Peter McLaren’s Critical Pedagogy

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Ramin Farahmandpur

PETER McLAREN HAS long been recognized for his cutting-edge educational scholarship and political activism, and as one of North America’s leading exponents of the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

In the United States, he is perhaps best known for his classic work, “Life in Schools,” based on a diary  McLaren kept as a classroom teacher in an inner-city school that served the residents of Canada’s largest public housing project, in the Jane-Finch Corridor area of Toronto.

His initial diary, “Cries from the Corridor,” had been published in 1980 and fast became a popular bestseller in Canada. In “Life in Schools” (now in its fourth edition), McLaren famously criticized his earlier positions taken in “Cries” and went on to become a leader in the burgeoning field known as critical pedagogy.

Escape from Postructuralism

McLaren is no stranger to self-criticism and taking up positions on the basis of new considerations resulting from a combination of his activism and academic work.

During the 1980s and 1990s, McLaren’s scholarship, much like the rest of educational theorists on the left, fell under the spell of what he refers to as the “fashionable apostasy” of postmodern, post-structuralist and post-Marxist theories — prominent discourses within academic “left” circles in universities and colleges across the United States.

By the mid-1990s, however, while most of his colleagues were turning out books and articles underwritten by the gospel of the “posts,” McLaren’s work shifted dramatically to an embrace of Marxist humanism.

After his initial forays into post-Marxism (McLaren, 1995), postmodern Marxism, and neo-Marxism (McLaren, 1997), McLaren distanced himself from the main tenets of postmodern and post-structuralist theories, particularly from their anti-universalist and anti-foundationalist positions.

In part because he is so prolific, he is now arguably the most influential Marxist educationalist working in the academy. His shift towards Marxist social theory has been inspired, in part, by his reading of Che Guevara’s revolutionary politics along with Freire’s works, in particular, his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

In his new book “Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution,” McLaren underscores the importance of Che’s anti-capitalist Third World internationalism as well as Freire’s radical work in teaching literacy.

McLaren’s book is divided into three sections. The first is dedicated to the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara. The second section is devoted to Freire. In the final section of the book, McLaren maps out the main tenets of what he calls “revolutionary pedagogy.”

The book, however, is divided unevenly. McLaren devotes 140 pages to Che’s life and politics, 44 pages to Freire’s pedagogy, and 25 pages to “revolutionary pedagogy.”

Confronting the System

McLaren explores a broad range of social, political, economic and cultural issues. These include, among others, the incompatibility of capitalism and democracy; a critique of economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Von Hayek; a damning critique of the WTO, IMF, NAFTA and GATT, which have been instrumental in the advancement of neoliberal social and economic policies; and finally, growing class polarization and inequality.

McLaren offers an in-depth discussion on the Zapatista movement in Mexico, and finds that it shares some similarities with Che’s revolutionary politics. He also provides a trenchant critique of postmodernized approaches to critical pedagogy. McLaren concludes by calling upon teachers to engage in revolutionary class struggle.

There are, however, a number of questions worth raising. For example, what would be the consequences of public school teachers embracing McLaren’s clarion call for revolutionary pedagogy? Dare we ask how a Guevarean pedagogy can help to develop democratic schools and progressive teaching practices?

Does Che’s pedagogy offer teachers any concrete strategies for use in their classrooms? Should we engage in an all out militant struggle against capitalism? What are the tenets of Guevarean pedagogy?

McLaren provides few concrete examples of Che’s pedagogical approaches, other than the fact that he encouraged and participated in literacy classes and built schools. Nor does he provide concrete examples of Freirean pedagogy, perhaps because those are already well documented in the educational literature.

Toward Revolutionary Pedagogy

A more daunting task that faces McLaren is to convince teachers who are working in urban schools to embrace revolutionary pedagogy, and this challenge has certainly been exacerbated since 9/11.

To be sure, McLaren devotes a number of pages to his project of revolutionary pedagogy. In chapters one (95-105) and three (184-191), he charts a number of pedagogical strategies including ideology-critique that teachers can undertake in their struggle against global capitalism.

Finally, McLaren’s anticapitalist project calls upon teachers to become moral and ethical agents in their struggle against social oppression, and to cultivate and nourish a “radical hope” and “utopian militancy” that will at some point culminate and lead to revolutionary unity of theory and practice.

Clearly, however, this is more of a philosophical text than a “how to” book for classroom practitioners. “Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution” signals a profound deepening of McLaren’s own radical project.

Not since the publication of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s “Schooling in Capitalist America” (1976) has there been a work published in the field of education (keep in mind that education is a conservative field) that has such potential to reinvigorate discussion of the social, economic, political, and cultural contradictions of global capitalism.

Not only has McLaren’s book taken a bold step by providing a Marxist critique of the crisis that plagues public schools today in the United States (i.e. privatization, militarization, corporatization); he has also moved beyond the radical-functionalist approach of the work of Bowles and Gintis. McLaren’s book signals the renewal of Marxist educational theory in the 21st century.


McLaren, P. (1995). “Critical pedagogy and predatory culture: Oppositional politics in a postmodern era.” London and New York: Routledge.

McLaren, P. (1997). “Revolutionary multiculturalism: Pedagogies of dissent for the new millennium.” Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

ATC 107, November-December 2003