Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Neoliberalism

The experience of the 21st century in education is dominated by the culture and language of neoliberalism. Since the mainstreaming of neoliberal values in the 1980s, a dominance of hyper-individualism, meritocracy, competition and conservative, nationalist values has been normalised in the day-to-day practices and culture of the British education systems (Angus, 2015). This has created a culture in which social problems have been reimagined as individual problems; in which the ‘tyranny of merit’ (Sandel, 2020) paints those who do not ‘achieve’ – where achievement is measured in purely quantitative terms – as disposable and wholly to blame for their own failures.

Neoliberalism has created, for young people in particular, a culture of ceaseless commodification, wherein people are encouraged to believe that self-interest is their only responsibility and that what really matters is symbolic capital, attainable through consumption. This, Adorno and Horkheimer (2006) famously called ‘the culture industry’; that is, the cultivation of psycho-social needs over politicised forms of thinking which are only attainable through capitalism. Pedagogically, we see this culture emerge through ‘banking’ styles of teaching and learning, in which retention of data and skills for employment become education’s raison d’etre.

In England, marketisation policies encourage students to conceptualise themselves in competition with each other, in schools which, in turn, are in competition with other schools for student intake and, by proxy, resources. This, notes Giroux (2018), is the culture of businesses, which reduces education to a ‘regressive form of rationality’, where a focus on quantifiable skills replaces a focus on critical thinking.

Saltman (2014, p. 55) further considers the impact on education of the dominant (neoliberal) fiscal policies of monetarism, privatisation and austerity, concluding that:

Austerity education (in England) is not only about a turn to repressive control of youth in the interests of amassing profit … It is also about the rightist project of capturing public space such as schools to actively produce politically illiterate, socially uncritical and un-self-critical subject positions for youth to occupy.

Education, for students and teachers alike, thereby becomes a process of de-politicisation.

As the seminal work of Freire (1970) argues, this is not to say that the teachers’ view of reality should be pushed onto students. Rather, that lived realities should be problematised and challenged at the critical level. Here, therefore, I share Giroux’s (2018) view that education is central to politics. Through the prescription to the remembering of abstract ‘facts’ for assessment, the true purpose of education is hidden, with contemporary ideologies legitimised and, thereby, reproduced.

As a result, education could be conceptualised as the space wherein the fight for the future of society, for the ideologies, narratives and political structures that will govern our children and our children’s children, is taking place. So in asking what kind of future we want for our children, we cannot help but ask about what kind of pedagogies we are constructing, today. In doing so, we are, of course, raising the fundamental question of what education is for.

Do we maintain our current pedagogical thinking, which foregrounds mnemonics as a method for retaining more information for regurgitation? If so, we accept that education is inevitably shaped by the capitalist forces it serves – where critical thinking is replaced with skills and training which become weapons to be employed through meritocratic and atomised competition in a form of social Darwinism. Despite the dominant rhetoric of a focus on curriculum and content, this banking style of pedagogy necessarily becomes prevalent in any system where standardised testing and quantifiable data remain the modus operandi.

Or can we construct alternatives? – spaces in which communities still matter and students are given the language to articulate their frustrations in relation to structures and political choice. Teaching sociology gives me the opportunity to do just that, and it never ceases to amaze me how politically astute and imaginative students can be when being offered time and a critical lens through which to consider the politics and pedagogies of today.

Far from any notion of political neutrality, education is the cultural and ideological battleground on which our children’s futures will be decided. It is a battle I fear we are losing – but I, for one, will go down swinging.

Dane Norris, PHD Candidate, University of Chichester, UK.

This article is re-published from the British Educational Research Association blog


Angus, L. (2015). School choice: Neoliberal education policy and imagined futures. British Journal of Sociology of Education36(3), 395–413.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder and Herder.

Giroux, H. A. (2018). Higher education and the politics of the radical imagination. PRISM: Casting New Light on Learning, Theory and Practice2(1), 23–43.

Giroux, H. A. (2020). Critical pedagogy (pp. 1–16). Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2006). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In M. G. Durham & D. M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: Keyworks (Revised ed., pp. 41–72). Blackwell.

Saltman, K. J. (2014). The austerity school: Grit, character and the privatization of public education. Symploke22(1), 41–57.

Sandel, M. J. (2020). The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good?. Penguin.

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