Critical . . . of What?

One question that has been percolating in my brain for a few years — and which yesterday’s blog post brought back to me — is a basic question:  What’s the difference between critical thinking and critical theory?

As I wrote yesterday, I believe that understanding critical theory is starting to seem incredibly important to understanding many of the forces at work in our culture, at least on the left.  This seems to me particularly important for those of us in education, where these same forces also seem to be at work, defining much of the forward-looking work in our field.

Clearly, critical theory — and its education component, critical pedagogy — is something pretty different than the classical notion, emphasized in most schools, of “critical thinking.” After all, ten years ago we were all trying to teach critical thinking with the goal of helping students to question and to understand the world, but we’d never heard of intersectionality, the privilege framework, or systemic racism.  Clearly there’s something else going on here that’s more than just getting students to ask questions.  And it seems to me that fleshing out that difference is essential to making sense of the educational-cultural zeitgeist right now.

After some quick research, I found my way to this article from 1999.  Clearly this difference has been worthy of fleshing out for some time.  The authors put the matter quite clearly.  Critical theorists (pedagogues, here) are most interested in helping students “find their voice” in the sense of realizing how to achieve power in a society rigged against them:

Critical Pedagogues are specifically concerned with the influences of educational knowledge, and of cultural formations generally, that perpetuate or legitimate an unjust status quo; fostering a critical capacity in citizens is a way of enabling them to resist such power effects.  

According to the authors, “critical Pedagogues take sides, on behalf of those groups who are disenfranchised.”

On the other hand, critical thinking seems to — at first glance — actually include critical pedagogy under a much wider umbrella that includes many different reasons for thinking critically:

Many Critical Thinking authors would cite similar concerns, but regard them as subsidiary to the more inclusive problem of people basing their life choices on unsubstantiated truth claims — a problem that is nonpartisan in its nature or effects. 

The most important goal for critical thinkers is the “implicit hope that enhanced critical thinking could have a general humanizing effect, across all social groups and classes” — which would have a liberatory effect on all citizens to better direct their lives by teaching them “to see the world as it is and to act accordingly.” This seems to me the classical ideal of the “liberal” education — the Platonic ideal of being pulled from the cave to become “enlightened.”

But there are differences.

Critical thinkers, according to the article, are most concerned with analyzing the world — with what the authors call “epistemic adequacy” — is the knowledge we believe in or create coming from an accurate understanding of our conditions and of the world?  Are we making informed decisions to direct our lives?  The authors write:

. . .  to be “critical” basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth. For the Critical Thinker, people do not sufficiently analyze the reasons by which they live, do not examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life. 

The authors believe that this is a process of ever-more conscious inquiry:

The primary preoccupation of Critical Thinking is to supplant sloppy or distorted thinking with thinking based upon reliable procedures of inquiry. Where our beliefs remain unexamined, we are not free; we act without thinking about why we act, and thus do not exercise control over our own destinies.

They write that self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal:

. . .  critical thinking aims at self-sufficiency, and “a self-sufficient person is a liberated person…free from the unwarranted and undesirable control of unjustified beliefs.”

Again, this reminds me of the ideal of the “liberated” product of a liberal education.  And yet, the authors’ description of the goals of critical thinking feel a little too rational and logic-sounding.  What I mean by this is that I often feel the goal of the liberal education that I as an English teacher am aiming for with students is to make them more awake to the emotions that they are feeling — to teach them through the study of literature and through creative expression to make them more attuned to what they are feeling and how to express it to others and to themselves.  Through this more conscious pathway from heart to head they can better make sense of their lives and their wishes and goals and therefore lead a more “enlightened” or conscious — and therefore happy and productive — life.  Teaching them to be more “warmly rational” as I once heard it termed.  Not just logic, but recognizing their own emotions, too.

Meanwhile, critical pedagogy (CP) is different.

According to the authors, CP is more concerned with analyzing structures of power that perpetrate inequality.  Critical thinkers (CT) asks, “Is this true?” while CP asks, “Who benefits?” The authors write:

Other important questions, from this standpoint, include: Who is making these assertions? Why are they being made at this point in time? Who funds such research? Who promulgates these “findings”? 

It’s clearly more about questioning societal power structures, rather than doing what CT does, which is to apparently take such arguments at their own terms.

Here the authors argue — as I would think — that, again CT actually includes CP:

Now, the Critical Thinking response to this approach will be that these are simply two different, perhaps both valuable, endeavors. It is one thing to question the evidentiary base (or logic, or clarity, or coherence) of a particular claim, and to find it wanting. This is one kind of critique, adequate and worthwhile on its own terms. It is something else, something separate, to question the motivation behind those who propound certain views, their group interests, the effects of their claims on society, and so forth. That sort of critique might also be worthwhile (we suspect that most Critical Thinking authors would say that it is worthwhile), but it depends on a different sort of analysis, with a different burden of argument — one that philosophers may have less to contribute to than would historians or sociologists, for example.

But advocates of CP would seem to reject that the first approach is really critical at all, not in a meaningful sense, anyway:

Critical Thinking’s apparent “openness” and impartiality simply enshrine many conventional assumptions as presented by the popular media, traditional textbooks, etc., in a manner that intentionally or not teaches political conformity; particular claims are scrutinized critically, while a less visible set of social norms and practices — including, notably, many particular to the structure and activities of schooling itself — continue to operate invisibly in the background . . .  

But this in turn opens up CP to charges of indoctrination:

. . .  whereas Critical Thinking is quite reluctant to prescribe any particular context for a discussion, Critical Pedagogy shows enthusiasm for a particular one — one that tends to view social matters within a framework of struggles over social justice, the workings of capitalism, and forms of cultural and material oppression. As noted, this favoring of a particular narrative seems to open Critical Pedagogy up to a charge of indoctrination by Critical Thinking: that everything is up for questioning within Critical Pedagogy except the categories and premises of Critical Pedagogy itself. 

As the authors write, “In short, each of these traditions regards the other as insufficiently critical.

On the other hand — and this is where it gets interesting (and starts to feel very, very modern) — both frameworks have been critiqued for using the framework of rational inquiry itself — valuing only a particularly western way of looking at the world.  This accusation hurts one group more than the other, of course:

After all, advocates of Critical Thinking would hardly feel the accusation of being called “rationalistic” as much of an insult; but for Critical Pedagogy, given its discourse of emancipation, to be accused of being yet another medium of oppression is a sharp rebuke. 

The authors take these concerns very seriously and submit that both traditions must be critical of themselves.  CT must ask what social difference it really makes, what it really stands for (the status quo?  If so, is that good?); meanwhile CP needs to ask itself whether it really is a form of indoctrination.  The authors believe that post-modern claims against rationality in both traditions must be met with more than just “more of the same.” 

This is all interesting because today it feels as though — since this article was written 21 years ago — CP has somehow brought all of the post-modern or other objections (feminist objections are often cited in the article) under its tent — by way of broader social goals of leveling the playing field among the various levels of different groups on the matrix of oppression / scale of intersectionality.  Maybe I am wrong about this, but it feels to me like CP has won these adherents over.  Perhaps it too has changed its apparent focus on logic and reason and rationality.

It very much seems to me as though CT has been culturally pushed into a corner where it’s seen as a tool of “hegemony” on the part of an unjust status quo, while CP is the approach that has united various groups under the banner of social reform.  Being a teacher, I am always skeptical of the rhetorical ploy of forcing someone on the defensive for being a “status quo” defender, or a “stand patter.” After all, every alarmist, deceptive, self-interested call for educational “reform” has usually begun by pillorying our entire profession as an unjust impediment to meaningful change.  I am also skeptical of post-modernism’s apparent goal of replacing rationality or reason with a kind of relativistic “no privileged way of seeing the world” pluralism.  Perhaps I am wrong about that being the goal, but I am eager to get more toward the bottom of whether it is.

In the end, this is a really interesting question as to what’s the difference between CT and CP, but I think what I’m saying is that a lot has changed since 1999, and I need to read some newer sources to understand the difference more clearly as it looks in today’s world.