Critical literacy has its origins in progressive traditions and the Frankfurt School. It argues that, to become truly literate, students must move beyond simply decoding text and absorbing facts and information to thinking critically about what they learn and apply it to their lives. Critical literacy recognizes that learning involves power relationships, ones that are often defined by how language is used to shape discourse.
Critical literacy is most commonly associated with the work of the Brazilian educator Paul Freire (1921– 1997). In works such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Cultural Action for Freedom (1972), Freire argues that knowledge that is imposed through a “banking model” (one that deposits facts and ideas into the learner) is of little value and often is used as a means of domination. Instead, he argues that learners need to become critically literate. In this context, learning to read represents not just a technical skill, but the development of a critical social and cultural awareness.
Thus, in his system of adult education, Freire has learners explore “generative” themes in order to learn reading and writing. These themes are drawn from real issues in adults’ lives, such as work, family, taxes, and politics. In this regard, Freire’s work is similar in purpose to that of the American philosopher John Dewey, which emphasized that learning be connected directly to the actual life and experience of learners, and thus provide the foundation for them to become socially and politically engaged citizens.
Models of critical literacy often challenge the status quo. An example would be the systematic critique of the work conservative educational commentator E. D. Hirsch, Jr. In Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), as well as subsequent works such as The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), Hirsch argues for a model of “cultural literacy “ in which being literate involves a “core” body of knowledge—ideally based around the accomplishments and traditions of American society. Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., in his critique of Hirsch, Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know (2005), has argued that Hirsch fails to take sufficiently into account the extent to which the ideas he emphasizes are representative of a dominant culture, which imposes its values and beliefs on individuals largely for its own purposes.
Hirsch includes in Cultural Literacy a list of 5,000 things “every American citizen needs to know.” Provenzo challenges Hirsch and his list with an alternative collection of 5,000 words and ideas. Unlike
Hirsch, Provenzo argues that there are many “lists” that could be constructed, but that the real issue is that children should learn a process of democratic dialogue and negotiation in which they debate what is important, rather than simply have it imposed as part of a banking model by self-selected authorities such as Hirsch.
In summary, critical literacy is grounded in the idea of critical pedagogy and learning. As such, it involves an essentially democratic and dialogic process—one based on critical thinking and reflection and open to many ways of viewing culture and society. In doing so, it embraces the diversity which is inherent in contemporary American culture.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
- Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1996). The schools we need and why we don’t have them. New York: Doubleday.
- Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (2005). Critical literacy: What every American ought to know. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.
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