Critical Consciousness, Critical Thinking, and Academic Discourse

Critical Consciousness, Critical Thinking, and Academic Discourse

in College Composition


By: John D. Rall. 2002


There are a number of reasons why I write this essay, but none so pressing as the fact that I must make a decision about the subject of teaching writing before I actually begin to teach writing.  Over the past 16 weeks, I have been studying theories and practices of teaching college composition.  The institution has requirements that instructors in one way or another must comply with.  In addition, we ourselves hope to provide the students with, at the bare minimum, the necessary preparation to enter into college academia.  It is obvious that our job is to teach or facilitate the learning of writing for our students, but how and what we teach can affect more than merely our students’ success in academia.  Hence, we approach teaching with agendas larger than the mere teaching of writing.  In most cases, our agendas are ideological and political. In other cases, though appearing to be benign and apolitical, our approach is nevertheless a reflection of what we, as instructors, think is important, and therefore is a statement reflecting our position in the debate between traditional and progressive education.  It is here that I would like to propose the need for an approach that is both traditional and progressive.  While researching Freirean pedagogical theory, I came to realize that there was something vitally important being overlooked by the Freirean approach, namely, the skills of critical thinking.  Though my opponents will argue that Freirean pedagogy is a form of critical thinking, I argue that it develops a critical consciousness of the social world, but it does not necessarily take care of all the details of traditional rhetoric.  In other words, while focusing on the social, it does not take time to focus on the details of argumentation, reasoning, evidence, and support, and hence does not in itself foster academic success in the university.  Therefore, coupled with the progressive education, we need to keep a traditional instruction of rhetoric.

The distinction between critical consciousness and critical thinking is a valuable distinction for a number of reasons.  We might construe the difference as that between what is useful and what is valuable.  The value, of course, is a moral or ethical one, and we can see that Freirean Pedagogy is undoubtedly an ethically valuable approach.  However, critical thinking models are also useful and there is no place more apparent than in academia.  “At a broad level, critical thinking and critical pedagogy share some common concerns.  They both imagine a general population in society who are to some extent deficient in the abilities or dispositions that would allow them to discern certain kinds of inaccuracies, distortions, and falsehoods”(Burbules and Berk 46).  Critical thinking and critical pedagogy are sometimes indistinguishable, but nevertheless the fine line of difference matters greatly to the teaching of writing, as I will demonstrate later.

Critical thinking is very much in tune with what we call “academic discourse.”  Academic discourse, like critical thinking, focuses on argumentation, supporting assertions, and evaluating evidence.  In many respects, both critical thinking and academic discourse have a common history associated with traditional rhetoric.  For a long time, education has focused on the idea of critical thinking.  “…It is woven throughout the Western tradition of education, from the Greeks to the Scholastics to the present day”(Burbukes and Berk 48).  The art of rhetoric was once associated exclusively with rules of logic and how to assess evidence and data to be used in argumentation.  It does not seem to be far off from a description of contemporary academic discourse, where thesis, organization, and evidence are important constituents of academic papers.  “The primary preoccupation of critical thinking is to supplant sloppy or distorted thinking with thinking based upon reliable procedures of inquiry”(Ibid 46).  It seems, therefore, that academic discourse is founded upon critical thinking or rhetorical maxims of rationality, logic, and reason.  “What the critical thinking movement has emphasized is the idea that specific reasoning skills undergird the curriculum as a whole; that the purpose of education generally is to foster critical thinking; and that the skills and dispositions of critical thinking can and should infuse teaching and learning at all levels”(Ibid 48).  The importance of critical thinking is crucial to the teaching of writing and academic writing in particular, for the aim is to teach students to communicate clearly and forcefully so their voices and ideas can be heard.  Critical thinking enables students to analyze what they themselves are saying and the strength of their assertions can be measured by the reasons and support that are offered.

Critical thinking, as an approach to teaching writing, is nothing new, and it goes without saying that the majority of college composition courses engage in the maxims of critical thinking and academic discourse.  It is not by coincidence that universities with Rhetoric departments place those departments in charge of developmental writing courses.  Those who argue for the usefulness of critical thinking often argue that it is a “set of generalized abilities and dispositions as opposed to content specific abilities…” (Burbeles and Berk 49).  However, there are opponents of the critical thinking school who argue that critical thinking is culturally biased in that it emphasizes the standards and rationality, “a particular masculine and/or Western mode of thinking, one that implicitly devalues other ‘ways of thinking’”(Ibid 49).  This same argument has been made in relation to the teaching of academic discourse.

Though supporting the teaching of academic discourse, Patricia Bizzell has had to defend herself against accusations of “inculcation”(Bizzell 27).  She has tried to demonstrate that the academic discourse can be used to foster critical consciousness in the Freirean sense.  “Basic writers are very much like Freire’s peasants. The basic writers cling to a personal perspective because ‘they feel more part of [their] world than transformers of the world’”(133).  By introducing the students to the academic discourse, students who take up the discourse empower themselves in the academic environment.  Bizzell states, “academic discourse can change the thinking of basic writers in much the same way that literacy, according to Paulo Freire, changes Brazillian Peasants”(19).  Literacy, for Freire’s peasants, was a means of empowerment and of gaining a voice, rather than allowing themselves to be spoken for by their oppressors.  The relationship between academic discourse to basic writers and literacy for the peasants is strong, for the basic writer, while attaining proficiency in academic discourse, finds that he/she is not merely capable of succeeding in the university but also has the ability to write cogently in the socio-political world he/she inhabits.  However, academic discourse does not necessarily lead to activism, but rather as Bizzell points out, “academic discourse outside the academy can issue in self-serving corporate policy statements, picayune legal documents…”(Bizzell 136).  Thus we see that academic discourse, while at once providing an opportunity for an empowered voice, does not necessarily lead to a critical consciousness in the Freirean sense, for “not only is the critical person adept at recognizing injustice but, for critical pedagogy, that person is also moved to change it”(Burbules and Berk 51).

Though critical pedagogy is often passed off as being equally capable of fostering critical thinking, it must be noted that critical thinking and Freirean “critical consciousness” are in many ways quite different.  Whereas critical thinking is focused on the logic and reason of assertions, critical consciousness is an awareness of the social aspect of one’s own life.  “In the language of critical pedagogy, the critical person is one who is empowered to seek justice, to seek emancipation”(Burbules and Berk 50).  Paulo Freire describes his approach in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as such: “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform”(31).  The power of critical pedagogy rests in its hope for social transformation, a transformation that takes place when the oppressed are empowered through education to see themselves as actors in the world.  Freire’s concern is to teach literacy to the “dispossessed” peasants of Brazil and Chile so that they can obtain power for themselves and liberate themselves from their oppressors.

One of the most difficult aspects of this pedagogical approach is applying it in the university, where the majority of students are privileged, white, and middle and upper class students.  Freire himself cautions the application or use of critical pedagogy by those who are not oppressed, “…the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors.  It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education”(36).  Whether the American academy is oppressive or not, the application of critical pedagogy has begun to take root and, in many instances, it has succeeded in giving a voice to the oppressed.  With the slow rise of minority students into the university system, critical pedagogy just might be the key to helping minorities create a community within the larger academic discourse community, helping them have a voice and changing the socio-political atmosphere that has oppressed them.  The issue of assimilation also causes problems if we are to look at education as a libratory function, for it seems counterintuitive to argue for liberation and promote assimilation into the university at the same time.  However, this is precisely what is taking place in universities around the nation.

Nevertheless, we do our students a disservice if we do not teach the practiced mode of communication.  In order for students to succeed in the university, they must become versed in academic discourse.  It seems that the quandary must be solved somehow.  Patricia Bizzell has argued forcefully that teaching academic discourse can be a libratory education in the Freirean sense, “Freire has linked the acquisition of formal education, if attained with help of a politically sensitive teacher, to the ability to see one’s world as the object of reflection and change”(131-132).  We can see that, for Bizzell, the only way academic discourse can contribute to the development of critical consciousness is with the help of a “politically sensitive instructor.”  The popularity of critical pedagogy in the United States stems in part from the fact that there is a great deal of educators out there struggling to give students a liberal education.  There are many examples of politically sensitive teachers of writing applying Freire’s educational philosophy.  For instance, Joseph Harris and Jay Rosen propose, in the essay “Teaching Writing as Cultural Criticism,” that “our first concern is with how to teach students to write as critics of their culture, to reflect on those discourses—of home, school, church, media, work, neighborhood, and so on—of which they are part”(58).  This is a good example of a method that would bring about critical consciousness.  The students are asked to think critically about the their lives and the relations between the institutions they participate in and explicate their experiences in writing.  It appears that instructors can teach writing at the same time as teaching students to become aware of the socio-political context of their lives, i.e. to gain a critical consciousness in the Freirean sense.

However, by teaching the academic discourse to our students there is the implication that one discourse, the academic discourse, is the only viable discourse in the academics and that this discourse must become the discourse through which the student’s voice must be heard.  The student, then, is “either working inside the constraints of a certain community or remaining outside its projects and concerns—and to be outside is to be nowhere at all, with no real chance of being heard”(Harris and Rosen 59).  But does teaching students to think critically about their social environment foster a critical thinking about writing in general?  Does it empower the student in academia to be able to be critical about the world outside of academia?  How do we as instructors reconcile the difference between critical thinking and critical consciousness in the classroom? Do we assume that teaching academic discourse will provide the necessary critical thinking skills to enable students to analyze and produce cogent arguments or can we assume that raising critical consciousness in our students will produce a critical awareness of argumentation?  In a certain sense, critical consciousness fosters a type of critical thinking, but critical thinking is limited to the social world and does not connect to academia easily.  Therefore, I argue that we need to teach our students critical thinking skills along with developing critical consciousness.

Martha Reineke has revealed one example of how this might be accomplished in her compilation “Ten Strategies for Active Learning.”  One of the strategies that I found most conducive to teaching both critical thinking and critical consciousness is under the section titled “Debates.”  Debates are a fantastic way of encouraging students to bring social issues into the class and discuss them with the tools of critical thinking.  Through this method, students not only come to understand the function of academic discourse as a persuasive discourse, but they also begin to think critically about their social environment, for the topics of the debate can be anything concerning the students’ personal experiences.  “Although debates work well with controversial issues, they also can be used successfully with any set of statements relevant to a class topic”(Reineke).  Furthermore, the success of a debate format, on top of joining together critical thinking and critical consciousness, creates a dialogue between opposing sides of any issue.  It also requires students to challenge their own assumptions, allowing them to see the strengths and weaknesses of their command of both the issue and the format of communication critically.  Dialogue is one of the main goals of critical pedagogy.  “Cultural action for freedom is characterized by dialogue, and its preeminent purpose is to conscientize the people”(Freire 47).  Another aspect of debate as a strategy for active learning is that it challenges the traditional power structure associated with Freire’s “banking education,” for it empowers the students to teach each other how to communicate clearly and forcefully.  Also, since it engages the students actively, the instructor becomes merely a mediator, rather than an authority figure.  Often ethical and social issues can be debated without reference to authorities at all, for authority rests not with individuals but in the dialogue and the conclusions the dialogue comes to.  And yet, dialogue is never closed.  New points can always be made; thus, students can continually raise objections or provide more evidence to support their view.  Debates can also be researched-based, giving students an opportunity to practice incorporating evidence and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses.

Critical thinking and critical consciousness differ in their primary focus.  If we construe one as “useful” and the other as “valuable,” then we will see that one is concerned with the practicality of knowledge, while the other is valuable for moral and ethical living.  We obviously want our students to be capable of succeeding inside classrooms and outside classrooms.  By teaching both critical thinking and critical consciousness, we help develop critical scholars and critical citizens both of which contribute to a fuller potential of humanity.  This should be our goal as educators and, more specifically, as teachers of writing.


Works Cited


Bizzell, Patricia. Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992.

Burbules, Nicholas C. and Berk, Rupert. “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits.” Critical Theories in Education: Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics. Eds. Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum Pub. Co., 1993.

Harris, Joseph and Rosen, Jay. “Teaching Writing as Cultural Criticism.” Composition and Resistance. Eds. Mark Hurlbert and Michael Blitz. Portsmouth: Bayton/Cook, 1991.

Reineke, Martha J. “Ten Strategies for Active Learning” Cedar Falls: Reineke University of Northern Iowa. August 1998. RWS 609 Course Reader. Prof. Boyd. San Diego State University, Fall 2001.


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