Critical theory in education emerged as a discipline in the 1970s as part of a wider movement to develop an alternative to traditional disciplinary studies within higher education. It is a highly interdisciplinary field, drawing on a wide range of disciplines.
Critical theorists have long been concerned with the relationship between education and society, but they have tended not to focus on the subject in a sustained manner. It was not until the 1990s that critical theorists began to write extensively on educational issues. This is partly because of developments within the critical theory itself, but also because of demands for greater accountability in schools and universities from governments and other institutions.
Education is not just about passing on knowledge and skills to students, it also serves as a means of social control. Students are taught certain values and attitudes which fit into the existing social order; they are taught to accept their place within society without question or protest. Critical theorists argue that this happens because schools are part of a wider system of oppression that maintains power relations between dominant groups (usually those who are white, heterosexual, and middle class) and subordinate groups (those who are black, gay, or working class).
Critical theorists argue that education should be used as a tool for social change rather than simply reproducing existing inequalities.
The theoretical perspectives of critical theory have been applied to a variety of issues in education such as curriculum development, teacher training and school policymaking.