A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A New Hope for Social Justice: John Smyth and Critical Pedagogy

Review of Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice by John Smyth 2011; Bloomsbury Academic Bryan L. Jones, Oklahoma State University

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/social-justice (Published: April 8, 2014)

Compositionists looking for ways to increase the critical literacy of their students will find much appreciated help in John Smyth’s Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice. John Smyth devoted his long career to critical pedagogy, and his new book assembles and extends some of his best work into a single volume. Smyth is the author of more than twenty books, all of them critical to status quo pedagogy, and each striving to break theoretical barriers and implement new practices in the classroom. His new book follows Henry Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy in the Critical Pedagogy Today series, and readers familiar with Giroux will find his influence informing and enhancing much of Smyth’s work. The series is meant to respond to the work of Paulo Freire and Joe L. Kincheloe, and Smyth does this by “pursuing a sharper and more politically focused imagining of teaching” (30). Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice is a purposefully slim volume running a little over 140 pages as the Smyth's stated goal is to produce “a shorter document that might be accessible to diverse audiences, possibly from cross-disciplinary backgrounds, while able to be accessed through a semester-long window, possibly as a supplementary course text” (2). Smyth provides a very accessible yet deeply satisfying text that could easily serve as supplement in a course on critical literacy, so it appears that he meets his goal with ease. Though the book does not focus explicitly on the study of composition, writing teachers and researchers will find Smyth's work to be a great help in exploring ways to advance democratic ideals in a neoliberal age.

Figure 1

The first chapter takes on neoliberalism directly by focusing on what Paulo Freire termed “Critical Hope” in a way that is both illuminating and practical. To help explain the term, Smyth relies on Duncan-Andrade’s “ecological analogy” of “’[w]eeding out’ trouble makers” to point out,

What goes on in the classroom today has long and complex tentacles that reach into the open social systems that students inhabit, and trying to deal with behavior issues in a hermetically sealed way is an exercise doomed to certain failure. Students in schools are not sealed off from the "external [social] toxins" when they come into schools and classrooms, and these toxins have a powerful effect on their willingness to learn. (11)

Through the ecological metaphor, Smyth shows that the so-called "problem child" is really indicative of a community that has lost the capacity to hope, but this capacity is instilled once the teacher gains the trust of the student. All this is not to give the impression that Smyth is interested in trying to nail down Freirean principles, for quite the opposite is true. In fact, rather than launch into long explications of Freire’s work, Smyth hardly quotes him at all. Smyth's intention "is to provide a brief glimpse into a crucial and fascinating aspect of Freire’s work and then to leave the reader to pursue them in depth elsewhere” (3). This is demonstrated nicely in the opening chapter, as he draws conclusions and forms what he calls his “triumvirate,” three core points that serve as a spine for the rest of the book:

• teachers – as intellectuals;

• students – as activists;

• communities – as politically engaged and connected (2).

Smyth focuses his second chapter on ways of reimagining the role of the teacher in the wider community by pointing out how teachers can take on the role of intellectual. Smyth makes the argument “that teaching for social responsibility, or acting in socially critical ways, is crucial in creating counter-hegemonic resistance to neo-liberalism. Schools are one of the few remaining social institutions that still have a capacity to enculturate the young in ways of organization that celebrate social relationships” (53). These words could send shivers down the spines of conservative news pundits, looking to make headlines. And if that does not do it, then Smyth’s occasional use of quotations from Bill Ayres will surely work. Such alarmist reactions will, of course, miss the point entirely, for Smyth knows that to enculturate does not mean to indoctrinate. As he himself puts it, “Notions of democratic schooling are not forms of dogma to be blindly followed or transferred from one setting to another; rather they are social, cultural and political constructions that reflect the way in which people inside schools choose to live their lives as students, teachers, administrators and parents” (46).

Smyth’s understanding of the teacher as intellectual will hardly lead to the creation of an intelligentsia. In fact, he argues for a grass-roots approach to teaching and learning (39). What Smyth wants teachers to focus on is the political nature of their work by asking questions about who benefits from their labor. According to Smyth, “Adopting a political stance to one’s work does not mean being a political partisan” (33). Citing Carlson and Apple, he goes on to point out that his “view of teaching is political in the sense that teachers do not take the nature of their work for granted – they are prepared to question how it came to be that way and what sustains and maintains this set of views” (34). He concludes that once teachers take up this political component, “a fundamental shift will occur in the direction of the genuine sharing of power with students, in ways that go considerably beyond many current inauthentic and tokenistic atrempts” (34-5). In order for this to be genuine, Smyth argues along with Goodman that “teachers must be put ‘at the center of the curriculum'” (45). And along with Wood, Smyth’s calls for a “‘critical literacy [that] involves building reading skills around students’ own reading agendas. Having them read about things in which they have an interest and helping them write their own reading material” (45). This would allow for a view of the “[curriculum [as] a process in which teachers and students engage [in order to] make sense of the world” (45). The chapter contains several bulleted points and questions designed to help teachers take up the role of intellectual such as, “Who is it that is defining the work of teaching?” (35). These simple (but not simplistic) questions allow teachers to develop their own theories and approaches to teaching that cut against the grain of the “toxic practices being pressed upon schools from the corporate sector that are producing such distortion and disfigurement” in our schools (51).

In chapter three, “Students-as-Activists in Their Own Learning,” Smyth provides a detailed case study of a high school that was turned around by implementing this dialogic approach. In this chapter, Smyth creates a space to further theorize the role of the teacher in classrooms where resistance takes place. Working off of Noblit, he writes that “teachers are continually involved in reciprocal negotiation: [a] willingness [of the teacher] to take responsibility for the children to participate in [their learning].” For Smyth, “Such thinking moves us beyond simplistic dualisms of ‘teacher-centered’ and ‘student-centered’ approaches by arguing that ‘a caring relationship [is not] an equal relationship,’ which is to say, ‘caring in classrooms is not about democracy – it is about the ethical use of power and student attachment" (93). For Smyth, pedagogy is more fruitful when students are allowed to become a part of the solution to the problem rather than merely devices for “receiving, filing, and storing” (Freire 58). In the place of repositories, Smyth calls for students to become activists. He writes, “When I invoke the term ‘students as activists’ I am not trying to conjure up images of students manning the barricades, rioting in the streets, throwing petrol bombs or forcibly occupying central education offices” (55). What Smyth calls for is a “kind of soft revolution…which humanizes schools so that they become more hospitable to the lives, interests, backgrounds and aspirations of young people (especially those from ‘disadvantaged’ or challenged contexts), rather than institutions of incarceration, fear, punishment and retribution” (56). At the heart of this chapter is the notion of relational power. Citing Nel Noddings, Smyth argues that “there is nothing to be gained by persisting with policies, such as No Child Left Behind, that are based on ‘threats’, ‘punishments’ and ‘pernicious comparisons’. The time is indeed right for a move towards relational reforms” (76). According to Smyth, “Relational power, while generally used to refer to the way in which collaboration and trust is created across and among constituent groups in schools and their communities, also has considerable currency when used to refer to resources or capacities for redressing inequalities in schooling” (92). Smyth’s case study is not meant to provide any universal solutions, but it does help show that truly involving students in their own literacy can help turn around a school that some had written off. Smyth concludes the chapter by pointing out that

What seems to have been of pivotal importance was the ability of the school community to recognize as insufficient the punitive approaches of the past and to choose instead to assert adult approaches through the development of respectful relations which afforded students the relational power that they require to persist with schooling, against the odds. (103)

In the penultimate chapter, Smyth makes the point that schools can create the view of community as politically engaged and connected. To advance this point, Smyth implements the organizing theories of Saul Alinsky. Many consider Alinsky to have written the activist bible with his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. Smyth distills Alinsky’s theories into four key principles. “(a) relational immediacy, or the importance of face-to-face relationships; (b) indigenous leadership through enabling communities to foster locally developed leaders; (c) interdependency in the sense of forming coalitions and alliances; and (d) seeing the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of wider structural issues that produce inequality” (133). These key principles form the backbone to what Smyth calls Community Centered Action Research. His pedagogy is to moves beyond conventional definitions of teachers as community leaders or public intellectuals; instead, it creates strategies that connect students to their own communities so that they become, as he titles the preceding chapter, students-activists. Future pedagogues will benefit from witnessing Smyth’s application of organizing principles because it could help them see how to avoid “a very clear hierarchy – those who believe they ‘know’ and have the right to know, and are called ‘experts’, and those who are considered to be...‘inexpert’. The latter are supposed to be grateful beneficiaries of the activities of the former.” He goes on to point out that “outsiders bring with them their ‘welfare’ or ‘management-speak’, which is an alien and alienating discourse” (137). To combat this alienating discourse, Smyth suggests “local solutions…[so that] communities [become] part of the ‘solution’, crafting ideas in collaboration with outsiders, but having a significant stake in putting them in place” (142). This focus on the local is what sets Smyth apart from many of the critical pedagogues currently paying only lip service to ideas of empowering students. Smyth is not satisfied with merely discussing the hard issues of the day, or providing students with a feeling of empowerment. Through a focus on grass-roots activism, Smyth calls for having students do the foot work of investigating their own communities in order to find both the problems affecting them and the solutions to those problems.

It is not hard for compositionists to draw interdisciplinary lines connecting Smyth’s work to our own in critical literacy. For instance, Smyth’s take on the ‘resisting student’ in the opening chapter pairs nicely with Elizabeth Flynn’s argument in “Strategic, Counter-Strategic and Reactive Resistance in the Feminist Classroom.” In this work, Flynn theorizes that there are three types of resistance encountered in classrooms and that what we often think of as problematic, those attempts by students to shut out the teacher, “can sometimes be productive rather than destructive” (18). In the article Flynn writes about the types of resistance she encountered during her classes on feminism. Flynn suggests “that feminist teachers should respond to such resistance by teaching dialogically...establishing common ground with students and attempting to negotiate the private-public split” (25). This position is argued by Smyth in ways not dis-similar to Flynn’s understanding of resistance. Smyth points out that one key component to “Freire’s central notion is that ‘hope’, as an idea, ‘is rooted in [our] incompleteness’, and that what makes us human is the ‘constant search’ to become more fulfilled. This is something we pursue collaboratively and in communion with others” (3). Throughout the book Smyth frequently cites Herbert Kohl’s book in order to make the case that students that might appear to resist learning. Citing Kohl, Smyth makes the point “that how we as educators respond to ‘willed not learning’ has much to do with how willing we are to challenge educational issues that allegedly require conventional ‘solutions’ with more audacious and cheeky responses” (12). Couple this connection with Smyth’s committed focus to finding place-based solutions and his use of the ecology metaphor, and we can begin to see where lines might be drawn from Symth’s work to Dobrin and Weisser’s Ecocomposition or Nedra Reynolds’s Geographies of Writing. A case can very easily be made that Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice can serve as a great supplement for classes dealing with critical literacy; however, it can stand alone just as well.

Smyth’s book accomplishes more than merely providing supplementary material because it challenges teachers to ask hard questions about our profession. As Howard Zinn once wrote:

It’s time that we scholars began to earn our keep in this world. Thanks to a gullible public, we have been honored, flattered, even paid, for producing the largest number of inconsequential studies in the history of civilization: tens of thousands of articles, books, monographs, millions of term papers; enough lectures to deafen the gods. Like politicians we have thrived on public innocence, with this difference: the politicians are paid for caring, when they really don’t; we are paid for not caring, when we really do. (533)

Smyth’s book offers a similar, if more subtle, challenge. Smyth argues that “if teachers are not political about their work (in the sense of being critically reflective about it and the implications that has for life chances of children), then they are the only group affiliated with teaching who operate in such allegedly detached ways” (54). Although at times Smyth’s voice gets lost in the den of those he cites, those occasions when Smyth’s voice does shire through prove that his Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice belongs on any shelf containing the work of Freire, Kincheloe, Giroux, and Zinn.

Works Consulted

Flynn, Elizabeth. “Strategic, Counter-Strategic, and Reactive Resistance in the Feminist Classroom.” Insurrections: Approaches to Resistance in Composition Studies. Ed. Andrea Greenbaum. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001. 17-34. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

Weisser, Christian R. and Sid I. Dobrin, Eds. Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001. Print.

Zinn, Howard. “The Uses of Scholarship.” The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy. Second edition. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009. Print.