The Critical Ceiling: Confronting My Critical Identity in Education

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?
“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

“It is 1956, and I am thirteen years old,” begins Louise DeSalvo in the Prologue to her memoir Vertigo. continuing:

I have begun my adolescence with a vengeance. I am not shaping up to be the young woman I am supposed to be. I am not docile. I am not sweet. I am certainly not quiet. And, as my father tells me dozens of times, I am not agreeable. If he says something is true, I am sure to respond that it is most certainly not true, and that I have evidence to prove it.

DeSalvo recreates her adolescent self through the advantage of hindsight, but who we are in our bones is both an act of recognition and then (re)creation as we struggle with how our true selves match or conflict with the world around us.

As I write this, I have once again experienced the critical ceiling of my profession, education. Another moment of several over my career when who I am professionally just does not match expectations, and thus, I am not the right fit for this or that situation.

Disappointing, yes, but the moment has pushed me to begin to acknowledge what I am calling here for the first time the critical ceiling: the limitations confronted by critical educators in all contexts — traditional or progressive — because critical pedagogy is beholden to one ideology that is to interrogate ideology even as we necessarily embrace it.

As Joe Kincheloe, in his Critical Pedagogy Primer, explains, critical pedagogy starts here:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes.

And it is this critical interrogation that creates the critical ceiling, I believe, something akin to the glass ceiling for women and muted access experienced by so-called racial minorities (see here).

As DeSalvo details in her memoir, I can now trace my recalcitrant nature back to childhood, an unwillingness to conform that led to my father and me physically clashing throughout adolescence. He bounced me off the refrigerator and my bedroom wall; he held me down on the floor demanding I not say another word, and I simply said, “Word.”

My fights with my father were, in hindsight, not about him as a person, but my developing English education major’s very personal and concrete manifestation of symbolism: My father was the embodiment of the redneck, conservative South that has always left me feeling like an alien. Ours was a conflict ripe for Freud or Jung.

How does a working-class white boy born in South Carolina and raised throughout the 1960s and 1970s become a critical and Marxist educator/scholar and writer?

During my interview 14 years ago for my current position at a selective liberal arts university, the professors who joined me for lunch realized I was the only one at the table from the South. One of them leaned toward me and mused, “How are you from here?”

My hick voice and Southern roots cannot long mask that the person I am in my bones is almost entirely unlike the people of his native soil.

This alienation of place, however, I discovered relatively late in life has a scholarly place — critical pedagogy. But that delayed homecoming was bittersweet because the critical are destined always to be outsiders; it is our lot not to fit in, not to play along, not to let things lie as they always have.

And for those of us who have come to recognize our critical selves in our bones, unless we find some science fiction radical surgery reminiscent of how the Wolverine was created, we must live on with the bones that carry us.

My English teacher/reader self is drawn again and again to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, this existential manifesto of one man’s execution because he allowed his true Self to be entirely and unapologetically exposed for the culture that could only eradicate him.

And I find some solace in DeSalvo’s life story of a young woman drawn to the comfort of libraries as she wrestled with the world around her, as she defied the world around her.

Every time a new student enters my office, she/he gazes at the wall and stacks of books — my Fortress of Solitude — and then asks, “Have you read all these books?”

Read them? They saved my life, they are my life.