Critical theory fills a gap in terms of action. Not only can (must) we criticize the unbalanced world order; we must intervene.
I see critical theory as a kind of ‘fight-back’ approach to comparative education; an opponent to the (rather patronizing) modernization theorists. As we learn from van Heertum & Torres’ (2009) well-formulated article, critical theory emerged as the need to assess one’s own system arose. Other theoretical frameworks do not encourage criticism or questioning of the system in which we reside. Instead, theories like positivism or modernization focus on how to measure, improve and compare education systems without diverging from the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (usually with the added notion that we are better than them).
While dependency theorists critique what they see as neo-colonialism through education and economic systems, I feel critical theorists span even broader (and delves even deeper). Critical theory fills a gap in terms of action. Not only can (must) we criticize the unbalanced world order; we must intervene. This is where I find this theory especially compelling. Educationalists like Paulo Freire— who incidentally introduced critical theory to the realm of education— called for research as an emancipatory force, and not just a tool for interpretation. What good does interpreting the world do, if we don’t change it for the better?
To recap, therefore, I think critical theory evolved as a way for researchers to ‘research’ and critique the very system that produced them in the first place (i.e. the Western knowledge system). In addition, critical theory grew out of the desire to put words into action, to emancipate the oppressed, and to change the world order.
Educationalists like Paulo Freire— who incidentally introduced critical theory to the realm of education— called for research as an emancipatory force, and not just a tool for interpretation. What good does interpreting the world do, if we don’t change it for the better?
This last point— change the world order— is a bit difficult to grasp, though I found Morgan’s (2003) article helpful in this regard. He basically questions every single aspect of the system I am entrenched in to such a degree that I struggle to free myself from it. He even goes as far as challenging the Western culture’s abstract conceptions of time (past, present, future). Here, critical theory provides a way to fill the gaps of the many internal paradoxes in Western culture: by looking to indigenous frameworks (emancipating the oppressed), we might find better explanations of reality. One of the paradoxes Morgan (2003) mention, is the one between the culture of absolute proof (true/false dichotomy) and religious fatalism. This is such a good point. I feel many are unable to see the flaws within their own systems, yet are quick to label indigenous knowledge as ‘superstitious’ or ‘back-ward’. By examining systems from a critical framework, I believe we might be able to avoid such labeling, and consequently digging ourselves deeper down in the rut.
Go Critical Theory!
Morgan, D. L. (2003). Appropriation, appreciation, accommodation: Indigenous knowledges in higher education. International Review of Education – Internationale Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft – Revue Internationale de l’Education, 49(1-2), pp. 35-49.
Van Heertum, R. & Torres, C. (2009). Globalization and neoliberalism: The challenges and possibilities of radical pedagogy. In M. Simons (Ed.). Re-reading education policies: Studying the policy agenda of the 21st century. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.