Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days. It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.
McLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”
McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.
Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research. He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”
Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.
If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star. While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”
Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.
Professor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages. Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association. His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”
McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’ An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.
McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao. His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”
What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book? No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.” No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”
Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.
Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”
Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.
What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor? Why did he later renounce his role in producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students? Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?