In his preface to Critical Teaching & Everyday Life, Shor reflects on the relevance of his book as an introduction to critical pedagogy and how it impacted his future scholarship. In particular, he claims the book helped him communicate a dialogic pedagogy, which extended into Pedagogy for Liberation with the idea that classrooms can’t be defended from the inside and that teaching cannot be controlled from outside. I think this preface is particularly useful because Shor qualifies some of the statements he makes in the book that tend to get criticism for being idealistic. For example, he defines the classroom “as a place where knowledge, perception, ideology, and socialization are challenged, not where the social structure of society itself is changed” (xi, emphasis added). He also notes that his discussion of decentering teacher authority isn’t an argument for the dissolution of the teacher but of students’ dependence on teacher authority (and the subsequent ideology of corporate society that tells us to value these authoritarian voices). Teachers, he argues, must do more than simply be great critical teachers; they must also be the very best citizens in spaces outside the classroom that affect social policy (xiii).
Part One, Problematic Schooling, explores the historical and social contexts of community colleges and working class students.
In Chapter 1, “The Working Class Goes to College,” Shor immediately strikes down the idea of American education as democratic and equalizing, arguing instead that schools reinforce class-based order. In the 1950s and 60s, workers began enrolling in community colleges, which has economic motivations and consequences. Shor describes school as a business activity that trains people to participate in the world of business but also functions as a market with money, labor, and goods (4). He writes, “Large parts of surplus commodities and surplus labor have been absorbed by taking workers out of the labor pool and into higher education” (5). Workers were needed to build community colleges and are still needed to maintain them, and workers are turned into students within the colleges, illustrating Shor’s point that mass higher education “develops the economy which developed it” (5).
There are many such paradoxes to mass higher education. For example, community colleges demand time that keeps worker-students from holding full-time jobs, but students see this as a choice they’ve made rather than something the economy demands (8). And the demands of community colleges (using worker-students as cheap labor and monitoring that work) are paradoxical to the goal of two-year colleges to prepare students for future labor that many are already prepared for (9). This leads to a much larger, and more troubling paradox: community colleges prepare workers that the economy can’t accommodate, so mass higher education promises both success (a degree) and denial (of a job). In response to this problem, Shor argues that college’s employ “cooling-out”—a process of lowering expectations—to convince students that their dreams are both tangible and inaccessible, that they can’t expect college to do for them what it does for the elite (17). Running throughout all of these tensions is that between liberal arts and vocationalism and the continued stratification of the small elite being trained in critical and creative learning environments, while “the vocationalized mass is prepared to take orders, follow rules, obey the decisions of superiors and look to the knowledge of experts” (25).
Although this may sound all bad, Shor argues that people of course people do learn in community colleges, and the increasing demand for access to higher education is positive (18). And though teachers who have been trained to teach elite students often clash with these worker-students, Shor notes that this disruption can be productive when we employ an empowering worker pedagogy that encourages critical thought (19). Likewise, community colleges have been successful at equalizing female and people of color with their white peers, offering students safe spaces to discuss critical and divisive issues about race and gender (21-22). Because students have been trained—through their daily experiences—to be mistrustful, we should expect the liberated classroom to seem unfamiliar and threatening for students, at least at first (36).
Chapter 2, “Interferences to Critical Thought: Consciousness in School and Daily Life,” focuses on the many aspects of mass culture that have contributed to a stifling of and disinterest in critical thinking (drawing on Freire’s notions of “critical consciousness” and “conscientization” as the product and process of liberatory learning). Shor argues that critical thinking and learning are discouraged because they are risks to hierarchy and exploitation, helping people uncover the institutions that suppress them, and encouraging them to envision—and then work toward—a social order that would support their humanity (48). There are a number of anti-critical forces at work here. School vocationalism is the first step in the process as it strives toward producing an uncritical, divided workforce whose labor is meant to be as mechanical (ie., unhuman, uncritical) as possible (50). The second factor here is false consciousness, “manipulated action and reflection which lead people to support their own oppression” (55). That is, false consciousness conditions people to police themselves through the process of internalizing dominant societal ideals. Within false consciousness, there’s reification (“the process of popular thought, feeling, and action”  that freezes reflection and causes people to act against their own interests), acceleration (a process of that “speeds up mental processes beyond a pace suitable for critical analysis” ), and mystification (a process that offers an “illusory whole” in order to “distort remaining intellect and to answer the longing for explanations” ), and
The classroom becomes an important space, then, because students have opportunities to participate in democratic processes that mass culture regularly denies them. This is not to idealize the classroom, though. Shor notes that many worker-students are resistant to the mutual dialogue key to the critical learning process and that many students need help developing the cognitive faculties necessary for critical inquiry and literacy. Though these strategies are developed further in the next session, Shor points to a few different ways that teachers can engage students in critical thought. First, he notes that the critical classroom must develop opportunities that counter acceleration, allowing students to slow down their perceptions, to make careful observations, and to engage deeply in focused inquiry (82). He also notes that teachers should recognize and value the resources that student’s bring to class with them (rather than the instructor viewing herself as the one with all the knowledge), which students will more openly share once they are treated with respect and equality (86).
Part Two, “Reconstructed Learning,” focuses more on the theoretical and practical aspects of pedagogy that instructors should consider and incorporate in the liberatory classroom.
In Chapter 3, “Extraordinarily Re-Experiencing the Ordinary: Theory of Critical Thinking,” Shor offers a flexible agenda of pedagogical resources—tools and methods—that teachers can use, such as dialogue and self-regulation. A few key resources here that are useful to highlight are the withering away of the teacher, contextual skill-development, self-creation of media and texts, and comedy. The withering away of the teacher is the idea that the teacher is expendable. The teacher is indispensable throughout the learning process, but the teacher must fade as students emerge as self-regulating subjects (98). [As graduate students, we had a hard time with this one when we read it for class last year, and when we spoke with Shor, he clarified that you can’t do this if you don’t have the authority in the first place.] Contextual skill development advocates for the development of cognitive skills through a critical examination of real contexts that are drawn from students’ lives (104), which seems imperative for opening up students whose experiences have been devalued or who struggle to pair theory with their material lives. The self-creation of media and texts also empowers students to become active agents whose voices stand out within an overly-saturated mass culture of uncritical media (108). And finally, I think Shor’s attention to comedy is interesting as a tool to relax students and to further demystify (and thus wither away) the teacher. Specifically, he focuses on play here, arguing that critical education must challenge the monopoly of fun and that assimilating the energy of play can help attack the binary between play/work that polarizes our daily experiences (117).
Chapter 4, “Monday Morning: Critical Literacy and the Theme of ‘Work,’” begins with the acknowledgement that critical pedagogy is context-specific and must be grounded in the limits and possibilities of each course, academic department, college/university, and region (125). Whereas the previous chapter focuses on some of the methods that can be used to structure the classroom, this chapter offers some very practical in-class exercises to raise consciousness, such as free writing (to reverse the freezing effects of students’ prior experiences with writing), pre-writing (to help students organize their thoughts), dictation (to help students get out their ideas and to collaborate with each other), and voicing (to help students self edit through “hearing” written mistakes).
Chapter 5, “Learning How to Learn: Conceptual Thought in a Utopia Course,” focuses on utopia as an inquiry that allows students to problematize daily experiences and to become more politically aware of what is possible. There are three key frameworks that he presents here to help students understand and situate a thing (object, event) within its larger social, cultural, and historical contexts and reimagine how that thing would exist within a utopian environment, giving students practice in transcendent thinking. One is a problem solving method that asks students to observe (describing the object), investigate (diagnosing the issues with and limitations of the object), and resolve (reconstructing alternative possibilities for the object). The second is a concept method that asks students to name the object, define it, and list life examples in order to draw general understandings from specific experience. The third framework is a set of cocentric circles, which Shor offers to represent “the dialectical flow between tradition and Utopia” (172). At the center is the society we’re born into, and each ring beyond that are phases of development that lead to the final ring of Utopia, meant to represent the process of critical consciousness that pushes us away from our uncritical beginnings (172).
Chapter 6, “Social Inquiry: Daily Inquiry and Language Projects,” focuses on language study and language projects—a classroom model that allows students to make meaning about daily reality and language in a critical, dialogic, and self-regulating manner (196). Such a focus is experiential and conceptual and allows students to engage in a long event, which, when it works, gives students confidence about their experiences with reading and writing (204). Chapter 7, “Questioning Sexism: Poetry and Marriage Contracts,” details a classroom that focuses sexism as its inquiry—emphasizing a social problem in order to develop consciousness. Chapter 8, “Culture Against Itself: Reflection through drama,” focuses on courses in dramatic arts and video production as opportunities to use media to challenge the uncritical domination of mass culture (which supports the earlier pedagogical approach of self-creation of media and texts).
Because the transcendent process itself is unpredictable, Shor concludes by noting that liberatory learning is also highly unpredictable, which makes it surprising, frustrating, and ultimately very rewarding (268). He writes, “For certain, the liberatory enterprise demands a tolerance for anxiety and a disposition to experiment” (268). This unpredictability and demand for experimentation raises questions for employing critical/liberatory pedagogy (to this extent) within a curriculum or department that has strict curricular goals and demands of its teachers. In particular, I think such a pedagogy can raise a lot of issues for graduate students who want to engage in these practices but are even more highly monitored (surveilled) than the faculty in their departments who may have more lee-way to do this work.
Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching & Everyday Life. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1987. Print.