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The education of a radical

Peter McLaren
Peter McLaren is on a quest to empower students everywhere.

Peter McLaren had been city-hopping for two weeks, speaking at one conference after another, when he called his wife Jennifer in Los Angeles. �Where are you today, Peter? Spokane, or is it Olympia?� she asked. McLaren replied that he was in Lubbock, Texas. �That's a red state,� his wife said, sounding anxious. �Are you going to be OK?�

McLaren, a professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, wasn't sure. The following day, he was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the 2006 Texas National Association for Multicultural Education, held last month at Texas Tech University. Some of the event's organizers were evidently aware that McLaren, a highly regarded scholar and self-described Humanist-Marxist, rarely pulls punches. So the organizers warned him to stay clear of three topics they said were sacred in Lubbock: guns, God and George W. Bush.

�I worried about it all evening,� McLaren said. �And the next day I went ahead and criticized Bush, the war in Iraq, imperialism, racism, growing fascism and how these are all related to issues of democracy and education. And guess what — those who packed the assembly hall rose and gave me a standing ovation. I call it the miracle in Lubbock.�

McLaren looks like a cross between a rock star and motorbike enthusiast. But his passion is �critical pedagogy� — educational theory and practice designed to raise the consciousness of learners about oppressive social conditions. The technique's best-known advocate was Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationist who authored the acclaimed book, �Pedagogy of the Oppressed.� He was jailed for encouraging students to understand through patient discussion how their ideas of such issues as class, race and identity are formed.

�My view is that you can't teach people anything,� explained McLaren, who was a protégé of Freire. �You have to create a context in which they can analyze themselves and their social formations and lives.�

The approach partly explains why McLaren landed on a hit list last January of �UCLA's most radical professors.� A 2003 UCLA graduate launched a Web site featuring a �Dirty Thirty� list of left-wing faculty, with McLaren's name at the very top. That didn't surprise McLaren. �It's something that goes with the territory of being a democratic, critical educator,� he said.

Over the past year alone, McLaren has taught critical pedagogy in a dozen countries as diverse as Germany, Taiwan, Pakistan and Israel. He spoke in Medellín, Colombia, where on the average, death squads assassinate two teacher union leaders a month. �When I talk, people say, �Aren't the '60s over?' � said McLaren. �And I say if we had dealt with the issues of the '60s, we wouldn't be in the state we're in.�

McLaren's office in Moore Hall is a colorful testament to his pedagogical travels. Medals, shields, photographs and objects of revolutionary art — busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao — are crammed into every inch of space. Even the bookshelves are covered with posters and banners, some so huge they are folded in half. �My office is a symbolic universe for students who are into progressive politics,� he said. �It acts as a catalyst for them.�

Dressed in blue denims and a white gerbera shirt, the Canadian-born professor looks just a few years older than in a large black-and-white photograph of him taken in the mid-1990s at a Che Guevara symposium in Rosario, Guevara's birthplace in Argentina. �Students sold two-peso tickets to bring me,� McLaren gushed, adding: �I very often speak for free, but I have to get there and need a place to stay.�

McLaren is a huge fan of Guevara, whose iconic image is tattooed onto his right shoulder. �My right-hand man,� he said fondly, tapping the figure. He then bared his opposite shoulder, pointing to an elaborate tattoo of another revolutionary — Mexico's Emiliano Zapata. �Both struggled for peasants,� McLaren said somberly. �I will die with them.�

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