Review

Is there a roadmap to critical consciousness?

Critical Consciousness: A Study of Morality in Global, Historical Context
By Elena Mustakova-Possardt
Praeger
Westport, Connecticut / London

Coined by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in the 1960s, the term "critical consciousness" was at first applied mainly in the field of adult education. Translated from the Portuguese word conscientizadora, critical consciousness was defined by Dr. Freire as a state of in-depth understanding about the world and resulting freedom from oppression.

Dr. Freire explored liberating educational methods that he believed could promote the development of critical consciousness, especially among poor and illiterate people, a process that would lead to their emancipation and fruitful advancement. His theories have greatly influenced thinking about participatory development.

Over time, however, the term has taken on an expanded meaning, describing a state of mental and spiritual development that confers upon its subject a morally progressive, engaged, and holistic view of life.

It is within this expanded conception of "critical consciousness" that Elena Mustakova-Possardt operates in her wide-ranging and highly original new monograph Critical Consciousness: A Study of Morality in Global, Historical Context.

Indeed, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt takes the concept of critical consciousness to the next level, redefining it as a "way of being" that fully integrates the heart and mind and so creates in the individual a sense of highly principled morality, philosophical expansion, and historical and global vision that represents the acme of human consciousness.

"[E]very chapter of human history has had its individuals who have exhibited this empowered unity of rational mind and inner vision," Dr. Mustakova-Possardt writes. "The most outstanding among these people have become known as moral and spiritual leaders, whom the rest of humanity has viewed as people of a different quality. Their names and stories fill the world's treasury of the human heritage."

Within that framework, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt then asks a couple of crucial questions: What are the psychological components of this state of consciousness? And is it possible to create an educational system that would help greater numbers of people to reach critical consciousness?

In seeking answers to these questions, she follows two paths. First, she surveys the latest developments in modern psychology, especially in the emerging area of so-called "positive" or "holistic" psychology.

Second, she draws on a series of field interviews with 26 individuals in the United States and in her native Bulgaria and offers a series of moral vignettes that analyze the degree to which her subjects are on the path to (or have reached) critical consciousness.

This two-track approach gives both a theoretical and empirical underpinning to the 218-page book. The result is a sweeping and thought-provoking work that challenges common perceptions about the development of morality, the purpose of education, and prevailing directions of thought in social science.

Starting with Dr. Freire's definition of critical consciousness, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt carefully dissects and analyzes its components. It involves, she writes, elements of critical thinking, an understanding of causality, a grasp of the processes of history, and the ability to translate thought into action.

Ultimately, however, critical consciousness stems from authentic moral motivation that underlies and empowers those who have achieved it. "Knowing and being, mind and heart, center round a caring, increasingly interconnected, justice-and-equity-oriented view of life," she writes.

And such moral motivation, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt writes, is essentially spiritual in nature. "The most central finding of this work has been that empowered, resilient moral consciousness is a function of the extent to which the individual's spiritual capacities to know, to love, and to exercise free will are fully awakened and harmoniously developed."

More specifically, in her studies of 26 ordinary people in the USA and Bulgaria, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt found that those who had reached or were about to reach critical consciousness were in large part guided by love.

"Love for truth, beauty, and goodness is the missing link that brings together moral values, character, sincerity, moral reasoning, critical discernment, responsibility, empathy, and compassion into a qualitatively different consciousness — empowered, resilient, and authentically moral," she writes. "Love is the depth dimension of human existence."

As well, in developing new theories about critical consciousness, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt calls into question a number of current directions in society, the social sciences, and, most acutely, education.

"Educational practice is split between behavioristic socialization and an emphasis on the development of skills," she writes. "Lacking are significant models of authentic moral authority or any truly integrative spiritual conversation."

While this approach has spurred tremendous material development in much of the world, she writes, it must also be associated with some of the worst features of modern civilization, from environmental degradation to widespread social injustice.

What is missing, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt writes, is the comprehension of humanity's spiritual dimension in the fields of education and social science — a comprehension that she believes many researchers are coming to on their own. She cites the work of Ken Wilber, Robert Emmons, and Martin Seligman, among others, in outlining new directions in psychology and beyond.

"Many individual thinkers have already anticipated the gradual shift to a spiritualized civilization, able to muster its collective will to solve the economical and ecological problems facing the planet, on the basis of an understanding of the universal spiritual principles that govern life," she writes.

In that regard, while drawing on a wide range of contemporary psychological research, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt also makes clear that she has been inspired by the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith in her search for the components of and pathways to critical consciousness.

She suggests that the Faith's modern re-articulation of traditional spiritual wisdom, its concept of progressive revelation, and its vision of individual and collective evolution in the context of an ever-advancing global civilization, offer new perspectives on the nature and development of critical consciousness.

"Bahá'í philosophy emphasizes the need to direct the mirror of consciousness from the beginning to the divine center of all life and to nurture and cultivate transcendent awareness in children," said Dr. Mustakova-Possardt. "Such awareness can become a solid foundation on which developing brain-based consciousness can then erect the edifice of knowledge, and ultimately, knowledge and understanding can become one in the fully developed and fully awakened mind."

Moreover, she establishes the convergence between Bahá'í-inspired psycho-spiritual understandings about the nature of knowledge, love, and will, as well as authentic morality, and the latest and most progressive strands of contemporary psychological thought and research.

The infusion of spirituality into the discussion of critical consciousness does not contradict Dr. Freire's original concepts. Dr. Freire himself drew greatly on his own experience as a Christian in developing his ideas — ideas that without question have had an enormous impact on thinking around the world about education, empowerment, and development.

In extending the concept — and in infusing its underpinnings with insights drawn from the newest independent world religion — Dr. Mustakova-Possardt likewise opens a very wide door to still more insights and applications.

In particular, Dr. Mustakova-Possardt's emphasis on the fundamental importance of possessing a global vision, as one of the milestones of critical consciousness, suggests a new framework for moral empowerment in an era of globalization.

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