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Critical Theory or Common Humanity? The Case for a Liberal Approach to Social Studies Education

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:10.

Critical theory is increasingly shaping what American school children are learning in school from kindergarten through high school. Social studies education is no exception. Members of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the largest professional association in the country devoted solely to social studies education, have argued that critical theory, as an approach to social justice, be embedded in the curriculum and practice standards put forth by the association—the theme of the National Council for Social Studies’ 2020 virtual conference, which took place in December, was “advancing social justice.”

Many scholars who call their practices “critical” aim to advance their research to significantly change socio-political-cultural orders. They believe knowledge is innately embedded in relations of power and social organization, and that these relations cannot be understood through empirical research. Some critical theorists, such as Habermas, encourage dialogue and mutual understanding. But critical race theory, popularized today through social and news media, focuses on issues of power and systemic racism that too easily translate to blaming and shaming individuals. Take the concept of Whiteness, for example. Whiteness is understood by critical race theorists to be a central belief system of white supremacy in which white people are “‘socialized’ into ‘racialized’ roles in which they perpetuate ‘white’ norms of speech, acts, beliefs, and practices” that reinforce Whiteness. Whiteness is one of the more pernicious outputs of critical theory because it sets up a dichotomy of good and bad based on skin color—advertently or inadvertently—which has been embedded in training for schools.

Ryan Crowley, Assistant Professor of social studies education, and Lagarrett King, Associate Professor of social studies education, describe critical theory, as it is applied to social studies education, as a “radical, social justice-oriented” philosophy. The use of the term critical, according to Crowley and King, is “distinct from the broader educational goal of encouraging critical thinking.” They explain, “although critical thinking is a crucial skill, our use of ‘critical’ refers specifically to the use of critical theory,” and asserts that “social studies should be a natural home for critical theory and critical pedagogy.”

For the past few decades, critical theory has expanded into nearly every aspect of social studies education with little to no assessment of its accuracy to describe history, civics, culture, or economics, nor its efficacy in the solutions it offers to societal problems. And there is growing concern among academics that the lack of political diversity in fields of university study like education affects academic rigor and the application of scholarship to the real world, including schools. Focusing on viewpoint diversity, rather than a winner versus loser dichotomy, is one solution. Christopher Freiman, a philosopher, argues that viewpoint diversity can “help produce novel solutions to problems, counteract confirmation bias and expand the range of topics that researchers consider.” However, the application of critical theory to social studies education goes largely unchecked.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, raises important challenges to the critical theory approach to teaching. He argues that critical theory promotes a “common enemy” mindset that replaces the long-standing liberal tradition in education that we share a “common humanity.” For Haidt, diversity and recognition of one's identity is valuable, but he notes:

[W]hen you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.

The “radical social justice-oriented” philosophy of critical theory, which includes the stated goals of replacing liberal traditions in K-12 schools with an illiberal activist agenda to remake society, is in opposition to the common humanity goals of education. The premise of critical race theory is that society can be divided into two groups, the oppressed and the oppressors, or “the privileged'' and the “marginalized,” which ignites tribal, us versus them thinking. This mindset is not conducive to learning how to live in and contribute to society.

What’s more, modern critical theory advocates believe that culture needs to be emancipated from liberal values, such as the notion of individuality, to understand the binary power struggles that exist in our culture and society. Therefore, the goal of education according to critical theory is to help each child recognize their own identity, determine their status as either privileged or marginalized, and then commit to a plan of action to correct this injustice—teacher advocates of critical theory take seriously this perspective to craft lessons that emphasize social action. Identity is categorized primarily by race, ethnicity, and gender. And the C3 (College, Career, & Civic Life for Social Studies State Standards) Framework, which is the curriculum standard for the NCSS, recommends concluding each lesson with “Taking Informed Action” activities that, according to Crowley and King, “push students to take tangible steps toward alleviating the injustice explored in the inquiry.”

Critical theory educators also challenge the institutions that were at the center of traditional social studies curriculums, like the American legal and economic system, as being part of “master narratives” that promote the worldviews of those in power in society. According to Crowley and King, “master narratives shape belief systems and act to marginalize those in society who do not come from white, male, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, and other dominant identity group backgrounds.” Anthony Brown, Keffrelyn Brown, and Angela Ward employ a critical race theory perspective to advocate addressing the problem of master narratives through a revisionist approach to history, which asks students to rethink the power dynamics of the past in light of the present to deconstruct common historical narratives. LaGarrett King, Amanda Vickery, and Genevieve Caffrey utilize critical race theory to argue that white people and white norms control access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision making and advocate racial literacy to deconstruct these race and power dynamics.

The alternative approach to critical theory, the common humanity approach, is incompatible with at least some of the tenets of critical theory, and yet it equips young students with critical thinking skills. According to Siep Stuurman, in his book The Invention of Humanity, the common humanity approach is concerned with equality across differences. The ideal common humanity lens is to recognize that humans are unequivocally equal, but if nothing else, one needs to acknowledge obvious differences while accepting the importance of less-obvious similarities. The acknowledgement of group-based differences facilitates a common humanity by opening opportunities for groups to share a goal and form relationships, for example.

In social studies education, the fault line between the two approaches is the idea of justice. Critical theory and its various social studies incarnations rest on the idea that justice is only achieved by distributing resources, even if disproportionately, to achieve equal outcomes across groups. Distributive justice is limited and artificially creates a zero-sum dynamic of winners and losers in perpetual conflict for resources and status. The common humanity view maintains that justice is best achieved through procedural justice. This form of justice is built on the idea that there needs to be fairness in processes, not necessarily an equal outcome, that resolve disputes and allocate resources. Procedural justice is based on the principles of fairness in processes, transparency in actions, opportunities, and impartiality in decision making.

Political polarization, the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, is, according to the Pew Research Center, “a defining feature of American politics.” These divides are likely to be compounded within schools, and society more generally, by critical theory educators who insist there must be a focus on identifying unequal power relationships in society through social studies education, coupled with the goal of transforming those unjust social relations.

If the goal of education is to develop critical thinking skills, there is a clear choice between a critical theory approach and a common humanity approach. Critical theory promotes an orthodoxy based on the ideas of winners and losers, oppressors and the oppressed, one group against another, and, ultimately, the good and the bad. The heterodox option of a common humanity is based on mutual understanding and working across differences to achieve common goals. This question about the future of social studies education is not a “left” or “right” issue. It’s a question of how to best equip children to participate in a democratic society as adults. Understanding society through the lens of a common humanity is better suited than critical theory to meet this goal.


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