AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

9. Critical Theory and Educational Technology

9.1 Introduction
9.2 Foundations of Critical Theory
9.3 Habermas's Epistemology
9.4 Critical Theory and Technolgy
9.5 Critical Theory and Education
9.6 Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.7 Topics in Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.8 Problems with Critical Theories of Education
9.9 Problems with Critical Theories of Educational Technology
9.10 Summary
9.11 Being Critical Educational Technologists
9.12 Why Appropriate Critical Theory?
Search this Handbook for:



Though relatively few educators--including educational technologists--appear to concern themselves directly with critical theory (McLaren, 1994a), a number of influential educators are pursuing the theory in one or more of its current manifestations. Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren are among the best known of today's critical theorists, and we find critical theorists working across a spectrum of intellectual frames: postmodernism (Peters, 1995); critical pedagogy (Kanpol, 1994); power (Apple, 1993; Cherryholmes, 1988); teaching (Beyer, 1986; Gibson, 1986; Henricksen & Morgan, 1990; Simon, 1992; Weiler & Mitchell, 1992); curriculum (Apple, 1990; Giroux, Penna & Pinar, 1981; Beyer & Apple, 1988; Pinar, 1988; Castenell & Pinar, 1993); feminist pedagogies (Ellsworth, 1989a; Lather, 1991; Luke & Gore, 1992); teacher education (Sprague, 1992); mass media/communications studies (Hardt, 1993); vocational-technical studies (Davis, 1991); research summaries about critical theory (Ewert, 1991); and research using methods of the critical sciences (Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Grumet, 1992).

At least two publications attend in depth to Habermasian critical theory in education. Ewert (1991) has written a comprehensive analysis of the relationships of Habermasian critical theory to education, and in A Critical Theory of Education, Young (1990) tries to present a rather complete picture of Habermas's critical theory and its relations to education. Young says that critical theorists believe that extreme rationalization has

lent itself to the further development of an alienated culture of manipulation. In the science of education, this led to a view of pedagogy as manipulation, while curriculum was divided into value-free subjects and value-based subjects where values were located decisionistically. The older view of pedagogy as a moral/ethical and practical art was abandoned (p. 20).

Young (1990) further points out that Habermas and other critical theorists believe that:

We are on the threshold of a learning level characterised by the personal maturity of the decentered ego and by open, reflexive communication which fosters democratic participation and responsibility for all. We fall short of this because of the one-sided development of our rational capacity for understanding (p. 23).

Another seminal thinker who is responsible for several notions of critical theory in education is Paulo Freire. Freire's work, especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1969), has been very influential in critical-education circles:

Freire's project of democratic dialogue is attuned to the concrete operations of power (in and out of the classroom) and grounded in the painful yet empowering process of conscientization. This process embraces a critical demystifying moment in which structures of domination are laid bare and political engagement is imperative. This unique fusion of social theory, moral outrage, and political praxis constitutes a kind of pedagogical politics of conversation in which objects of history constitute themselves as active subjects of history* ready to make a fundamental difference in the quality of the lives they individually and collectively live. Freire's genius is to explicate ... and exemplify ... the dynamics of this process of how ordinary people can and do make history in how they think, feel, act, and love (West, 1993, p. xiii).

9.5.1 Critical Theory Changes

Of course, critical theories of education are changing. Bennett and LeCompte (1990) and Wexler (1988) have good reports of the histories of these changes. In Critical Theory and Educational Practice, Giroux (I 983a) looks at the work of earlier critical theorists and says they "did not develop a comprehensive theoretical approach for dealing with the patterns of conflict and contradictions that existed in various cultural spheres" (p. 33). He says they did not understand domination, American society, the working class, or the contradictory ways people view the world.

By 1991, Aronowitz and Giroux (1991) claim that Habermas sees postmodernism as "a threat to the foundations of democratic public life" (p. 61) and that, like its modernist predecessors, "Critical theory, left and right, bemoans 'the eclipse of reason,' the 'closing of the American mind,' the 'culture of narcissism"' (p. 136). In other words, Habermas is too deeply rationalist, if his theory of communicative action and its dependence on rational communication are any indications. This is ironic, considering that earlier critical theorists contested the Enlightenment's great beliefs in rationality!

More recently, Fraser (1994) shows that Habermas's critical theory and conception of the public sphere (communicative action) prove inadequate for democracies in late capitalist societies. That is, critical theory should first

render visible the ways in which social inequality taints deliberation within publics in late capitalist societies. Second, it should show how inequality affects relations among publics ... how publics are differentially. empowered or segmented, and how some are involuntarily enclaved and subordinated to others. Next, a critical theory should expose ways in which the labeling of some issues and interests as "private" limits the range of problems, and of approaches to problems, that can be widely contested in contemporary societies. Finally, our theory should show how the overly weak character of some public spheres in late capitalist societies denudes "public opinion" of practical force (p. 93).

9.5.2 Postmodernism

These accusations about Habermas indicate a clear evolution from (even a clear detachment from-) earlier critical theory to a postmodern view. Postmodern theories are more encompassing, according to Giroux (1991, p. 80), and McLaren (I 994b) notes that

the postmodern critique concerns itself with a rejection or debunking of modernism's epistemic foundations or meta-narratives; a dethronement of the authority of the positivistic science that essentializes differences between what appear to be self-possessing identities, an attack on the notion of a unified goal of history, and a deconstruction of the magnificent Enlightenment swindle of the autonomous, stable, and self-contained ego that is supposed to be able to act independently of its own history, its own indigenist strands of meaning making and cultural and linguistic situatedness, and free from inscriptions in the, discourses of, among others, gender, race, and class (p. 196).

This is to say that postmodernism resists dominant, oppressive cultures, and wants power shifted to groups of people struggling for power in their own lives (see 10.2, 10.5). Though the references and the language are different, and the search for overly rationalistic, scientific-technical universals may be, dethroned, postmodern critical theory still is related to earlier critical theory, at least in terms of its formulation of knowledge as technical, practical, and emancipatory (McLaren, 1994a, p. 179). Further, just as earlier critical theorists do not rule out rationality altogether, Aronowitz and Giroux (1991) claim that:

by combining the best insights of modernism and postmodernism,, educators can deepen and extend what is generally referred to as critical pedagogy. We need to combine the modernist emphasis on the capacity of individuals to use critical reason in addressing public life with a critical postmodernist concern with how we might experience agency in a world constituted in differences (p. 117).

9.5.3 Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy is an educational version of postmodern critical theory (Kanpol, 1994). McLaren (1994a) says of it that:

Critical pedagogy poses a variety of important counterlogics to the positivistic, ahistorical, and depoliticized analysis employed by both liberal and conservative critics of schooling--an analysis all too readily visible in the training programs in our colleges of education. Fundamentally concerned with the centrality of politics and power in our understanding of bow schools work, critical theorists have produced work centering on the political economy of schooling, the state and education, the representation of texts, and the construction of student subjectivity (p. 167).

In researching the relationships between knowledge and power, thinkers like Apple and Giroux "attempt to develop an encompassing critical theory of education with resistance as its central theme" (Gibson, 1986, p. 59). Moreover, proponents of resistance desire a radical, hopeful, and action-oriented pedagogy. These qualities are evident in the writing of actors like Ira Shor (1986, 1987), in organizations such as The Goddard Institute on Teaching and Learning (Plainfield,. VT) and The National Coalition of Educational Activists (Rosendale, NY), and newpapers such as Rethinking Schools (Milwaukee, WI). Also, the works of Simon (1992) and Kanpol (1994) are notable here. McLaren (1994a) says of critical pedagogy that:

Teaching and learning should be a process of inquiry, of critique; it should also be a process of constructing, of building a social imagination that works within a language of hope. If teaching is cast in the form of . . . "a language of possibility," then a greater potential exists for making learning relevant, critical, and transformative. Knowledge is relevant only when it begins with the experiences students bring with them from the surrounding culture; it is critical only when these experiences are shown to sometimes be problematic (i.e., racist, sexist); and it is transformative only when students begin to use the knowledge to help empower others, including individuals in the surrounding community (p. 197).

9.5.4 Critical Feminism General Theories. Contemporary feminism often is composed of theories of social transformation that describe women's lives in a hierarchial, structured, male-dominated society (see 10.4). Feminism supports and values women and women-centered perspectives, while advocating social, political, and economic equality for both women and men. Informed by postmodern critical theory,feminism struggles to empower individuals and groups to participate in their liberation from oppressive structures within society; it challenges universal claims to truth and encourage s the reconstruction of history. Various research traditions inform feminism and the development of feminist theories (Baggier, 1983; Weedon; 1987).

Of course, multiple versions of feminism exist. To put it too strictly, liberal feminists advocate the right of women to choose their role in society and in the home, as opposed to accepting sex-role stereotypes. Radical feminists advocate separatism as a political strategy to gain independence from patriarchal control and as a way to develop autonomy and empowerment. Socialist-feminists advocate a total transformation of the current social system that perpetuates racism, classism, and gender oppression. Socialist feminists propose the establishment of a social system that promotes

full participation of men in childrearing; reproductive freedom for women, that is, the right to decide if and when to have children and under what conditions, together with the provision of the conditions necessary for the realization of the right of women to make these choices; the abolition of the privileging of heterosexuality, freedom to define one's own sexuality and the right of lesbians to raise children; the eventual abolition of the categories "woman" and "man," and the opening up of all social ways of being to all people (Weedon, 1987, p. 18).

The constructs of poststructuralism/postmodernism consist of several positions based on the writings of Derrida, Lacan, Dristeva, Althusser, and Foucault. The primary focus of the writings is on understanding language (see also 10.5). Thus, feminist poststructuralists encourage a dynamic mode of understanding oneself in the world through the interpretation and reinterpretation of language. Postmodern feminists "oppose a linear view of history that legitimates patriarchal notions of subjectivity and society" (Giroux, 1993, p. 61).

Womanist or black-feminist interpretations of feminism maintain that white, Western, privileged women have chosen to focus on sexual exploitation as the exclusive cause of oppression in the world and to ignore other forms of domination (Hooks, 1989; Collins, 1990; Moraga & Anzaldua, 1981). Black women's feminism is predicated on resistance to the "tridimensional phenomenon of race/class/gender oppression" (Cannon, 1988, p. 39). The absence of dialogue on this oppression led some black women to redefine their understanding of feminism and to accept Alice Walker's concept of womanist: "A black feminist or feminist of color." Walker's interpretation of feminism suggests that there is only a shade of difference between a womanist and a feminist, like purple is to lavender (Walker, 1983, p. ix). Black feminists agree with Barbara Smith (1979) that this triad of race, class, and gender is a

feminist issue [that is] easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged hetero-sexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely self-aggrandizement (B. Smith, 1979, quoted in Morage & Anzaldua, 1981, p. 61). Pedagogical Theories. The intent of feminist pedagogy, like critical pedagogy, is to liberate. Through curriculum, discussions, and as agents of social change, feminist educators focus on the liberation of women from oppressive structures within society. Both feminists and critical pedagogists seek to empower students by affirming their race, class, and gender positions. They encourage students to reject any and all forms of oppression, injustice, and inequality. Students are taught to use their voices to prevent silencing by authoritarian social structures.

Socialist and poststructuralist feminists question critical pedagogy's Marxist ideology and its concept of emancipation. Marxist theory was traditionally concerned with male labor and production, while women's experiences were understood as part of oppression within their class position. Consequently, social feminists contend that Marxist and neo-Marxist theories are inadequate for gender analysis (Jagger, 1983; Lather, 1992a; Luke & Gore, 1992; Mackinnon, 1983; Weiler, 1988). Nicholson 0994) argues that Marxism is seen as "not only irrelevant to explaining important aspects of women's oppression but, indeed, as an obstacle in the attempt to develop such explanations" (p. 71). Nicholson also claims that similar arguments can be made against Marxism in movements against racism and in movements for gay and lesbians.

Not many works have been written about the relationship between feminist pedagogy and the "male inscribed liberation models of critical pedagogy" (Lather, 1992b, p. 129; Luke & Gore, 1992), but Luke (1992) suggests that because male authors of critical theory are at the center of its discourses, critical pedagogy is articulated from a male standpoint. Similarly, Ellsworth (1992) maintains that critical pedagogues consistently define empowerment in "ahistorical and depoliticized abstractions" (p. 99) which testify "to the failure of critical educators to come to terms with essentially paternalistic project of traditional education" (p. 99). Feminist discourses, unlike those of critical pedagogy, provide a context that encourages women to conceptualize self-definitions." These definitions are "oppositional" to ones that may serve to subordinate women to men (p. 101).

Ellsworth also expresses concern for nonfeminist critical pedagogy's concept of "student voice," a construct that assumes that students are participating in a relationship of equal power, whereas individuals who are members of disadvantaged or subordinated social, racial, ethnic, or gender groups, may lack the critical-analysis skills necessary to Participate in or even enter in critical-pedagogy dialogues.

Furthermore, in critical pedagogy, the assumption is made that the professor/teacher is committed to ending students' oppression. Yet no provisions are made in most critical pedagogy to problematize issues the professor/ teacher brings to the classroom. Luke (1992) expresses a similar concern about empowerment and equal opportunity to speak in the classroom. She says that:

to grant equal classroom time to female students ' to democratize the classroom speech situation, and to encourage marginal groups to make public what is personal and private does not alter theoretically or practically those gendered structural divisions upon which liberal capitalism and its knowledge industries are based (p. 37).

She agrees that possessing the "tools of critical thinking" will help women students to understand the masculine and feminine divisions of power and authority within the academy, but cautions that these same divisions

tend to render a feminist language of critique politically counterproductive for women, who still continue overwhelmingly to depend upon men for sanctioning of research topics, allocation of research funds, decreeing what knowledge counts as relevant and citeable for thesis examination, degree granting, promotion, and tenure (p. 38).

Gore (1992) proposes that the critical pedagogist's concept of teachers as agents of empowerment is problematic because it attributes extraordinary abilities to the teacher and may ignore the context of the teacher's work within patriarchal institutions. Weiler (1991) finds that women professors, like women students, struggle to understand the divisions of power and authority within the academy. Two questions seem to plague women. The first one "refers to the institutionally imposed authority of the teacher within a hierarchical university structure," where the

teacher in this role must give grades, is evaluated by administrators and colleagues in terms of expertise in a body of knowledge, and is expected to take responsibility for meeting the goals of an academic course as it is understood within the wider university (p. 460).

The second question refers to "the need for women to claim authority in a society that denies it to them" (p. 461). Kenway and Modra (1992) observe that power and authority do not appear to be outstanding issues for feminist school teachers. Another work on the subject of power and authority is Maher's (1987) "Toward a Richer Theory of Feminist Pedagogy." The topic of power and authority brings students, educators, and others face-to-face with issues relating to the feminist teacher as nurturer/mother, issues that are examined well by writers such as Noddings, (1984, 199 1), Belenky et a]. (1986), Grumet (1988), and Pagano (1992). Pedagogical Strategies. Feminist teachers who are concerned with issues of authority, especially in the classroom, employ strategies that share the power of decision making with students (Bennett-deMarrais & LeCompte, 1994). These strategies are consistent with Schniedewind's fivefold " process goals" approach to pedagogy: (1) development of an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust, and community in the classroom; (2) shared leadership; (3) cooperative structures; (4) integration of cognitive and affective learning; and (5) action (Schniedewind, 1987, quoted in Kenway & Modra, 1992).

These kinds of process goals help to build communities and encourage involvement in democratic decision making and are consistent with other liberatory pedagogies.

Thompson and Disch (1992) explain that, as feminist teachers,

they continually think about how [their] classes are going as communities. Other teachers obsess with lectures. We obsess about both the content we teach as well as the relationships among students and our relationships with both individuals and the group as a whole. We think carefully about how to express our anger when the class isn't taking responsibility to carry on meaningful discussion of the readings. We think carefully about how to address or resolve conflicts among particular pairs or groups of students. No two semesters are alike. The results of this kind of teaching cannot be predicted because the students have power, and we never know how they're going to challenge us, or how they're going to challenge each other (p. 9).

To ensure community and democratic decision making, feminist teachers function as facilitators and co-learners. They incorporate the use of journals, biographies, autobiographies, and narratives to encourage students to use their personal experiences to construct knowledge. As Thompson and Disch say (1992): "We assume that learning needs to be close to the heart, meaning that the course must move the learner and make a lasting impact on her or his life" (Thompson & Disch, 1992, p. 4).

Feminist educators are a diverse group. Remember that they, like most critical pedagogists, attempt to move educators and learners to action by prodding us with a most important question: Whose interests are served by education?

9.5.5 Critical Theory and Race General Issues. The literature indicates that, in the United States, discussions based on race/ethnicity and education focus primarily on social class. Several researchers believe that improvement in an individual's social status will also improve her or his achievement in school. Others are suggesting that an examination of the larger population reveals that schooling and achievement are more closely tied to political issues.

Unfortunately, critical theorists must often counter researchers who develop scientific/biological theories to define the marginality experienced by racial/ethnic groups. McCarthy (1990) maintains that these scientific theories are inconclusive and do not adequately address the inequality experienced by racial minorities. Giroux (1992) believes that these theories are delusional and say too little about the power relations at the core of the discourse of white authority (p. 114). The acceptance of these biological/scientific theories is predicated OD the ideology of racism.

Comel West (1988) argues that Judeo-Christianity, science, and psychosexuality are the three central European traditions that support racism. Further, Africans are associated with bodily defecation, violation, and subordination. As such, Africans in the modem West "personify degraded otherness, exemplify radical alterity, and embody alien difference" (p. 118). Race and Education-Related Issues. Critical educators utilize a variety of approaches to understand educational issues as they relate to race/ethnic minorities. For example, Ogbu and Matute-Bianchi (1986) examine specific school variables such as placement, counseling, teacher's behavior, and methods of testing as attempts to influence minority students' performance. Neo-Marxist sociologists such as Bowles and Gintis (1976) argue that schooling in the United States maintains the existing social class structure for the benefit of an economic elite.

McCarthy's (1990) alternative approach to race and education is related to work by authors such as Apple (1986, 1993), Apple and Weis (1983), and West (1988). McCarthy claims that this critical approach emphasizes the relationships between:

(a) the structural and institutional arrangements of school knowledge and instrumental rules which constrain the educator and the educated alike, and (b) the self-affirming agency and capacities of social actors (teachers and students) to resist and transform the structural arrangements and relations that exist within educational settings and in the wider social milieu. (p. 7).

Giroux (1993) recommends a pedagogy that can retrieve and reconstruct possibilities for establishing the basis for a progressive vision that makes schooling for democracy and critical citizenship an unrealized yet possible reality (p. 118).

9.5.6 Critical Theory, Mass Media, and Popular Culture

Critical theorists also have begun to look at oppression and emancipatory action as they relate more broadly to technologies of mass media and other aspects of popular culture.

In Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling, Giroux (198 1) notes that forms of popular culture sometimes help to encourage rationalization of existence. The consolidation of culture by new technologies of mass communication, coupled with newly found social science disciplines such as social psychology and sociology, ushered in powerful, new modes of administration in the public sphere (p. 40).

Similarly, several nonprint media serve as wonderful examples of the kind of powerful views of culture a critical understanding can encourage. For instance, the film Hungry for Profit looks at ways corporate business has created among the largest of forced mass migrations of people in history. America: What Went Wrong (Moyers, 1992) explores the ways capital and politics have been used to the economic detriment of most Americans. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media shows how the U.S. government surreptitiously orchestrates information to avoid telling the public about its clandestine and democratically questionable activities against peoples worldwide.

Because of its profound relationships to society, politics, health, education, and so on, the technology of television has been the object of several print-based critical-theory analyses, though no one has, as far as we can find, summarized the work in this area. Several of these studies use notions of culture as their anchors (e.g., Dienst, 1991; Fehlman, 1992; Schwoch, White, Rilley & Scott, 1992) and intend to help viewers overcome the hidden intentions of TV. Note that we are not referring, here, to "critical viewing" or "critical thinking," which--in their cognitivist, rationalist, and individualist approaches--often foster technical interests rather than emancipatory ones.

At least one book critically examines representations of blacks (Hooks, 1992). Other studies (e.g., Poster, 1987?88; Wallace, 1994) bring a postmodern lens to the examination of media. For example, Aronowitz and Giroux (1991) claim that "in the age of instant information, global networking, and biogenetics, the old distinction between high and popular culture collapses, as the historically and socially constructed nature of meaning becomes evident, dissolving universalizing claims to history, truth, or class" (p.115).

Just as Habermas and Marcuse, for example, do not believe that technology has only negative characteristics, not all education critical theorists find only harm in media. For example, Phelen's (1988) "Communing in Isolation," an article that alludes to critical theory, argues that mass media campaigns can successfully communicate messages when they use local celebrities, live meetings, and easily measured finite goals.

9.5.7 Critical Theory, Education, and Ecology

The topic of ecology in relation to critical theories of education comes up rarely. Feenberg (1991, p. 195) addresses it, and remember that Habermas (1981/1987) talks about the uses of media that inhibit communication such that "the destruction of urban environments as a result of uncontrolled capitalist growth, or the overbureaucratization of the educational system, can be explained as a 'misuse' of media" (p. 293).

Works by Bowers (1993) and Orr (1992) bear mentioning. Though neither book cites the Frankfurt School, McLaren, or "critical theory," for instance, they are included here because their topics are often the same as those in more commonly recognized critical theory (e.g., the predominance of science and technology over less objective aspects of life), and their methods are similar (critique of existing views' contradictory and oppressive conclusions). In other words, the works fulfill the spirit of critical theory.

Bowers (1993) argues that fundamental Western cultural assumptions of rationalism, progress, individualism, and consumerism found in schooling are detrimental to ecology. Bowers' arguments come up in later sections of this chapter on educational technology and ecology. Orr's (1992) Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World posits that "there is no example of a society that was or is both technologically dynamic and environmentally sustainable. It remains to be seen bow and whether these two can be harmonized" (p. 21). Perhaps the essence of Orr's dilemma is captured in a passage from his book's introduction:

The shortcomings of education reflect a deeper problem having to do with the way we define knowledge. "Research" has come to be the central focus and primary justification for the modem university. Some research is vital to our prospects, some of it is utterly trivial. Some of it may produce results that, given our present state of collective wisdom, is [sic) dangerous. A sizeable part of it is motivated by the fantasy of making an end run around constraints of time, space, nature, and human nature. It is, in short, part of the old project of dominating nature at whatever cost. Such distinctions are seldom made or even discussed. I happen to believe that our prospects depend more on the cultivation of political wisdom, moral virtue, and clear-beaded self-knowledge than on gadgets. In any event, it is time to ask what we need to know to live humanely, peacefully, and responsibly on the earth and to set research priorities accordingly (p. xi).

Both Orr and Bowers spend considerable time discussing the ways education fosters ecologically dangerous technological effects, and they do so because of what many people think of as inherent and benign human characteristics such as inventiveness.

However, for the most part, few critical theorists are devoting their writing to issues of education and ecology.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Association for Educational Communications and Technology

1800 North Stonelake Drive, Suite 2
Bloomington, IN 47404

877.677.AECT (toll-free)

AECT Home Membership Information Conferences & Events AECT Publications Post and Search Job Listings