The Marxification of Education: Paulo Freire’s Critical Marxism and the Theft of Education by James Lindsay, independently published, (December 6, 2022), 210 pages
I’ve reviewed other of James Lindsay’s works, including Cynical Theories, co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, and Race Marxism. Exposing Critical Theories, or what is often often called Woke or Wokeism, has been Lindsay’s crusade for several years now. At least since the so-called grievance studies affair. In this he has gained quite a bit of renown in anti-Woke circles. He is quite prolific on his New Discourses podcast, where he often reads from the Social Justice literature while adding his own commentary and translation of the often dense texts.
This book, The Marxification of Education, is in that same vein. But here he is focused on his most recent hobby horse, which is how Marxism and Critical Theory have infiltrated education (preschool, K-12, and universities). His new focus on Critical Theories and Marxism in education is likely in part motivated by the ludicrous insistence by those on the left that things like Critical Race Theory (CRT) are not being “taught in schools”, which is a bit of a dodge. Even the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has sort of tipped their hand on that.
The primary fountainhead of the ideas being smuggled into education is Brazilian Marxist education theorist Paolo Freire, and the ideas go under the name of critical pedagogy. In this most recent book by James Lindsay, he aims to describe just what critical pedagogy is and how it is being forced on children under false pretenses (i.e., the perpetrators of this conspiracy are telling parents that critical pedagogy is one thing when it is in fact something else, namely brainwashing).
The book is fairly short, and it has few in-line citations (save for a few that are footnoted) and only a small bibliography at the end. The lack of citations and references is a bit frustrating. Some of the claims in the book, especially when not directly quoting from works in the bibliography, weaken the arguments. As an example, the book begins with a prologue where Lindsay describes the following Rhode Island protest about the May 24, 2022 shooting that happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, United States, as tweeted by Democratic State Senator of Rhode Island Tiara Mack:
This, Lindsay says, is the sort of thing that is replacing actual education. This is “supported” by another Tweet by Erika Sanzi:
But no citation is given for the above statistics by either Sanzi in the Tweet or Lindsay in the book. This may seem a bit nit-picky at this point, but one of Lindsay’s claims is that smuggling in Freirean pedagogy into our schools is reducing proficiency of students in basics like literacy and math. This argument would be made more credible if specific studies were cited for these claims.
I did some Google searching to look for a source to confirm the numbers given by Erika Sanzi but was unable to find where she obtained those exact numbers. They weren’t in the 2017 or 2022 Rhode Island Department of Education reports, both of which indicate that between a quarter and a third of students between third and eighth grade are proficient in math and reading. The nationwide NAEP assessment for math and reading seem to reflect this as well. If any readers know where Sanzi obtained those numbers, I would be interested in seeing the source and will add it into this review in an edit.
The basic argument Lindsay makes in The Marxification of Education is this:
- Paulo Freire’s pedagogy (theory of education) has as its primary objective the radicalization of students into leftwing Marxist activism; this is done through a process of generative themes, codification, decodification, and conscientization using the dialogical model of an egalitarian classroom (each to be explained in the text)
- Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is marketed as a way to help students learn basic skills like reading, math, history, science and so on, by having curricula that personally appeals to students and their lived experience
- The marketing of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is a fraud, and in fact students will not learn these basic skills under Paulo Freire’s pedagogy
- Given 1-3, we can thus say: If Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is adopted in schools, then the following will be true:
- Student academic proficiency will drop
- Students will be groomed into Marxist radicals who want to overthrow our current society
- This constitutes a theft of education in that it promises an education while (intentionally) failing to deliver on it
- Paulo Freire’s pedagogy has, in fact, been adopted into taxpayer funded public schools through a multi-decade long international conspiracy perpetrated by leftwing radicals who intentionally infiltrated colleges of education beginning in the 1970’s in order that their efforts would start bearing fruit around the 1990’s [affirming the antecedent of 4]
- Therefore, we can expect to see falling academic proficiency, more Marxist agitation for transforming society, and the theft of education as a result of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy being adopted by schools
While I think Lindsay thoroughly establishes that 1-4 are true, he fails to make a compelling case for 5, and so, if we take this book in isolation, it fails to connect any observation of a reduction in academic proficiency or increase in leftwing radicalism to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy. Let’s jump into the book and see why I think this.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Paulo Freire’s 1968/1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (whole book on PDF here), Lindsay points out, is the third most cited publication in all of humanities and social sciences. Again he does not provide a reference for this, but I’m assuming he is using the London School of Economics (LSE) impact blog, where in 2016 Elliot Green looked at citations for Anthropology, Economics, Education, Geography, Linguistics, Management, Philosophy, Political Science, and Psychology on Google Scholar. Green found that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the third most cited book in the humanities and social sciences:
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as Freire’s 1985 book The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation, he advocates for an approach to education that “teaches” students to see the world through eyes of the oppressed. The scare quotes around “teaches” is because the so-called democratized classroom tries to de-emphasize the roles of teacher and student (it’s a similar model to Montessori education, but with a focus on Marxist indoctrination). In other words, the goal of education is to teach “learners” to view the world through standpoint of the oppressed, in a process of “conscientization” in order to attain a “critical consciousness“. This, in Freire’s theory, will lead to students toward denouncing the “dehumanizing conditions” of the world as seen from that position of the oppressed in a way that implies it could be better (e.g., socialist).
To perpetrate this theft of education, Lindsay says that the 1960’s leftist radicals knew they had failed to overthrow the system, and so as a plan B they had to infiltrate colleges of education. This, Lindsay says, was mostly accomplished by 1995. As such, with the turnover of teachers taking a decade or two, we are now seeing their strategy bear fruit in the form of Wokeism. Lindsay says:
Many of the major seemingly faddish but broadly dominant developments in education today have roots that can be traced back in whole or in part to Paulo Freire. These include, especially, the abysmal performance in achieving at-grade-level competency in most subjects in most classes in most schools, misplaced curricular emphases, the rampant data-mining of children through relentless surveys and assessments (though these serve other purposes as well), Culturally Relevant (and Responsive) Teaching, “decolonizing” the curriculum, student-led project-based learning, and Social-Emotional Learning. Other programs, like Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) – including the abominable practice of Drag Queen Story Hour, in which drag queens (adult mend dressed as clown-form sexualized women) do drag performances for children while reading to them in school libraries and classrooms – graft themselves onto the Freirean “generative” method. It is because of this methodological approach that they are able to do what they do and to justify their inclusion in (early) childhood education.
Underperformance in school might not necessarily be an intended result of Freire’s method, though it could be, since, as Lindsay says “…Freire doesn’t want education that teaches people how to be successful in a society he wants to see cast down.” To Freire and other Marxists, our current approach to education is essentially propaganda in which the true purpose is to continuously reproduce the oppressive capitalist status quo. In Marxist lingo, education serves to instill Ideology into children so that they won’t question society and therefore reproduce it for the next generation.
This was Lindsay’s purpose in opening the book with the example of the students laying down to protest gun violence in Providence, Rhode Island, and why it is important to Lindsay’s argument that this style of teaching reduces academic proficiency. Students are taught to become Leftist/Marxist activists, and any amount of literacy or proficiency in math and history and so on that students might pick up is incidental to this goal.
Lindsay goes on to discuss Freire being a devotee of Liberation Theology which, as Lindsay defines it, is “Marxism pretending to be Catholicism”. The religious aspect of Marxism, which is a big part of Freire’s pedagogy, is another important prong of Lindsay’s argument against using these ideas in education, especially in a secular society like the United States. Lindsay says:
The religious notes of Freire’s pedagogy – in the theology of Marxism – are not merely incidental and do not just run as a current in the background. They are utterly central to his work, which therefore must be recognized as a form of explicitly and intentionally religious instruction. … In the end, the simplest summary of Paulo Freire’s extensive body of work is that he Marxified education and, in turn, made it into a form of religious instruction that our state currently fully endorses, funds, supports, promotes, and demands.
Education is no longer about teaching children to read, write, do math and so on, but to turn them into Marxists, i.e., into acolytes of a particular Marxist religion. Yet, Lindsay says, more and more tax dollars are being poured into education, despite not increasing proficiency in fundamental subjects like literacy. Instead, it’s tax dollars going towards the brainwashing of children. Lindsay says that the theft of North American education by Freirean ideas is “…nothing short of a crime against humanity.”
One of the primary pushers of this pedagogy is Henry Giroux, an open Communist and evangelist of Freire’s work, starting in the 1980’s. Isaac Gottesman’s The Critical Turn in Education (2016) tells the story of how “Woke Marxification” made its way into education, starting in the 1970’s:
“To the question : ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States, “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom” (p. 263). After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist though, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor. As participants in the radical politics of the sixties entered graduate school and moved into faculty positions and started publishing, the critical turn began to change scholarship throughout the humanities and social sciences. The field of education was no exception. (p. 1)
Gottesman, The Critical Turn in Education
This turn toward education was inspired by Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 book Counter-revolution and Revolt which advocated for the long march through the institutions, i.e., the takeover of colleges of education by Marxists and 1960’s radicals in order to play the long-game of infiltrating K-12 and university staffs and faculties and turn them into machines to churn out Marxist activists. This treats education like a biological cell in which the Marxist virus can infect, repurposing the machinery of education so as to make more Marxists which then spread out into other domains of society (eg., news media, entertainment, politics, science). The current atmosphere of Wokeism and cancel culture are the fruits of this decades-long conspiracy.
Chapter 2: Who Was Paulo Freire?
Chapter two offers a brief biography of Paulo Freire and a quick rundown of what Lindsay thinks is his most important work, the 1985 book The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. As for his biography, Freire was a postcolonialist radical from an early age, though Lindsay says he didn’t call for restorative violence as explicitly as famous postcolonialist Frantz Fanon. Lindsay explains Freire’s postcolonialism:
Freire is saying that colonization, modernization, and industrialization swept in and moved native populations from center to margin, thus unjustly disempowering them, and it did so particularly in their status as knowers. Colonial “knowledges” centered themselves and displaced the “knowledges” of the existing people, against their will and as an act of violence. … Freire’s world is one in which nobody needed to be educated until society changed and began to value formal education, including basic literacy, which unjustly displaced the illiterate (this is the thrust of the first half the sixth chapter of The Politics of Education).
The colonizers, according to postcolonialist theory, defined what it meant for a person to be educated and therefore had the power to decide who gets to be someone in the “center”, i.e., part of the privileged (bourgeois) elite of society.
This is very similar to the postmodernist ideas about how things like “normal” and “insane” are defined by the powerful, how science is merely about the powerful dictating that one kind of knowledge defines someone as being a scientist, and so on. The point being is that there is no objective truth and no superior methodology for determining the truth, only different ways of knowing. Science, for instance, is no better than folk wisdom or lived experience. The only reason science is considered superior is because those in power want it to be that way, not because it’s been honed and refined over the centuries by thousands, even millions, of brilliant minds and reproducible experiments.
This determination of knowledge through a dynamic of power relations relegates all knowledge to the realm of the political. It’s the powerful who dictate what the valid forms of knowledge are, which inevitably marginalizes other forms of knowing to the periphery. This is a form of oppression, even violence, of which Freire wants to expose, allowing those with knowledges that have been marginalized to throw down those forms of knowledge imposed on them. Lindsay says:
[Freire] then outlines a way for literacy to be redefined “politically” so that those dispossessed by this imposed structure of society can rebel against it, see themselves as intrinsic knowers in possession of the key knowledge needed to transform society, foster a revolution, and seize the means of defining “literacy” and “education” to enable a more just future in which no one is estranged from self or others.
These postcolonial roots are where the notion of “decolonizing” education comes from. Lindsay says the popularity of this is largely due to Joe L. Kincheloe. However, postcolonialism has its roots in Karl Marx, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and Giambattista Vico (important in linguistic-social constructivism). Rousseau was critical of civilized world order, instead fetishizing the so-called “noble savage” who lived a truer and freer life. This gives roots to the notion of an idyllic pre-industrial civilization that was then colonized and corrupted by modernity. According to Lindsay, Marx had a similar criticism of industrialization, which he saw as colonizing the worker through division of labor. Lindsay says:
These concepts, both in abstract and under colonial realities, are the root of the noble, innocent-as-oppressed character, from the [noble] savages of Rousseau through the proletariat of Karl Marx to the minority identities of Woke Marxists. They are the innocents before the Fall of Man, which for Marx arrived with the invention of private property and the division of labor and for the radical postcolonialists came in with the establishment of European civilization as “civilization” itself. For Freire, it’s the knower who hasn’t had his “concrete” knowledges written over by a colonialist-bourgeois “formal education.”
The word “Woke”, which is now often used as a pejorative, was actually first used by Leftists. It meant being awakened to the truth – awakening from the false dream world of knowledge imposed through violence by the powerful – in order to experience the world through other ways of knowing. It’s interesting to me that this sort of metaphor of waking up is utilized by the political Right as well, with things like being red pilled. In both cases the idea is that there is a hidden reality lurking beneath the surface, a reality kept secret either by some nefarious cabal or through cultural indoctrination. By hearing and accepting certain propositions, a person can become privy to these truths, like the people being led out of Plato’s cave to see the sun for the first time, or Neo taking the red pill from Morpheus in The Matrix. This, according to Freire and his acolytes, can be done through education. But, Lindsay says, this is mostly a fraud being perpetrated on children. Lindsay says:
This “educational” process in which education and politics are dialectically synthesized into one activity is instrumental to Marxism in the free, liberal West because, frankly, that structural oppression [that students are taught to look for] isn’t actually there, at least not significantly.You have to be groomed into seeing it through an “educational” process, and that’s what Freire offers. Freire, then, is in a meaningful sense the father of Woke because going Woke means learning to see structural oppression in virtually everything in order to denounce it, like a process of waking up to a hidden, horrible world. Freireans assume the oppression is there and then aim to groom “learners” to see it.
One popular way in which children are being robbed of their education is Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and the even more pernicious Transformative SEL. See Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice (2015).
Lindsay expands on the ways in which Freire’s pedagogy has clear religious overtones, and should therefore be considered a religion. He discusses how Freire wants people to undergo their own “Easter” (the word Freire actually uses) where they die as privileged elites and are reborn with the oppressed and fitted with a new Marxist critical consciousness. Freire also says that the words people speak can transform the world, which Lindsay likens to the Johannine Christology of Jesus being the Word through which God created the world. This hints at what Lindsay thinks is the best way to combat Wokeism in schools: designating it a religion so that, per the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it cannot be used in public schools.
Freire also contends that education cannot only not be values neutral, but that education is always and inevitably founded on notions about “Man and the World.” In other words, approaches to education presuppose some human nature and some way in which the world works (or is supposed to work). For instance, in feudal times, people would have been taught that the stratification of society into nobles and peasants was natural, that the monarch was hand-picked by God, that women are inferior to men, and so on. In modern liberal societies we are taught that people can have private ownership over objects and land, that a person’s socioeconomic status is a reflection of their character (their merit), and that humans have the right to think what they want. One thing that Freire seems to take issue with in the modern liberal conception of humans and the world is that it artificially divides the subjective and objective, stating:
The process of men’s orientation in the world involves not just the association of sense images, as for animals. It involves, above all, thought-language, that is, the possibility of the act of knowing through his praxis, by which man transforms reality. For man, this process of orientation in the world can be understood neither as a purely subjective event, nor as an objective or mechanistic one, but only as an event in which subjectivity and objectivity are united. Orientation in the world, so understood, places the question of the purposes of action at the level of critical perception of reality.
Freire, The Politics of Education
This subjective-objective synthesis is, as Lindsay points out, a very Hegelian notion. Indeed, Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit is a lengthy, verbose, and intentionally obscure text attempting to show that, through the dialectical synthesis of the subjective and the objective, humanity eventually attains the status of the Absolute. Freire, in a very Hegelian spirit, sees the subjective-objective synthesis as the attainment of perfect knowledge of how the world actually is, free of the sorts of distortions and values smuggled in by other worldviews. In that last sentence of the above quote, the word critical needs to be understood as critical in the Marxist and Critical Theory sense. What he’s saying, in other words, is that only through a Marxist lens can we truly (in reality) determine the purpose of our actions – only through Marxist consciousness can we have Absolute Knowledge.
Chapter 3: The Marxification of Education
Lindsay begins with a brief overview of Marxism. To make it even briefer: according to Marx, society is stratified into the bourgeoisie and the working class. The former have special access to property (i.e., private property, or the means of production) while the working class is restricted from access to property. Through the division of labor and because the working class does not get to keep the fruits of their labor, they are alienated from one another and themselves. The bourgeoisie do not just own the means of the production of goods, but also production of culture, where they concoct elaborate justifications for their privileged place in society and their oppression of the working class. This restricts and limits the knowledges and subjective experiences of the working class and is called “ideology” by Marx.
The primary aim of Marxism, then, is to expose this system (i.e., capitalism) for what it is, raise the consciousness of the working class in order to turn them into a unified proletariat possessing class consciousness, and have them overthrow the system and install socialism (which, according to historical materialism, will usher in a stateless, classless communist utopia). The activism needed to overthrow the system, i.e., the structure of society, is often called praxis. Lindsay defines praxis this way:
Man’s role in [Marxist philosophy] is to realize his true nature, to understand the “concrete” conditions of his structured life, and to change these conditions toward the Socialist. This society-changing activity is called “praxis,” which derives from the Greek root for the word “practice.” Praxis means a creative act for which the means and ends are not distinct, as opposed to poeisis (that is, poetic) activity, in which they are distinct – think of the difference between building a house (poeisis) and a home (praxis), or schooling (poeisis) and educating (praxis).
The various Critical Theories spawned from Marxism maintain the same basic Marxian scaffolding, but have different notions about who and what possesses the attributes common in Marxist theories within that basic structure. I made the following table based on a summary Lindsay gives on pages 42-43:
Classical Marxism usually didn’t focus too much on ideology, but neo-Marxism and its modern Woke offshoots put a lot more emphasis on ideology. This is why, for instance, the Woke mob is so concerned with language, which is a key facet to social constructivism, i.e., the ways in which culture shapes our epistemology and beliefs. Culture, or at least the dominant culture, is the ideology, dictating the three N’s, that which is deemed Normal, Natural, and Necessary. This is also why the Woke, in addition to education, are also concerned greatly with the other institutions of cultural production, such as the news media, Hollywood, book publishing (and distribution), and online discourse on social media. By exercising greater control on these things, i.e., the means of cultural production, the Left can exercise greater control over the Marxian ideology, i.e., the narrative(s) by which people conceptualize themselves and the greater society (Man and World).
According to Lindsay, Marxists see three possible ways for society to develop: 1) organically, 2) artificially, and 3) consciously. The first is said to have become impossible since we do not live in a naive, pre-industrial, state-of-nature society fetishized by Rousseau. The second persists through the continuous reproduction of the status quo, of the ideology that indoctrinates people into accepting their place in society with its restricted access to property (and consciousness). The third must be done through a Marxian program of consciousness raising. But, raising consciousness must always be coupled with praxis – it is not enough for people to merely know that the structure of society is rigged against them (or, for the few privileged elites, rigged in their favor), but this must motivate people to agitate for the deconstruction and transformation of society. Indeed, consciousness without praxis is still a kind of false consciousness. It is in number three, then, that humanity can begin to make itself better (i.e., more socialist), to work towards becoming the New Socialist Man. But, Lindsay argues, this is a program of eugenics:
Of course, consciously directing the evolution of Society and Man toward a desired end is a form of eugenics, and the Marxists seem to understand this in their usual backwards way. That can be glimpsed in the fact that they call everything else a form of eugenics because they think we live in an artificially selected social environment that benefits the few at the expense of the many – it’s always already happening through the “bad” people. … Because they believe they alone chart the path to ending all such ideological drives, they think their eugenics program doesn’t count and is therefore the only true anti-eugenics program possible since we simply cannot return to a primitive state of Nature.
This is reproduced in Freire, but with an emphasis on education. Lindsay says:
How this plays out in Freirean education, for what it’s worth, is replacing conditions with knowledge, transmitted through education. We could, perhaps, learn organically, except we have Society. Therefore, we learn falsely and in the best interests of those who have set themselves up in power through their claims of knowledge. Alternatively, we could accept alternative knowledges and ways of knowing selected for their political utility in moving Society towards its intended end, which is a liberated (Socialist) Utopia. Any other choice produces all this evil since the knowledge genie is already out of the bottle.
Freire is largely concerned with a Marxist form of political literacy. Lindsay explains that a person could be literate in the sense of knowing how to read words, and even able to glean meaning from them, but they can be politically illiterate if they cannot see the words within their political context. What you are allowed to read (and what you are made to read in school), what is determined to be worthy of reading, what kind of reading makes you a “knower” in society, and the kinds of meaning one is taught to glean from reading, are the political contexts of literacy. It’s in this way that the privileged “knowers” get to decide what it even means to be literate or to be a “knower.” The status quo of literacy, sapped of its political context (at least for the underclass), therefore prevents people from having a political voice and being able to transform society, in what Freire calls the “culture of silence.” Freire puts it this way:
In the culture of silence the masses are mute, that is, they are prohibited from creatively taking part in the transformation of their society and therefore prohibited from being. Even if they can occasionally read and write because they were “taught” in humanitarian – but not humanist – literacy campaigns, they are nevertheless alienated from the power responsible for their silence.
Freire, The Politics of Education
Notice this distinction between humanitarian and humanizing, where the former is sapped of all political consciousness, instead indoctrinating people to accept the status quo, while the latter contains the proper Marxist contextualization and will therefore motivate people to agitate for a (Leftist) transformation of society. Humanizing education, for Freire, is giving a political voice back to those who have been silenced, and having a political voice is what it means for someone to be human. Thus, political literacy in a very literal sense allows someone to attain the full humanity that has been robbed from them by the “knowers.” This is similar to the Marxist idea that owning the fruits of one’s labor removes the alienating system of capitalism. Freire says:
Illiterates know they are concrete men. They know that they do things. What they do not know in the culture of silence – in which they are ambiguous, dual beings – is that men’s actions as such are transforming, creative, and re-creative. Overcome by the myths of this culture, including the myth of their own “natural inferiority,” they do not know that their action upon the world is also transforming. Prevented from having a “structural perception” of the facts involving them, they do not know that they cannot “have a voice,” that is, that they cannot exercise the right to participate consciously in the sociohistorical transformation of their society, because their work does not belong to them. [bold added by TH]
Freire, The Politics of Education
Lindsay spends several pages discussing this topic of humanizing education. Of allowing humans to become what they are supposed to be, which are beings that can transform the world and that know tht they are beings that can transform the world. This is an important topic for Freire. Indeed, as Lindsay says: “Freire waxes on this topic extensively – it is no mere sideshow to his program.” But the takeaway is essentially this:
- The politically illiterate underclass are alienated from their true humanity and silenced by the prevailing ideology imposed on society from the bourgeoisie, “knowers,” or other privileged elites (looking to maintain their privileged position) who get to construct the myths that justify the structures of society that oppress them
- Formal education only serves to reproduce and uphold this “dehumanizing” system and culture of silence by only giving people the knowledge needed to navigate the current system, as opposed to the knowledge needed to overthrow and transform it; this either turns a person into a member of the underclass who is nevertheless willing to defend the current system, or into a member of the privileged class who will then become an oppressor
- Only through Freire’s (Marxian) pedagogy can the politically illiterate be made conscious of their situation and take action (praxis) to tear down the “dehumanizing” structures of society that oppress them, replacing it with something better (i.e., socialism)
- In doing this, the underclass is liberated from the oppressive system that defined them as the underclass (e.g., the workers, the (politically) illiterate) and humanized insofar as they realize their unique and intrinsic Human (i.e., not merely animal) potential for transforming and creating Man, World, and History
Near the end of the chapter, Lindsay very briefly explains how these ideas have been updated into modern Woke thinking by people like Miranda Fricker and Kristie Dotson. The more recent (i.e., 21st century) literature is often very concerned with epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), frequently inserting “epistemic” into things, such as “epistemic injustice,” “epistemic oppression,” and “epistemic violence,” all of which have roots in Freire’s notion of the culture of silence. In short, they are about the ways that those with “other ways of knowing” are deemed ignorant by the prevailing conception of what it means to know imposed by the privileged elite.
Chapter 4: Preparing the Cultural Revolution
Lindsay beings chapter 4 by mostly reiterating what he discussed in chapter 3, but now he emphasizes the difference between Freire’s dialogical pedagogy and all other pedagogies, which he accuses of being a sort of “banking” education. The latter is the model of education that puts a knowledgeable teacher in front of ignorant students and fills them with knowledge as if they are “an empty receptacle.” Freire puts it like this:
In its relation to consciousness and world, education as a dominating task assumes that consciousness is and should be merely an empty receptacle to be “filled”; education as a liberating and humanistic task views consciousness as “intention” toward the world.
Freire, The Politics of Education
Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human.
Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Lindsay urges the reader to take note of the word intentional used in both these quotes. This “intention toward the world,” Lindsay says, is the intention to remake the world according to Marxist principles. In so-called dialogical education (the Freirean model) instead of having a teacher and students, you instead have a facilitator and learners. The learners are supposed to have more agency in choosing the curriculum, rather than just having information dumped on them, which will apparently appeal to the intentional nature of their consciousness. And, since all the learning will be political (i.e., Marxist), presumably their intentions will turn toward criticizing the current system into oblivion and ushering in socialism.
In this chapter Lindsay also introduces the way in which (neo)-Marxism and Critical Theory is a Gnostic religion. For Marx and Freire and others of their ilk, this authentic humanity – this capacity to see the truth and be a transformative subject – is something that exists inside of us already. Although we might need Freirean pedagogy to clear away the corruption caused by the marginalization from dominant ideology, this authentic self, or “spark of the divine,” already exists within ourselves. This is reflective of the notion in Critical Theory that the Socialist Utopia into which society must be transformed already exists (everything contains its negation, according to Hegel), but we cannot yet see it until it is revealed through relentless critique. Similarly, in Christian Gnosticism the material world is a sort of corruption or perversion of the true divine spiritual world, that human bodies are evil, but contain within them the “spark of the divine.” Just as the Gnostics could gain knowledge of the divine, the underclass can become politically literate.
This notion of something truer being hidden within is a key part of modern conceptions of authenticity as well. In this framework of authenticity, we all have a sort of inner child who, like Rousseau’s man born free and everywhere in chains, is imprisoned in a (socially constructed) web of expectations, duties, and responsibilities that are alien to us. If only we could free this inner child we could become our authentic selves, i.e., the person we truly are “on the inside.” As I discussed at greater length in my post on this subject, this concept of authenticity has a lot of issues. Just to name a couple: First of all, children, who in this framework we are supposed to emulate, are driven by almost completely by a sort of Freudian id – children are self-centered and neglectful of responsibilities to others. Second is that this seems to attempt excusing ourselves from having to make ourselves. In other words, who we authentically are is determined in large part from our choices and actions, and to say that those choices and actions are in fact the result of some artificial socially constructed expectations put on us is an attempt at absolving ourselves of guilt from our choices and actions.
Most thought in the Marxist tradition does exactly that: removes agency from individuals and says that, instead, humans are determined by their material economic conditions, or their race, or gender, or disability, etc., or for Freire by their education. The notion of the individual, in this line of thinking, is a construct (a Marxian ideology) meant to blind people to their status as a worker, or a racial minority, or a sexual minority, or one of the politically illiterate, and so on.
That the constant criticism of society doesn’t seem to reveal the utopia hidden within, and indeed is often coopted by the privileged elite, has not gone unnoticed. I discuss in another post:
According to the Marxist theory of ideology, whenever someone defends the status quo (e.g., defends liberalism), this is because of ideology (in the Marxist sense) brainwashing and indoctrinating them into acceptance (or even love) of their shackles. However, according to Slavoj Žižek, whenever anyone criticizes the current order, that is also a way of legitimizing the status quo. …when a movie like Black Panther 2 criticizes colonialism, the viewer can empathize, and even agree with, the bad guy, who seeks a violent overthrow of the current liberal order. But, in so identifying with the revolutionary point of view, the viewer has their revolutionary zeal sated and will therefore be content to allow the current liberal order to persist.
One can see why this is considered cynical ideology. It is an indictment of any form of art or slacktivism that isn’t literally taking to the streets to burn down the current “system“. The failure to actually conceptualize an alternative the liberalism means the work is not only a waste of time, but is actively harmful to any revolutionary cause.
In other words, the praxis of Wokeism might make the current liberal order look different on the surface, but the underlying mechanisms of capitalism will persist. Indeed, Slavoj Žižek is critical of Wokeism himself, seeming to think it a distraction, a way of slaking people’s thirst for revolution without actually having the revolution. However, even if all the Woke people do is give capitalism a new look (which is itself debatable), they are still driving it in a harmful direction.
Yet, the faith of Critical Marxism is that, with enough denunciations of the current system, we will soon find the utopia buried within. As Lindsay puts it:
Hope, for Freire, lies in the fact that we can denounce the existing world and take action to disrupt and dismantle its processes and ways of knowing (so, Marcuse’s “negative thinking”). Hope resides in the believe that we don’t have to live with domestication through education and might one day arrive at a place in time when it comes to an end. So in we read in Hebrews [11:1]: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The thing is, for Freire, we are not to know what the utopian future looks like. That would lead us to impose it, which is a right-wing error and a new form of oppression. We’re merely to denounce from consciousness and engage in the Marxist praxis and… hope. [sic]
Chapter 5: Conscientization
Conscientization, Lindsay emphasizes, is the main thrust of Freire’s pedagogy. What this means in practice is
(1) data-mining students (through tests and surveys) to find out what can be used to radicalize them
(2) using the educational curriculum as a pretense to expose students to radicalizing material
(3) directing student’s response to the material in the direction of Marxist radicalization
Lindsay uses the example of Freirean education being used in a school in Nigeria to show that the method doesn’t work. Or, at least, it does not work insofar as educating children to read, write, and do math. When it comes to the primary goal, that of radicalizing students, it does work. This study from Nigeria, from 2007, is partially quoted by Lindsay. He starts the quote at Stage 2, which Lindsay says is actually a combination of (2) and (3) from above, with stage 1 in the study corresponding to (1) from above and stage 3 being when the actual education begins (not listed above, since, as the study suggests, students are no longer interested in actual education once they get through stages 1 and 2). I’ll quote it at greater length here to give a better idea of the process being discussed in this chapter:
The literacy teaching method proposed by Paulo Freire comprises three stages. Stage one is tagged the Study of the Context. At this stage, a team studies the context in which the people live in order to determine the common vocabulary and the problems that confront the people in a particular area. To know this, words are elicited from the people themselves through informal conversations. The task of the team is to faithfully record the words and the language used by the people during the informal conversation.
Stage two is tagged The Selection of Words from the Discovered Vocabulary. At this stage, all the words suggested during the informal conversations of people are carefully taken note of and the team chooses the words that are most charged with background meaning for the people. The team is not only interested in the typical expressions of the people but also in words that have major emotional content for them. These words, which Freire called GENERATIVE WORDS, have power to generate other words for the learners. The most important criterion for the choice of a word by the team is that it must have the capacity to confront the social, cultural, and political reality in which the people live. The word must suggest and mean something important for the people. The word must provide both mental and emotional stimulation for the learners.
Stage three is tagged The Actual Process of Literacy Training. The stage comprises three sub-stages: motivational sessions, the development of teaching materials, and literacy training (decodification). [bold in original]
- From: Ojokheta, “Paulo Freire’s Literary Teaching Methodology: Application and Implications of the Methodology in Basic Literacy Classes in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria”
And later (talking about the actual findings of the study):
Stage One: The Study of the Context
At the Agbowo Baptist Literacy Centre managed by the Baptist Church, a similar discussion took place among 18 basic literacy learners of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The discussion centred on leadership corruption. The discussants were almost moved to tears during the discussion process that the nation has made a lot of money from the sale of the crude oil without the nation having anything to show for it. The discussants overwhelmingly agreed that the poverty in the land is caused because
“the monies made have been stolen by past and present leaders into their private pockets…. This is the reason why there is no money to provide good roads, electric supply, food, drugs in our clinics and hospitals, jobs, and good houses, all the money has been stolen by government people.”
Stage Two: The Selection of Words from The Discovered Vocabulary
From the discussions of the learners, the Generative Words written by the team of facilitators were: resources, money, abundance, crude oil, stealing, pocket, begging, plenty, poverty, suffering, frustration, crying, hunger, crisis, dying, death.
These words were later depicted in pictorial form showing the concrete realities and situations in the lives of the people. The pictorial display provoked an emotional state of pity and anger among the discussants, some of them could not talk, while most of them were moved to tears asking the question: Why! Why! Why! Why!
Stage Three: The Actual Process of Literacy Training
After the completion of stage two, it came as a great surprise to the facilitators, that the discussants were not willing to participate in the literacy teaching/training process. They were in a state of emotional wreck. They were furious, angry, shouting and restless. They were shouting Change! Change! Change! Cursing furiously those who have, in one way or the other, contributed to the suffering of the people. The bottom-line: acquisition of basic literacy skills did not make any meaning to them and in fact was irrelevant, with some of them asking the facilitators:
“What have you people, who are learned, done to change the situation, rather you (have) worsened the situation when you yourself get to the position.’’ [bold and italics in original]
- From: Ojokheta, “Paulo Freire’s Literary Teaching Methodology: Application and Implications of the Methodology in Basic Literacy Classes in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria”
Again, one of the thrusts of Lindsay’s argument is that Freire’s method, while succeeding in radicalizing students, does not give them a proper education (i.e., learning to read, write, do math, science, etc.). While this might be deduced just from reading Freire’s work (actually teaching children to read and do math ranks quite low on Freire’s priorities), it would help Lindsay’s argument if he provided more empirical studies. As it stands, he relies heavily on the 2007 Nigeria study, invoking it several times throughout the book. While the study is indicative of Freirean pedagogy being inadequate, is still not definitive.
It might be argued that we know A) that Freirean methods are being incorporated into K-12 education, and B) student proficiency in reading and math is falling, but even if we grant A), all we can glean from that is a correlation. We would need actual studies, or at least rigorous data analysis of the available data on education, to say with confidence that Freirean methods are causing a reduction in students’ proficiency in reading and math. It would also be helpful to have references to actual school curricula (in writing and verified) demonstrating that they have, in fact, adopted Freirean pedagogy. Again, I’m not saying that schools are not becoming Freirean, or that Freire’s pedagogy is just as good at teaching children reading and math as any other pedagogy, or even that such evidence I’m asking for does not exist. I am simply pointing out that these are extremely serious accusations that require more than a single study and our gut feelings about the way the world is going. Without evidence it’s a conspiracy theory. A plausible one to be sure, and one I am inclined to believe, but again: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A vast conspiracy, operating over the span of decades, to infiltrate the educational institutions of entire countries and replace education with Marxist thought reform, is an extraordinary claim, even if it is plausible and backed by circumstantial evidence. Reading from the Social Justice literature can only demonstrate the authors’ intentions, but does not prove that their aspirations are becoming a reality.
Lindsay goes on to compare Freirean pedagogy to Maoist thought reform. He quotes some chilling passages from Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China about the methods used by Communist Chinese interrogators to get people to view themselves from “the standpoing of the people” in order to confess to crimes against the people, which is what the pedagogy of the oppressed is: getting people to view oneself and the world from the standpoint of the oppressed in order to see the crimes being perpetrated on the oppressed. Lindsay shows, in quotes from the above book and by Freire, that the metaphor of dying and being reborn with the proper (Marxist) consciousness is used by both the Chinese thought reformers and by Paulo Freire.
Conscientization in Freire’s pedagogy borrows from György Lukács, primarily his book History and Class Consciousness, in which it is established that the process of conscientization is done in steps. This is an update to Marx, who focused only a little on the process of consciousness raising, thinking that reading his books along with the intolerable working conditions in which the working class lived would be enough. Lindsay enumerates, though he warns it’s not exactly how Lukács or Freire would have put it, the basic framework of conscientization:
- Class Awareness – Awareness that you are a member of a class in a class society.
- The Nature of Class Society – Class society dehumanizes those whom it oppresses.
- Holistic Understanding – All classes are part of a broader whole of society, which implies that “oppression” is a verb occurring within a structural dynamic between oppressors and those whom they oppress, all of whom are dehumanized by the process: there is no marginalized without marginalization and no marginalization without a marginalizer.
- Conscious Subject in History – You are a potential maker of History who has been prevented from knowing this about yourself through your oppression.
- Standpoint Knowledge – As one of the oppressed, you possess a special role in the making of History, as the dialectical negation to the conditions of oppression; that is, you have to be a revolutionary who changes History.
- Class Consciousness (First Real Marxist Consciousness) – You are in class solidarity within your class by virtue of your oppression and have a role to play in ending oppression entirely through revolution. But! Class society itself is the problem, following Marx, a profound contradiction. Up to this point, the progression agrees with Lukács.
- Critical Consciousness (Second Marxist Consciousness; Critical Marxist Consciousness; Marcusian Consciousness) – Because class society itself is the problem, the basic terms of class society are what need to be overthrown because otherwise the Class Consciousness will reproduce class society all over again (think Lenin or Stalin).
- Utopian Consciousness( Freirean Consciousness) – After any revolution, critical consciousness must increase, not decrease, and the new society that emerges must immediately be criticized and undergo another revolution so that it cannot establish a class society. No vision for the new society can be given lest it be imposed and become oppressive: Perpetual cultural revolution against all oppression.
- The Marxist Consciousness – The full transcendence of private property, division of labor, division of identities, and any other device that stratifies society (a.k.a, “Social Justice”); arrives after all oppression has been sufficiently denounced that it can no longer be reproduced and Man realizes his true nature as a perfectly Social(ist) being as the stateless, classless (including cultural and identity classes) society emerges. NB: This state of consciousness only exists when everyone (still alive) has it; until then “real Communism hasn’t been tried.”
It is going beyond stage 6, Lindsay says, that has been the key concern of Marxists over the last century. The realization by a class that nucleated around its shared oppression (e.g., the working class, racial or sexual minorities) is loath to give up their special status as a class member, and so a classless society has yet to materialize – fully inhabiting stage 7 meets resistance. The Soviet Union, in this view, only ever got to stage 6, and this is why they ended up reproducing the oppression they were supposed to eliminate.
Freire’s contribution of stage 8, Lindsay says, is supposed to bridge the gap and facilitate getting to the final classless, stateless Marxist Consciousness. But this stage, Lindsay warns, is a rickety bridge at best. All it does, in essence, is say to continuously cycle through the previous seven stages in a perpetual revolution, and just sort of hope that eventually this brings stage 9 about. This process, of course, is best done through education using Freire’s pedagogy.
While implementation of Freire’s pedagogy appears quite successful at propagating itself, Lindsay notes, it will only result in a dysfunctional society populated by know-nothing crybabies, lacking the scientists, doctors, tradesmen, bureaucrats, and so on that a functioning society requires. Lindsay says:
[Marxist Theory of Knowing’s] great weakness is that it necessarily must admit and has almost no filter against “knowledges,” “knowers,” and “ways of knowing” that are actually horrible, corrupt, made-up, or even insane. In this sense, a Marxist Theory of Knowing simultaneously dissolves the logic of civilization (indeed, the Logos itself) and its own capacity to do anything. As it turns out, however, its risk is also our risk.
As a result, nonetheless, it is of absolutely no surprise that a Freirean “education” produces know-nothing activists who are good at nothing except complaining in ways that obviously fail to understand what’s going on. (For example, why is there “history” and no “herstory” (or “hxrstory”)? is a patently idiotic question with surprising activist utility.) The goal of Freirean pedagogy is to produce conscientization of exactly this type.
The rest of this chapter pretty much repeats the same points that have been discussed already in the book, with liberal use of quotes from Freire’s works to drive the points home. This repetition is somewhat fitting since, as Lindsay himself often notes, once Marxism is distilled down to its essence – once one gets past all the obscure verbiage and self-indulgent neologisms, malapropisms, catachresis, retronyms, and redefinitions of commonly used words – it’s actually quite simple. It goes something like this:
(1) you have a false consciousness, i.e., you believe falsehoods imposed on you by the privileged elite (or you are one of the privileged elite who has accepted these lies, willingly or not, out of self-interest in maintaining your privileged position)
(2) these falsehoods serve to reproduce the oppressive system in which you were born and fool you into thinking you’re happy when you’re not (or, at least, you shouldn’t be)
(3) Marxism/Critical Theory/Freirean pedagogy can awaken you to these unhappy facts
(4) once awakened to the grim truth of your circumstances, you will find the current system intolerable
(5) if you complain (denounce in Freire’s terminology) often enough about the current system, it’ll eventually get critiqued into oblivion, revealing (announcing in Freire’s terminology) a better (Socialist) world
(6) this new better world, once achieved, immediately becomes (by definition) conservative and reactionary and therefore must be overturned
(7) repeat this process in a perpetual revolution until you achieve utopia
Chapter 6: Generative Themes and the Theft of Education
Lindsay begins by describing a concept in Freirean pedagogy called generative themes. These are essentially themes that appeal to someone’s “lived experience.” In other words, themes (or pressure points) that “trigger” something emotional in a person. It’s in stage 1 of the Freirean pedagogy that these generative themes are sussed out through surveys, tests, and other methods. This is what Lindsay calls the data-mining stage of Freirean pedagogy – this is when the “educator” finds those things in their “learners” that provoke emotional reactions. These might be issues surrounding race or gender. In the previous chapter, Lindsay brought up how Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is lauded by Queer Theorists as a method for discovering generative themes around sex and gender. In this he actually supplies a reference and gives the following quotes from it:
In recent years, a programme for young children called Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) has risen to simultaneous popularity and controversy. This article, written collaboratively by an education scholar and a drag queen involved in organizing DQSH, contextualizes the programme within the landscape of gender in education as well as within the world of drag, and argues that Drag Queen Story Hour provides a generative extension of queer pedagogy into the world of early childhood education.
- From: Harper Keenan & Lil Miss Hot Mess, “Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood”
Within the context of DQSH, the visual style of the queen serves as a provocation that invites inquiry into normative fashion and embodiment. Glitter, sequins, wigs, and heels all serve as pedagogical tools, inviting questions like why and how is drag made unusual in this environment? In other words, while verbal communication is a crucial element of DQSH, even if the queen said nothing, we argue that her mere aesthetic presence would be generative. While simultaneously destabilizing many of the mundane assumptions of gendered embodiment and of classroom life through the style, movement, and gesture, DQSH presents a queer relationship to educational experience. The traditional role of the teacher, transformed into a loud and sparkling queen, becomes delightfully excessive. She is less interested in focus, discipline, achievement, or objectives than playful self-expression. Her pedagogy is rooted in pleasure and creativity borne, in part, from letting go of control.
- From: Harper Keenan & Lil Miss Hot Mess, “Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood”
In other words, bringing children into the room with a drag queen provokes certain responses in the children which are generative themes.
The first step in Freirean pedagogy, then, is to identify generative themes. But it’s not just any generative themes, i.e., anything that might evoke a response in the students. At least not completely. Everything must be passed through the Marxist lens. So, for instance, say a student has a powerful response to something because, say, one of their parents is in prison. This, then, must be “contextualized” as being the result of oppression and bigotry. In other words, the personal struggles of the student matter only insofar as it can function as an inroad for raising political consciousness (conscientization). As Lindsay says:
The method therefore necessarily beings with a phase of “dialogue” or other methods of data mining the learners for the circumstances of their lives. What counts are those themes in their lives that evoke the kinds of discontented and aggrieved emotional responses useful to Marxist conscientization. In short, they’re meant to evoke feelings of injustice, unfairness, suffering, and misery, or hope in utopian possibility.
Lindsay says that, in the United States, aside from generative themes surrounding race and gender, students are often asked in surveys about “…suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, starvation, and death, repeatedly and in particular.” But here he does not provide a reference, so the veracity of this assertion is not credibly established. Again, that’s not to say this is not happening, only that Lindsay does not back up his claim – the reader is simply supposed to take his word for it. He also makes the following claim without any citations:
Already and increasingly in the near future, technology like wearable devices (such as heart-rate monitors), eyes-tracking devices, artificial intelligence (including “digital friends”), and more will be employed to generate this “psychodata” about our children to mold their educations but also their economic behaviors and to enable greater sociopolitical control over them.
Again, this nightmare scenario sounds very plausible, but simply asserting it without anything to back it up weakens the argument. In the very least it leaves such a thing open to plausible deniability from those who might actually seek to employ these dystopian measures. Lindsay’s recent emphasis in his podcasts, lectures, and writings focusing on Freire and education is, as I said at the outset of this review, likely motivated by the absurd denial that Critical Theory is used in the classroom. Lindsay’s argument is essentially that (1) Paulo Freire’s pedagogy calls for Marxist Critical Theory to be employed in classrooms, (2) Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is, in fact, being used in K-12 tax-dollar funded public schools, and (3) in practice, adoption of Freirean pedagogy consists (in part) in the utilization of generative themes, such as dialogue, surveys, exposure to provocative situations such as in DQSH, and presumably the methods in the above quote to collect “psychodata.” Lindsay has spent the first half of this book establishing that (1) is true, and has done a thorough enough job that it would be nearly impossible for someone to deny it. But a reading of the literature by Freire and his acolytes could only establish (2) and (3) as aspirational. In other words, we can’t know, without other credible sources, that in fact (2) and (3) obtain. Certainly these things are plausible, and perhaps even likely (just given what we all see in the news and on social media), but again, to make the audacious argument for the “theft of education” we require more than just the aspirations established in (1).
Much of this chapter is giving examples of how generative themes could be used in classrooms, though it is presented as if this is definitely going on, though without any citations. The provacative and frightening nature of the various hypothetical situations in which such generative themes may be used in the classroom can seem compelling, but again: where is the evidence? Where are the sources? Saying these things to someone already inclined to believe it has a strong appeal to one’s confirmation bias. Indeed, I myself do think that things like what Lindsay describes in this chapter are likely happening, but in the name of critical thinking, based only on what is presented in this book I am forced to withhold judgement. One might say that I could go online and find plenty of instances of the hypothetical situations Lindsay describes in this chapter, but this is not how an argument works:
Me: “I’m asserting that A”
You: “do you have anything to back that up?”
Me: “the evidence is out there, go find it yourself”
Anyone who is on the fence as to whether this “theft of education” is occurring, upon reading this book, should not yet be convinced. While the rhetorical use of hypotheticals may seem compelling, appealing to one’s fears about the abuse of their (and everyone else’s) children, so far, aside from thoroughly establishing (1) from above, no real case has yet been made for (2) or (3) aside from them being aspirational to Freirean pedagogues.
After discussing “…an education paper describing using Drag Queen Story Hour as a generative practice.” (no citation to the paper is given here, though it is found in the previous paper discussed above) Lindsay admits:
It is rare to find examples where a blatant confession like this exists, explaining that the given justification for inclusion in the curriculum is little more than a marketing ploy while the (Freirean) generative program is the real intention. Nevertheless, we can rest assured that it is happening with a great deal of curricular choices in virtually every politically relevant domain in every subject in many schools.
We can rest assured that this is happening? How? Why? Again, the above quote is not an argument. It’s an assertion. One I’m inclined to believe, but not simply because Lindsay tells me that I can believe it. Taken in isolation, this book is doing very little to convince me that this “theft of education” is actually transpiring. Lindsay does briefly discuss the “decolonization” of education, pointing to specific examples like “ethnomathematics,” “mathematx,” comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), culturally relevant teaching (the other CRT), and the “1619 project” (which is even being given a Hulu series starting in January of 2023). Though, again, it’s not clear here (and no citations are provided) how widespread these programs actually are in education.
Anyway, while much of Freirean pedagogy is focused on how to radicalize the underclasses (the politically illiterate), Lindsay discusses how it is also used to introduce generative themes to the privileged learners. This is done in what is called the pedagogy of discomfort (for more, see here and here). Lindsay quotes from Feeling Power: Emotions and Education by Megan Boler and Maxine Greene:
A PEDAGOGY OF DISCOMFORT begins by inviting educators and students to engage in critical inquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs, and to examine constructed self-images in relation to how one has learned to perceive others. WIthin this culture of inquiry and flexibility, a central focus is to recognize how emotions define how and what one chooses to see, and conversely, not to see.
Boler and Greene, Feeling Power
A PEDAGOGY OF DISCOMFORT calls not only for inquiry but also, at critical junctions, for action – action hopefully catalyzed as a result of learning to bear witness. Just as self-reflection and passive empathy do not assure any change, so the safe project of inquiry represents only the first step of a transformative journey.
Boler and Greene, Feeling Power
In this he does cite the paper “The Politics of Liberation and Love in Privileged Classrooms” by Susannah E. Livingston (2022) and quotes:
In my experience critically teaching children of elites, there have been a few successful tactics for moving students through phases of Freirian growth and toward necessary decodification of relevant issues. The first is a modification of existing curricula to include a Freirian perspective of the past so that past human decisions and choices are clear and the past can be seen as active rather than passive (Freire, 2000). Teaching the impact of human agency on the past and connecting it clearly to the hegemonic structures in place allowed my students to be aware of the root causes of problems while also empowering them to change the future by showing it is not a set course of events but rather dictated by human choice and response—that it can be influenced by their choices and responses. This is often seen by my private school students as both empowering (because they know they have the financial and social potential to institute change, having become aware of their privilege) and also overwhelming (as they realize the depth and breadth of the work that needs to be accomplished). While I did experience some students framing issues as abstract, and demonstrating a deep unawareness of their root causes (Swalwell, 2017), it took me several years to realize that this was often a first step toward their consciencization rather than a stopping point when I alerted them to their own oppression.
From: Livingston, “The Politics of Liberation and Love in Privileged Classrooms”
This certainly indicates that this pedagogy of discomfort is being used by Livingston, but even she admits that this approach is underutilized elsewhere:
After several years of teaching in the private school realm and sensing the potential that exists for the application of Freirian pedagogy, I turned to scholarship for assistance in the best ways to teach critically. I was flummoxed by the lack of research exploring liberatory education of elite populations and tuition–based schools. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by this dearth of scholarship, but it was at odds with my personal experiences, as most private school teachers have the desire to teach critically and see the primary goal of education as empowering students to institute positive social change (Livingston, 2019).
From: Livingston, “The Politics of Liberation and Love in Privileged Classrooms”
The purpose of this pedagogy of discomfort is, as the name suggests, to make children of the privileged elite uncomfortable by pointing out the ways in which they and their family and friends are culpable in sustaining a system of oppression that silences the underclasses. As with any other Freirean pedagogy, actually teaching “learners” to read, write, do math, etc. is secondary, or even irrelevant, to this program. The primary objective is to create more Marxist activists.
Lindsay then discusses culturally relevant teaching (see “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” and “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” both by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1995) as an example of Freirean pedagogy packaged in a Critical Race Theory wrapping (e.g., the concept of political literacy is here called cultural competence or cultural literacy). Like Freire, Ladson-Billings gives the sales pitch that this method of teaching will help students in academic achievement by appealing to their lived experience, thereby making the subject material more relevant to the students and therefore motivate them to engage more with the material.
Aside from another mention of the 2007 Nigeria study and the protest of gun violence in Providence, Rhode Island, Lindsay mentions (but does not cite) Jennifer McWilliams when discussing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and gives some examples of how an innocuous math problem could be spun into classroom discussions of race or gender. Again, the hypothetical scenarios that Lindsay spins have a strong emotional appeal to parents who want their children to have a good education, but there is no indication – no citations – that show that these abusive practices are actually being employed. Not to sound like a broken record, but I am not suggesting that Lindsay is lying, or that these abuses aren’t happening, I am merely pointing out that this book is not making the case that this “theft of education” is in fact occurring.
Chapter 7: Codification and Decodification as a Thought-Reform Method
Once the generative themes have been determined through methods discussed in the previous chapter, next comes the actual process of thought reform. This occurs in a nominally two-step process of codification and decodification. I say nominally because each of them consists of sub-steps which are broken down differently by Lindsay than they are by Freire. Regardless of how it is enumerated, the process is essentially this: codify the generative theme(s) by presenting them in an abstract way (Lindsay says this is often done with actual pictures or with stories, since the learners may be illiterate). This might, on the surface, look like an actual lesson plan, tailored to the experiences of the students, but in reality it’s a sort of bait-and-switch meant to introduce the thought reform done in the decodification steps. Then, to decodify this abstract theme, the class is invited to “problematize” it (i.e., showing how it is actually an instance or a cause of harm, unfairness, or oppression), and then conscientize the students by indicating all the ways in which their own lives are affected by it (whether they are victims or perpetrators of the injustice), thus giving them the viewpoint from the oppressed. Lindsay says:
This begins the process of “decodification.” As noted, there are two decodifications occurring at once; one real and political, one fake and the sale pitch. The whole process beings politically with “reading” the situation for its political content, which is them problematized. These are the first two stages of the political decodification process, which constitutes the actual mechanism of Freirean thought reform. It turns the codified content toxic and makes it real and relevant to the learner. In other words, this phase is where Marxist analysis begins. This is where the “equity,” “sustainability,” or “inclusion” lenses get applied. Its goal is to show the learner why the image and ideas in the codification represent structural injustice and to lay out the “structural causes” of the depicted circumstance, as Marxists perceive them, and why the are oppressive and “concrete” in their own lives.
Finally, the learner is facilitated (groomed) to identify himself with the idea presented abstractely in the image. This is the final stage of political decodification, which results in conscientization and thus seeing the world from the standpoint of the oppressed.
In the decodification phase, so the sale pitch goes, the student will learn to read (or do math or science etc.) better than other pedagogical models because they will feel more engaged in subject matter that applies to their own life. Lindsay calls this the linguistic decodification (as opposed to the political decodification described above), but it is of secondary importance at best.
Lindsay then discusses how this process is used in Communist Chinese thought-reform, as well as painting two hypothetical scenarios in which it could be used in a school classroom. Again, only hypotheticals are supplied, no actual empirical evidence of this happening. Not even real life anecdotes of it happening.
The chapter then goes into more detail on codification and decodification. For codification Lindsay says:
…codifications of generative themes have to meet three criteria to Freire. First, they must be an abstract representation of the teme. Second, they must be based upon emotionally and politically engaging themes in the learner’s real lives – that is, they must exhibit potential to radicalize the students politically. Third, they have to be organized in a way that the political content is visible but not obviously propagandizing.
The “generative” potential of drag queens, in specific, is therefore visible. They are “fun,” both drag queens themselves and public officials … tell us. As Freire has it, they’re “neither overly explicit nor overly enigmatic.” The gender and sexual provocations are obvious but at the same time tucked within a blatant clown. A stripper would be too explicit (while reifying gender instead of calling it into question); a passing and professional gay, lesbian, or trans individual would be overly enigmatic. Drag queens are simple in their complexity and offer various decoding possibilities.
In many cases, Lindsay notes, the codified lessons don’t appear too egregious. They might even look like standard lesson plans. But, he warns, this is a sleight of hand, a ruse, both to trick the students into falling into their thought-reform trap, and also to maintain plausible deniability about their true intentions when confronted by parents and other critics. A lesson plan about slavery, for instance, is pretty standard fare in a U.S. classroom. But this lesson plan can then be used to convince students that the U.S. was founded for the sole purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery (as the 1619 Project contends) and that systemic racism is one of the fundamental structures upon which Western civilization is built. Then, when confronted by parents outraged at these thought-reform techniques, the perpetrators can say something like “We’re just teaching students about slavery. Are you saying that students shouldn’t learn about slavery? You think we should reinstitute slavery, don’t you?!”
Pedagogies like Culturally Relevant Teaching, Lindsay says, are Cultural Marxist uses of the Freirean codification. He uses the example of ethnomathematics, which he says (without citation) is already being employed in “Many states, including California, Oregon, and Washington…” Ethnomathematics is, on the face of it, putting math into historical and cultural context. Lindsay says:
Ethnomathematics bills itself as teaching something like an anthropology or history of mathematics, including various methods of counting, geometry, and arithmetic used by various ethnic cultural groups (especially indigenous) throughout the world. Alternatively, it may teach points like that the number system we use is Arabic and was invented in India, that the Egyptians and Babylonians had a Pythagorean Theorem before the Greeks, or that algebra is a Middle Eastern invention. … The point of all these lessons is to create generative themes turned into codifications that challenge and complicate a “white, Eurocentric” view of mathematics that needs to be connected to broader narrative arcs, problematized, and used as fodder for radical anti-Western “decolonizing” activism. The frustrating nature of the fact that there’s often nothing immediately wrong with such lessons, which can be interesting on the surface, but that they’re being used for the Freirean codification-based hijacking of mathematics is the underlying problem.
It is the decodification steps where the “theft of education” is really occurring. Lindsay says that, while Freire poses decodification as a five-step process, it is in reality a three-step process, since the steps concerned with actually learning how to read are mostly irrelevant for the true goal of Freirean pedagogy. Yet, he gives Freire’s description from the appendix to chapter seven of The Politics of Education (which uses the word favela, meaning slum, as the example). Here are the five stages (slightly abridged by Lindsay):
Stages of Decodification: there are five stages
- The knowing subjects begin the operation of breaking down the codified whole. This enables them to penetrate the whole in terms of the relationships among its parts, which until then the viewers did not perceive.
- After a thorough analysis of the existential situation of the slum, the semantic relation between the generative word and what it signifies is established.
- After the word has been seen in the situation, another slide is projected in which only the word appears, without the image of the situation: favela.
- The generative word is immediately separated into its syllables: fa ve la. The “family” of the first syllable is shown: fa, fe, fi, fo, fu
Confronted with this syllabic family, the students identify only the syllable fa, which they know from the generative word. What is the next step for an educator who believes that learning to read and write is an act of knowing (who also knows that this is not, as for Plato, an act of remembering what has been forgotten)? He realizes that he must supply the students with new information, but he also knows that he must present the material to them as a problem… [Draw out the syllabic content through questions; repeat with the other syllables, ve and la.]
- Next, the educator asks the learners: Do you think we can (never, do you think you can) create something with these pieces?
This is the decisive moment for learning. It is the moment when those learning to read and write discover the syllabic composition of words in their language.
After a silence, sometimes disconcerting to the inexperienced educator, the learners begin, one by one, to discover the words of their language by putting together the syllables in a variety of combinations.
However, Lindsay says that step 1 above is what is important and that, indeed, steps 2-5 rarely happen (he points again to the 2007 Nigerian study as evidence of this, as well as “…the progressive learning loss across America…” though without citation). The real three steps of political decodification, according to Lindsay, are:
- Reading (what is happening?) – learning to see things (to “read” things) as situated in structures of power
- Problematizing (why and in what way is this an injustice?) – interpreting the reading through a Marxist lens, i.e., how power structures cause oppression
- Concretizing or Personalizing (how are you and people you know involved in this injustice?) – identifying ones position (and culpability) in the power structures of society
It must be stressed that reading, in this context, has nothing to do with actual literacy. It’s more like “reading the room” than reading words in a book. It’s being able to pick out all the ways in which things like power structures (and power imbalances) are present in any given situation. Or, as Lindsay says:
In fact, the authors [of the DQSH paper] devote an entire section of the paper to “Reading the Room: Inviting Strategic Defiance” in which the presence of the drag queen is meant to be generative to discussions on rulebreaking and gender-bending – a deliberate means of “strategic defiance” against norms of behavior and presentation (both literal and “queering”). This patently inappropriate destruction of boundaries is presented as a form of “reading” the allegedly inherently political nature of rules, norms, and expectations and how they might limit people and the ways they live their lives. … How this mode of learning to “read” is understood as anything but deliberate and transparent grooming is a testament to the power of the “generative themes” method and “codification” to disguise the true, evil intentions and purposes of a hijacked education.
At the end of the three-step process will be conscientization. In other words, the learner will presumably have a better understanding of the myriad injustices of society, how these injustices are baked into the structure of society via Marxian power dynamics (e.g., bourgeoisie vs. working class; whites vs. people of color; cisheterosexual vs. queer), and what their own place is in all of this. Such a person will be moved to agitate against such a corrupt and unjust system of oppression – they will either want to rise up against the privileged elite (or, at least, to constantly “denounce” and “problematize” everything), or to “check” their own privilege and attempt to halt further reproduction of the current unjust system.
Chapter 8: The Dialogical Model and the Egalitarian Classroom
The dialogical model is pretty much what it sounds like: learning through dialogue. Freire, Lindsay explains, thought that the stratification of the classroom into the teacher as the “knower” and the students as ignorant would domesticate the students and reproduce the same hierarchical power dynamics of society based around unjust definitions of what it means to know things (the “learners” are already “knowers” of their own lived experience, which is a way of knowing equally as valid as, say, science or math). Therefore, teachers must instead be “educators” or “facilitators” and students must instead be “learners.”
This is done through the processes given in the last two chapters. While in dialogue, the learners impart their knowledge about lived experience, which the educator then uses to identify generative themes that can be codified, presented back to the learners, and then decodified through class discussion.
Lindsay notes that while the dialogical model is not intrinsically inferior to other pedagogical approaches, this is an empirical matter to be determined though controlled experiment. What Freire does, however, is conflate all pedagogical approaches but his own into a strawman that we encountered already, and that is the so-called “banking education” wherein knowledge is deposited by the knowledgeable teacher into the empty (ignorant) students.
Freire says of this banking education: “In banking education and educator replaces self-expression with a “deposit” that a student is expected to “capitalize.” The more efficiently he does this, the better educated he is considered.” (The Politics of Education) And “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). This allows society to blame someone’s lack of success on them and not the system, because the student had the same knowledge deposited into them as everyone else but failed to capitalize on it. Further, this banking model of education serves to domesticate students and teach them to continue reproducing the same systems of oppression.
Lindsay stresses that, even if the dialogical model might sound benign, or even a good idea in some circumstances, it is in the Freirean pedagogy still very much a vehicle for conscientizing and radicalizing students. Several quotes from Freire’s works are given that say this explicitly, including the following one:
…I interpret the revolutionary process as dialogical cultural action which is prolonged in “cultural revolution” once power is taken. In both stages a serious and profound effort at [conscientization] – by means of which the people, through a true praxis, leave behind the status of objects to assume the status of historical Subjects – is necessary.
Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Thus, if you ever encounter a school discussing the use of the dialogical method, it must always be kept in mind that its true purpose is to conscientize and radicalize students.
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapter 9 is just some concluding remarks and chapter 10 is a tl;dr of the book, so I will not linger on them here.
James Lindsay’s The Marxification of Education: Paulo Freire’s Critical Marxism and the Theft of Education is meant to stoke the fears of those who already believe that the “theft of education” is happening. Just like Marxism asks one to assume that the various dynamics of oppression are true, and indeed the fundamental organization principle of civilization, Lindsay asks the readers to assume that the “theft of education” is happening, and this book is merely to tell you it’s ultimate objectives and in what ways this crime is being perpetrated (or, at least, in what ways it could be being perpetrated). He has made a very convincing case that Freirean pedagogy is a Marxist, postcolonialist, Critical Theory of education – in other words, that where Freirean pedagogy is implemented, its primary aim will be to churn out Marxist activists and not academically proficient and capable adults. What this book fails to establish is that this “theft of education” is in fact occurring. I repeat: this does not mean that it is not occurring, only that this book fails to make the case that it is.
That being said, The Marxification of Education does serve to give readers a glimpse at the playbook used in Freirean pedagogy. It lays out that if a Freire-inspired pedagogy (e.g., Transformative Social Emotional Learning or Culturally Relevant Teaching) is employed, then the real goal is conscientization and radicalization, while academic proficiency is merely the sales pitch used to get unwitting parents and school administrators to authorize this tripe. The book simply fails to actually affirm the antecedent here with relevant citations and references. But, in preaching to the choir, the book may succeed in moving people to action in halting and reversing the Marxification of education, and I would wager that this was Lindsay’s true purpose for writing this book (aside from making money).
For more of James Lindsay’s take on Paulo Freire (and just to get a sense of how much of a crusade Lindsay has been on against Freirean pedagogy), he’s done quite a few lengthy podcasts and lectures on the subject: