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Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices
Date Reviewed: August 3, 2016
Discerning Critical Hope is a continuation of the work of Paulo Freire, whose famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) formed a basis for critical and liberation pedagogy. While his early work included hope, he reiterated the importance of that portion of his framework in Pedagogy of Hope (1992). A small but growing literature on critical hope is extant in the field of pedagogy, but this idea has not yet made many inroads into the published works of theologians, despite its connections with liberation theology and the other contextual and critical branches of theological discourse and activism. (Works on critical hope in the religious education and theology literature include: Bock, “Climatologists, Theologians, and Prophets,” Cross Currents; Kim, “Seeking Critical Hope in a Global Age,” Religious Education; and Kuhne, “A Community Pedagogy of Critical Hope,” PhD dissertation). Many readers of the Wabash Center’s publications will undoubtedly already teach in a way consistent with the critical and liberative themes in Freirean thought, critiquing oppressive social structures and advocating for a world grounded in God’s justice and love. After deconstructing oppressive systems and our complicity in them, however, it can be difficult to provide hope in the theological classroom. I personally find it challenging to move students beyond critique and not simply leave ministry students and seminarians with the task of reconstructing their shattered beliefs and worldviews on their own.
Critical hope provides a way forward. Within this framework, critique and hopefulness cannot be separated: the point is that we need both. We need to be able to critique the world as it is, while retaining hope for a different future. Within this framework, the educator engages history with a critical lens, invokes students’ imaginations, envisioning a different way, and provides space for practical steps to enact that vision.
Discerning Critical Hope includes chapters by a number of scholars, educators, and practitioners. The authors distinguish between critical hope, naïve hope, and false hope. Naïve hope is optimism without a sense of personal responsibility: expecting that things will turn out alright even if one puts forth no effort to make it so. False hope refers to the idea that working hard will result in one joining the oppressing class, a personal rather than systemic release from injustice. Several chapters critique neoliberal education and other forms of supposedly equality-based educational practices that promise merit-based successes, while in reality supporting colonial and patriarchal systems of power. These can serve as cautions for those who teach religion as well. Which of the forms of hope offered in classrooms are naïve or false hopes? Are faculty willing and able to be drawn to a deeper level of hope that can handle the paradox and mystery of critique, of looking in the face of real suffering and injustice, and struggling – hope-filled – toward a better world?
Although each chapter has its helpful points, I found chapters 2, 5, and 10 most useful. Chapter 2, “Teaching for Hope: The Ethics of Shattering Worldviews,” by Megan Boler, provides hope for my own teaching. Boler recognizes the real difficulties in engaging critical hope in the classroom: intentionally invoking a pedagogy of discomfort is, not surprisingly, uncomfortable for students and educators alike. Boler states that, when utilizing this pedagogical method, about a third of students will be receptive, about a third will be vocally and angrily resistant, and another third will be numb or apathetic. She shares a difficult classroom experience, including her fears and other feelings as she navigated dealing with resistant students. It gave me courage to continue practicing this form of teaching.
Chapter 10 provides a brief history of thinkers who have written about hope, from the Greek myth of Prometheus to Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ernst Bloch, and Paulo Freire. This provides a helpful entry point into different explications of hope throughout history, especially since many of these philosophers had such a major impact on Western culture and on theology. This chapter delineates how and why critical hope differs from previous understandings of hope.
Chapter 5, “Plasticity, Critical Hope and the Regeneration of Human Rights Education,” by André Keet, explains critical hope through the lens of deconstruction, bringing Derrida and other philosophers into the conversation. Keet describes critical hope as that leftover form present after deconstruction occurs, that kernel of truth or “trace” that remains when one strips away all the systems and structures that get layered on top of that essential form. Forms must be physical, must be enacted: these traces cannot remain metaphysical or theoretical, but must be lived.
For theological educators, as we critique and deconstruct, we hope and trust there is an essential kernel there for our students to discover, a trace, a divine encounter or transcendent truth, a knowing that goes beyond the laws and organizational structures with which we so often burden our faith. As we critique, we also hope: we sense something there, something infinite, personal and universal, a never-changing essence and a dynamic Spirit of creative transformation. We can never pin it down; it is always a process of becoming. Hope is a means and an end, a way of being and a goal to strive for, but we cannot know for what we hope without critiquing the present context and imagining a different world. Nor can we truly hope unless we embody that hope in praxis, naming the problem, developing a solution, enacting it, reflecting, modifying, and trying again in a constant cycle of transformation.
Though the authors of this text do not often discuss religion or spirituality, these topics do come up at points, and the struggles to name injustice and enact a truly just and hope-filled form of education will be recognizable to many religious educators. I recommend this book to educators in the religious academy who want to enact a form of education that goes beyond the banking model, who want to challenge their students to engage in critical thinking, who need courage and a sense of solidarity from knowing they are not alone in this struggle, and who also sense a deep undercurrent of hope in taking one step, and then another, toward that imagined future.
Engaged Teaching in Theology and Religion
Date Reviewed: August 3, 2016
There is wide agreement that student-centered pedagogies yield deeper student engagement and stronger learning outcomes than more traditional “sage-on-the-stage” teaching does. Learning shines when students are invited and equipped to integrate course content with their own experiences, insights, and prior knowledge. In this volume Renee K. Harrison and Jennie S. Knight reflect on personal experiences in the classroom, explore pedagogical theory, and provide examples of applied practices to create a map of the key elements of engaged pedagogy. The map, divided into four sections, moves from the selfhood of the teacher to teaching methods and course content to community context and engagement.
Harrison and Knight begin with a premise: that the enterprise of teaching involves the very personhood of the teacher. Either we can acknowledge this and cultivate an awareness of our strengths, blind spots, and biases, or we can ignore it. That deep learning involves the very personhood of students is another key premise. Nurturing this two-pronged awareness – that teachers and students do not leave their wider selves at the door of the classroom – is the necessary ground of engaged teaching. Whole persons are welcomed into the classroom and empowered to reflectively integrate course content with who they are.
Sections two and three explore how form and content can either undermine or buttress one another and how, even when teachers aim for the latter, they may unwittingly miss the mark. For example, in classrooms in which more democratic teaching practices are employed, course content may still hew closely to a traditional textual canon, with marginalized voices tacked on at the end. Or content may offer a wide range of perspectives while teaching methods minimize student voices. Ideally, democratic pedagogies and a widened canon reiterate one another.
If the goal of learning is not just knowledge acquisition but transformation and if we are inviting students’ whole lives into the process, attending to communal context is likewise crucial. The authors thus cap the volume with strong advocacy for community-based learning (CBL). They discuss the logistical and pedagogical challenges of incorporating community work into courses and illustrate why it is well worth the effort. They offer tools for implementing such work, while acknowledging that sustained success in CBL requires significant institutional buy-in that some teachers may not enjoy.
In fact, a particular strength of this volume is its honesty about engaged teaching practices, which while considered innovative in pedagogical circles, are still perceived in many academic circles as less rigorous and less respectable than more classic methods. Harrison and Knight lament that this should be so especially in theological-religious education, where the integration of curricular and worldly knowledge is paramount. Should engaged teaching not be the norm? Recognizing that teachers will need to calculate risks depending on institutional context, they counsel courage for the sake of students’ whole-person integrity – and of the credibility of theological-religious education.
The wisdom conveyed in these pages is clearly hard won, over the course of many years across varied institutions. In distilling their experiences, Harrison and Knight offer their readers a real gift. However, while teachers can benefit from the ideas, strategies, and examples laid out in the book, they should not expect to change their own teaching methods and courses overnight. Rather, this volume invites teachers to an ongoing practice of engaged pedagogy that requires continual self-reflection, awareness of institutional and classroom contexts, a willingness to take creative risks, and a commitment to engaging one’s students as whole persons. It is a compelling invitation indeed. For those who prize transformative pedagogy, this volume weaves the best of theory and practice in teaching theology and religion – accessibly, comprehensively, and indeed engagingly. Highly recommended for undergraduate, seminary, and graduate teachers alike.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. (1) We have had a month of intense events in the US. The killings of Black precious people, this time, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, came to the news again, as if these killings ...
Critical Approaches to the Study of Higher Education: A Practical Introduction
Date Reviewed: July 15, 2016
The goal of the contributors to Critical Approaches to the Study of Higher Education is to apply critical theories to the study of higher education which, they insist, “has only begun to develop research using such essential approaches as critical feminist theories, critical race theories, critical discourse analysis, state theoretical approaches, or theories of power and marginalization.” Added to this genuine concern is the scarcity of published material “addressing key topics in higher education that are central to critical work elsewhere in the social sciences” (5). To meet this need, they marshal “critical theories, models, and research tools with a critical vision of the central challenges facing postsecondary researchers” hoping to shape future “scholars and scholarship in higher education” (5). They are convinced that these critical tools will “provide policymakers, the public, and institutional actors clear, reasonable, and authoritative information about higher education as it is experienced in a democracy” (1). The result is a fine compilation of well-written essays for teachers and researchers to adopt and exercise their critical edge with a view to innovating their teaching pedagogies and research.
The vision Mertínez-Ahlemán, Pusser, and Bensimon have is to ensure a sustained exercise of critical theory in the service of humanity, namely “for understanding politics and policy making in higher education” (5). They carry their readers through fifteen intriguing arguments critically testing theory against lived experiences filled with autobiographical elements that share the same thread – an abiding concern and determination to ensure that justice and equity are exercised in higher education. After all, critical theory came into being for this purpose as exemplified in feminist criticism, critical race theory, and other critical studies dealing with various dimensions of human life such as marginalization, economic disparity, and power differential. Simply stated, things are not the way they seem and something must be done even if it might be subversive.
This volume is, indeed, “long overdue” (5) as it provides salient insights on how to critically navigate the host of complex and challenging issues facing higher education. These dynamic tensions inherent in higher education include: areas of scholarship and lived experience, power differential, critical historiography, the making of globalization, policymaking, race, equity, opportunities, and institutional change, and so on. Quite frankly, this book is a gem with a delicate vision to motivate scholars and teachers alike to engage in the noble – yet difficult – task of effecting change, especially the kind of transformation that advocates justice and nurtures equity in higher education. Educators and researchers may strive to embody and diligently exercise its content in their classrooms or writing projects because of its timely and urgent call for action. In other words, justice and equity matter (311).
In memory of William Klug and Ioan Petru Culianu Pedagogies are concerned with the study and practice of teaching and learning. Pedagogies are ways of organizing society as it has to do with ways of thinking and valuing life, shaping emotions, defining sense, choosing abilities, establishing relations and so on. ...