When I (Patty) was a high school senior newly enamoured of critical theory, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay positioning Oscar the Grouch as a victim of oppression by a bourgeois capitalist society that literally treated him like garbage. But as I went on through high school, college and graduate school, I learned more than the dubious skill of writing essays about Sesame Street muppets: my exposure to postmodern theory taught me to take a dispassionate look at language; to focus on those at the margins of society; and to understand that words can mean very different things to different people. What I didn’t learn, though, was how to grapple with the implications of these theories that I so casually embraced.
As a graduate student, although I was still studying postmodern and postcolonial theories, my husband and I found ourselves making life choices that reflected a very different view of language and of the world. For example, when we married, we spoke vows to each other that we saw as fixed in meaning and binding on us forever. We joined a local religious organization, finding fulfilment in the idea that there were shared ethical obligations and unchanging truths that were larger than either of us. And after graduate school, when I went to work as a high school teacher near Baltimore, I realized that the postmodern perspective on language that I had studied offered little if any practical value to sixteen-year-olds who simply desperately wanted to finish high school and support their families.
Later, though, when I returned to academia for a doctorate in education, I was drawn again to those same theories. As an educator working in southwest Baltimore, I felt that critical theory offered me a lens through which I could understand the challenges I observed in working with my students and a potent vocabulary for describing those challenges. These approaches, with their emphasis on social change, prompted me to ask questions I might otherwise not have thought to ask, such as: “Why is there endemic poverty in this neighbourhood?” and “Do we treat students of colour differently, even without realizing it?”
Still, even though I asked myself these questions using the language of critical theory, I didn’t necessarily buy into its philosophical premises, and it didn’t occur to me to wonder whether that was intellectually inconsistent. I had learned to describe postmodern theories as “useful” for my term papers or “illuminating” for a certain analysis. But I rarely, if ever, considered whether they were true in real life. I had taken entire courses premised on postmodern approaches, but not once during college or graduate school was I asked to consider the practical implications—beyond the graduate school classroom—of accepting them as true. I approached critical theories as academic exercises that did not require me to make any lasting commitment to them or to change my personal beliefs. My graduate school career could be described as a series of intellectual hook-ups with various postmodern theories, rather than a committed relationship with any one.
For example, it never occurred to me to ask questions like these: if language can’t be taken at face value, what is the meaning of my wedding vows, or statements such as “I love you,” or “I hope you feel better”? How do we live our lives if we believe that all expressed thought amounts to contradiction and chaos? Doesn’t a belief like that make it difficult to establish one’s ethical reference points and rely on them in challenging situations?
Granted, one can adopt elements of a theory, or take them into consideration, without embracing all that theory’s principles. In academia, many adopt critical theories simply in order to use a specific vocabulary or ask a specific set of questions in discussing a text or event, as Robin DiAngelo does when she asks, “How did racism manifest in that situation?” When studying the liberal arts or the social sciences, we tend to ask whether a theory is valuable or useful, rather than whether it is correct. (I’m reminded of a famous statement attributed to the statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”) The current controversies engaging school boards across America illustrate the tension that occurs when ordinary people, non-academics, encounter critical theory and reasonably ask questions such as “What does this mean for us in practice?” and “Is this even true?”
There’s some insight to be gained from asking questions like that. The idea that you can simply choose which beliefs you are going to treat as true or useful and which beliefs you are going to simply ignore—is itself a philosophical choice. Nowadays, perspectives such as deconstructivism and postcolonialism have been introduced into primary and secondary school curricula and taught as truths—often in ways we may not notice. This reinforces the increasingly prevalent idea that beliefs don’t have to be tested for their truth value in some situations.
Even asking the question, “What would it mean for me to live as if I believed postmodernism were true?” violates postmodernist principles, because it assumes that beliefs can be pinned down; that we can live in a way that would be consistent with those beliefs; that we can think about what we believe is true; and that what is true can even be identified. We have encountered postmodernist theory in multiple institutions, and we have found that this contradiction is almost never acknowledged. Students and professional academics tend to read, discuss and debate postmodern theories without considering how—or whether—those theories might hold up if they were applied in the real world. And yet that is probably the first question that will be asked by any non-academic who encounters postmodernism, including many parents who first encounter critical-theory-based ideas on their child’s school website.
The deconstructive theorist Barbara Johnson has written, “When one writes, one writes more than (or less than, or other than) one thinks. The reader’s task is to read what is written rather than simply attempt to intuit what might have been meant.” On one level, Johnson is right: it can be difficult to get our precise meaning out on paper, and words can be ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. But in the real world Johnson’s views may not always pass the reality test. It can be an interesting academic exercise to think of the contradictions or inconsistencies in, say, a car manual, but the bottom line, as a former college professor of ours used to say, is that if you put molasses in the gas tank, your car won’t go very far. As it turns out, when the people at Ford or Subaru wrote the manual, they wrote, in a very literal sense, exactly what they thought.
In order to be consistent, before we embrace a social, political or economic theory, we should work to understand its practical implications, and either embrace them or specify what our reservations are. For example, there are probably many college students engaging in Marxist analysis without having understood, let alone embraced, Marxist assumptions, including that:
- Relationships and interactions should be evaluated primarily on the basis of their impact on individuals’ or groups’ social and economic status.
- Human progress should be measured by the decline and eventual elimination of private wealth, and it is appropriate to use state power to redistribute property from business owners to wage-earners.
- For some (not all) Marxists, it is appropriate for the state to use totalitarian or dictatorial means to accomplish this redistribution (as exemplified by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and others).
Instructors should frankly, fully and clearly explain these principles—and how they have historically played out in the real world. In addition, teachers should discuss the intellectual and ethical consequences of postmodern approaches to analysing real world situations, of decolonizing various academic disciplines and of de-emphasising traditional problem-solving methods that are often presented as western—such as the use of reason.
Students might have a different opinion of the value of modernism and postmodernism if they were more fully aware of these facts, including the relationship between the Marxist ideas that underlie them and the breathtaking genocides and wars that fascism and totalitarian versions of Marxism inspired in the twentieth century. It is particularly important for students who are training to become teachers to understand these things.
Instructors should also encourage students to fully explore these contexts and their implications themselves, to imagine how theories would play out to their logical conclusion in the real world, to make connections between ideas, to ask challenging and politically sensitive questions, and to have robust, open and intellectually challenging debates about the merits, drawbacks and coherence of these concepts.
Finally, instructors, writers and commentators must be honest about their own political or religious biases in relation to critical theory and philosophy. Researchers often advocate reflecting on one’s own biases and disclosing them to one’s audience. Instructors should do the same. For example, if you’re teaching the history of the Reformation, it’s reasonable to ask yourself how your current affiliation with, say, the Catholic Church, might impact how you view the topic. If you are teaching the history of the Cuban Revolution, it’s important to reflect on, say, your membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, and ask yourself whether that affiliation might have any impact on your approach.
We have lately heard proposals to ban the presentation of controversial ideas such as critical race theory in K-12 settings. Presenting complex theories, with rigour and full transparency, shouldn’t be banned. In fact, rigorous and transparent presentation of complex ideas is really the goal of education. Deconstructive, postcolonial and antiracist approaches have had tremendous intellectual and social influence, and students need to understand those viewpoints in order to understand our current world. Teaching about theories and belief systems, though, is quite different from teaching those belief systems as established truths or, teaching students that they personally must regard and apply them as true. And it is reasonable to consider whether, and how, to introduce such complex and controversial ideas. As with any other set of beliefs, students have a right to learn about these ideas in an open and honest forum, where they are able and ready to debate their merits and consider perhaps the most important educational question of all: “Is this true, and if so, what does it mean?”