“Commentary: Critical Pedagogy” by Chua Beng Huat

Commentary: Critical Pedagogy
Chua Beng Huat

In principle, any material objects can be used for pedagogical purposes, depending on what knowledge is to be communicated and acquired. The selection and use of a particular material is therefore necessarily ideological. Furthermore, the ideological intentions of the selector is unavoidable embedded in the selected material; put alternatively, the selected material unavoidably embodies the ideological intention of the selector. Where the selection of pedagogical material is constrained, it is because the authority that dictates the selection is determined to produce a particular mode of seeing and knowing the world as constructed by the selected material.

Schools, from primary to tertiary, as state-controlled ideological institutions are purveyors of knowledge that are necessary for the reproduction of the existing social order; technical skills for economic reproduction and ethical codes and moral behaviour that reproduce political and social stability. Pedagogical material, especially for primary and secondary levels, are therefore selected to imbue the students with knowledge and skills to be economically productive and behaviourally law abiding citizens.  Simplistic critiques of official education institutions for reproducing individuals who unreflectively reproduces the existing social order misrecognize the necessary function of these institutions.

Against this reproduction of the ‘normal’ citizens, critical pedagogy aims to teach individuals to see and think otherwise by recognizing the existing social order as historical development rather than the ‘natural order’. History is therefore subject to change, to reorganization through human activities. The social order as is can always be otherwise. The necessary first step towards critical pedagogy is to identify ‘wrongs’ that need to be redressed, ‘lacks’ that need to be realized, in order to act on the existing social order towards a ‘better’ configuration. However, critical pedagogues should guard against thinking that they have the right definition of the ‘better’ social order, lest they unwittingly slide into the position of an ideologue. Critical pedagogy should therefore be a continuous practice without an end point and its practitioners without the imagination of a final social order, which should remain a permanently receding horizon; the reaching never reaches.

The three essays in this issue are exemplars of critical pedagogy at work. The starting point of Joseph Tham’s and Angelia Poon’s practice is the introduction of conventionally ‘non-teaching’ texts, namely graphic novels or comics, as pedagogical material for the teaching of history for secondary school students and literature for university students, respectively. In the latter instance, the text used is the widely popular Singapore novel, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Philip Holden is interested in destabilizing the idea of ‘history’ by juxtaposing it against the idea of ‘literature’. The substantive terrain chosen for this task is the period between the end of the Japanese Occupation and Singapore’s political independence. This was a period of highly charged political contestations, which included the insurgency war in Malaya between the British colonial army and the Malayan Communist Party, known as the ‘Emergency’, and the darkest event of Singapore’s political history, Operation Coldstore. Four short stories were brought to bear on looking at this period against the undeclared ‘official’ history of the ascendancy of the People’s Action Party to a hegemonic single party government. All three writers report positive learning outcomes among their students, particularly in their understanding of ‘history’ as multidimensional and perspectival and the art of historiography creates permanently malleable narratives.

Chua Beng Huat is concurrently Professor of Urban Studies, Yale-NUS College and Professor, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. His most recent books are Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture and Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore. He is co-executive editor of the journal, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.