One of the most important dilemmas that educators face is dealing with the relationship between theory and practice. To top it all, teachers have to look upon multifarious theoretical traditions on which they could source their creativity in innovating new programs in teacher education or critiquing ongoing programs. In fact, there are a range of theories available, with different characteristics and orientations. Though critical theory has not been widely used in teacher education, it is valuable in helping them to see the connections between common sense practices in schools and institutions and ideologies in the wider society.
Critical theory promises both critique and new directions, as it focuses on issues related to social justice, equality, and democratic values (Beyer, 2001, p. 151). More importantly, Critical Theory reveals the “empowerment” and “disempowerment” that occurs within the academia. Fact is that we could delineate Critical Theory to parallel with Marxism, particularly Neo-Marxism. Marx’s analysis of class struggle over the control of the means and modes of economic production is significant for the concept of conflict theory, a central theme in Critical Theory (Kellner, 1989).
While the Critical Theorists have borrowed themes such as class conflict from Marx, they have not been associated with the totalitarian legacy of Communism, which occurred when Marxism was implemented in the Soviet Union by Lenin and Stalin. In Western Europe, Neo-Marxist theoreticians such as Antonio Gramsci and Juergen Habermas developed a form of Neo-Marxist analysis that diversified from the version of how Marxism implemented change in the Soviet Union. A leading group of theoreticians associated with the Frankfurt School of sociology used selected Marxist concepts for social analysis.
The Frankfurt School influenced some educational theorists in the United States as they developed a Neo-Marxist interpretation of U. S. education (Wolin, 1992). As it emerged from the socialist perspective of Marx, Critical Theorists advocate that schools should be discussed in connection with cultural politics and conflict. According to their analysis, schools historically have been controlled by and used by economically, socially, and politically dominant groups to impose their preferred versions of knowledge as means of social control.
For the children of the dominant groups, this imposition confirms their social, political, and cultural position of power. Children of subordinate groups, usually economically disadvantaged and politically disorganized ones, are taught that they live in a society in which economic, social, and political institutions are functioning correctly. They are given textbooks and other instructional materials that confirm, or legitimatize, this dominant-class-constructed version of social reality.
This process of educational imposition or legitimization helps the dominant groups to maintain their positions, to have hegemony, over subordinate groups. They deem that schools, therefore, are not neutral academic institutions but are political agencies that empower some and disempower others. The empowerment–disempowerment strategy is one of a controlled reproduction of predefined social and economic roles based on the functioning of the capitalist market.
Based on their critique, Critical Theorists seek to reform schooling so that schools can become “democratic public spheres” that will awaken young people to their genuine moral, political, economic, and civic rights and responsibilities. This is why, people advocating Critical Theory seek to redefine the teacher’s role and the nature and purpose of teaching. As they critique the forces that disempower large groups in U. S. society, they also identify those trends that, in the name of educational legitimacy and effectiveness, have disempowered teachers.
Among them are standardized testing, the mechanics of teacher competency assessment, and top-down administrator-controlled schools. These mechanisms take away the teachers’ power to design and conduct instruction and give that power instead to others such as administrators or legislators (Gutek, 1998). What they suggest is a transformative, rather than reactive, agenda for teacher empowerment. Like the Social Reconstructionist concept of “educational statesmanship”, their reform agenda reconceptualizes the teachers’ role so they can become “engaged and transformative intellectuals. Key to transforming teachers’ roles is to encourage reflection on the ideological principles that sustain practice and that connect educational theory to wider social, economic, and political issues. The Critical Theorist reform agenda includes the following teacher roles: 1. Working for real school reforms that will enable them to exercise power over education. 2. Engaging in collaboration with other teachers to improve instruction. 3. Interacting with the people in the communities whose children they educate, and organizing for collaborative community action. 4.
Engaging in critical dialogues with students about the political, economic, and cultural issues of U. S. society. 5. Working to redistribute power in schools between teachers and administrators by giving teachers, students, and community members a larger role in educational policymaking. 6. Recognizing that problems such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, malnutrition, and inadequate health care cannot be ignored by schools (Giroux and McLaren 1989, xxiii). Moreover, supporters of Critical Theory demand for learning that recognizes and encourages students’ cultural diversity.
Education programs should support multicultural education and emphasize that learning should begin with the students’ own autobiographies and family and community experiences. Their affirmation of cultural diversity opposes the concept that schools should structure learning around a Western culture core, a common NeoConservative theme. It also runs counter to the consensus-building style advocated by Experimentalists and Liberals. An important outcome of learning is acquiring a critical language for analyzing major contemporary social, political, economic, and educational issues (Peim, 1993).
Emphasizing the educational richness of diverse cultures and styles of learning, a curriculum that adheres to Critical Theory should use the students’ unique multicultural experiences to develop new skills and knowledge. Such a curriculum would stress (1) the study of the students’ histories, languages, and cultures; and (2) an analysis of the persistent issues of U. S. life, particularly those that empower some and disempower others. The brilliance of advocating Critical Theory in the academic world is that teaching is not merely the lessons that students need to know, but it should be a democratic activity.
Teachers should be aware that they are not disempowering other students of their own perspective. This form of democracy is participatory (rather than, for example, representative), a key feature of Critical Theory. Thus, real education should be an empowerment that has to be at a collective rather than individual level so that students would not operate in isolation from each other, but are shaped by organizational and structural forces of the family, community and nation they are living in.
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