The Place of Critical Self-Awareness in Social education for Revolution

Ashwani Kumar

University of British Columbia

Rouge Forum Conference

Education: Reform or Revolution?

March 13-16, 2008


Social education in schools largely serves as an agent of reproduction and at the most of reform.  Reproduction happens when the curriculum and pedagogy pertinent to social education merely mirrors the social reality without its critical examination for change. Reform happens when social education is centered on encouraging modifications in the existing social and economic structure without any fundamental transformation. Through this presentation, I wish to make a case for the place of critical self-awareness in social education to bring about revolutionary change in one's own self and society. Critical self-awareness is the ability to be aware of one's own self—one's actions, thoughts and emotions—to see how one, through one's actions and thoughts, contributes to further the conflicts and degeneration in society.


There are three important component of my presentation: Social education, critical self-awareness and revolution. It is important to explain and establish the relationship among them if we are serious to bring about changes in the world we live in. What is social education? Obviously, it is to learn and teach about social reality. But how shall social education approach social reality? There can be three possible ways (Fig. 1): Social education may mirror the society as it is and make students and teachers to confirm the existing systems—the cultural norms, the religious orthodoxies, the everlasting exploitation and oppression, the national and ethnic divisions and so on. Or it may, while accepting the infallibility of the social system, point out certain issues and concerns such as poverty and homelessness and suggest ways to “fix” them through some kind of “reforms” rather than attacking the root causes of such problems for fundamental transformation. Or it may act as a catalyst for individual and social change.

The first two ways represent the present state of social education in schools today. The last approach, what I want to outline through this paper, has the potential to make social education revolutionary in nature. But how shall social education, which has so far been involved into reproduction and reform, bring about revolution? I think it can be revolutionary if we can understand and accept the importance of critical self-awareness as the core component of education and make use of the potential of social education to provide scope for the development of the same. There are basically two main objectives of this presentation:   

Ø      To explain the meaning and importance of critical self-awareness as the core component of the educational process that aims at individual and social transformation

Ø      To emphasize the potential of social education to provide space for the development of critical self-awareness among students and teachers.

Social education’s responses to social reality


Mirroring social reality

Althusser, Bourdieu, Bernstein, Bowles and Gintis


Modification of social reality

Government efforts at “Compensatory education” to deal with unjust social order etc.


           Structural ÛPsychological

                 ­                     ­

Critical PedagogyÛCritical Self-Awareness

Transformation of social reality

Critical theory and pedagogy (Marx, Frankfurt School, Freire, MacLaren etc.) and critical self-awareness (J. Krishnamurti)

Fig. 1


Social education as an agent of reproduction

Social education, as we see in schools today, is normally taught as “general” knowledge to the students about their country and the world in terms of social, political, economic, historical and geographical phenomena. The policies, curricular frameworks, pedagogic practices and evaluation procedures which view social education as some kind of “accepted or received general knowledge” deprives social education of its potential role of developing critical awareness among teachers and students about the conflict-ridden realities of a world torn apart along political, economic, religious and racial lines and providing an insight into how we all are responsible for such a state of the world. Social conflicts and problems such as racial and gender discrimination, conflicting political ideologies, competing economic systems, poverty, inequality, etc., are social, political, economic, historical and geographical in their origin and impact and, therefore, should ideally be addressed as part of social studies curriculum and teaching in schools. However, this does not seem to be the case (Hursh and Ross, 2000; Orlowski, 2001: Ross, 2006). Even in the cases when such themes are raised their treatment is highly simplistic, ritualistic and unproblematized.

By not giving attention to the conflicts and problems of the society, social education serves the hegemonic power nexus and help in the reproduction of existing social order. It does not create opportunities for raising controversial issues and turn shows its faith in established social and economic order and thereby develop confirmatory tendencies instead of the critical and transformatory thoughts and actions. Following are the significant ways in which social education brings about reproduction:

Ø      By encouraging students to confirm to the established patterns of existing society

Ø      By worshipping skills and technical knowledge as the supreme knowledge (NCSS, 2008)

Ø      By emphasizing general knowledge and information rather than issues of real concern e.g the appreciation of nations, cultures, religions without examining them as factors of divisions

Ø      By keeping conflicts and problems of society away from the curriculum and pedagogy or without any real involvement and engagement

Ø      Lack of dialogue, reflection, analysis and introspection as to how such conflicts came into existence and in what ways our present day living is affecting the state of the world around us

Social education as an agent of change

Though social education is currently involved in the process of reproduction, it is not something that cannot be changed. On the contrary, I strongly feel that social education can and must provide ample opportunities for developing critical awareness of oppressive social reality, discussing in detail how that social reality came into its place by each one of us and reflecting upon how do we continue to carry it forward in our daily life. This is important if we are serious to bring about transformation of the society. What makes social education appropriate to carry out such a transformatory task? The subject matter of social education is society and therefore conflicts and the problems of the society can directly be addressed through its curriculum. Not that the other subjects are inappropriate but social education is full of potential where can one talk about poverty, pollution, religious orthodoxies, exploitaton, racism, inequality and many other critical issues. But will the mere inclusion of conflicts of the society make social education revolutionary? Though a radical curriculum is essential for any change, what is most significant is how that curriculum unfolds in the life-world of the classroom. Neither are classrooms free spaces nor are teachers radical. Classrooms are the sites where culture, political ideology and market greatly exert their influence by appreciating and confirming the existing norms, hegemonizing the dominant ideology and preparing students for the market. The provisions of standardized tests and regulations that make teachers  “accountable” for students’ performance on such tests must be seen as the efforts to reduce teachers as thoughtless and uncreative reproducers. A radical curriculum needs radical classroom. What will make a radical classroom? In order to be revolutionary, social education classrooms, not only in schools but also in teacher education classes, have to be based upon the principles of critical pedagogy and understanding of critical self-awareness.

Critical pedagogy, critical self-awareness and social change

Critical pedagogy should directly be traced back to Marx’s call for “ruthless criticism” that can develop the capacity to think in a way that does not blindly confirm to or accept the givens of the society; instead question, analyze, denaturalize, decontextualise and deconstruct the accepted belief systems that has deeply permeated our consciousness—be it political ideology, religious superstitions and orthodoxies, dominant socio-cultural practices or economic forces. Critical pedagogic practices would encourage inquiry into the deeper underlying meanings and ramifications of the present societal characteristics such as exploitation, racial discrimination, gender inequalities and income divides. Critical pedagogy’s objective is social transformation, which is not possible if the givens of the society are taken-for-granted or remain unquestioned. In the absence of critical pedagogy, education is simply subject to pressures of the dominant political, economic and cultural forces and serves as a passive agent of reproduction of the existing social reality. Critical pedagogy can give rise to what Paulo Freire termed as Critical Consciousness—the hallmark of critical theory tradition in education developed by the works of Paulo Freire, Henri Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz, Peter McLaren, Donaldo Macedo and various others, which finds its roots in Critical Theory School/Frankfurt School developed by philosophers like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Haebermas and others who in turn find the roots of their ideas in the Marxist and psychoanalytical traditions. The works of these critical educators and the critical social educators like Ross, Gibson, Vinson, Stanley and others can help in the development of educational praxis based on the critical awareness of socio-political and economic reality to bring about transformation of the existing system for a just and peaceful society.

 Critical pedagogy is essential but incomplete because of its entire focus on the outward reality as a structural process. It pays scant attention to the relationship between individual’s psychological process and society. There seems to exist a vicious circle between the society and our selves through which oppression continues to happen. Society conditions individuals’ mind through history, culture, polity, economy and obviously we, the conditioned individuals, only reproduces these oppressive and inhuman conditions (with little modifications here and there) without any fundamental change. It is due to the limitation of critical pedagogy, which view social change as outer structural process that I want to discuss the idea of critical self-awareness. Since we all are heavily conditioned by the social practices, critical self-awareness is needed to critically observe the conditionings that shape our beliefs, thoughts and actions. The critical observation not only helps us break the repetitive and conditioned patterns inside our own selves but also to break and demolish the exploitative and oppressive patterns in the society that operate through us. Therefore, for critical pedagogy to be effective, it is essential for  all of us to find out how are we part of and play a role in furthering the conflicts, exploitation, acquisitiveness, competition and degradation in society. Critical self-awareness is crucial; for, it is easy to hold others responsible for the misery of the world but it is hard to see oneself as an important component of such a degenerating process.

J. Krishnamurti and critical self-awareness

I attribute my understanding of critical self-awareness to the ideas of J. Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti—an educator from India—has authored several books, lectured worldwide and hold discussions with renowned scholars to provide his deep insights about the human conflicts and problems. Krishnamurti describes critical self-awareness as the quality of being constantly aware of one’s thoughts, actions and emotions. He explains that conflicts and problems of the outer world are not independent of us hence cannot be changed directly. According to Krishnamurti, change in the system or structure cannot lead to real revolution; for, he considers that such change is mere modification and continuation of the same realities. In his vision real revolution is the psychological revolution, which comes about through self-awareness. It is essential for each individual to understand how one, while being brought up in a social system ridden with conflicts and exploitation, acquires and inherits exploitative, acquisitive and competitive tendencies and perpetuate the fragmentation, conflicts and degeneration of society.

While discussing about the crisis of the world where “physiologically and psychologically, morally and spiritually, economically and socially, there is disintegration” Krishnamurti emphasizes that:

“This catastrophic disaster has not come into being through some action of chance; it has been created by each one of us—by our everyday activities of envy and passion, of greed and the craving for power and domination, of competition and ruthlessness, of sensate and immediate values. We are responsible for this appalling misery and confusion, not another, but you and I. Because you are thoughtless, unaware, wrapped up in your own ambitions, sensations, and pursuits, wrapped up in those values that are immediately gratifying, you have created this immense, engulfing disaster. War is a spectacular and bloody expression of our daily life, our life of competition, ill will, social and national division, and so on. You are responsible for this chaos, not any particular group, not any individual, but you; you are the mass, you are the world. Your problem is the world’s problem.

As the problem is new you must approach it anew; there must be revolution in thinking. This revolution is not based on any formula but on self-knowledge, knowledge of the total process of your whole being. Neither the specialization of the part nor the study of the part can lead to the whole. Through self-knowledge there is right thinking, which is revolutionary and creative. Individual and individualistic action are two different and opposing things. Individualistic action is action based on greed, envy, ill will, and so on, action of the part; and individual action is action based on the understanding of this total process. Individualistic action is antisocial, antagonistic, or opposed to another. Individualistic activities have brought man to this present chaos and misery. In reaction to individualistic activities, collectivism of many varieties has sprung up. In understanding the total process of our being—only in self-knowledge is there salvation (Krishnamurti, 1998 pp. 1-2).”

  Critical self-awareness of one’s own is as much essential as the critical awareness of the outer reality; for it is through our day-to-day life that we consciously or unconsciously create and perpetuate outward reality. Critical self-awareness as a pedagogy entails:

Ø      Critical inquiry and reflection of outward reality that is oppressive, exploitative and violent

Ø      Meditation over outer reality that operates within our own selves at the level of thoughts and to discover how are we oppressive, exploitative and violent in our daily action

A radical curriculum and pedagogy thus would inevitably create space for and demand a dialogical, reflective, and thoughtful classroom where social issues and concerns will be problematized through debate and discussion to resist and reverse the process of hegemony and the deterioration of society. Meditation would also form the core of such classrooms to help teachers and students to observe their thoughts and actions to find out how they themselves are placed in and contributes towards a conflict-ridden society.

Critical self-awareness can lay the foundation for actual psychological revolution that in turn can bring about change in the outer world as the latter has come into existence by each one of us through our thoughts and actions. Not that the structural changes are not essential but to focus them only without focusing their genesis and perpetuation in and through us is not going to bring about any substantial or fundamental change. Thus, change in one’s consciousness is the real foundation for actual visible changes in the structure of the society.

 The ideas of Krishnamurti and those of Critical theorists are different but not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary. For later what is significant is the development of critical consciousness to understand and change oppressive social reality, while for Krishnamurti what is more significant is the understanding as to how we, as individual, play a role in the existence and continuation of oppressive society. Both the perspectives are essential and needs to be combined for a true education that aims at a just, peaceful and democratic society.

To sum up: The society that we inhabit is oppressive, exploitative and violent and we all, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate such conditions. The social education in schools teaches students to accept these inhuman conditions and confirms to the established pattern. If social education, or for that matter education, has to work for revolution it must break the vicious circle that exist between society and individual. The key of such revolution is critical self-awareness.