mean the notion of sharing resources. The early Christian communities came together to share what they had. “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God.” Those statements are not about greedy people, they’re statements about society. Today, how we organize our means of production over-determines the opportunities that some people have over others.
Capitalism structurally instantiates inequality. Jesus equated love with the struggle for equality. Love and justice are the two main messages of Jesus. If you read the scriptures, Jesus preached a socialist gospel. To see socialism among right-wing evangelical Christians as a kind of evil, it’s absolutely absurd. That’s largely a position I think stems out of ignorance about what socialism is and what communism was in the writings of Marx.
I’m trying to begin a debate because I feel that debate is very important. I’m beginning to inform critical pedagogy’s ethics of social justice by drawing on the teachings of Jesus.
Q. Historically, many thinkers with dreams of changing the world become disillusioned as they grow older. You’re now approaching your 70s and your passion is burning brighter than ever. What keeps you going?
A. I think it’s a certain sense of being blessed. My life’s been an uphill struggle. Being on this path isn’t easy. I don’t know if you’ve read on the internet about the “Dirty Thirty,” but I was hit by the right in 2006. I was labeled by a right-wing group with a lot of money behind it as one of the most dangerous professors at UCLA. This group was offering students $100 to secretly audiotape my classes and $50 for notes. The only group that stood up and defended me at the time was the Chavistas in Venezuela. Taking the social justice route can make you a target for right-wing critics who feel you’re against the fundamental principles of the country.
It’s always been a struggle, but I’ve felt I’ve been blessed in my life with the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I’ve found a love and a sense of solidarity, a sense of reciprocal relationship based on trust and a shared commitment to make the world a better place. The groups I’ve met and the suffering I’ve seen have humbled me because it makes my suffering and personal struggles pale in comparison. I’ve met some pretty courageous people that have inspired me, that have a commitment and energy that far exceeds my own. Meeting my wife, Angie, has been a blessing, and so has having an opportunity to be at an institution like Chapman, working with students and being in a position to learn.
I’m not optimistic about the future, but I’m hopeful. I don’t mean hope in the facile sense, I mean hope as a struggle – as a form of taking upon yourself the burden of history and knowing that burden is being shared by others.
Knowing you’re not alone and that you’re driven by a love of humanity. You can’t be a revolutionary without loving people. I’m a people person, I guess. Some people call me naive, but I haven’t given up on humanity yet