My Conversion to Critical Pedagogy

"It sounds like you're afraid of freedom." I was so taken aback by his directness that I almost fell out of my chair.

“It sounds like you’re afraid of freedom.”


I was so taken aback by his directness that I almost fell out of my chair. It was the end of January and I was talking on the phone with Justin Tse, a Visiting Assistant Professor in Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, about a week after my coffee date w/ my former supervisor because I was still stuck in my head. There was a small voice in me that wanted to blurt back “Fuck you Justin! You don’t know me!” since this was only our second conversation, but there was an even smaller voice in me that registered his indictment: “What is this ‘freedom’ he speaks of and why does he think I am afraid of it?”

I had contacted Justin about a month earlier after reading some of his blog, especially a thirteen-part series on his “Conversion to Liberation Theology.” I found in Justin’s blogging a trenchant critique of (Chinese) evangelicalism, a Žižekian stance against ideological interpolation, and a synthesis of Catholic personalism and Marxist orientations. In hindsight, it was just what my post-evangelical, critical theory trained, and Catholic-leaning intellectual angst needed at the time. Furthermore, Justin’s blogging style gave me the sense that he too gets stuck in his head a lot, which made me even more receptive to his mushy musings.

During our conversation, Justin was throwing around phrases like “submerged consciousness,” “housing the oppressor within,” “fear of freedom,” and “conscientization.” I had never heard these ideas communicated in this particular language and had certainly never heard of Paulo Freire. I was intellectualizing my intersectional minority stress and associated mental health issues, effectively sublimating my suffering through academic jargon because something was keeping me from externalizing my increasing perception that I was trapped in a world that was not my own. I think that Justin could sense over the phone that I was hesitant, shy, and holding back. Something was keeping me from fully deconstructing the harsh incommensurabilities of the traditionalist white evangelical social world I was trying to escape from and seizing the responsibility of owning my own reality. Hence Justin’s nudge.

The purpose of this blog series is to provide a textual account of what I am dubbing “My Conversion to Critical Pedagogy”—an homage to Justin’s original blog series and the subsequent conversations that led me to Paulo Freire, as well as a statement distinguishing Justin and I’s post/theological thinking (i.e. “critical pedagogy” vs. “liberation theology”). In the following posts, I will be telling the story of my conscientization and reflecting on the role of critical pedagogy in my life. In order to tell this story well, I need to take two steps back to why I was reading Peter Berger in the weeks preceding my phone call with Justin and explain how Bergerian interpretive sociology set me up for radicalization a la Freire.

Lastly, I must say a few words about what I mean by “conversion.” Despite my current atheological leanings, I have a very Roman Catholic view of conversion as a gradual process. In the words of historian of technology and Jesuit priest John M. Staudenmaier, SJ, “conversion is gradual and never complete … Every attempt to get something right or to take a stand is subject to revision.” In contrast to an overly simplistic “born-again”/”before-and-after” notion of conversion as an instantaneous moment, conversion is best described as ongoing and provisional. Hence, when I speak of my conversion to critical pedagogy, I do not mean to suggest that I have been struck by lightening and arrived at some liberated state of consciousness previously unknown (although there is certainly an element of that). Rather, I am referring to an earnest recognition that something in me has changed and will most likely continue to change. I do not pretend to have everything figured out and to be writing a definitive manifesto of a critical pedagogue. I am merely writing, paying attention to this gradual process that has started within me, and doing so with less and less fear. 

One comment

  1. […] Berger’s constructionist framework scratched all of my social theory itches around religion. I finally had a conceptual toolkit to begin unpacking my past and describing what the hell was going on during my college years. But what really helped me make sense of and move past my culty baggage was his analysis of false or alienated consciousness, “whereby the dialectical relationship between the individual and his world is lost to consciousness” and “[t]he individual ‘forgets’ that this world was and continues to be co-produced by him” (Berger 1967, p. 85). Drawing on Sartre, Berger describes religious alienation as “bad faith” (p. 93), a kind of inauthentic existence in which an individual denies their innate freedom by construing their conformed actions as an absolute necessity. In other words, to the false consciousness of bad faith, there is no otherwise. It is precisely this indictment of alienated consciousness and bad faith that I observed amongst my evangelical peers and mentors who simply took their reality as necessary; it is also an indictment that I realized applied to myself as well, especially during college; and I suspect that this is the same indictment that Justin sniffed out during our phone call. […]

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