What is striking about the current review of New Zealand education is that it has not, so far, been impacted by what we might call ‘Critical Perspectives’. This is not to say that there has been no criticism (indeed there is plenty of that), but there has been a lack of systematic critique informed by the work of critical educators that raises crucial questions about the present and future imaginations that inform education in New Zealand. In this article, I want to show that Critical Studies in Education can provide the type of ‘bite’ that could make the debate more urgent, incisive and, well, relevant.

There have always been criticisms of how education operates, how best to organise it and how to improve it for students, teachers, parents and employers. However, until the 1960s much of this criticism worked with the assumption that more schooling was an unalloyed Good Thing, and that the role of educational professionals was to find ways to improve its operational efficiency. Then, from the 1960s, a series of books appeared that questioned this assumption.

Much of this early work came from the United States where, for instance Joel Spring showed how mass schooling operated as a ‘sorting machine’ for human manpower, John Holt wrote a series of books on how schools fail children, Paul Goodman talked of ‘compulsory miseducation’, Everett Reimer pronounced that ‘school is dead’, and Postman and Weingarter called for teaching as a subversive activity, where the teacher’s job was to provide students with ‘crap-detectors’.

The most famous texts of this period were those written by an Austrian catholic priest, Ivan Illich, who urged the ‘deschooling’ of society and the Brazilian educator activist Paulo Freire who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. These books, many of them published as pocket-sized Penguin Specials, found their way onto the reading lists of teacher education courses at the newly established Teachers’ Colleges.

What was important about them is that they questioned the fundamental belief that education was a good thing and that educational professors and administrators could be trusted as altruistic and high-minded experts.

These ideas found their way into New Zealand schools and educational discussion. At a time when New Zealand society was undergoing tumultuous change related to gender, ethnicity, generation, and, to a lesser extent, a recognition of social class, the old Whiggish story of a small Pacific nation punching above its weight in educational terms no longer seemed so convincing. Education courses introduced prospective teachers to the sociological literatures that ‘revealed’ that inside the ‘black box’ of schools and classrooms operated a series of mechanisms that served to marginalise, alienate and exclude particular groups of students and privilege others.

At first these ideas were supported by theories from Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Apple and Stanley Bowles and Herb Gintis, but in the 1990s, as Western critical theory took a turn towards language and discourse, ideas from Foucault – who saw power as suffusing all social relations and institutions as ‘prison-like’. Foucault’s ideas are particularly depressing for teachers, because they can lead to the idea that individuals are governed by discourses that effectively determine their ways of seeing and end up adapting or self-regulating themselves to reproduce these discourses! Thus it’s not uncommon, since the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1988, to hear New Zealand critical educators talk about the ways in which principals, teachers and students act as ‘neoliberal subjects’. It sometimes feels like there can be no way out.

In order to counter this otherwise depressing message, critical educators have imported from the US a version of ‘critical pedagogy’ that claims to be able to prise open the ideological claws of the curriculum and provide a ‘pedagogy of hope’. Thus the limiting structures of white, male, heterosexist, and ableist schooling can – in theory – be opened up to allow for the diversity of human experience to be reflected in schools and classrooms.

At the same time as critical studies of education have developed these ‘social justice’ perspectives, the mainstream of educational studies have been concerned with ‘what works’, and researchers have gained credos and research grants by being able to convince governments that they have discovered the ‘magic bullet’ or ‘killer app’ that will unlock the mysteries of learning and propel New Zealand to the top of the PISA tables. It may be school leadership one day, innovative learning environments the next, communities of learning this month and NCEA reform next year.

Such approaches gain power and influence because they are more attractive in a world that displays banners saying ‘we want continual educational improvement and we want it now’. The message of critical studies of education cannot match such promises but finds that sometimes its languages and ‘liberal’ appeals are picked up – ‘appropriated’ – by mainstream educational researchers and policy-makers.

My own view is that critical studies in education need to return to the grand ambitions of its early writers. We need to produce popular educational texts that address an educated public in terms that are both theoretically informed and written in engaging and concrete ways. More precisely, such critical studies will need to engage much more directly with the twin crises of our global society. These are, first, a global economy that has failed to recover from the financial crash of 2008-10 and where the trend of the past three decades towards ever-greater inequality continues apace. What does education mean for students who will live their lives without the sure promise of better lifestyles and access to consumer goods? Second, and perhaps even more urgent, is how critical educators can help students make sense of the impending climate-crisis that will reshape economic and social life over the next half-century.

The importance of critical studies in education is they can challenge the claims of the technocrats and education managers to know what is best for us. In changing the politics of education, there is much work to be done.

John Morgan is Professor of Education at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland and has recently been appointed as Head of the School of Critical Studies in Education (CRSTIE). His new book, Culture and the political economy of schooling: what’s left for education? is about to be published by Routledge. 

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