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The Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory

The Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory
The Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory

I recently asked a fellow academic, in conversation, how they try to integrate critical thinking into their classroom, and they replied that they don’t have “much time for that kind of thing.” I quickly realised that they didn’t know what I was talking about and likely confused it for something else. This shouldn’t have been entirely surprising to me, given research by Lloyd and Bahr (2010) indicates that, unfortunately, many educators are not au fait with what critical thinking actually is. Following further conversation, I came to understand what this academic was referring to: critical theory. This was neither the first time I’ve encountered such confusion of terms, nor was it the first time I heard criticism of the field.

What Critical Theory Is

I recognise that the phrasing “critical lens” one often hears in educational contexts might be a bit ambiguous and could be perceived in various ways. Critical thinking is many things, but one thing it is not is critical theory. Critical theory is an arts and humanities approach to identifying, critiquing, and challenging social dynamics and power structures within society (e.g., see Tyson 2023, Marcuse, 1968). Simply, it’s a critique of society; hence, the name—though some in the field would argue this and uphold the belief that it’s an association with our beloved critical thinking. I would argue that such people would fit in well with the aforementioned cohort of people who don’t really understand what critical thinking is.

The critical theory approach developed out of post-World War II German social climates as a means of exploring how Germany and, indeed, Europe got to where they were at that point in time. This is reasonable; indeed, psychology was interested in these implications as well (e.g., consider the work of Milgram and Asch). Critical theory grew from there into other socially aware applications. Despite methodological concerns, there is some good work done through critical theory. However, there is also considerable poor research done in this area. I would argue that the core reason for this is that the approach is often founded in bias. That is, unfortunately, a lot of modern critical theory starts with the proposition that some dynamic is “bad.” Now, I’m not saying that many of the dynamics often under investigation aren’t bad, but starting research on the basis of a biased perspective doesn’t sound like a particularly promising rationale. Where’s the critical thinking? Where’s the evaluation? If you truly care about the topic, apply critical thinking from an unbiased perspective. Modern critical theory seems to skip a lot of steps associated with logic and the mechanisms of good thinking.

The purpose of this brief discussion on critical theory is two-fold. First, it’s argued that there has been “considerable” growth in the field in recent years (e.g., critical theory student numbers, growing presence in popular society, and growing inclusion in educational curricula), which is concerning given the rationale above, and, second, consistent with my observation in the introduction, its name is unfortunately similar to “critical thinking” and, thus, the two are often confused for one another. Please, don’t make this mistake.

Power Structures

Similar to the aforementioned negative social dynamics, I’m not saying that power structures don’t exist either. Look at families: Parents hold “power” over their children. Look at jobs: Employees are under the power of their managers, who are under the power of other managers, and so on. Indeed, depending on what country you live in, your government has varying levels of power over those it governs (e.g., with respect to law and policy-making). Some will argue that it’s the people who should be governing themselves: voting in law- and policy-makers as representatives, which is reasonable to me, but not all governments are like this—that’s politics for you (e.g., largely belief-led), so what can you do? “Think critically about it” would be a reasonable response in the context of this page, and that is notably distinct from engaging in critical theory.

The point is that such “structures” are naturally occurring. Human beings think in hierarchically structured fashion (e.g., through schema construction, classification, categorisation) and they develop social groups in a similar manner. That’s not to say that we should accept such structures in all situations, but no amount of academia is likely to change human nature; believe me, we’ve been trying to get people to think critically for a long time. Another important consideration for recognising this commonality is our expectance of these structures. Unfortunately, because we expect to see them everywhere, we wind up creating many of them, through our interpretations, when they might not even exist.

So, if you are approaching your research from the perspective that because something (e.g., some group) experiences, for example, a less-than-desirable event or condition, it’s very easy—without the application of critical thinking—that such negative outcomes should be attributed to some other group, in a sort of causal relationship. The problem is, as opposed to this being a conclusion (a leads to b), it is often the starting point of research, which then biases the methodology and its outcomes. For example, in an effort not to single out any particular group, let’s say I’m studying some topic from a Zuggist perspective (I made-up the word/group “Zug”). Considering the fact that I side with Zuggists—I might even be a Zug myself—the chances of me reporting something that is biased in favour of Zugs is more likely than not. To me, that’s not good research.

Again, I’m not saying that all research from a critical theory approach is like this, but, unfortunately, a noticeable amount of it is. Sure, every field has its barriers and “crises” from time to time: Psychology has been battling a replicability crisis in recent years. However, at least psychology (for the most part) recognises the importance of replicability and other research mechanisms associated with good methodology. I have concerns about that with respect to critical theory.

All in all, critical theory doesn’t mean much to me, but, for now, like my fellow academic said in the introduction, “I don’t have much time for that kind of thing.” So, why bother talking about it here? This page is focused on critical thinking and good decision-making. These are the outcomes in which I and readers of this blog are interested, alongside learning more about how we can enhance them. It’s difficult enough conceptualising and describing critical thinking without having something similarly named adding further confusion. I’m not putting blame on anyone for the manner in which they coined the term “critical theory”; however, I think it important that people from all walks of life know the differences between them, because those differences are many and important.

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