Educating for critical thinking in urban studies: Towards an anti-colonial and anti-racist education

In this short essay, I would like to reflect on what it means to educate for critical thinking within the field of urban studies if one is attempting to nourish an education that is anti-colonial and anti-racist. I begin by first considering three definitions of critical thinking and criticality: Stephen Brookfield’s (2012) understanding, Neil Brenner’s (2009) elucidation within the field of urban studies, and bell hooks’ (2010) emancipatory interpretation. I then go on to reflect on my role as a university teacher thinking through two of hooks’ (2010) “teachings”: decolonization (teaching 4); and black, female, and academic (teaching 17). I end with a short reflection of which of my professional competences need to be reinforced in order to strengthen my performance as a teacher working in higher education who seeks to educate for critical thinking.  

What is critical thinking?

In his book, Teaching for Critical Thinking, Brookfield (2012: 38) broadly defines criticality as “a disposition to intellectual openness.” In the face of new evidence, a critical thinker is willing to revise their assumptions and reformulate long-held beliefs if needed. Delving deeper into criticality, Brookfield (2012) also explains critical thinking cannot be easily defined since—despite the general commonality of intellectual openness—different traditions understand and work with critical approaches in diverse ways. Brookfield (2012) identifies five intellectual traditions that have criticality at their core: analytic philosophy and logic (i.e., the analysis of how arguments are constructed); natural science (i.e., the hypothetico-deductive method); American pragmatism (i.e., the pursuit of “beautiful consequences”); psychoanalysis (i.e., “realizing our inner potentialities”); and critical theory (i.e., “speaking truth to power”). Out of the five traditions, critical theory is the most political since it attempts to not only uncover hidden assumptions, but also actively seeks to fight ideologies that “perpetuate economic, racial and gender oppression” (Brookfield, 2012: 48).

Zooming in to the topic at hand, Brenner (2009) explains critical urban theory has its roots in the Frankfurt School—a collective of Marxist thinkers formed in the early 20th century which includes Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Benjamin as some of its most famous members. For Brenner (2009), the tenets of critical urban theory can be summarized in four points. The first one is that critical theory is theory. In other words, the tradition is not intended to serve as a strategic map for social change, but should work as a bridge between theory and practice. The second tenet is that critical theory is reflexive. Knowledge—including critical theory—is contextual, historically specific, and always embedded in power relations. The third principle is that critical theory entails a critique of instrumental reason. As such, it questions the role of knowledge and rejects maintaining and reproducing current forms of power through instrumental uses of knowledge (e.g., market-oriented understandings of the urban). Lastly, Brenner (2009) argues, critical theory emphasizes the disjuncture between the actual and the possible. Its role is to investigate the current forms of power struggle under capitalism and uncover “emancipatory possibilities” that are dormant but suppressed within the system. In having a political element at its core, critical urban theory, in short, meets Brookfield’s description of critical theory. However, there remains a missing link. How does one go from critical urban theory to pedagogy?

In my view, hooks (2010) offers helpful guidance in her book Teaching for Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. For hooks (2010: 9), critical thinking “involves first discovering the who, what, when, where, and how of things—finding the answers to those eternal questions of the inquisitive child—and then utilizing that knowledge in a manner that enables you to determine what matters most.” However, coming from a Black feminist tradition, her invitation to long for knowledge as an “inquisitive child” and ‘determine what matters most’ has a political quality attached to it. Putting the tenets of critical theory in conversation with critical thinking, hooks (2010) emphasizes the importance of equality, critical engagement, compassion, and “radical openness” in our teaching practices. Teachers should “educate for the practiceof freedom” through a process of “engaged pedagogy” (hooks, 2010: 22). In a nutshell, for hooks, educating for the practice of freedom involves an active process that aims to create the ability to think independently and with discernment—even when the process creates tension among students that refuse to acknowledge challenging truths related to sexism, racism or class-based discrimination. However, the challenge to step out of a passive comfort zone is not only a demand placed on the students, it also falls on teachers. Educators must also be willing to acknowledge what they do not know. This is the “radical openness” and “learning in action” that hooks refers to.

The role of the university teacher

Having these three definitions of critical thinking and criticality as a background, what does it thus mean to educate for critical thinking in urban studies if we have the goal to nourish an education that is anti-colonial and anti-racist? Thinking about my own experience as a university teacher I would like to provide a reflection with the help of two of hooks’ (2010) teachings. Let me start with Teaching 4: Decolonization.

Decolonization in urban studies

In addition to the urgent need to liberate our minds beyond racist and gendered notions, hooks (2010) argues—adding to the calls raised by postcolonial scholars—we need to also decolonize our minds. To challenge a “colonizing mentality” means learning a new language against oppression by forcing ourselves to reflect how education itself has been used as a tool of colonization. Thinking about her own context (the United States as a settler colonial state), hooks provides the example of pupils being taught that “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” This is a statement that denies the presence of indigenous peoples and erases any history previous to the arrival of European colonizers. (As if nothing existed before then when, in fact, the arrival of Columbus simply marks when “America” was named and discovered by European eyes.) Dismantling a “colonizing mentality,” argues hooks (2010), also means acknowledging that decolonization is not only a process that needs to be carried out by indigenous people. In her view, the teachings of the “dominator” or hegemonic culture reach all. I would add that decolonization is a practice that needs to be carried out even by modern-day nation-states that were never imperial powers or colonial subjects. Taking an example from Scandinavia, the historian Åsa Össbo (in Andersen et al., 2015: 241) argues Sweden has hidden behind “the blue water thesis” or the perception that “colonialism can only occur across oceans.” This thought-process renders invisible practices of colonialism against the Sámi, for example. (A second example that the authors provide is the Faroe Islands and Greenland—possessions of the Danish state in the North Atlantic even to this day).

What do these thoughts mean to the practice of teaching urban studies? The field of urban studies has a tradition of radical theory that, despite its strengths, in some ways continues to reproduce what hooks would label as a “colonizing mentality.” Audrey Kobayashi (2014), for example, argues that until recently, neoclassical urban critical theory did not consider “race”[i] and racism as important factors to discuss within the field. Scholars like Jennifer Robinson and Ananya Roy have argued Eurocentric practices continue to recreate a field of urban studies that focuses most of its attention in the EuroAmerican heartland—thus ignoring the global South and peripheries in the global North (Robinson, 2002, 2006; Roy, 2009, 2011). Robinson and Roy suggest that in order to build a decolonized (or at least postcolonial) field of urban studies more studies need to be carried out of the hidden locations of urbanization. This needs to go hand in hand an effort to carry out comparative research in novel ways (e.g., comparisons across the global North and South) (cf. Robinson, 2016). For the practice of teaching urban studies, I would argue that, just like hooks urges us, we need a “radical openness” to examine our syllabi and do the work of pluralizing the course literature to include more cases from outside the centers of knowledge production (i.e., the EuroAmerican heartland). There is also a need to include more diverse scholars (e.g., women of color) and authors that are little known within Anglophone literature.[ii] These efforts are needed as concrete actions to do the work of decolonizing the way we teach urban studies.

Brown, female, and academic

The second of hooks’ (2010) teachings that I would like to reflect on is #17 “Black, female, and academic” which I interpret as a reminder of why our bodies, backgrounds, and life histories matter in academia. Hooks describes the difficulties of being a black woman in the classroom: the prejudices attached to her body because of being female and black, and the ultimate reaction from a system of structural racism and sex discrimination — the judgment that she is an intruder in the academic world.[iii] Through this discussion, hooks (2010) reminds us that intersectionality matters in the classroom and that the issue becomes even more complex when a racialized and gendered lecturer is attempting to teach critical thinking and theory.[iv] If we take into consideration that the majority of people have been socialized in an “imperialist capitalist white-supremacist patriarchal culture” (hooks, 2010: 99), the problem for hooks has not only been to fight stereotypes, but also to deal with the conflict that some students (and colleagues) feel to see a woman of color in a position of power.[v] Echoing Sara Ahmed’s (2017) “killjoy,” hooks shares how she has been perceived as an angry and bitter troublemaker by students. When confronted with an analysis of structural racism and discrimination, the discomfort of some students turned into anger towards hooks. The strategies put in place by hooks (2010) have been to refuse to ‘know her place’ and reject “projected identities” that others have tried to put on her. In addition to this, hooks (2010: 100) has come to realize the importance of preparing students to hear “points they might not have heard before,” understand the difference between “biased and unbiased thinking,” and help them reflect that everybody has “blind spots” when it comes to discussions of race/ethnicity, gender, and class. My analysis is that this discussion connects to the practice of decolonization: we need a more diverse group of teachers and students (in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, and identity). Only a rainbow of backgrounds and life stories can facilitate a more nuanced discussion of critical urban studies.

Educating for an anti-racist and anti-colonial critical thinking in urban studies is a task that requires patience and not only intellectual but also emotional labor (especially if you are a woman of color). As a final short reflection, I have come to realize that, while I am familiar with critical theory, I need to get better at teaching critical thinking skills. Guided by hooks (2010)—without forgetting the background provided by Brookfield (2012) and Brenner (2009)—I conclude there are two professional competences that need to be strengthened. The first one is that I need to promote an “engaged pedagogy” in the classroom and make sure that I apply the skill of “leaning in action.” The second point is that, in order to not alienate students that might have several “blind spots” in regards to gender, ethnicity or class because they belong to the hegemony, I need to learn how to address tension in the classroom in a productive way when students feel challenged. Only through an open discussion can the seed of “radical openness” be planted.

[i] This refers, of course, to the social construction of race.

[ii] As Kanishka Goonewardena has suggested (Online Workshop “A Non-Occidentalist West: Learning from Theories Outside the Canon,” 18 February 2021), the point is not to simply include authors from the global South, but include authors that help us carry out emancipatory critique, regardless of their location (which could be the global South but also a periphery in the global North).

[iii] This has echoes of Nirmal Puwar’s (2004) argument in Space Invaders: Race, Gender, and Bodies Out of Place.

[iv] Something that Brookfield (2012), as a white male seems to be blissfully unaware of. For example, I suspect that his suggestion to act “a bit stupid” in the classroom to gain the trust of students would not work for a woman, let alone a woman of color. Regardless if he pretends to act stupid or not, Brookfield’s white male body already carries the authority of science (cf. Haraway, 1988).

[v] Hooks, of course, refers to the context in the United States. For a discussion of the Swedish context, see Mulinari and Neergaard (2017).


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Featured image: “Smashed Macbook Pro screen” by Abscond is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This essay was submitted as a final assignment in the course Educating for Critical Thinking—a pedagogy course that I took in spring 2021.