Critical Theory Essay

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Critical theory was born in Europe out of concerns among scholars about the powers of fascist states in the mid-twentieth century. The legacy of the so-called Frankfurt School is embodied in many research studies, critical pedagogies, and utopian visions put forth by critical theorists in education for the past forty years. Critical theorists see education as a tool used by the ruling elite to sustain oppression along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. They have also offered pedagogies designed to rebuild schools and social and economic institutions in what they see as more egalitarian ways. Scholars in schools of education employ various methodological tools and theoretical insights across disciplines to reveal what causes social domination and suggest ways to subvert the corporate ordering of life. This entry briefly examines the origins of critical theory, then looks more closely at the many ways it has been applied in education research.

The Frankfurt School

The ideological and philosophical underpinnings of critical theory are generally associated with the Western European philosophers and social theorists who forged the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in 1929. By the early 1930s, scholars such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcus, Franz Neuman, and Walter Benjamin, like others across Western Europe, were deeply concerned about the rise of fascism, mass consumer culture, and the state’s desire to circumscribe intellectual inquiry and critical dissent by the masses through science and technology.

Unlike other radical scholars in this era, who linked the ruling elite’s power to purely the antagonistic relationship between labor and capital, the group excavated the intellectual work of scholars such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, to understand how the political and economic elite might cement their control over social institutions and the means of production. For instance, the group provided a complex portrait of how institutions, such as the media, schooling, and political and government bodies breed a sense of false consciousness among the masses, enabling multiple forms of oppression and domination and engendering unjust practices and systemic barriers that perpetuate asymmetrical relationships in most social contexts.

Their interdisciplinary approach to understanding the social world also concerned itself with how their intellectual contributions can breathe life into building social movements that have the critical capacity to critique what gives rise to oppression and domination in economic and social contexts. They promoted the belief that it is possible to get beyond current social realities and build social and economic institutions predicated on improving the human condition and on embracing the values of democracy, equality, and justice.

The Frankfurt School scholars’ ideas inspired and informed many marginalized scholars during the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, some African American, feminist, and neo-Marxist scholars and activists in the United States examined Herbert Marcuse’s critique of U.S. society to gain insight in relation to how oppression on the axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality is promulgated by the dominant economic and cultural elite as well as to find inspiration that their intellectual and cultural work had the power to forge a utopian social world. Gradually, the theoretical contributions and visions of social and economic emancipation proffered by Frankfurt scholars and other enlightened citizens infiltrated schools of educations.

Critical Theory And Education

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a growing group of scholars in schools of education across North America came to question positivistic types of research generated by scholars in clinical laboratories. Critical scholars argued that these dominant forms of research did little to shed light on how larger institutional arrangements are inextricably linked to the conditions confronting students and teachers inside classrooms, to create instructional practices aimed to help all students learn, and to examine institutional practices and forms of knowledge embedded in schools, which often perpetuate the domination of the ‘Other’ at all levels of schooling.

For instance, in 1970, Ray Rist went inside elementary classrooms to pinpoint how teachers’ expectations influenced impoverished students’ academic performance. In his 1970 article “Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education,” he showed some ways that schools functioned as an appendage of the ruling elite. Educational institutions spawn the environment and practices that position many students to disengage from schooling, he thought. This cyclical process, in many urban school systems in North America, ensures that capitalists are supplied with a cheap source of labor to produce goods and provide services, he concluded.

Concomitantly, other scholars, such as Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, interrogated the myth that children succeed in schools purely by merit or cognitive ability. In Schooling in Capitalist America, the authors made a macro examination of U.S. schools. They provided evidence of how the culture of schooling prepares youth for the adult work world and ensures class relationships are maintained in the wider society. Class analysis of schooling also became predominant in Europe, through the work of scholars such as Paul Willis and Angela McRobbie.

Impact On Student Identity

Rather than focusing more heavily on how capitalist relations of production affect youths’ relationships in K–12 classrooms as well as impact relationships they forge outside of classrooms, the Europeans focused on how the cultural aspects of schooling and mass consumer culture together impact working-class youths’ identities, their schooling experiences, and their occupational choices and opportunities. The European researchers’ investigations were also designed to gauge whether working-class youth were active participants in reproducing the same working-class status as their friends and family members. Finally, these researchers also hoped to determine whether it is possible to build a larger social movement by positioning working-class youth to understand that the larger social and economic arrangements serve the interests of political and economic leaders rather than their own interests.

The researchers found that working-class youth realize that schooling may not serve their best interest, and they actively resist the norms and values embraced by teachers, administrators, and some of their peers. They showed that despite being located within debilitating schooling structures, youth are active agents who have the power to generate a culture in opposition of the schools. Based on their findings, critical teachers and activists may be able to turn youth resistance into movements against the social and economic structures that they view as perpetuating the alienation and oppression of working-class citizens.

Freire And Oppression

During the 1970s, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s text Pedagogy of the Oppressed impacted scholars across the globe in relation to unearthing what larger political and economic forces generate unjust practices that create oppression in various social contexts as well as how to use critical forms of pedagogies to help students and working-class peoples see what causes oppression in their lived worlds, in their communities, and across the globe, while simultaneously guiding them to individually and collectively tackle the unjust conditions and lived practices girding their oppressive social relationships. Arguably, Freire’s work served as a springboard to modernize critical theory.

Scholars have devised new theories and conducted research specifically designed to gauge what economic, social, and political forces cause suffering and oppression in educational systems and in the wider society. Teachers and activists alike have also developed new forms of pedagogies aimed to guide students to reflect upon the totality of social reality, to struggle actively against oppression, and to dream collectively about a world without a hierarchy based on the social markers of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Issues Of Race And Gender

Rather than focusing on oppression of working-class populations, a growing group of activists and scholars have illustrated how students are marginalized in schools based upon the social marker of race. For instance, scholars taking up critical race theory have shown how unjust practices in schools, such as zero tolerance policies, IQ testing, school-funding formulas, tracking, high-stakes examinations, curricula focusing on the dominant culture’s accomplishments, and teachers’ low expectations, have collectively ensured that Blacks and Latinos/as disengage or underperform in schools as compared to their White counterparts.

Scholars such as John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham also contend that castelike minorities, such as First Nation’s people and Blacks who have been forced to assimilate to the dominant norms in North America, often hold oppositional attitudes toward schooling. Minorities may come to understand that schooling is set up to serve the interests of members of the dominant culture, instead of being configured to promote the intellectual and social growth of all students. Minority students who attempt to succeed in school often have to grapple with social reprisals from their peers and family members (the burden of “acting White”), as being successful in school is viewed as a negative trait. Students who are academically successful may be perceived as outcasts who are willing to denigrate their own culture in favor of embracing the values and beliefs of the oppressors.

Antiracist educators have also formulated Whiteness studies to detect how White citizens are afforded unearned privilege in schools and other social contexts. Some researchers have studied “up” to provide White youth and pre-service and in-service teachers with the reflexive outlet to think about the systemic nature of racism, institutional practices, and policies that have given them unearned power and privilege during their lifetime, and their biases and preconceptions about the Other. These educators have also created pedagogies earmarked to help White students recognize how to unpack the unearned privilege they accrue due to their skin color; they argue that the ruling elite reconfigures what is considered White or normal to keep its citizens divided. Such pedagogies also offer advice on how to become allies with citizens across the racial spectrum to promote social justice in schools and society.

Feminist scholars have examined how gender may be mediated within schools to oppress many girls and women. For instance, scholars have shown how the formal curriculum of schooling fails to focus on the contributions of women, how girls endure sexual harassment in schools’ hallways and classrooms, and how young women are often positioned to downplay their intellect in order to be accepted by their peers, male counterparts, and teachers. They have also documented how male governmental officials may fail to provide the needed resources, time, and training to female teachers so as to block them from implementing pedagogies that can promote gender equity, social justice, and cultural transformation.

Some contemporary critical theorists have attempted to get beyond determining how classroom dynamics unfold and illuminating students’ identity formation process by gazing through only one social category, such as race, class, or gender. Instead, they have instituted qualitative studies inside and outside of schools to gauge how race, class, gender, and sexuality braid together to disempower specific segments of the school population. These theorists develop pedagogies that are inclusive of the lived experience of all students and envision new educational policies and practices that will help eradicate what they see as oppression on the lines of the aforementioned social categories.

New Pedagogies

Others have attempted to examine the educational experiences of students within specific social groups for the purpose of finding ways to build educational institutions that serve the interest of the public over the interests of political and economic elite. Although the scholars recognize how schooling structures ensure many minority youths’ alienation and marginalization inside and outside of classsrooms, they believe much is gained by highlighting how the sociocultural processes and institutional practices embedded within certain schools help some minority students grow intellectually and socially.

Contemporary critical theorists have also taken several interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the complexity of today’s border youth, to promote pedagogies for social and cultural transformation, and to illuminate how unjust institutional arrangements become reinscribed in schools. For instance, cultural studies scholars such as Shirley Steinberg, Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Joe Kincheloe, and Henry Giroux have shown how economic and political leaders utilize various forms of media and technologies to create debilitating cultural texts along the lines of race, class, and gender; in this way, these leaders have promulgated corporate and militaristic values over democratic impulses and imperatives and have demonized, trivialized, and commodified today’s youth and the Other.

On the other hand, some scholars have shown how the cultural texts, along with the cultural work promoted by alterative youths’ subcultures, can provide students culturally responsive education, pedagogies that spur them to understand the nature of the material world and the need to be active agents to promote social and cultural transformation in their schools and communities.

Curriculum Theory

Over the past several years, likewise, curriculum theory has taken an interdisciplinary approach to understand the relationship between power and knowledge and building equalitarian schools and a just society. Scholars typically foreground their experiences of what they believe curricula are, how curricula should be revamped to empower all populations across the globe, and how curricula should be configured in the future. In this vein, scholars such as Madeleine Grumet have employed historical methodologies, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and autobiography to understand the social, personal, and political dimensions of women and teaching.

In addition, post structural and postmodern theories have informed curriculum studies by deconstructing who has power to define “truth,” by examining what groups create the “official knowledge” taught in classrooms and lecture halls across the globe, and by providing voice and space to marginalized students in classrooms, in the virtual world, and in writing projects. These outlets allow students to constitute their own form of selfhood, one that is free from social categories spawned by the cultural elite to control the Other.

Finally, queer theory and gay and lesbian studies have examined issues of masculinity in education, called into question the makeup of the teaching profession and curricula, and problematized the masculinization of computing technology and culture.

Movement To Marxism

Several scholars, such as Peter McLaren, Dave Hill, and Nathalia Jaramillo, believe critical theorists must retool their pedagogies and research designs to focus on how class exploitation is the key force behind growing hate, hostility, poverty, racism, and environmental degradation at today’s historical juncture. They also have raised concerns and highlighted how corporatist practices and imperatives are flooding K–12 schools and institutions of higher education, so as to block critical theorists from conducting research and instituting pedagogies bent on bringing awareness of oppression along the axes of class, race, gender, and sexuality and how to promote global movements that support social and cultural transformation.


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