James Baldwin, Education & Critical Pedagogy

I’ve been musing on education and the limited space presented to students for social justice and activism. My readings for another class, Critical Pedagogy, and Popular Culture: Transforming Urban Education inform my stream of thoughts on this post. In Nobody Knows my Name, James Baldwin was speaking on the subject of desegregation and stated: “They (the parents) are doing it because they want the child to receive the education which will allow him to defeat, possibly escape, and not impossibly help one abolish the stifling environment in which they see, daily, so many children perish.” Baldwin was lucky, in a way, because his teachers recognized his gifts and saw his brilliance. Just as Baldwin viewed education and his intellect as a “way out,” so did the many parents fighting for their children to receive a better education. However, access to education does not mean access to opportunities. The environment where the learning is taking place has as much an effect as the content of the education being received.

In “Take Me to the Water,” Baldwin speaks a bit to this: ” They [the children] were attempting to get an education, in a country in which education is a synonym for indoctrination if you are white, and subjugation if you are black.” I find his shift in perspective interesting here, especially in light of another point Baldwin made in another essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” where he states, “the paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated.” I think it’s a positive thing — the ability to perceive the paradox in education. It should be a goal (one of the stops to changing the system of education) to have students completely understand the systems which indoctrinate or attempt to subjugate them. The issue that is being brought to light, however, is that education is failing students in helping them critically assess the content of their education. Schools are (or are supposed to be) places where students are supposed to be molded into active citizens who view justice as liberation from all institutions that oppress anyone. This starts with teachers (and the greater complex of academia) relating to students that the process of schooling is a political process. Schools and education should be examined “both in their historical context and as part of the existing social and political fabric that characterizes the dominant society” (McLaren).

One of the ways in which one can become conscious of the paradox present in education is to spread the understanding of how schools are a microcosm of the world we live in. As students, the first encounter with power dynamics between institutions and people occurs in the classroom. Learning to either subscribe or critically assess those structures also occurs in the classroom.

2 thoughts on “James Baldwin, Education & Critical Pedagogy”

  1. Thank you so much for your comment and the pushback! Using the critical pedagogy aspect, I’ve learned that, as cliche and it might sound, it is all of our responsibilities. But honestly, I think it starts at home. I went to one of the best high schools in my county, and many of my classmates didn’t encounter the talk about racism in America until our government class. And even then, it was lacking (we read our books and took the exams on the significant dates) and did very little to really inform and teach them. Parents can start with a talk and encourage their children to ask their teachers. Parents can themselves encourage and push the administration to teach critical and historically grounded curriculums. Then, with dedication and desire to actually change the education landscape, it could happen. It has happened in many higher ed institutions.
    Yes, I think it will be hard to make this universal because you’re right; many don’t share the same perspective. A couple of classes ago, Professor mentioned the pushback against critical race theory in classrooms. In FL, our governor is actively working on introducing legislation to ban critical race theory. His winning argument against it is this: “there’s no room in our classrooms for things like Critical Race Theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” This is a very big question that I’ve been thinking about ever since starting the class.

  2. I agree with you completely, on how the institution education must be a child’s first encounter and learning experience with power dynamics and accessibility/inaccessibility to opportunity. I’m curious, though, if you have a suggestion on where this responsibility lies: in the teachers, in each school system, in the administrators, etc., to make this change? I’m also curious how to make this aim universal, because if this viewpoint is not shared by the many, will it make a difference? Overall, love how you connected two of your courses, just thought I’d supply some friendly pushback!

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