Kalantzis and Cope, Debating Critical Literacy

Critical literacy set out to move away from the cultural deficit model that seemed to underlie didactic curriculum, where students failed because they had a deficit measured in terms of the cultural and linguistic biases of the school. So, critical pedagogies replaced the universalistic, homogenising pretensions of didactic pedagogy with curriculum diversification which sets out to value difference, to grant self-esteem to students by valuing their own discourses, cultures, interests and aspirations. This notion of self-esteem, especially when handed down from middle-class liberals, sometimes is itself problematic. On some occasions it appears to go so far as to mean a live-and-let-live approach to patterns of difference which, which not coincidentally, align with patterns of educational and social outcome. To this extent, and despite its best intentions, critical literacy is at times regarded as complicit in the reproduction of these outcomes.

However, this is no longer a world in which dogmatic canonical texts, cast in the mold of a Ramist textbook, make much sense. Nor is it any longer a world in where Dewey’s assimilating, homogenising modernity seems to make as much sense as it once did, either. This is a world that is losing its faith in the One True mission of progress and development, or at best it is sheepishly defensive about it. It is a world where the West and its literary canon is losing its universalistic pretensions. This is a world of cultural diversity, of multiple gender identities, of half a dozen and more different types of family, of subcultures and styles and fads and fetishes. Little wonder that postmodernists despair at there ever being meanings more transcendent than random moments of intertextuality.

However, some problems and challenges arise for critical literacy, in theory as well as in practice. For instance, the school will build the self-esteem of all students by respecting their differences. These are the rationales behind moving towards a relevant, diversified curriculum of student choice. So, while some students do English Literature oriented towards external examinations and university entrance, others do school based courses with names like ‘Communication Skills’. Students, with a keen eye for euphemism, call the latter ‘Vegie English’. They know the courses are not simply equal by virtue of being different. Will students’ curriculum ‘choices’ be culturally and socially innocent? The idea is that there are no privileged types of knowledge or discourse, that there is nothing the school should regard as more worth knowing than anything else. But the students know that out there in the world some sorts of knowledge, skills and discourses open more doors than others. The rationale of self-esteem is a charade if succeeding at ‘Communication Skills’ does not give you the same life chances as English Literature.

Moreover, critical literacy pedagogues announce that curriculum is a site where insistent cultural claims of postmodernism are to be realised. The postmodernists are tolerant and open to difference, except differences that do not appear to them to be liberal and tolerant. So, just how seriously should we take claims to cultural agnosticism regarding the cultural content of the curriculum? Are all voices just as good as each other because they reflect lived experience? Will students doing process writing always be allowed to choose any topic at all, no matter how dear it is to their heart?

And what do we make of school systems that are committed to community involvement, parent participation, multicultural curriculum and the like, but whose constituent community members see community involvement as a sign of unprofessionalism? They may conventionally respect the teacher as an expert bearer of things to be taught. They may not believe that school is a site for the expression of diversity, but a place where singular authoritative knowledge is imparted. Where is the centre of gravity in a progressivism that pleads devolution of curriculum control? Who, after all, is doing the devolving? And what are the cultural principles behind their actions?

In these circumstances, there is indeed irony in the fact that the cultural centre focus of a curriculum which suggests a child-centred approach is just as much with the teacher as it is with didactic pedagogy. It is child-centred and not teacher-centred like traditional curriculum for no other reason than that the teacher or the system has an ideological commitment to child-centredness.

Nor do critical literacy pedagogies necessarily address the problem of social equity. Didactic curriculum teaches the ostensibly superior culture of the western canon in the language of standard English. This puts at a ‘natural’ disadvantage students who came from other cultural traditions or who speak other languages or dialects as their first language. All too easily, they are labelled failures. Under the regime of critical pedagogy, however, the same thing can just as easily be considered ‘different’ and left as it is, as an unstated albeit persistent deficit.

Tests, it is promised, will no longer fail students—they will record the students’ achievements in reaching goals ‘relevant’ to them. Refusing to test across a student cohort because this passes negative judgment on individual students does not mean that the school system of choice and diversity will not have other ways to make sure that students come out of school unequal.

In this sense, there is an element of disingenuousness in some forms of (non-) assessment. Poor, immigrant parents aspiring to great things for their children are often enraged to find out that their children are not going to make it into law or medicine at university, after the school has been telling them for years that they have been doing well in their subjects. Self-esteem turns out to be a trick. The effect is to reconstruct failure as choice, in much the same way that, once the racist signs enforcing segregation or apartheid are taken down, it is supposed to be the \minorities’ own fault when they do not succeed at school.

At the height of twentieth century critical pedagogy, Postman and Weingartner argued that traditional curriculum was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Should schooling still model itself on Henry Ford’s production line, with its teacher-student division of labour, its five day week and seven hour day, its premium on conformity and its suspicion of originality, and its concern for product over process, they asked? Learning, they argued, is more appropriately thought of as being like a Jackson Pollack canvas—a ‘delightful, fitful, episodic collage of “happenings”’.[1] This view of education sits well with the litany of ‘posts’ that are used to characterise the novelty of our times—the postindustrial society which makes, circulates and exchanges information instead of things, and the post-Fordist workplace where the linear production line and hierarchies of control have been replaced by work teams enjoying collective responsibility.

But maybe all the ‘posts’ wishfully overblow the peculiarity of the present. The ‘information society’, after all, has the networked computer as one of its main tools, a device that, as we know from the dullest of ‘learning management systems’ and drill-and-kill software programs, can be just as much based on linear command as the Fordist production line. As for being postindustrial and post-Fordist, if this describes anything, it is a preferred middle class lifestyle in world economy which makes more industrial things than ever before and in which most people have little autonomy to be creative in their work. Maybe this is why didactic curriculum is still alive and well in so many places.

Critical and didactic pedagogies both epitomise our times—the first a responsive innovation, the second a reactive invocation of spirits past. Set side by side, they are evidence that our times are being shaken by profound cultural crisis, and this reverberates all the way into our schools and our literacy pedagogies. Both are brilliant and apt reflections of our times, each ingeniously appropriate and tragically inappropriate.

We found ourselves asking, were we witnessing bad versions of good literacy pedagogies or good versions of bad literacy pedagogies? This question can be answered either way, depending upon where one wants to line oneself up in the politics of education. In non-partisan spirit, we might suggest that each is appropriate insofar as it works. After all, both pedagogies have children doing things and achieving things in and with communications. But in some respects both their specific literacy and more general educational consequences of each were questionable.

Can we do better? What lessons can we learn from the critical dialogue between the living exponents of the didactic literacy pedagogy, authentic literacy pedagogy, functional literacy pedagogy, and variant of critical pedagogy that often calls itself postmodern because it treads carefully around difference? How can we consolidate upon the foundations of these various pedagogical achievements as well as rectify their deficiencies? These are key questions for educators in times of flux and uncertainty.


Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 1993. “Histories of Pedagogy, Cultures of Schooling.” Pp. 38-62 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Literacy, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press. || Amazon || Worldcat

[1] Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. 1969. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delta. pp.38-41.


Previous || Chapter 6: Directory || Next