To judge by the headlines, critical race and gender theories have taken over primary and secondary education. School boards are renaming schools, district administrators are dismantling white supremacy culture in school buildings. Teachers are teaching members of racial minorities and female students to interpret every real or perceived slight as trauma.
Yet many people remain unconverted. They have an intuitive sense that something isn’t quite right here. The problem is that they don’t voice their skepticism. Some of this silence stems from fear: speak out and you risk condescension, vilification or dismissal.
But another, more basic reason is that skeptics don’t know what the alternatives are—because only specialists in educational philosophy have bothered to systematically articulate them, and few people read educational philosophy (educators included).
Critical Education Theory: Not the Only Game in Town
Critical educational theory (CET) is only one of four basic philosophical positions regarding the purpose of schools.
The first and oldest educational philosophy is perennialism. According to perennialists, the aim of education is to help students seek the true, the beautiful and the good by studying literature, philosophy, science and the arts. Perennialism undergirds the traditional liberal arts ideal espoused by most schools and colleges until the twentieth century and continues to thrive in some small colleges, parochial schools and US charter schools. (It is also popular with homeschoolers in the US.) A particularly austere form of perennialism is embodied in the Paideia model developed by Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the Great Books program at the University of Chicago, wherein students discuss mostly western classics in small Socratic seminars.
The second philosophical orientation is essentialism. Essentialists believe that education should prepare productive citizens. This means teaching students the knowledge, skills and behaviors that are valued by the economy and by society at large. Essentialists are largely agnostic about methods of instruction. The best methods are those that produce the best results as measured by standardized tests (in the US), national exams (nearly everywhere else), college degree attainment levels, labor productivity, happiness indices and voter participation. Essentialist assumptions underlie the continual handwringing over national performance on mathematics and literacy assessments, the push for school accountability, and recent campaigns for more and better STEM programs and entrepreneurship education. Essentialism’s most famous modern exemplar is E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Most politicians and business leaders are essentialists.
Next comes progressivism. Educational progressives center the individual child and value learning processes over curricular content. While essentialists base curricula on what students need to know, educational progressives focus on what students want to know. And while essentialists are indifferent to instructional methods as long as students achieve prescribed learning outcomes, progressives are chiefly concerned with method, championing those that are hands-on, collaborative and aimed at stimulating student curiosity and creativity. When teachers talk about child-centered instruction, the whole child, constructivist learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, authentic assessment, portfolio assessment and so on, they’re reflecting the values taught at their colleges of education, where progressivism dominated throughout the twentieth century. Progressivism is best identified with John Dewey, author of several pioneering works of educational theory and founder of the University of Chicago Lab School, which tests and perfects progressive instructional methods.
Finally, we come to social reconstructionism. Social reconstructionists believe schools should equip students to transform society. Where educational progressives shape instruction around the interests of the individual child, social reconstructionists usually have a strong social vision requiring collective effort to realize. Progressivism and social reconstructionism both challenge the status quo. This reflects their shared origins in the European and North American utopian communities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which aimed to demonstrate that society could be organized cooperatively, non-hierarchically and non-patriarchally, liberated from Christian morality and in harmony with nature. By the mid-twentieth century, social reconstructionism had acquired a more Marxian cast, though to call it strictly Marxist would be misleading. Its most influential proponent is Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a staple of teacher training curricula in the US. But the basic philosophical orientation, along with the term itself, was first articulated in the 1930s by George Counts in speeches later collected under the title Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? Counts was a social democratic reformer in the tradition of Dewey and Francis Parker.
Critical Education Theory
Schools tend to embody some blend of two or more of these basic philosophies. Most are predominately essentialist and progressive with dollops of social reconstructionism and vestiges of perennialism.
As a contemporary manifestation of social reconstructionism in the Freirean tradition, critical education theory seeks to shift the balance of power, converting schools from reproducers of the colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and cisheternormativity said to permeate American society into instruments for dismantling systemic oppression.
Critical education theory, then, is a social reconstructionist educational philosophy.
No Monopoly on Justice
Critical education theory claims to promote justice. This is true—but it is a particular conception of justice. Each rival philosophy also embodies a conception of justice.
Perennialists believe that everyone shares a common human nature that innately seeks the true, the beautiful and the good. Justice therefore demands that everyone have access to a well-rounded liberal arts education that will help them understand and achieve the good life.
For essentialists, justice demands equal opportunity to become a productive citizen according to the demands of the economy and society. If it’s more difficult for members of some racial minorities or children born into poverty to develop the knowledge and skills required to participate fully in society, justice demands that they be provided with the resources necessary to close the learning gaps between them and their more advantaged peers.
Educational progressives largely agree with essentialists, but place more of a burden on schools and society to identify and nurture each child’s unique talents and interests. Justice for them therefore demands that schools seek the optimal match between essentialist social utility and personal fulfillment for all students, including the poor and members of minority groups.
Critical education theorists view existing social and economic arrangements as oppressive and believe that to require members of marginalized identity groups—racial minorities, women, LGBT people—to master dominant forms of knowledge is to colonize, subjugate and devalue them. For critical education theory, justice demands dismantling dominant hierarchies of knowledge and skill in favor of knowledges and skills organic to those subjugated identities.
Take Standard Written English (SWE). Some children are born into families where standard English is spoken daily, others into families where some non-standard dialect is spoken, and others into families where English isn’t spoken at all. Because SWE is the lingua franca of the professions, professoriate and political classes, perennialists and essentialists would provide additional support to the children who start out behind to help them catch up as quickly as possible. Most progressives would do likewise, though they would urge instructional and assessment methods that encouraged the cultivation of individual student voices and creative expression. But to the critical education theorist, standard English is a dialect that confers language privilege on some students and systematically disadvantages others and forms part of the complex power apparatus that marginalizes racial minorities and perpetuates white supremacy. Requiring racial minority children to master it only perpetuates their oppression.
To dismantle standard written English and established modes of disciplinary inquiry (mathematics, science, etc.) is to adopt critical education theory and reject other conceptions of educational justice.
No Monopoly on Equity and Inclusion
Historically, a liberal arts education was mainly limited to aristocratic young men, but perennialism’s belief in a common human capacity for reason makes it inherently inclusive. Everyone—irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, religion or socioeconomic status—is welcome at the seminar table. While perennialism’s traditionally Eurocentric curriculum might be expanded, the criteria for choosing what to study have less to do with the identities of the students than the value of what is studied.
For essentialism, the focus is on equipping the child for the society that faces her. Inclusion means helping those disadvantaged by accidents of birth master the knowledge and skills that will integrate them successfully into academic, professional and political circles. Moreover, the more diverse society becomes, the more diversity itself becomes an essentialist educational priority. Schools help diverse students learn to live and work together harmoniously and help forge a common culture that knits diverse peoples together.
Progressivism’s focus on the uniqueness of every child makes it radically inclusive. We must celebrate our individual differences and learn to value each person’s distinctive contribution. This has been a core precept of progressivism from its inception.
Social reconstructionism in its critical education theory form eschews progressivism’s radical individualism in favor of certain categories of collective identity—based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality and sometimes religion and physical ability—some of which are dominant or privileged and others marginalized or subjugated. Equity and inclusion do not require inviting more people into the dominant culture, as per the essentialists, but subverting the dominant culture while teaching the privileged to reject the sources of their privilege and cede institutional and cultural power to the subjugated.
Responding to Critical Education Theory
So how do critical education theory’s rivals critique it?
Perennialists reject critical education theory’s epistemological relativism. Knowledge and truth are discovered, not socially constructed. All humans are capable of discovering it by virtue of our shared human reason. Also, perennialists tend to object to the idea that education should primarily serve the utilitarian end of social reconstruction. Education should enable people to live intellectually, morally and aesthetically fulfilling lives. It has social value insofar as liberally educated people also make good citizens, workers, neighbors and caregivers. But those are ancillary benefits.
To essentialists, the whole idea of subversive schooling is incoherent. Schools exist to serve society, not undermine it. Otherwise, why support them through taxes or tuition? It’s also exploitative to deny children valued knowledge and skills in the service of a revolutionary cause. If the revolution doesn’t happen, the child will be further disadvantaged, not liberated.
Progressives prioritize children’s subjective experiences and emotional well-being—a concern that critical education theory has coopted through its preoccupation with harm, trauma and personal testimonials. Both progressives and critical education theorists regard their educational programs as liberatory. But, unlike progressives, critical education theorists tend to tell students what to think about complex social phenomena and how to feel about everyday social interactions, leaving little room for students to discover their own interests and talents and choose their own goals.
Critical education theory is just one manifestation of social reconstructionism. Those reconstructionists who are more concerned about economic inequality and social welfare often lament critical education theory’s identitarian, grievance-driven tribalism because it distracts from broader egalitarian goals and undermines the solidarity necessary to achieve them.
What the Research Says
What does the research tell us about the relative merits of these educational theories and their conceptions of justice and inclusion?
The problem is that one’s philosophical predilections determine what counts as evidence. Essentialists rely on standardized tests and national exam scores to gauge performance. Progressives consider such tests and exams reductive and constricting because they fail to capture all the other things students know and exclude more authentic ways of demonstrating that they know it. Critical education theorists regard tests and exams as racist because they are based on white supremacist notions about what counts as knowledge. Progressives and critical education theorists prefer qualitative methods that prioritize subjective experience, methods that essentialists consider too squishy to generate reliable, actionable knowledge.
Philosophical predilections also color how one interprets evidence. To essentialists, racial achievement gaps demonstrate a lack of educational rigor. To progressives, the gaps reflect defects in traditional methods of instruction and measurement. To critical education theorists, they reveal systemic racism or misogyny.
Research can tell us a lot—but only once we’ve agreed on what schools are for, what they should do and how we know whether they’re doing it well.
Toward a More Inclusive Approach to Inclusion
To adopt critical education theory’s philosophical perspective, including its conceptions of educational justice and diversity, equity and inclusion, is to implicitly reject legitimate alternatives. Should a school decide to adopt critical education theory approaches, this should be explicit, intentional and informed by a full and fair understanding of those alternatives.
All school communities have to ask themselves, what’s right for our parents, our students and our community? How can our school best serve society? Learn about all legitimate approaches, discuss and debate them, weigh up their different claims and only then decide how best to promote justice and practice inclusion in your community. A hybrid approach is fine, too, as long as you have a clear vision for your school and policies and practices that support it.
A word of caution: critical educational theorists have developed an arsenal of tactics for shutting down opponents. If you’re a member of a school community where critical education theory has already made inroads, merely articulating an alternative might earn you an admonition to check your privilege or examine your blind spots. Actively challenging critical education theory might draw a charge of white supremacism, patriarchal aggression or internalized oppression. You may even be accused of wishing to inflict harm or trauma on young brown or female bodies. You need to be ready for this. Don’t merely present a rival perspective. Demonstrate your familiarity with critical education theory and be prepared to explain why you think a different approach is better.
What’s right for one school community may not be right for all. A diverse landscape of schools embodying different educational philosophies could be a good thing. In any event, schools need not be railroaded by purveyors of any single philosophical orientation. I hope this primer provides a useful starting point for a fuller exploration of what it means to pursue educational excellence justly and inclusively.