Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part One

I teach a university course in education taken by undergraduate liberal arts students—they aren’t education majors—who take the course as an elective. It focuses on contemporary elementary and secondary public schooling and, to a lesser extent, the circumstance in universities.  Among the required readings this semester (Fall, 2013) are sections of a book edited by James Noll, a retired professor of education, entitled Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues.1   The Noll book is made up of twenty-three contemporary schooling issues as Noll defines them, each phrased in the form of a question.  For each issue/question, Noll writes an introduction and then includes two articles he has chosen from the professional literature in education to represent Yes and No answers to the question, thus creating a debate format.  Noll ends each issue with a concluding statement, which includes further readings on this concern.

Noll has done a good job with the book, and I find it useful in my course. I want my students to realize that there isn’t just one right answer to the issues we confront in education (or in anything else, for that matter), that depending on their particular outlooks and values, thoughtful and informed people legitimately differ both as to what is going on in schools and what ought to go on in them. Grounded in that realization, students, I hope, feel invited to analyze and assess arguments and explore their differences and implications, contribute their own best thinking to making sense of the issue, and come to their own conclusions rather than remain uncritical note-taking consumers of the ideas and proposals of others, which unfortunately is too often the role students play in university courses.

A Noll issue I used this semester is titled “Does a ‘Deficit Model’ Serve Poor Children Well?”2 It is clear from Noll’s introductory comments and the two opposing arguments that poverty to these writers means African American students in urban public schools. By deficit, Noll is referring to lack of health care, exposure to crime and drugs, negative adult role models, family instability, and limited exposure to culturally uplifting experiences.

The Yes argument is an article by Ruby Payne called  “Nine Powerful Practices,” first published in the prestigious professional journal Educational Leadership.3 Payne is the president of her own company which generates and dispenses ideas for how schools can overcome what she perceives as limiting factors, particularly cultural, in poor children’s lives—again, the tacit, and at times explicit, reference is to Blacks.  She gives talks and workshops in the schools, provides consultant help, makes media appearances, authors short writings such as this one in the Noll book, and has written several books, including Under-Resourced Learners: 8 Strategies to Boost Student Achievement.4

In the “Nine Powerful Practices” article Noll chose to include, Payne begins:

Students from families with little formal education often learn rules about how to speak and behave, and acquire knowledge that conflicts with how learning happens in school.  They also come to school with less background knowledge and fewer family supports.  Formal schooling, therefore, may present challenges to students living in poverty. Teachers need to recognize these challenges and help students to overcome them.  In my work consulting with schools that serve a large population of students living in poverty, I have found nine interventions particularly helpful in raising achievement for low-income students.5

She then goes on to list the nine interventions, among them teaching students to speak in a formal register, helping them learn the hidden rules of school, and teaching students to ask questions.

The No article, “Poverty and Payne,” written by two professors of education—we don’t need to name their university in this context—Mistilina Sato and Timothy J. Lensmire, was originally published in another top rank education journal, Phi Delta Kappan.6 The authors criticize Payne for negatively stereotyping the poor (that is to say, African Americans). They charge that Payne’s “deficit” perceptions reflect racial insensitivity if not outright White racism. Better than Payne’s “fix the inferiors” approach, contend Sato and Lensmire, is to ground schooling practices in these children’s cultural competence, to center instruction on what is right about them rather than what is wrong or incomplete about them in the eyes of a racially and culturally insensitive White educator.

A big part of paving the way to the implementation of this more advisable strategy, write Sato and Lensmire, is White teachers and prospective teachers coming to understand their own racial identities and how they affect their work in the classroom with non-White students—again, the referent is African Americans. The authors note that in this regard they engage their White teacher education students with critical Whiteness studies, as they term it. They mention two books particularly useful in this undertaking: David Roediger’s edited volume, Black on White: Black Writers on What It means to be White, and Rev. Thandeka’s Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America.7

I don’t know professors Sato or Lensmire personally, and I’m not familiar with their writings, but going by the information about themselves they provide in their faculty website pages, I conclude that even though Professor Sato is the lead author of their article (the first name listed, which implies that this writer was more greatly responsible for its content), Professor Lensmire was the major force in this writing.  I’m sure that Professor Sato concurs with what’s in this piece, but I believe these are Professor Lensmire’s ideas, and it’s him I focus on in this writing.  I use his example as a vehicle for the consideration of a pattern of thought and behavior prevalent currently in American universities across the board. To get into this consideration, I need to set out some context, so that’s next.


Historically, the American university has been viewed as a place of free and open inquiry and expression and debate, for both students and faculty; academic freedom and individual autonomy and integrity have been cherished ideals.  The university has been seen as a marketplace of ideas, as it were, a setting in which competing perspectives and explanations and proposals are encouraged, acknowledged, explored, discussed, and debated.  Within this perspective, philosophical and ideological pluralism, or diversity, and personal autonomy and intellectual integrity, are guiding principles. Exemplary excellence, exceptionality—groundbreaking insight, creativity, freshness of analysis and discovery—is a supreme value.  A university is where people don’t have to think alike or be alike or feel compelled to subordinate themselves to some cause or mission.  Rather, it is a context in which to push with all that’s in you to be top-of-the-line academically in your own unique way and to express the outcomes of that process and be heard and respectfully taken into account by others.  The university is not to be in the business of stamping out cookie-cutter people, students or faculty.

With regard to race—and other matters as well, but I’ll stick to race here—that conception of the university doesn’t hold in our time.  And here is where the theoretical work of Robert Jay Lifton is useful.  Lifton is an American psychiatrist, scholar still active in his mid-eighties and the author of a recently published memoir.8  He first became known to the general public as a young man for his studies of mind control during the Korean War—the coercive practices used with American prisoners of war by the Chinese with embarrassing effectiveness, methods that came to be known popularly as brainwashing.

Lifton coined the term totalism to describe ideologies and orientations that justify gaining control over the thoughts and behaviors of masses, or at least large numbers, of people.  The concept of totalism rings of totalitarian political arrangements, but Lifton uses the term to get across the idea that it is not just governments that are involved with this kind of thing.  So don’t just think of Stalin and Hitler and Mao; think also of non-governmental organizations, like religious sects and, well, your local university.

Totalism involves the fervent commitment to get everybody working harmoniously together in alignment with your vision and in service to your ends. A totalist outlook goes beyond simply arguing for your position and agenda, trying to persuade people, making your case to them, selling them on your ideas and ways, and accepting the idea that individuals and groups might not buy your product. Totalism supports arranging people’s lives, managing and controlling their circumstances and experiences and rewards and punishments, so that they will see the light, your light, and enthusiastically get with the program, your program. Part of this is making sure competing “products” to yours are demonized or silenced to the point that you can in effect operate a monopoly. One feature that characterizes totalism is an edge, a tension, an atmosphere of intimidation.  The idea gets across that if people have problems with what’s going on, they’d best keep that to themselves. (I expand on the idea of totalism in a short and long version of a 2011 writing for my web site, “Totalism and Thought Reform in American Universities.”)

Who would feel compelled to adopt this way of educating students—or training, or indoctrinating, or conditioning them, pick your term? People convinced beyond a doubt that they possess Truth and Morality and feel duty bound to bring the world into alignment with it, and in the process eradicate ignorance and evil and injustice and those that uphold it.  What are some historical examples of people like this getting in charge of universities? The Soviet Union under Stalin comes to mind, and German universities in the 1930s under the National Socialists, and Chinese universities under Mao.   And who might be prone to operate in this fashion in our time? Educators that reflect an ideology and approach called critical theory or critical pedagogy.


Critical theory, critical pedagogy, has been an increasingly prominent perspective on schooling for four decades or more in universities, to the point that it is now the predominant ideological perspective in the social sciences and humanities, education, social work, and the field of higher education. The key to understanding this outlook and methodology is to note the term critical. This orientation focuses on what it considers salient in Western culture and society, its injustices: racism, sexism, classism, poverty, economic disparity, the oppression of poor and non-White people, capitalist exploitation, imperialism, and political power in the hands of the powerful few who rig the system to serve their own selfish interests.  Critical theory and its practitioners are intensely critical of all that, and they are committed to radically changing it for the better through their work in education.9

The goal of critical pedagogy is, the short hand term for it, social justice.  With America as the referent, social justice means:

De-Europeanizing America, which emphasizes de-Christianizing and “de-WASPing” it. The idea of diversity is a good cover for that endeavor.

Collectivizing America. Americans are too individualistic and private. They need to develop a group consciousness. They have to think of all of us rather than me and those close to me, put the needs and interests of the impersonal collective above their narrow concern for themselves and their families and churches and communities. 

Equalizing America. Power and wealth are in too few hands, and more than that, in the wrong hands; it needs to be redistributed. Bring the top down and the bottom—that is, minorities and the poor—up.

Democratizing America. Democracy empowers the collective, and especially the government that does its bidding, over the individual par excellence. In a democracy, individuals must defer to the dictates of the collective in just about any area you can name. While democracy is linked to freedom, it is the freedom of the group to do whatever it wants. Everything put up for a vote denies individuals the freedom to direct their lives with regard to that matter; they must do what the group dictates.  Our federal constitutional republic—which we pledge allegiance to at ballgames—with its limited and prescribed governmental prerogatives and emphasis on individual rights and freedoms as codified in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution gets in the way of collective domination.  With a democracy, whoever can control the collective—through education, the media, interest group activity, demagoguery, and rewards and punishments—can get about the business of reordering matters in the right, that is to say, social justice, direction.

Critical pedagogy is basically a neo-Marxist orientation—neo as in new, updated.  Where the old Marxism emphasized an uprising of the working classes, the new Marxism emphasizes a transformation in the minds of both oppressed people and their oppressors (oppressed-and-oppressors is the primary interpretive lens of neo-Marxists).   Schools can help both groups to understand the realities of the world and in their own lives, and this will prompt both to create a more equitable cultural and social circumstance.

Central in this undertaking, young people from privileged backgrounds and circumstances will learn in schools at all levels, and especially in universities, of the misdeeds of their ancestors and the residue of that which resides in the contemporary circumstance and in their own individual lives, and this awareness will awaken them to their moral obligation to transform the world to align with what their heightened consciousness shows them is needed.  This new Marxism revolution, then, is not so much the outcome of working class solidarity and action as it is the actions of educated middle and upper class people prompted and guided by insights and ideals they attain in the schools they attend. Teachers within this frame are no less than political revolutionaries. Their mission is to transform the world. 

There is a distinct racial dimension to all of this, and to get at that it helps to survey the writings a group of Marxist intellectuals collectively known as the Frankfurt School of Intellectuals. They were called that because many them were at the University of Frankfurt in Germany in the 1930s.  They fled the National Socialists and came to America and, a good number of them, became affiliated with Columbia University in New York City.

Among the prominent members of the Frankfurt School were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. These men were active from the 1940s to ‘60s and their prose is as dry as dust, and just about nobody these dys has heard of them, but their ideas have filtered through to our time and informed today’s critical educators.10

The Frankfurt School was a Jewish intellectual movement, drawing what they viewed as a lesson from what happened in Germany when White gentiles became racially and culturally self-conscious and cohesive. They sought to prevent that catastrophe from re-occurring in their new homeland and in the Europe of their birth. In their writings, they depicted White gentiles as authoritarian, oppressive and exploitative of non-Whites, racist, anti-Semitic, and prone to aggression and violence. Their goal, though it remained largely tacit in their public expressions, was to diminish the power of White gentiles by painting a very negative picture of them, including in the minds of White gentiles themselves. The basic idea: non-White gentiles have a problem, and that problem is White gentiles.

To put it simply, critical theory embodies a villainous view of White gentiles. An illustration: Peter McLaren, a professor of education at UCLA, one of the most prominent representatives of critical pedagogy in our time, was asked by an interviewer, “How do you come to terms with your own Whiteness?” McClaren replied, “My Whiteness is something I cannot escape no matter how hard I try.  I come to terms with my Whiteness by living my own life as a traitor to Whiteness. I cannot become lazy.  If all Whites are racists at some level, then we must struggle to become anti-racist racists.”11 All to say, if a word association test were given in a successfully run class by a critical pedagogue, and students—including and especially White students—were asked to write down ten words they associate with White people and Whiteness, all ten would be harshly negative.

A last point, one other legacy of the Frankfurt school worthy of mention in this context is the justification for enforcing tight control of the public discourse—the idea flow, the dialogue—in educational settings. There are not two sides to the matters critical pedagogues care about; there is but one proper, or correct, side.  It makes no sense to allow those who represent untruth and malevolence to spew their venom in schools. Marcuse in particular argued forcefully that the oppressors in universities employ notions of free inquiry, the encouragement and support for all sides of a matter to be investigated, aired, and debated, academic freedom, and intellectual autonomy to cloud the minds of students and defuse their commitment to do what needs to be done, and to maintain power for themselves. They can’t be allowed to persist in their misguided and evil ways.  As the slogan goes, no free speech for fascists.12 Those who would impede the needed transformation of society are to be marginalized, silenced, and, if at all possible, excluded from the university. The challenge for university educators, all educators, is not to present contrasting sides to students but rather the true and right side.  The goal of social justice trumps all other considerations.

It’s clear from Professor Lensmire’s self-description on his university web page that he falls into the critical theory camp.  “I embrace and continue to learn about and explore various progressive, feminist, and critical pedagogies in my work with students.” “My current research and writing focus on race and education, and especially on how White people learn to be White in our White supremacist society. Grounded in critical Whiteness studies, my work contributes to the ongoing effort to figure out how best to work with White students (in K-12 schools and universities, in teacher education, in teacher development) on issues of race and social justice.  Among the courses Professor Linsmire teaches at the university is one called Critical Pedagogy.  His professional writings include the articles “Laughing White Men,” “Ambivalent White Racial Identities: Fear and an Elusive Innocence,” “A Critical Pedagogy of Race in Teacher Education,” “What Teacher Education Can Learn from Blackface Minstrelsy,” and “How I Became White While Punching De Tar Baby.”  (“Punching de tar baby,” derived from an old Uncle Remus folk tale, refers to a “sticky situation” that is only aggravated by continued involvement, and tar baby is at times taken to be a pejorative term for Blacks.)


With this last section as a backdrop, now on to those writers that the Sato and Lensmire article referred to as being useful in understanding White cultural identity, David Roetiger and Rev. Thandeka (she is often referred to simply as Thandeka, no title or first name). That is coming up next in Part Two.

Robert S. Griffin’s writings on universities include those contained in a review of the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism in The Occidental Quarterly, Summer 2006.


1. James Noll, editor, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues, sixteenth edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012).

2. Ibid., pp. 133-148.

3. The article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Educational Leadership, pp. 48-52.

4. The book was published by aha?Process, Inc., 2008.

5. Noll, p. 135.

6. The article appeared in the January 2009 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 365-370.

7.  David Roetiger, editor, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White in America (Schocken, 1999). Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000).

8. Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (Free Press, 2011).

9. For background reading on critical theory, see, Thomas Popkewitz, editor, Critical Theories in Education (Routledge, 1999).

10. For background reading on the Frankfurt School, see Michael Robertson, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Significance (MIT Press, 1995).

11.  The McClaren quote can be found at the web site entitled “Rage and Hope.”

12. A Marcuse book that makes this case for shutting up and shutting down the academic opposition is An Essay on Liberation (Beacon Press, 1971).

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