Implementing Critical Pedagogy at a Religious University

Implementing Critical Pedagogy at a Religious University

Elisa Findlay and Matt Dinger

My uncle is a fanatical conservative. At any family outing I can plan on him pulling me aside at some point, asking my opinion on a particular issue, and then spending forty-five minutes telling me I am wrong. This summer at my cousin’s wedding, the fact that I would be teaching an introductory writing class at BYU came up. My uncle was outraged. He expressed how irresponsible it was of the university to place its freshmen into the hands of the most liberal group of professors and students on campus. After his usual forty-five minutes, I argued that the freshmen are in perfect hands; in my view, one purpose of the entry-level writing class is to introduce university students to these liberal modes of thinking that my uncle deplores. In an essay entitled “The Ethics of Effective Teaching: Challenges from the Religious Right and Critical Pedagogy,” Marit Trelstad discusses the challenges of teaching difficult subject matter (in his case, religion; in our case, English) in a conservative setting. Trelstad writes, “Most higher education is suspected of indoctrinating youth into liberal modes of thought” (191). Often, those who deem themselves “conservative” are wary of potential indoctrination in liberal classrooms. Trelstad, however, argues that it is possible to teach liberal modes of thought—even to conservatives—responsibly. Trelstad and others make the case that critical pedagogy, a methodology founded in these “liberal modes of thought,” can be successfully implemented in such conservative settings, even at a religious university.

Critical pedagogy is a teaching philosophy founded in the idea of critical consciousness; the role of the instructor is to raise awareness and to move students toward good citizenship and social action. Trelstad defines this methodology, saying, “Critical pedagogy critiques both society and public education, examining the ‘hidden curriculum’ within our pedagogies, course content, and institutions of learning. It recognizes the classroom as one site in which dominant social privilege is validated, reinforced, and reproduced” (193). The goal of critical pedagogy is to liberate students from dominant ideologies, to help them recognize and dismantle societal hierarchies. The real challenge for instructors is to accomplish this without replacing these dismantled structures and exposed ideologies with their own. This challenge is particularly relevant at a religious university like BYU, where students’ ideologies are so personal, so much a part of who they are. While there are many valid fears and critiques of critical pedagogy, there is value in employing this methodology in our teaching of English 150 at BYU. Critical pedagogy’s emphasis on self-reflection, social change, and empowerment makes its implementation at a religious university not only possible but preferable.

Before discussing the potential for critical pedagogy in a religious setting, it is important to understand at least some of the underlying assumptions and common critiques of this theory. It is widely accepted among critical pedagogues that there is no such thing as impartiality or disinterest; it is impossible to teach without a bias. In her article “On Transforming Our World: Critical Pedagogy for Interfaith Education,” Tiffany Puett argues,

It is important then that we work to uncover the biases and assumptions that inform our thinking, and that we recognize the ways in which we might be tacitly complicit, or actively involved, in reinforcing oppression and hegemony. Yet, creating educational practices that address these issues is challenging. (268–69)

The most common proposed solution to instructor bias is transparency; teachers must be very self-aware, conscious of their own ideology, and open to the various ideologies in the classroom. While students need assurance that their grades will not be affected by their beliefs or by the beliefs of their instructor, it is important for student and instructor alike to be aware of their own potential biases. Again, this is particularly important at a religious university where students and instructors may get caught assuming that everyone thinks alike or shares the same core values. There needs to be room for differences.

There are, however, numerous critiques of transparency, of openness with ideology in a conservative classroom. Trelstad summarizes just a few of these many critiques. He first describes the fear that favoring minority voices will silence the majority, creating new hierarchies that need dismantling. Another concern is that emphasizing multiple ideologies and worldviews will lead to oversimplification and stereotyping. Trelstad explains, “Oversimplification and overgeneralization of a culture, race, or gender serves to reinforce stereotypes while distancing and protecting students from their own prejudices and, simultaneously, from the people or cultures that they study” (195–96). And another critique is that critical pedagogy will just become another buzzword, a hollow trend rather than a vehicle for real change. It is important to recognize the validity of these problems, to acknowledge the broad and potentially problematic implications of implementing critical pedagogy, politicizing and democratizing classrooms, and determining the practical application of a highly idealistic philosophy. However, the purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility of critical pedagogy in a setting in which it is often viewed as a dirty word, to consider its potential positive impact at conservative institutions, to acknowledge that it has much to offer.

First, critical pedagogy demands self-awareness. Instructors must be aware of biases, and students must be made aware of their own ideology and the various worldviews of others. While this may seem like a liberal attempt to rob students of belief, it can also be viewed as facilitating discovery and solidifying beliefs. Where better than a religious university to create such an environment? It can be argued, in fact, that the examination of belief legitimizes belief. Again, a religious university ought to embrace this possibility. This semester, I took a literary theory course. In one of our early class discussions, the professor admitted that we would read challenging material, texts that were written to raise questions and doubts. The professor wanted to warn us (since this is, after all, a highly conservative and religious university) and asked for our feelings. One student confidently raised his hand and said, “We can’t be afraid to question and be questioned. We can’t be afraid to match up Joseph Smith with Nietzsche and see who wins.” This student recognized that understanding various ideologies and worldviews could only be an enlightening experience; the effort would either reinforce what he already believed or help him recognize something better, something more relevant and more applicable to his life. Either way, he would come away stronger.

While encouraging self-awareness and the exploration of belief, teachers can certainly use safeguards to ensure that they teach responsibly and that the students fully understand the ideologies they are encountering. Daniel Muhlestein’s article “Teaching Contemporary Literary Theory at a Church-Sponsored University” discusses these safeguards. He writes,

The first principle is almost self-evident: if you teach a controversial subject such as contemporary literary theory, then teach it in enough depth and complexity to give the students a real understanding of the material. . . . If you teach a controversial subject such as theory, then critique what you teach. . . . If you teach a controversial subject such as theory, create a set of policies and a classroom environment that are conducive to learning and faith alike. (80, 81, 88)

Critical pedagogy, then, demands this self-reflection on the part of both student and instructor. Rather than viewing this as a reason not to implement critical pedagogy at a religious university, it can instead be seen as an asset. The more students are required to question, to evaluate the foundation of their beliefs, and to defend their beliefs when faced with others, the stronger their critical skills and personal convictions will become. And the more instructors are required to check their biases, evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching, and monitor the impact of their work on the lives of their students, the stronger their contribution to the university will become. Critical pedagogy’s emphasis on self-awareness is clearly an argument for its implementation at a religious university.

Second, a major purpose of critical pedagogy is to enact social change; inciting reform and having a voice in society is certainly in the best interest of religious conservatives. Where better to initiate this kind of proactivity and good citizenship among religious individuals than at a religious university? In an explanation of the Aims of a BYU Education, the BYU Mission Statement explains the social changes the university wants their students to make. The document issued includes this statement: “BYU should nurture in its students the desire to use their knowledge and skills not only to enrich their own lives but also to bless their families, their communities, the Church, and the larger society” (par. 3). Through this statement we can see that advocacy of this social change is not just an assumed religious role; it is, in fact, one of the goals that BYU expects its students to accomplish. Puett discusses the role of critical pedagogy in this effort, saying, “This [critical pedagogy] would offer a theoretical framework to aid in exploring the problematic aspects of religious traditions and relationships among religions, as well as elevating the promising resources religious traditions offer for building community and solidarity and working for constructive social change” (Puett 269). Understanding other ideologies and seeing commonalities between them can help students feel a sense of solidarity, a sense of power to enact change.

Religious individuals are often interested in fighting for social change; critical pedagogy provides a framework for this kind of action. This desire for reform was evidenced recently in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ participation in passing California’s Proposition 8, a measure that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. Here at BYU, students were encouraged to call undecided California voters and invite them to vote yes on Prop 8. The Church hosted a fireside broadcast for BYU students, inviting them to devote several hours each week before the election to campaigning. Clearly the Church wanted its members to question a growing societal trend, to fight for specific social change.

In my English 150 class, we looked at blogs, opinion editorials, SNL sketches, and more to understand both sides of the issue and to formulate our own stances and arguments. Not everyone in the class reached the same conclusion. One student was very vocal about her reasons to not support the proposition. After reviewing an opinion editorial in our campus paper that was written against those who did not support the proposition, I gave this student an opportunity to respond in class. She explained to the class why she would be voting against the amendment even though there was pressure from the Church to do otherwise. She used reasoning that was far superior to the students defending the proposition because her stance was not a part of the status quo—she had to work for it. Giving her this opportunity had two major positive effects on my class. First, it made them stop looking awkwardly at each other any time she made an anti-Prop 8 statement. The students realized that she was not just a liberal extremist rebelling against the system, but that she had taken the time to really think out a valid stance on the issue. Second, it forced them to do their own research. Initially, anytime a Prop 8 issue came up, though she was outnumbered, she out-reasoned everyone else in the classroom. The other students simply did not have valid points to back up their arguments. After her presentation, though, the students realized that if they wanted to have any sort of effect on the people they were calling or on the anti–Prop 8 students they would meet on campus, their arguments had to be rhetorically sound. In short, this began their critical thinking on the issue and, shockingly, this critical thinking did not lead them on a liberal path to rebellion against the Church. Instead, it made them better representatives of it (no matter which side of the issue they ultimately chose). In this case, the tenets of critical pedagogy played an important role in motivating my students to enact social change.

Third, critical pedagogy has potential to empower students in the classroom. This would seem especially desirable at a religious institution in which students are encouraged to form a respectful, supportive community of faith. Mutual empowerment yields this kind of community. While some may argue that “authority as a governing principle in the academy is inescapable,” the English 150 class is really the perfect place to experiment with student/teacher relations because these students have not yet been fully immersed in the academy (Woodard 467). They are still able to see themselves as something closer to an equal than they would in their later academic years with more seasoned professors. To understand how a classroom can function when the teacher is removed from the center of it, one must first understand Michel Foucault’s concept of relational power. Foucault held that one person cannot possess or control power because power is evident only in exchange between people. To take this to the classroom, the teacher, then, has power only because it is given to him or her by the students. Trelstad explains that “the authority of the teacher is understood in terms of the trust given to the teacher by students. The authority of the teacher is a received, not assumed, power” (195). The crux of this concept, then, is the fact that trust is the relational transporter of the power. The teacher can empower the students the same way that he or she has been empowered—through trust. This mutual trust results in a democratic classroom that is not some sort of mutinied chaos but a venue where ideas are exchanged and all are valued equally. The teacher has the responsibility for organization within the classroom, but the students are responsible for their ideas in all other places where they might be discussed. This puts the teacher and student on an equal ground ideologically.

Trust can be communicated in a number of ways in the English 150 classroom. One way is through the commentary that is made when the students receive their grades. During my second round of conferences, the best writer in my class brought in a draft of her paper that was exceptional. I praised her for her work, and she said, “I don’t get it.” She told me that her high school English teacher said she was a bad writer and that she would struggle her way through any college course that had a writing requirement. She was terrified of my class for this reason. She said that her first conference with me had been very encouraging and that the grade and comments on that paper had been even more encouraging; they led her to think that she could do this. On her last paper I wrote that whoever told her she couldn’t write was either a liar or an idiot. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so strong in my wording, but I needed there to be a shift in power; I needed her to help other students in the classroom to succeed as well. The comments on her final draft were meant to inspire her to take a little bit more control of the classroom. And it worked! Instead of worrying about whether or not she could actually communicate, she began to focus her efforts on thinking more critically and fine-tuning her ideas. She stopped being afraid to raise her hand in class and started to share her thoughts. I believe that this inspired the rest of the class to begin sharing as well. It brought us all to a higher plane of thinking.

Possibly what made my student’s teacher think my student’s writing was not good was her misunderstanding of concepts like good and bad or truth and falseness. These concepts are generally misunderstood when there is one voice that is presented as the ultimate source of truth. In these situations, students tend to learn very little and think very little. Charles Paine explained that the classroom setting in which one version of truth is presented as right leads students to think themselves responsible for simply maintaining the knowledge that already exists. He explains that “students are not encouraged to become the master of knowledge or to use knowledge for liberatory purposes, but to see it as an already in-place standard to which they must submit themselves” (559). Critical pedagogy counteracts this problem. Instead, critical pedagogy “emphasizes the importance of multiple voices in the classroom rather than a single, ‘master’ voice. Postmodern pedagogy recognizes the situatedness or context of knowledge within cultural, economic, religious systems. Because of this, practitioners of postmodern pedagogies advocate for multiple centers and sources of knowledge” (Trelstad 195). This concept can be scary at a religious institution that ultimately believes in absolute truth; however, even in the LDS faith, that understanding (even of absolute truth) is obtained through multiple sources in various ways. It is important for students to realize that even in a community where the ideologies of their classmates will be similar, they will never be exactly the same. Because of this, and because it is necessary for students to respect one another, they must understand that because someone thinks differently than they do—even about their shared faith—does not make that person wrong. In his essay “The Disciple-Scholar,” Neal A. Maxwell discusses what he calls the “democracy among truths,” saying that “they are not of equal significance” (3). Maxwell explains that there are “gradations” of truth, spheres of different kinds of truth. There is a center core of absolutes and outer cores of proximate or constructed truths; the inner core is actually quite small and specific. There is danger when our students begin equating “truth” about their political beliefs—for example, with Truth about God. Therefore, it is important for them to respectfully encounter multiple voices, to synthesize various ideologies. Specifically in English 150, students should be allowed to explore their beliefs (particularly within the sphere of non- absolutes) and their written voice to find what really works for them.

Ira Shor, a well-known proponent of critical pedagogy, describes how he implemented this theory in his first-year writing classroom. Shor’s approach provides a model for creating the sense of empowerment that is both desirable at a religious university and inherent within critical pedagogy. Shor explains, “For my practice of critical teaching, questioning the status quo is the central goal while problem-posing dialogue is the central method. I prefer participatory approaches with subject matters that are local, contemporary, contentious, co-developed, and legible” (39). Shor goes on to define his terms, explaining that local implies relevance and that contemporary indicates urgency and immediacy. Also, contentious issues are embedded in controversy, co-developed issues are selected by both teacher and students, and legible issues are discussed in terms that students understand. Shor relies on his students to co-develop a syllabus and select issues that are local, contemporary, and contentious for them and for their world. On the first day of Shor’s first-year writing class, students take a survey on potential issues around which to frame the class; students then vote on which issues they want to read, write, and research about. After these decisions are made, Shor and his students develop a syllabus for the course. Together. This democratic approach to curriculum planning and topic selection could certainly be implemented in our English 150 classrooms. Rather than prescribing which topics the class focuses on, rather than showing up the first day with a set-in-stone syllabus, we can provide students with more power in designing the course. This initial effort can create immediate feelings of empowerment and engagement in the course.

Some may wonder why it is so critical for students to be empowered within the classroom. To answer this question, one must look at a statement by Puett: “A critical pedagogy would raise questions about the power dynamics between the center and the margin in relations within and between religions. It would promote a form of power grounded in relationships, mutual exchange, and the capacity to accomplish together what one cannot accomplish alone” (270). In short, critical pedagogy quickly and efficiently builds a community where other pedagogical practices might not. When a teacher and students build a curriculum based on what they can do for one another, it raises the stakes of the educational project. Instead of one student in a class looking to get an A, the classroom becomes about the benefit of the community. Students will want other students to succeed. They will want to guide the teacher to the ideas that they are most interested in exploring. They will get more out of their conferences and peer reviews. A religious school is the perfect place to do this because the students are already used to being a part of a community that is interested in the mutual benefiting of their entire society. It is for this very reason that scholar Philip Gordon states, “[Religious] cultures, such as the Mormon culture, should not be ignored or considered anathema to critical work. Those cultures are ripe with critical potential. There is a toughness to their culture” (429). Individual empowerment in the classroom builds this communal strength, strength that a religious institution like BYU is certainly interested in building.

Building this type of community, encouraging social action, and promoting self-reflection are all efforts that a religious institution like BYU has a vested interest in. We are in a unique position as English 150 instructors to further these aims. James A. Berlin explains, “In teaching writing, we are not simply offering training in a useful technical skill that is meant as a simple complement to the more important studies of other areas. We are teaching a way of experiencing the world, a way of ordering and making sense of it” (268). While many pedagogues at religious institutions might scoff at the idea of integrating a critical strategy into the heart of a class that all incoming freshman are required to take, critical pedagogy is the strategy that most effectively teaches students to experience the world and to make sense of it. Henry Giroux states, “Connecting education to the possibility of a better world is not a prescription for indoctrination; rather it marks the distinction between the academic as a technician and the teacher as a self- reflective educator who is more than the instrument of a safely approved and officially sanctioned worldview” (3). As an instructor at a private religious university, I feel that I must be more than a technician. I feel that I have a responsibility to prepare students for a world that will challenge their faith—a world that wants to render them hopeless and convince them that the status quo is the way that things have to stay. Despite the seeming danger of relativist underpinnings in critical pedagogy, it provides the framework to accomplish these important aims of a religious university. Implementing critical pedagogy in a conservative setting like BYU does not need to be something we fear; it can, in fact, help instructors better fulfill the Aims of a BYU Education.



Works Cited

Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Criticism: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003. 255–70.

Brigham Young University. “Lifelong Learning and Service.” 10 December 2008. <>.

Giroux, Henry A. Introduction. Critical Pedagogy: Where Are We Now? Ed. Peter McLaren and Joe L. Kincheloe. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007. 1–5.

Gordon, Philip Sherman. “Not A Mormon: Confessions of a Dangerous Nomo.” Cultural Studies 19.4 (July 2005): 423–29.

Maxwell, Neal A. “The Disciple-Scholar.” Learning in the Light of Faith. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1999. 1–18.

Muhlestein, Daniel K. “Teaching Contemporary Literary Theory at a Church-Sponsored University.” Christianity and Literature 48.1 (Autumn 1998): 79–93.

Paine, Charles. “Relativism, Radical Pedagogy, and the Ideology of Paralysis.” College English 51.6 (1989): 557–70.

Puett, Tiffany. “On Transforming Our World: Critical Pedagogy for Interfaith Education.” Cross Currents 55.2 (Summer 2005): 264–73.

Shor, Ira. “Teaching Notes: Can Critical Teaching Foster Activism in this Time of Repression?” Radical Teacher 79 (2007): 39.

Trelstad, Marit. “The Ethics of Effective Teaching: Challenges from the Religious Right and Critical Pedagogy.” Teaching Theology & Religion 11.4 (October 2008): 191–202.

Woodard, Branson L., Jr. “A Comment on ‘Relativism, Radical Pedagogy, and the Ideology of Paralysis.’” College English 52.4 (1990): 466–67.