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The Transformative Potential of Pedagogy: Review of Fordulat Journal Issue #28 on Critical Pedagogy

The aim of pedagogy should be the emancipation of people by evoking critical thinking and political action. Too often, however, when we hear the word pedagogy, the first thing that comes to our minds is the smell of chalk and educational systems that reproduce the class hierarchy. It is about time we start thinking about the transformative potential of pedagogy too. For what is pedagogical, is political. The Hungarian critical journal, Fordulat’s thematic issue on critical pedagogy sets out to change the way we see pedagogy. Not only do critical pedagogies offer a picture of how things should be in the society, but they also offer methods to make pedagogy less hierarchical, and more class-conscious and promote political action in civil society. How does this tool of social change materialise in the semi-peripheral CEE country, Hungary?

After a year and a half in the COVID-19 pandemic, the role education plays in the reproduction of class relations is more apparent than ever. The deepening of educational inequalities as a result of remote learning in Hungary, a country where the correlation between family background and educational attainments had already been one of the highest, calls for a radical reconceptualization of what we call pedagogy and how to transform it from an instrument of capital into an engine of emancipation whether through the educational system or in social movement contexts. This is why Fordulat’s latest issue Critical Pedagogy is so relevant for teachers, students, parents, activists, social scientists, and all those who want to live in a more just society and continue to need new tools as they struggle for to pursue it. It is about time we start thinking about the transformative potential of pedagogy. For what is pedagogical, is political.

Fordulat [Turn] is a Hungarian language journal that started out as the Budapest-based student journal of TEK, the College for Advanced Studies in Social Theory, in 1985, specialising in critical Marxist and leftist knowledge production. It has now become the third most cited Hungarian Journal in the section of Law and Economics. The journal publishes thematic issues such as Solidarity Economy, 2008-2018 Crisis and Hegemony and Climate Change and Capitalism (see English review here) consisting of translations, reviews and original articles written for an audience much wider than a few social scientists who would typically have access to works about social theory. Like LeftEast, Fordulat adopts the standpoint of critical pedagogy that thinking about society cannot be the privilege of a few.

Pedagogy Can (And Should) Be Emancipatory

Just as with most concepts, when we place the word “critical” before pedagogy, the way it changes its meaning becomes ambiguous. As György Mészáros argues, using the plural, critical pedagogies would be more accurate given the cleavages among different interpretations. In the theoretical section of this issue, consisting of the articles of Tamás Tóth, Zsófia Ivanics, György Mészáros, many current debates and different interpretations are presented. In a critical dialogue with ventures in critical pedagogy, Tamás Tóth goes as far as to propose in his article ‘The Oppressed of Pedagogy’ a way of liberating the pedagogical praxis of the future and of utopias in order to rediscover the revolutionary potential of the present. What is common in the different strains, though, is that all of them can be related to Gramsci’s theories or Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. These relations are made clear to us, since one of the issue’s contributions is to publish Freire in the Hungarian language, while Gramsci’s thoughts on pedagogy are edited here beautifully into a coherent whole by Kristóf Nagy and Alexandra Szarka, using brief synopses that help our understanding. These two thinkers had much to say about transformative pedagogy.

Most importantly, critical pedagogy has the aim of liberating people through evoking critical and reflexive thoughts to make them free acting citizens with the ability to fight for a more just society. As expressed by Zsófia Ivanics in her introductory article, pedagogical praxis must come from the lived experiences of people. This means that critical pedagogical ventures cannot simply be copy/pasted, they have to be the result of a long process of reflection. For instance, talking about anti-Roma prejudice with social workers (in Hungarian those who work in the segítő szakmák, literally “helping professions”), as presented in the article ‘Socioanalysis, A Game of Social Inequalities’. In this article, authors Cecília Kovai, Melinda Kovai, György Mészáros and Eszter Neumann, call for an entirely different approach than activists teaching themselves self-organisation via pedagogical praxis. This is why critical pedagogy is not a simple and clear-cut methodology, but a philosophy of education and social movement that needs to be translated and constantly reflected upon.

For Gramsci, every person is an intellectual, yet not everyone gets to function as an intellectual in society. Therefore, for him, substantial changes need to be made in society through collective political action (as discussed below) and also in formal education. For instance, a shift from the two-tier system’s steep divide between vocational and academic schools towards a unified school that gives every person – regardless of class – the tools to participate in politics. In their article, György Mészáros and Eszter Neumann construct the picture of a leftist educational system that could offer a more just alternative for students of all classes through critical pedagogy. A leftist education system has to be comprehensive, consisting of heterogeneously composed classes with as few selection points and as late a specialisation as possible. This way, students have a longer period when they learn the same things in the same institutions in an equal setting. In order to achieve this, they argue, we should stop the privatisation of public schools and establish a centralised school system which at the same time grants a high degree of autonomy to its institutions. These should be larger school centres for entire micro-regions (with adequate and free transport) because these can provide a wide range of professional services suitable for heterogeneous compositions of students. This would also prevent the selective commuting (and resulting segregation) of students through lowering the supply side of institutions, and thus, differences among them. All of this can only be done with wide social consensus and long-term reforms.

Shifting their diagnosis to the mezzo and micro levels, Mészáros and Neumann suggest that schools should break with the deficit model that stages middle-class culture and habitus as the universal standard of a “good student”. This standard renders lower-class students as backwards due to their family backgrounds and designates only one path towards social mobility: assimilation into the middle-class. Therefore, we should implement the adaptive model of schooling instead, in which schools adapt to both the needs and interests of pupils and the social environment, therefore, involving local communities. This translates into a variety of actions, such as rethinking the subjects and curriculums taught, commoning high culture, and adopting new teaching techniques. Of course, a leftist education policy cannot be built on the exploitation and deprofessionalisation of teachers, for it is teachers who have the ability to create democratic and reflexive classroom environments as autonomous intellectuals.

Others think that a more radical break with the bourgeois educational system is the solution. In their critical self-reflection, the Free School of Robin Goodfellow (Puck) analyses its attempt to build an anticapitalist and antiauthoritarian school. The desire of its members was to pose an alternative to the existing educational system that is too entangled in reproducing the capitalist system via ideology flowing through hidden curriculum. This resonates with Freire’s ideas. As he put it, the “banking” concept of education (maybe better known as frontal teaching), depositing knowledge in empty containers of information in a hierarchical setting, only reflects the interests of the oppressors by conserving and normalising hierarchies. The emancipation of all people can only happen through the democratisation of teaching with dialogues and critical reflection on social problems to create active subjects (and not merely objects) of learning. Because every person, regardless of their class position, possesses useful and valid knowledge about life, positing one type as legitimate and restricting access to high culture work as tools of oppression.

Since a pedagogical act is at the same time always a political one as well, the site of pedagogy cannot simply be in educational institutions alone. Civil society and social movements are just as important sites for the practice of pedagogies of liberation.  In their article, Alexandra Szarka and Kinga Tóth discuss how Deviszont Community Space has applied these guidelines in practice and created a space of reflection and critical thinking for teenagers attending vocational schools and in dire need of community and reflecting on social citizenship The community space is located in a working-class neighbourhood of Budapest and offers an alternative to the dysfunctional vocational schools, providing working class youth the opportunity to discuss society, build community, and promote political action. There are no teachers in Deviszont, only facilitators whose tasks are to ask the right questions and listen to the unique experiences of the participants who have the ability to shift the discourse towards their interests. It is they who come up with project topics such as employment, the ideal school or nature, which they can think about collectively, and with the help of well-aimed questions, come to understand in systemic ways.

While Deviszont Community Space interacts with vocational training, many of the pedagogical projects discussed in this issue take place outside formal educational contexts. A Közélet Iskolája [The School of Public Life] (see more here), an activist school that emerged from “The City is for All”, strives to empower people of all sorts whose social citizenship is under attack. “Democracy is a verb, not a noun”, says the title of the article written by Gabriella Csoszó, Ágnes Fernengel and Tessza Udvarhelyi, referring to the constant struggle needed to create a just society. Their efforts involve people in civil society who are the objects of social injustice or their allies, in order to inspire political consciousness and engage in citizen action. They do this through offering a variety of accessible texts, trainings and workshops for adults about how to establish and manage grassroots organisations and to recognise and tackle social inequality, grounded in the methods of participatory action research. Most importantly, they do this at a time when grassroot organizations and NGOs often endure political attacks.

According to ideas of critical pedagogy, we have to break with the ideology of meritocracy and individual mobility and strive for collective mobility and structural change through the creation of organic intellectuals. Changing only the composition of social classes without destroying hierarchy itself will not bring systemic change. An historical example of collective mobility and the praxis of critical pedagogy is presented in the article ‘Class Position, Social Experience, Collective Power’, by Zsolt K. Horváth, about NÉKOSZ [Népi Kollégiumok Országos Szövetsége = the National Association of Folk Colleges] movement. The mission of this  short-lived movement which lasted from 1946 and 1949 was to provide dormitories, lively community, and quality education to elementary, high school and university students from peasant backgrounds, often struggling with the transition from a rural to an urban way of life The peasant and agrarian worker class was unable to reap the benefits of modernity in Hungary and thus, seriously underrepresented in secondary and higher education. In its prime, NÉKOSZ gave home and education to 10 000 students in Hungary.

Having received support from the communist regime, NÉKOSZ is often considered as the youth organisation of the authoritarian Hungarian Communist Party, and on the other hand, with the népi [folk] movement, often associated with nationalism. Through the analysis of Ferenc Mérei’s pedagogical work, Zsolt K. Horváth shows how the  Folk Colleges started out as grassroots folk sociography organisations dating back to the interwar era that relied on democratic values including as self-governance throughout their existence. They developed a unique pedagogical approach that prioritised the creation of intellectuals who would not lose their peasant identities because of urbanisation, centering values that would seek collective emancipation without dissolving the individual. Folk Colleges educated people through socialising them into the praxis of democracy on a small scale, by having elected leaders and full autonomy over their program and through this, bringing public life and politics closer to young people.

Some Final Notes

At this moment in Hungary, when active citizenship is under attack, Fordulat 28, covering critical pedagogical practices and methodologies spanning the 20th century until today, offers important reflection on how we can create knowledge for social change and equitable structures for education. This issue helps us all to realise that the hegemonic capitalism that seems to penetrate all aspects of life (even education), is not total. Resisting its ways requires creating alternative structures and counter-hegemony, in which process, critical pedagogy, the experiences of grassroot organizations presented in this issue, and alternative knowledge production that both LeftEast and Fordulat engages in, are crucially important.

The excellent work of the editors and authors give us a nuanced picture of a rather broad topic. While the articles are not tightly connected, and sometimes even contradict each other, the issue is stronger for it, as it showcases diverse ways that critical pedagogy can be interpreted and put into practice. The articles incorporate theory and practice, micro, mezzo, and macro levels, abstract and concrete thoughts, and structure and agency, all with attention to specific historical conditions. Importantly, each is written in an accessible and exciting way, touching on personal and collective stories and dilemmas, by authors who are practitioners of critical pedagogy as activists or teachers.

Fanni Puskás is a Hungarian MA student of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Central European University. Her research focuses on the relationship between education and reproduction, and the racialisation of Roma in the context of education.