Critical Theory and Educational Philosophy

Cartoon about Frankfurt schoolMax Horkheimer, a member of the Frankfurt School, originally outlined Critical Theory in the late 1930s, though he spoke about it in lectures beginning in the 1920s. Horkheimer’s original concepts of Critical Theory were very dramatic and condemning, suggesting that society as a whole needed a complete overhaul! Other influential founding theorists include Marcuse, Adorno, Benjamin, and Fromm, among others. (Read more about these other Frankfurt School theorists here.)

Marxism is considered to have heavily influenced Critical Theory. While Karl Marx himself did not actually create the concept of Critical Theory, his ideas had an enormous impact on Horkheimer and the other members of the Frankfurt School, the primary purpose of which was to explore the dynamics of social change. In short, Marxism is a system which analyzes the human condition in reference to its environment. The ideas of Marxism create a basis for the emphasis on social change in Critical Theory.

Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective also heavily influenced the Frankfurt School founders of Critical Theory. Freud himself was a psychoanalytic critic, developing his theories of psychosexual development and questioning the current conventional knowledge surrounding sexuality. The theory of psychosexual development would be considered a critical theory. It is one that is incredibly useful for the sexuality educator in explaining why human beings need guidance and education around sexuality throughout their growth and development.

Critical Theory has two general meanings. It has a narrow definition, which refers to the origination of the theory, and a broad definition, which refers to its application to various philosophies. As originally conceptualized, Critical Theory maintains that all knowledge is biased, since a teacher’s or a student’s perception is affected by social and personal history around the subject. Broadly defined, a critical theory questions the reality of what we accept as fact. Any number of philosophical approaches could be considered critical theories, so long as they meet these three requirements:

    1. Explain what is wrong about the currently accepted reality
    2. Identify means of enacting changes to said reality
    3. Provide guidelines for criticism and goals for change.

Based on these guidelines, Feminism is a perfect example of a modern critical theory and the current leading critical theorists Critical Theorists are women, such as Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, and Agnes Heller.

When we do sexuality education, we would be well served to consider using the concepts of Critical Theory. For example, let’s imagine that we are having a discussion about sexual orientation, including homosexuality and bisexuality. In this case, we might ask students to consider what the currently accepted reality is when it comes to this subject. We would prefer if they didn’t, of course, but perhaps they’ll respond that being gay is considered bad, negative, sinful, or shameful. Other students may disagree. This opens the floor for asking if this is necessarily true or right. What is wrong with thinking this way? What is right? Why? Continuing on with critical theory in mind, we might then ask students to identify ways to change this and goals which would aid in making such changes.

As you can see from this example, lessons using Critical Theory are experience- and inquiry-focused.  They make use of dialogue and discussion and appreciate the input of multiple perspectives. Individualism and diversity are celebrated. Social development and direct experience are emphasized and valued. The instructor encourages students to take social action on real problems, especially those which exist in a murky grey area. The teacher’s role is as an active facilitator who creates a space for students to both learn and to teach one another. The role of the educator can shift to be a coach, mediator, or other agent of change, depending on what best suits the needs of the students. The student’s goals are to engage, to participate, and to discover. It is their responsibility to bring new experiences and perspectives and also to appreciate the experiences and perspectives of those around them. Community-based learning is the ideal, with curricula that aim to bring the world into the classroom. 

Below are further examples of lesson plans which address topics using Critical Theory:

Sex in the Media (Teen Talk)

How to be a super activist and/or ally (Advocates for Youth)

4 responses to “Critical Theory and Educational Philosophy

  1. Jessica, I really liked your take on critical theory and particularly how you applied it to both feminism and sexuality education.

    How would you illicit truthful responses from a group that hasn’t built that trust up yet with you? I often wonder about this as an educator because very rarely have I worked with a group of students that I have not had regular contact with and I’m wondering if you found anything in your research on critical theory that might help with that in the sexuality education realm?

    • Hillary, I think the whole thing is a process. I would imagine that if your goal is to illicit truthful responses in whatever discussion you’re having, you would want to build trust amongst your group members beforehand. Since a lot of critical theory involves students learning from one another in diverse groups, it’s definitely important to make that a priority. You might be able to use some icebreakers and other team-building exercises, which I talk about in my other post! 😉

  2. First, in response to Hillary, I’d point out that this would be the perfect place to have students write anonymous, quick definitions or notes that you can then read out. That way no one has to worry about what response her comment might elicit. If you had the set up, a clicker system would also be great here–the data is immediately aggregated so you could just have a range of views from very conservative to very liberal and see how the students respond as a class.

    Jess, I really liked your discussion of Critical Theory (and the cartoon!). I do have a question (an ongoing question, actually). Critical Theory, in its narrow form (as you point out) claims that all knowledge is biased by the observer’s perspective, yet also suggests that one of the goals of theory/philosophy is to enact change. My assumption here is that those seeking change believe the change will be better–but if all knowledge is biased, how can we KNOW that the change is good? I’m very much a relativist and a social constructionist, but I do see the appeal of universal philosophies, whether religion or Natural Law, because then you do know what is “right.”

    How do those of us who want to enact change and yet believe we cannot completely escape subjectivity ensure that our change is a positive thing?

  3. Pingback: Getting to know your artifact | Media and Society·

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