Critical Thinking Versus Critical Theory

It certainly seems like if you’re on the intellectual or political left, you can be “critical” of a lot of things nowadays.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can be Critical A-Lot-of-Things.

You can be a critical theorist.  Or a critical pedagog.  You can teach critical literacy.  What about critical race theory?  I think I’ve heard of that.  Which comes from critical legal studies, mind you.  Consider DisCrit.  Or even “LatCrit.” Sometimes there’s just straight Criticality.  Most of the time it’s about employing a Critical lens.  Just slide the word critical next to something and you’ve got a whole new concept.  But pardon a simpleton:  How exactly is this different than just being good, old-fashioned “critical”?

In other words, what’s different about critical thinking versus critical theory?

It has taken me a long time, but I think I finally understand.  And I think the difference is pretty revealing.

Critical thinking is pretty easy for most of us to understand.  It’s a means of using a combination of reason, logic, and experience to question things, in order to determine if something is wise, true, the best course of action, or just a crock of you-know-what.  I read once that the modern concept most clearly comes from John Dewey’s concept of “reflective thinking” in his book How We Think.  But it’s as old as Socratic questioning, as old as the search for truth, as old as philosophy itself.  Really, critical thinking is another way of saying “philosophic inquiry.”

But critical-anything-else is different.  It has taken me more time to learn what this means.  Clearly it meant something similar to critical thinking; clearly critical-anything-else has something to do with questioning and even criticizing.  But what?

Here’s an example I was just reading.  In a book called Cultivating Genius:  An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, author Gholdy Muhammad derives four principles on which literacy instruction should be based — and one of them is Criticality.  Muhammad defines Criticality as:

“. . . [T]he capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world” (120). 

She also adds that Criticality focuses — to paraphrase Marx — not only on understanding the world, but on changing it:

“When youth have criticality, they are able to see, name, and interrogate the world not only to make sense of injustice but also to work toward social transformation” (120).

But Muhammad really spells out the difference between what she’s up to and our standard notions of critical thinking when she actually contrasts Criticality (with a capital letter) with criticality:

“While critical means to think deeply about something, Critical is connected to an understanding of power, entitlement, oppression, and equity” (120).

Obviously there are a few problems with this, but it’s still profoundly illuminating.  Let’s start with the problems, first.  The initial question I have is — does critical really mean “to think deeply about something”?  Clearly not.  To be critical is not to contemplate, or to navel gaze.  Her definition of it is incredibly slipshod and offhanded.  Either way, I think it’s fair to assume she means that being critical is synonymous with what most people think of as “critical thinking.” I think that’s an appropriate assumption.  

So if we start there, I think we have it, right here: the difference between critical thinking and being Critical (with a capital letter):  Criticality is focused on a very specific way of seeing the world which cannot be questioned.

Huh?  How is that possible?  How is such a seemingly cutting edge, anti-oppressive, noble, questioning, “interrogating” even (!) way of viewing the world something that ultimately cannot be questioned?  

The answer is simple:  It’s just one way of understanding the world.  It’s an ideology.  It’s hard to understand, of course — in some ways it reminds me of the leftist critique of hegemony: that it’s so ubiquitous and all encompassing that it’s almost impossible to actually notice — but it’s still only an ideology.  

The Critical view is essentially what the liberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek called the “tribal” view of society:  It says that the world is composed of tribal identity-based groups — by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, etc. — all of whom are warring with each other in a zero-sum struggle for domination.  All groups are trying to “oppress” each other.  There is no truth in the world other than it is a struggle for power.  It’s the old Marxist framework of power structures — except, instead of class war, it’s identity-based.  It simultaneously sees oppression everywhere, from legitimately awful atrocities to any evidence of differing outcomes or even predilections between identity groups, which it sees as entirely due to injustice –while at the same time viewing any form of this routine oppression as intolerable, and — what’s more — an aberration from nature, which has created humans as a blank slate, and which therefore has not inherently designed differing outcomes or oppressive conditions.  The desired endpoint of such a worldview is rarely expressed, but it is generally the notion of achieving final solutions to endemic problems of oppression, such as discrimination or oppression of any kind, or even hatred of any kind.  Therefore the only just goal for a Critical-anything is to work toward relieving oppression — uplifting any marginalized groups.

Meanwhile, there’s no such thing as objective truth discoverable by human beings, only the relative values of each tribal group, all of which are equally valid (“multiple ways of knowing,” as they term it), none of which should be imposed on any other tribe, and yet are all mutually unknowable by any other groups, and untestable to determine which is right — because there’s no objective truth to begin with.  Muhammad’s definition falls right in line with these components, calling for an explicit focus understanding and empathizing with the marginalized:

“Criticality calls for teachers and students to understand the ideologies and perspectives of marginalized community (especially Black populations all over the world) and their ways of knowing and experiencing the world” (120).

To be Critical, then, is in fact to be un-critical — because it is to try to appreciate and to empathize — rather than simply to understand and possibly to question.  To be a critical thinker in the classic sense is to ask, “What are the missing stories in history, and to what extent are these stories important in shaping our nuanced and complex understanding of history?” To be Critical is to ask, “Who is oppressed, and how can we ‘center’ their voices so that theirs is considered the true understanding of history, regardless of competing claims or attendant ambiguities?”

Indeed, Muhammad’s writing underscores this difference time and again.  At one point, she directly states that Criticality is not even fundamentally about thinking, but about empathizing:

“Criticality is feeling for those who are not treated in humane ways regardless of what the law, policy, and norms dictate” (120).

It’s all so close to old fashioned critical thinking — “teaching criticality helps students assume responsibility for the ways in which they process information — to avoid being passive consumers of knowledge and information” (122) claims Muhammad at one point — but it ultimately doesn’t brook questioning of its central, Foucault-inspired, neo-Marxist worldview.

You can’t just say that of course, and Muhammed keeps trying to cloak Criticality in the guise of critical thinking (as you can see above, she even backs away from the capital C!).  Criticality, she keeps insisting, is just a way of getting students to question the world, to move beyond passive consumption.  But it’s not.  When she begins discussing various “literacies” that fall under Criticality, she returns to the real project.  “Critical literacy,” for example, has a goal of “understanding power, inequality, oppression, and social justice” (123).  Meanwhile, “Racial Literacy” is “the capability of seeing, naming, and interpreting the world with a Critical lens, where one is keenly aware of race” (123).  This involves, “an intricate analysis of history, hegemony, and power as a starting point for understanding” (123) and “deciphering the racialized structures and hierarchies of the world” (124).  There it is — the tribal worldview, the oppressor/oppressed understanding of the world, the belief that everything is a series of interlocking structures and oppressive hierarchies.  

Then there is “agitation literacy” — which is even more forthright in its objectives: “to upset, disturb, disquiet, and unhinge systemic oppression” (125).

Again, the goal here is not to understand reality necessarily, or to try to get at the truth — that’s no possible in the postmodern worldview — but to understand the world through one single lens.  Regardless of what you think of the Critical lens — and I think there’s surely a lot to learn about the world from using it — there are two major internal contradictions:

First, Criticality is superficially based on the belief that there is no objective truth; but deep down it does recognize a real truth — the truth that oppression really exists, and that society is constructed in a web of power structures.  These are truth claims that the ideology makes — even though it ostensibly dispenses with the notion of objective truth.  It’s the old paradox: to claim that truth doesn’t exist is still to claim a truth.

Second, Criticality is superficially focused on critical thinking — questioning, critiquing, challenging claims — but deep down it brooks no questioning whatsoever.  To actually critique it is to criticize a noble humanitarian and political movement, not to mention an unalterably true way of understanding the world.  Imagine a child questioning whether the concept of “oppression” really exists.  This is unthinkable in this framework.  Yet one doesn’t have the same problem with regular old critical thinking, because it’s a method of thinking, not a political ideology.

While I won’t speak for the wide variety of opponents of teaching “Critical Race Theory” in schools, I do think that the instinctive core of their opposition came not from the teaching of Derrick Bell’s legal writings in elementary schools (a classic straw man argument), but from the subtle influence of “Criticality” in educational settings.  As we’ve seen in this one example, it’s slippery: it does everything it can to pretend that it’s just good, old-fashioned critical thinking — or even good, old-fashioned tolerance.  But it’s not.  Criticality is a whole political ideology and a way of seeing the world — and one that seems to come with a political requirement to take a specific kind of political action.  “How do my selected texts agitate the oppressors in the world?” (146) is one of the guiding questions Muhammad suggests educators ask themselves while designing curriculum.  In preparing for a “curriculum assessment review,” Muhammad suggests educators ask, “How does the curriculum . . .  engage students’ thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression?” (150).  It’s all of a worldview, and it’s not the only one.

Again, to be clear, I think Criticality in all its forms is a fascinating and insightful lens through which to view the world.  I have learned a lot from it in its many forms.  But it is just one lens, and should be taught as such.  It is, as we’ve seen, inherently resistant to both real critical thinking and to the notion of the free inquiry toward truth, both of which characteristics I think are vital products of a good education.  My own view is that Criticality should be taught the way Marxism is taught — as a specific lens through which to view society, and one specific political ideology — but done alongside many other ways, too, including classical liberalism (another complex and ever-present way of seeing the world / regulating society that I think too easily escapes recognition even as it orders our lives).  Nothing should be so omnipresent or omniscient that it can’t be examined and questioned.

That’s why whenever someone terms Criticality as “liberatory” — something Muhammad does at one point — I think to myself, yes, let’s by all means liberate our students.  But let’s liberate them from thinking this one lens is all there is.