McArthur (2010). Time to look anew: critical pedagogy and disciplines within higher education.

McArthur, J. (2010). Time to look anew: critical pedagogy and disciplines within higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 35(3), 301–315.


“Giroux (1997) warns that we must use the term critical pedagogy with ‘respectful caution’, as it encompasses a range of understandings of what constitutes critical pedagogy, and for which there is no generic definition (270). … Critical pedagogy asserts that [page break] learning, like all other social interactions, is a political act with political purposes. … Critical pedagogy thus ‘has as its final aim changes in society in the direction of social justice’ (McLean 2006, 1).” (p 301-302)

“Privileged demarcations, elites or forms of knowledge are rejected in favour of inclusive and diverse epistemologies and practices. … But what we really should be aiming to do is to escape disciplines and build instead interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary spaces (Giroux 1992).” (p 302)

“I, therefore, suggest that we consider the following quote from Proust (2006, 657) as we explore Giroux’s attitudes towards disciplines: ‘The only true voyage of discovery … would not be to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another’.” (p 302)

“It is from a position of strength – intellectual and organisational – within our disciplines that we can build the vital alliances of interdisciplinarity through which critical pedagogues can pursue the emancipatory purposes of higher education.” (p 303)

“The emancipatory role of higher education, linked to the pursuit of greater social justice, is fundamental to critical pedagogy.” (p 303)

“I then focus specifically on Henry Giroux, and discuss his opposition to disciplines.” (p 304)

[“Critical pedagogy – its core and diverse elements”]

“… critical pedagogy takes the existence of such power imbalances as its starting point. It is inherently political, because proponents believe that social interactions are inherently political.” (p 304)

“… all learning processes are themselves ‘political mechanisms’ (96).” (p 304)

“… critical pedagogy forms ‘part of a broader project for democratic transformation as well as … providing the skills and knowledge necessary for students to be critical rather than merely good citizens’ (Giroux 2001a, 9).” (p 304)

“All education is connected, sometimes in complex ways, to social change and to issues of power (Apple 1998).” (p 304)

[“Giroux’s opposition to disciplines”]

“The problem within disciplinary structures within higher education is not simply that they are formal spaces of learning, but that they are not democratic spaces.” (p 305)

“Not only does Giroux regard disciplines as elitist, but as such they act as conservative forces that deny difference and change – two of the central tenets of critical pedagogy.” (p 305)

“… challenging any assumptions that knowledge is produced within universities …” (p 305)

“Critical pedagogy challenges conventional views of the relationship between student and teacher, and argues that disciplines convey an oppressive authority, reminiscent of a master and slave, upon the teacher that reduces the power of teacher and student alike (Kanpol 1999). … Critical pedagogy promotes a broad, but not exclusive, academic role (Giroux and Searls Giroux 2004), and depicts academics as _transformative intellectuals_.” (p 305)

“Disciplines stand in the way of the public spaces that are crucial to critical pedagogy (Giroux and Searls Giroux 2004). … For Foucault, disciplines, in all forms, are ‘micromechanisms of power whereby individuals are molded to serve the needs of power’ (Ransom 1997, 59).” (p 306)

“Giroux’s critical pedagogy rests upon a commitment to public spaces for learning, where diverse forms of knowledge can be exchanged and developed; where students and teachers engage critically with those knowledges, and with one another; and through which genuine democratic ideals can be pursued. Disciplines are regarded as antithetical to these aims, because they are considered closed, elitist and to perpetuate conservative forms of relationships and types of knowledge. Thus, critical pedagogy seeks, instead, to escape disciplinary boundaries and build interdisciplinary spaces in which such public and political realms can exist and prosper.” (p 306)

[“Looking anew at disciplines”]

“… there is an alternative view of disciplines to that outlined above. In this view disciplines are complex, contested and permeable spaces. … dynamic and safe structures that could provide real and robust allies in the fight to protect higher education from narrow, largely economic, interpretations of its role, and instead promote higher education as a democratic space which supports greater social justice.” (p 306)

“If critical pedagogy is to challenge narrow commercial and commodified conceptualisations of higher education, it needs to refocus on its commitment to action …” (p 306)

[“Disciplines: complex, contested and permeable”]

“… dynamic nature of disciplinarity.” (p 307)

“Disciplines are ongoing, evolving communities. Subjects permit only transmissive or bankable knowledge, while disciplines allow for transgressive and creative approaches. Disciplines offer spaces for students and teachers to interact critically.” (p 307)

“… it is based on examples of poor practice, rather than anything inherent to the nature of academic disciplines.” (p 308)

“… disciplines as communities rather than demarcations.” (p 308)

“It is true that some scholars use disciplinary languages that are arcane and inaccessible to all but a very small elite, but, equally, some scholars succeed in engaging with their discipline in ways that transgress the accepted norms that may appear to dominate (Kramnick 2002).” (p 309)

“… Donald (2009) suggests that disciplines can be ‘homes’ within the larger academic community, providing the epistemological structures through which inquiry (within and beyond disciplines) can be undertaken.” (p 309)

[“Disciplines and critical pedagogy’s inter/transdisciplinarity”]

“_critical interdisciplinarity_ … recognises the importance of the rigour of individual disciplines. … the need to avoid being seen to privilege any form of knowledge over any other, be it different fields or between intellectual knowledge and popular culture …” (p 309)

“… _cultural studies_ from ‘the pioneering program of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’; … This is one of the most compelling reasons, I argue, that Giroux’s critical pedagogy should look again at disciplines, as it is the very interdisciplinary spaces which he so advocates which are the most vulnerable in the context of commercialisation and the commodification of knowledge.” (p 310)

[“Looking anew: the effect on critical pedagogy”]

“… McLaren goes further to argue that postmodern critical pedagogy has unwittingly proven to be an ally of neoliberalism, because the language of postmodernism can be so easily co-opted by neo-liberals (Biesta 1998). … those who see the purposes of higher education in commercial terms like to use terms such as subjects rather than disciplines, as they are more easily broken down to be endlessly packaged into neat, saleable learning modules (Parker 2002).” (p 311)

“… _critical postmodernism_ …” (p 311)

“… Johnston summarises his position by stating: ‘One cannot have the modernist cake of social progress and eat it with a postmodern fork’ (1999, 562).” (p 311)

“Critical pedagogy may have become too caught up in the theoretical reasons for opposing academic disciplines, and missed the opportunities for alliance in the face of the common enemy of commercialisation of higher education.” (p 311)


“… the big tent of critical [page break] pedagogy (e.g. McLean 2006; Parker 2002; Rowland 2006) …” (p 311-312)

“Critical pedagogy requires that knowledge is complex and rigorous. Concomitantly, it must be contestable, for without this there can be no _critical_ inquiry.” (p 312)

“If critical pedagogy is to defend, and more importantly act upon, its commitment to the relationship between higher education and social justice, it needs to accept that disciplinary knowledge is: intrinsically contested and subject to change; complex and able to foster a myriad of links into interdisciplinary hedgerows; and rigorous, thus helping to ensure the authenticity of student and teacher experiences.” (p 312)

“Attempts to define higher education in purely economic or commercial terms raise questions about the very nature of the academic role and academic identity, and threaten both the possibilities of critical pedagogy and disciplinary roles.” (p 312)

“The audit culture now has a tight grip around the arteries of higher education, commercialisation continues to grow, knowledge as a public good in itself, rather than a commodity for sale, is recognised less and less, and our governments continue to make policy based on spurious understandings of the nature of higher education and its relationship to society, including the economy.” (p 313)

Selected references

  • Apple, M.W. 1998. Education and the new hegemonic blocs: Doing policy the ‘right’ way. International Studies in Sociology of Education 8, no. 2: 181–202. Aronowitz, S., and H.A. Giroux. 1991. Postmodern education. Minneapolis
  • Biesta, G.J.J. 1998. Say you want a revolution … Suggestions for the impossible future of critical pedagogy. Educational Theory 48, no. 4: 499–510.
  • Donald, J.G. 2009. The commons: Disciplinary and interdisciplinary encounters. In The university and its disciplines, ed. C. Kreber, 35–49. New York: Routledge.
  • Freire, P. 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.
  • Giroux, H.A. 1992. Border crossings. New York: Routledge.
  • Giroux, H.A. 1997. Pedagogy and the politics of hope. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Giroux, H.A. 2001a. Introduction: Critical education or training: Beyond the commodification of higher education. In Beyond the corporate university, ed. H.A. Giroux and K. Myrsiades, 1–12. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Giroux, H.A., and S. Searls Giroux. 2004. Take back higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Johnston, B. 1999. Putting critical pedagogy in its place: A personal account. TESOL Quarterly 33, no. 3: 557–65.
  • Kanpol, B. 1999. Critical pedagogy: An introduction. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  • Kramnick, I. 2002. Writing politics. In Writing and revising the disciplines, ed. J. Monroe, 75–89. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • McLaren, P. 1998. Revolutionary pedagogy in post-revolutionary times: Rethinking the political economy of critical education. Educational Theory 48, no. 4: 431–62.
  • McLean, M. 2006. Pedagogy and the university. London: Continuum.
  • Parker, J. 2002. A new disciplinarity: Communities of knowledge, learning and practice. Teaching in Higher Education 7, no. 4: 373–86.
  • Proust, M. 2006. Remembrance of things past, volume 2. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.
  • Ransom, J.S. 1997. Foucault’s discipline. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Rowland, S. 2006. The enquiring university. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
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