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?
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Habermas is one of today's best-known critical theorists, and he finds his way among the foregoing foundational issues by way of his epistemology about human interests, and the knowledge, medium, and science associated with each. Carr and Kemmis (1986, p. 136) schematize Habermas's epistemology in the following table:

Interest Knowledge Medium science
Technical Instrumental (casual explanation) work Empirical-analytical or natural sciences
Practical Practical (understanding) Language Hermeneutic or "interpretive" sciences
Emancipatory Emancipatory (reflection) Power Critical sciences


Ingram and Simon-Ingram (1991) summarize Habermas's thinking about the sciences and the interests as follows:

The empirical-analytic sciences incorporate an objectifying experimental method that constitutes nature as a lawful system of interconnected facts. 'This method refines a prescientific mode of instrumental activity necessitated by a technical interest in controlling nature. The historical-hermeneutic sciences incorporate an interpretive method that constitutes social reality as a symbolic text comprising meaningful actions, artifacts, and events. The method of subjective understanding refines a prescientific mode of communication activity necessitated by a practical interest in coordinating action and establishing a common identity (or mutual understanding) between persons. Finally, the critical social sciences incorporate a reflective method that combines both objectifying (causal explanatory) and interpretive procedures in determining which social regularities are invariant and which are not. The critique of ideology refines a prescientific mode of critical self-examination necessitated by an emancipatory interest in achieving freedom from domination (p. xxx).

So, critical social sciences help individuals understand how their aims and purposes are subordinated to technical and practical interests such as science and technology. In this way, the critical sciences help people act to relieve oppression. A major critique of Habermas's theories has been that they do not convincingly show they are free of ideologies and better than the empirical-analytical or hermeneutic sciences they wish to ameliorate. Habermas's response to these criticisms has been to develop his theory of communicative action, aspects of which are described succinctly by Ingram and Simon-Ingram (1991):

Communication (speaking) is the primary vehicle by which personal and social identity is shaped and mutual understanding regarding a shared world is brought about. Language, Habermas argues, has evolved to the point where one can distinguish propositional (descriptive), interpersonal (prescriptive), and personal (expressive) uses. In everyday speech geared toward facilitating interaction ... [speech action) all three uses are combined. For example, whenever I promise to do something I simultaneously assert (describe) something to be done, prescribe to myself an interpersonal obligation, and express a personal intention. Most important, what I say (describe, prescribe, and express) is tacitly accompanied by validity claims: to the truth of what I assert to be the case, the rightness of what I prescribe, and the sincerity of what I express (p. xxxi).

The validity of any claims about truth, rightness, and authenticity is tested through argumentation, and only those arguments that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected by them can be considered acceptable. For Habermas (1981/1984), this is rational communication because agreement must be based on reasons, and those who participate could, under suitable circumstances, provide reasons for their expressions. Suitable conditions require that, among other things, there be no coercion (p. 17).

Habermas (1981/1984) calls this type of conversation a transcendental-pragmatic justification, in that the tacit in us and the rational in us meet in the taken-for-granted life world. (See also lhde, 1990, on the lifeworld.) Habermas says knowledge associated with the lifeworld "is an implicit knowledge that can not be represented in an infinite number of propositions; it is a holistically structured knowledge, the basic elements of which intrinsically define one another, and it is a knowledge that does not stand at our disposition, inasmuch as we can not make it conscious and place it in doubt as we please" (p. 336).

Though rational communicative action is thought of as a good thing, rationalization is questionable. Habermas argues that rationalization occurs when aspects of the lifeworld are made explicit. lEs thoughts on rationalization, then, run contrary to his statement that we cannot make the lifeworld " conscious and place it in doubt as we please." None the less, rationalization means that normative, value-vested contexts are transferred to rational yes/no positions, Habermas (1981/1987) gives this example: "Since the eighteenth century, there has been an increasingly pedagogical approach to child-rearing processes, which has made possible a formal system of education free from the imperative mandates of church and family" (p. 147).

As rationalization increases, societies become more complex, and mechanisms are developed to reduce the risks and failures involved in coordinating mutual understanding. These mechanisms are "delinguistified steering media" such as prestige, influence, power, money (and, sometimes, modem electronic mass media, the authors of this chapter would contend). Unfortunately, these media coordinate by either condensing or replacing mutual understanding (Habermas, 1981/1987, p. 181). Moreover, media such as money and power connect communication into complex networks for which no one feels responsible (p. 184). Environmental destruction and the overbureaucratization of educational systems can be explained as a result of capitalist growth and a "misuse" of power, which occur because of the false perception that only rational management must be applied to the environment and education (p. 293).

Actually, Habermas (1981/1987) also argues that neither the rationalization of the lifeworld nor the increases in system complexity are the worst characteristics of the modem crisis. The greatest difficulty is "an elitist splitting off of expert cultures from contexts of communicative action in daily life" (p. 330).

Habermas (1981/1987) does not think that media are always negative. He claims that some media can help mutual understanding when they encourage a trust in knowledge: "Media of this kind cannot uncouple interaction from the lifeworld context ... because they have to make use of the resources of consensus formation in language" (p. 183).

Neither does Habermas (1974) altogether reject the rationality of the Enlightenment and the empirical-analytical sciences; like earlier critical theorists, he wants to develop a critical social science that lies somewhere between philosophy and science (p. 44). He believes that discovering universal knowledge, especially emancipatory knowledge, is possible through rational communicative action, though be can't say exactly when or how. This is important because, as we shall see shortly, this belief in universals runs contrary to the beliefs of many postmodernist, feminist, and deconstructionist theorists.

Updated August 3, 2001
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