Critical theory bulldozes all the complexities of history, education, and communities into a world of good guys and bad guys, oppressors and oppressed. And in doing so, it makes it nearly impossible to deal with the actual issues of denied opportunities, prejudiced expectations, and instances of real racism that need to be addressed.
Most Americans are largely unfamiliar with critical theory (also sometimes referred to as critical race theory or critical social justice theory), but this philosophical perspective is now part of the professional, cultural, and political air we breathe. And it is doing terrible damage to social cohesion, and particularly to meaningful efforts to address racial disparities in education, policing, and social mobility. Especially in education, we need now more than ever to understand and respond to issues of racial and socio-economic equity. But doing so actually requires us to reject critical theory and replace it with more constructive, unifying, and inquiry-driven approaches.
What Is Critical Theory?
Critical theory emerged out of the post-modern intellectual movement of the mid-twentieth century that rejected core ideas of the Enlightenment and posits that truth, rather than being something that can be discerned via reason (or religious revelation), is in fact entirely a social construction. Post-modernism was eventually wed to Marxist theory through the work of scholars like Herbert Marcuse, and stakes the claim that, rather than objective truth, there are only stories that we tell ourselves. And those stories generally are designed to justify or perpetuate power structures between oppressor and oppressed.
Journalist Andrew Sullivan, in summarizing the arguments of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s new book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, explains it this way:
Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. The entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized” whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives, stories, whose meaning is entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized.
Analyzing how truth was a mere function of power, and then seeing that power used against distinct and oppressed identity groups, led to an understandable desire to do something about it, and to turn this critique into a form of activism… After all, the core truth of our condition, this theory argues, is that we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss. And so the point became not simply to interpret the world, but to change it, to coin a phrase, an imperative which explains why some critics call this theory a form of neo-Marxism.
The “neo” comes from switching out Marxism’s focus on materialism and class in favor of various oppressed group identities, who are constantly in conflict the way classes were always in conflict. And in this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect.
Critical Theory Is Flawed, on Multiple Counts
Despite the fact that critical theory has come to utterly dominate the thinking of academic elites and universities, most people are not cultural and moral relativists. Most people—including me—believe there is, in fact, such a thing as objective truth, unchanging and applicable for all times, which is discernible through reason, divine revelation, scientific inquiry, or some combination of all of the above. Oppression is sometimes a real social phenomenon, but just because someone feels oppressed, it is not necessarily true that they are (it is also not necessarily true that they aren’t oppressed; the point is that there is an objective reality to the question that is bigger than one’s feelings).
And while power dynamics are readily observable in groups of all kinds, humans and their interactions are not reducible to power dynamics alone. As Pluckrose and Lindsay write on the website Aero:
The Critical Social Justice metanarrative (roughly the right side of history) is a ludicrously simplistic framework, centered on a cartoonish understanding of privileged and marginalized identity groups, whose relative statuses are believed to be maintained by the ways in which people talk about things. These group identities are understood to dictate individual members’ experiences, knowledge and relationships to power in predictable ways. However, both individuals and social reality are actually considerably more complicated than this, as most of us know from observing our fellow humans as we go about our normal lives.
One of the biggest problems with critical theory is that, based on the logic of critical theory itself, its assumptions and claims cannot be challenged. If you question a critical theorist, you are merely proving how deeply you are in denial of your own privilege and power. In an essay for New Discourses called “No, the Woke Won’t Debate You—Here’s Why,” Lindsay elaborates:
Debate and conversation, especially when they rely upon reason, rationality, science, evidence, epistemic adequacy, and other Enlightenment-based tools of persuasion are the very thing they think produced injustice in the world in the first place. Those are not their methods and they reject them. Their methods are, instead, storytelling and counter-storytelling, appealing to emotions and subjectively interpreted lived experience, and problematizing arguments morally, on their moral terms. Because they know the dominant liberal order values those things sense far less than rigor, evidence, and reasoned argument, they believe the whole conversation and debate game is intrinsically rigged against them in a way that not only leads to their certain loss but also that props up the existing system and then further delegitimizes the approaches they advance in their place.
But, at least in my opinion, the single most worrisome aspect of critical theory is where it leads us. If everything is ultimately about exposing power (the bad guys) and giving it to those who are supposedly without power (the good guys), then how is that to be accomplished if the powerful won’t simply step aside? Ultimately coercive measures are required to create not just equality of opportunity, but the equality of outcomes, which is the end goal of critical theory. And that portends a massive central power with the authority to silence those who dissent and redistribute wealth and privilege to those it deems worthy—in other words, an Orwellian Marxist regime, which was the ultimate aim of critical theory grandfathers like Marcuse and Michele Foucault. And as history tells us, such regimes murdered over 100 million people in the twentieth century seeking to create their egalitarian utopia.
Critical Theory Everywhere
Alarmingly, critical theory has burst forth from the walls of academia. It is now the guiding philosophy behind much of the corporate world’s requisite “diversity,” “sensitivity,” and “bias” trainings. Critical theory gurus like Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility, make millions of dollars on captive employee audiences who are deliberately indoctrinated into the assumptions of critical theory (in fact, DiAngelo was paid $12,000 by the University of Kentucky to deliver a two-hour keynote speech).
Critical theory is also the animating spirit behind the Black Lives Matter organization and the frenzy of riots and destruction of statues of America’s Founders and key historical figures. Above all, it is the force behind a tenacious effort to rewrite American history, painting our country in the worst possible light and rejecting the idea that there is any sense of a shared, common American story.
In these ways, critical theory has also arrived in our schools, both as the implicit assumptions behind many programs designed to teach and enhance educators’ “cultural responsiveness,” but also as a taken-for-granted lens through which American history is often taught. In the guise of “inquiry learning,” students are sometimes prompted by their teachers to actively seek out villains in the American story, to see racism and oppression everywhere, and to identify good guys (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, labor unions, women, gays, etc.) and to condemn the bad guys (white people, men, the American Founders, business leaders, religions, and the military).
Rarely do ordinary educators realize how much our schools have become thoroughly soaked in critical theory, or the frightening end goal of critical theory’s proponents. It’s time to make ourselves aware of this fact, and to find new ways to respond. Because racism is still a real thing, and issues of race, class, and gender still correlate to troubling trends in student achievement, discipline, and resource allocation in our schools. So how do we fight racism while rejecting critical theory?
Fight Racism While Rejecting Critical Theory
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that clearly there are racial disparities in education. By disparities, we mean significant differences. Those differences are not necessarily accounted for by racism, although partially they might be. The most vivid differences appear in student achievement outcomes. In Kentucky, for example, only 14 percent of African American fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2019, compared with 39% of white students (also not a number to brag about). These gaps in student learning are long-standing and not getting better over time.
Likewise, a 2018 U.S. General Accountability Office report found what most educators know intuitively: African American students (along with boys of all races and students with disabilities) are much more likely to be suspended or expelled, even for similar misbehaviors, than their white, female, and non-disabled peers. Additionally, some have pointed to the dramatic differences in (primarily local) education funding between predominately white school districts and those that serve a majority of minority students.
How should we approach the question of where these disparities come from and what should educators do about them? My most direct experience with this challenge has been in my role as professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University where I train aspiring school principals, superintendents, and other district leaders. Let me be clear that I’m not writing as a representative of WKU or any of my colleagues here, but I think our general approach is illustrative of how we can tackle issues of equity without endorsing critical theory lock, stock, and barrel.
In WKU’s recently revised principal preparation program, equity is a key theme that is woven through every course. We say that a central goal for our graduates is that they become, among other things, an Equity Engineer. When I teach this concept (other professors may have a different approach), especially in EDAD 604, Creating a Culture of Achievement, I say that equity reviews every school policy, decision, and data point through the lens of how it affects our most vulnerable and marginalized students and seeks equitable opportunities and—to the extent possible—equitable outcomes—for every child. This equity lens does not assume racist structures and motives, but rather takes an inquiry approach to find out what is going on.
For example, we review our school’s discipline data for disproportionality, and when we see those trends we take them seriously. We do not automatically assume that this is a product of systemic racism, however. We do take seriously the possibility that minority students may be violating rules in disproportionate numbers, or that family structure may actually be an intermediating variable in that relationship, and we don’t consider it racist to consider that perspective. But we also ask ourselves—even if that were the case—why might that be and what can we do to shift our policies or change our school culture to help? In other words, we take responsibility for the disparity to the best of our ability.
And we also are bold enough to ask ourselves: is it possible minority students actually aren’t acting out in disproportionate numbers, but maybe we are reacting more aggressively to the same behaviors that white students engage in? Above all we ask ourselves, how would we know? How can we find out? How can we collectively be more sensitive to this question? The only way we can have this conversation is if we can seriously acknowledge that part of the problem may be in our own attitudes and thinking, but not if we assume that every outcome is the result of power, privilege, and oppression (as critical theory repeatedly implies).
The same goes for academic achievement gaps. We ask ourselves: is there an issue related to low expectations for poor and/or minority students? I have my students read excerpts from Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, which challenges us to consider whether our instructional practices make it harder for minority students to learn. We take seriously research like the Opportunity Myth which seems to show that we systematically expect less from students of color and students of poverty and instead we should collectively seek ways to raise our expectations for all students through careful consideration of what we ask students to do and how.
But we also acknowledge, as Ian Rowe has noted repeatedly, that the breakdown of the family has devastating consequences for student learning (regardless of race), and we are willing to call on our communities to ask for the revival of intermediary institutions like the intact family, civic organizations, churches, etc., if we want to better support student learning outcomes. We teach our students about the Success Sequence: how graduating high school, avoiding having children before marriage, and having at least one adult in each household working full time makes it highly unlikely that one will ever be poor.
It is not racist to point out these realities, and suggesting it is racist has the effect of shutting down all meaningful efforts to make things better for poor and minority communities.
Despite my deep concerns about critical theory, I use critical theory in my classes to help stimulate these lines of inquiry and discussion among my students. In EDAD 604 I require my students to read Muhammad Khalifa’s book, Culturally Responsive School Leadership, which is written explicitly from a critical theory standpoint. But we approach his ideas as one perspective on the topic of race and education, not as the Gospel truth. The same goes for when I teach Paulo Freire’s classic treatment of critical theory in education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I don’t agree with Freire on all (or even most) points, but you can’t do a thorough study of modern educational theory without considering this perspective.
But that’s the difference that makes all the difference. I don’t want to silence critical theorists. But I don’t want their ideas to be the default, taken-as-truth regime by which we organize our schools, politics, or society.
History is complicated. Education is complicated. Our communities are complicated. Critical theory bulldozes all those complexities into a world of good guys and bad guys, oppressors and oppressed. And in doing so, it makes it nearly impossible to deal with the actual issues of denied opportunities, prejudiced expectations, and instances of real racism that need to be addressed.
Saying it’s complicated does not in any way excuse us from dealing with the problems and doesn’t have to. But grossly oversimplifying the problems does not lead to solutions. It leads to more polarization, division, and disunity. And I believe that’s actually the goal of many critical theorists. And we should reject that ideology.
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 Andrew Sullivan, “The Roots Of Wokeness” (July 2020).
 Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay, “The Two Big Falsehoods of Critical Social Justice,” Areo Magazine (July 2020).
 James Lindsay, “No, the Woke Won’t Debate You. Here’s Why,” New Discourses (July 2020).
 Jarrett Stepman, “How ‘Wokeness’ Is a Product of Marxism,” The Daily Signal (August 2020).
 Jake Dima, “$12K a Day: How White Liberals Profit From Pushing ‘White Privilege’,” The Daily Signal (July 2019). See liberal writer Matt Taibbi’s scathing critique of DiAngelo’s book and ideas here.
 See R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Black Lives Matter: Affirm the Sentence, Not the Movement,” Public Discourse (July 2020), and Gary Houchens, “Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever,” School Leader (June 2020).
 See Gary Houchens, “Memory & Hope: Restoring the Teaching of American History,” The Imaginative Conservative (August 2020), and Gary Houchens, “E pluribus unum: Another essential principle of ‘patriotic’ American history,” School Leader (July 2020).
 See “Kentucky’s white minus black achievement gaps from NAEP,” Bluegrass Institute (November 2019).
 See “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” GAO (March 2018).
 Clare Lombardo, “Why White School Districts Have So Much More Money,” NPR (February 2019).
 Gary Houchens, “Every school should confront the ‘Opportunity Myth’,” School Leader (August 2019).
 Ian Rowe, “The Power of Personal Agency,” The Wall Street Journal (June 2020).
 Wendy Wang, “‘The Sequence’ Is the Secret to Success,” The Wall Street Journal (March 2018).
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.