Subversive Uses of Privilege: Critical Pedagogy in the Suburbs

By Andy Beutel

I am white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied and grew up in a middle-upper class household. These different aspects of my identity place me in a dominant societal position and it is one that I share with the vast majority of the students I teach.

As a critical educator, I have developed a pedagogy that is culturally responsive, inclusive and rooted in social justice. This approach was developed in part based on my own experience as a young student and is possible to implement in part because of my identity.

I teach middle school social studies in a community that is demographically similar to the one in which I grew up. The town is affluent, suburban and conservative-leaning and the school district is high-achieving with ample resources.

On one hand, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to grow up in such a privileged community. I lived in the same house throughout my childhood, had consistent and quality healthcare, never had to worry about my safety, and participated in various culturally-enriching experiences. However, there was a negative side to growing up in this environment that I didn’t fully recognize and understand at the time. The community was incredibly homogeneous and racist, classist, and homophobic remarks and stereotypes were commonplace. In retrospect, I feel like I was shielded from many of the realities of the country and world, including its diversity.

The schools I attended in the town reflected the community. The school district was well-resourced, staffed with talented and dedicated teachers, and academically rigorous. Students like myself were provided with a range of curricular and extracurricular opportunities and given the support necessary to be successful. However, the fact that the school reflected the demographics and culture of the community meant that there were fewer perspectives explored, appreciated, or understood. Additionally, the education I received was particularly uncritical. With the exception of a few fleeting class discussions scattered across my four years in high school, I was not exposed to issues of socioeconomic injustice or given the space to question the actions of our government at any level. And, perhaps most importantly, I was never encouraged to reflect on my own privilege.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I developed a critical consciousness about the country and world. And it wasn’t until my teacher preparation in graduate school that I began to reflect critically on my own upbringing and the extent to which that might influence my pedagogy. This reflection has been an ongoing process throughout my teaching career and has led me to further develop and enhance my pedagogy and practice.

Historically, the focus of critical pedagogy theory has been on empowering marginalized students. However, my own experience and identity led me to develop a critical pedagogy for non-marginalized students. I strongly believe that students who are societally-privileged should be challenged to think critically about issues, including (and perhaps, especially) those that threaten said privilege. These issues should be embedded into the education of young people so that it becomes part of their consciousness as they are in their formative years and developing their first independent ideas about the world. Each year I have spent teaching non-marginalized students, I have tried to put this vision into practice.

In my social studies classes I have students think, discuss and write about critical issues in history and modern society from multiple perspectives. For example, I ask them to consider the extent to which racism and religious discrimination create a power imbalance for people of color in society; how, why and for whom government functions; how empires like the US wage war and the impact of war on those being attacked; and the ways in which capitalism perpetuates economic inequality.

These topics are typically seen as controversial or even taboo in the type of community in which I work. However, I believe that because I look and speak like most of my students and am from a culturally-similar community it has enabled me to teach in a way and about topics that is generally not encouraged or promoted. To be clear, my personal views, if widely known in the school district and broader community, would not be welcomed by most. But I am not seen as an outsider and as a result there isn’t immediate suspicion about my teaching or me as a teacher. This dynamic has enabled me to teach subversively and serve as a potential counter-model for my white, middle-upper class students.

In the country today, most public schools continue to be segregated and the majority of teachers are white. Under this paradigm, if we are going to create a more equal and fair society and advocate for a more democratic and peaceful government, it is imperative that white teachers of white, affluent students use the power of their privileged status and embrace a critical pedagogical approach.

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Andy's New PhotoAndy Beutel has been teaching middle school social studies for over ten years. He has presented and written about the challenges and possibilities of critical pedagogy and teaching for social justice in an affluent, suburban public school setting. He can be contacted at andrew.r.beutel@gmail.com.

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