Monday, May 30, 2011

You Can Visit, But You Don't Have to Live There...

I've been having a fairly interesting conversation with my friend regarding the nature and role of critical theory in informing our classroom decisions, planning, discipline, and even simple observation and perspective.  There is a lot to think about.  While this is not completely on point with his main argument of critical thinking versus critical theory, I wanted to take up an element of his post and respond.

His conclusion (horribly simplified by me) is that hegemonic pedagogy and critical theorists are both biased, and it is healthier and more constructive to be positivistic.  I've framed it harshly, but I'm actually quite sympathetic to this view, and in fact, got lambasted in class when I mentioned something similar to the professor.  What it comes down to for me is simply that critical theory strikes me as whiny and unproductive.  Everybody's a racist oppressive product of the system, except for a keen-eyed elitist few who can carve through the layers of bullshit with a surgeon's deft hand and expose the ulcerous tumor in the heart of every school.  I'm sick of victimizing and looking at how broken everything is in the world.  I want to do things.  I want to work hard and do my best and have a positive attitude about myself, my role in the world, and the students I teach.

On the other hand, I don't want to lie to myself to be there.  I don't want to be blind to the institutionalized power policy makers, materials publishers, administrators, my colleagues, and myself wield over others, and how we/they are participants in loathsome behavior.  I'm so glad I took a course on critical theory because it enables me to see these things more easily--it gives me a perspective I didn't have before, and it allows me to ably reflect on my own actions and those of my students and peers.

In the end, I cannot continue to do my job if I adopt a strong critical theory perspective.  I am not driven or emotionally resilient enough to push myself into every fight against discriminatory behavior in my classroom, department, school, national education system, or field.  What I want is to keep that critical voice very near to the surface, so that I do see it, and I can make the choice at each phase if this is a battle I can fight, or wish to fight.  I have a window into the dark side of the English education racket, and I will never look at it the same way again.  I believe we are doing some good in the world.  I believe most of us are doing the best we can, but I have changed things about the way I teach from learning critical theory, and others can as well.  It's an insidious world, but I choose to spend most of my time looking at the beautiful products and moments that come out of it in spite of (or because of?) that fact.  The lotus flower needs to root in muck and filth to put out its blossom.


  1. One of my fundamental questions, though, is is it insidious? Also, long as upward mobility is possible is hegemony evil? By definition according to Wikipedia), it is consensual. It seems to me that hierarchical hegemony has proven to be the best, stablest, most equitable organizing structure for humanity. Why fight that?

    What I think the problem is is that we do not value or understand the structure as a whole. We think it is immovable and rigid. Additionally, it is not always equitable, and the topmost folks are sometimes overprivileged, and the base is less privileged and/or undervalued. One nice thing about feudal England is the impression that there were times when the serfs, nobles, and royalty understood their interdependence. I hope we can have that perspective.

    As a teacher, I say, rather than fight hegemony, Why not instead work to elevate those with ability regardless of their race, class, or gender?

    One of my complaints in general is that critical theory doesn't ask enough questions, but rather uses leading questions to get the answers it wants. I totally agree with your point on victimizing. Before we victimize, assuming we are right in our assumptions, we should be asking way more questions, and trying to understand "others." In my eyes, our moral obligation is not to ask leading questions which force people to our point of view, but rather give them the tools for success, so that they might express their own voice...and we listen, and grow together. Let's promote a "we"-based inquiry, not an us/them inquiry.

    In my eyes, we have not misapproached the world as western critical theorists would claim, but rather we have failed to make contact with, to listen to, the other worlds. Positivism and constructivism give us the means and the perspective to do that. They ARE more neutral because they ever ask questions, and any positivist who ever claimed theory as fact was a bad scientist. Positivism is a method of inquiry that has been misunderstood and misrepresented...the inherent biases in a pure positivistic outlook are in fact what a Buddhist might call "right thinking," not negative elements of domination. The ability to ask why, and wonder, and to listen; to have an open outlook; to collect data, and form theories, always knowing that at any time an experiment may not repeat the same results, and really we may not know anything - these are the "biases" - Socratic and Buddhist - of a good well as a good constructivist, and a healthy form of inquiry. Critical theory as I have been exposed to it allows no such self-analysis or honesty, and is an unhealthy form of inquiry IMHO.

  2. Consensus automatically takes one group over the others, simply by demographics. It is this careless neglect of other groups and values that is what is insidious. It is not an intentional or active evil, it is an evil of apathy.

    It also seems that you advocate some form of meritocracy when you say to "work to elevate those with ability regardless of their race, class, or gender," but part of the point of critical theory is that our ideas of merit are formed by our hegemonic, dominant, institutionalized worldview. We have to be able to step back and see it from the outside.

    I think that my biggest problem with a positivistic outlook is its lack of humility. If we become convinced that our view is "right" or "best" in any sense, that allows an arrogance of thought that validates the casual careless disregard of others. It is for this reason that I want to keep my critical eyes very close to the surface. I wish to view my participation in a positivistic, hegemonic system as better, acceptable, in some ways necessary, but never as right.

  3. Hmm, perhaps hegemony is not the right term. I do believe in a pyramidal shape to society. At the top are the politically successful, which includes the most clever and Machiavellian. Anyone can move up and down the pyramid if they have ability. However, the pyramid does discourage too much movement. Furthermore, certain unifying principles are imposed on the people, and not every culture is considered equal. In other words, there are some fundamental humanistic concepts which transcend culture.

    I guess, at heart, I believe that everyone believes in an ideal hegemony where everyone's drives are perfectly balanced. Obviously, no one group can ever have dominance. Rather the hegemony itself must be a neutral dominance imposed on the various factions. Within this structure, merit, as dictated by the structure, is rewarded. For the greater harmony, certain aspects of cultural difference are sacrificed, and what can be retained is retained.

    This is the only kind of peace I can see in the world as we know it. Otherwise, we will constantly be at war with ourselves (militarily, economically, culturally, etc.) in the form of special interest groups. We will essentially be in the barbaric state that we were in before Athens and Rome. Ultimately, we must decide on one overarching imperial world culture. Some subcultures will be sustainable within that framework, but others must evolve or fade away. And, yes, an overarching imperial world culture *requires* faith in itself, a righteousness, or it will perish, and the cultures it sought to unify will once again fall into petty squabbling.

    Now, how trans-humanism, which is creeping up behind, unbeknownst to all, may upset all of this and all that we have known has yet to be seen. But, even with trans-humanism, one can pursue essentially the same policy of equipping the individual for success within a system that will necessarily be antagonistic at times.

  4. It seems to contradict your ideas of meritocracy that only the politically clever are at the top of the pyramid. It doesn't matter how talented someone is, just that they have the social and political skills to claw their way up the pyramid. That's a very specific skills set, and not one that puts the best-suited people in the right job. Yes, you need strong interpersonal skills to have an authoritative position, but many meritorious people do have sufficient skills, just not awareness of the situation or ambition.

    I believe many "top scholars" in our field and any other are not the best people at research, nor those with the most innovative ideas, but instead those who are the best at networking and keeping their name in good standing with the right people. A physics student once told me that Stephen Hawking was a mediocre scientist with a really good PR team--not that he's stupid, but the comparisons between his own work and that of Edison or Einstein are... exaggerated. Was this student just demonstrating resistance to a field leader, or was he on to something that we as non-physicists don't have awareness of?

  5. Well, ostensibly, Machiavelli's method does put the right people in the right job. Those who are fit to lead, lead, while those who are not, fail. Someone who can maintain leadership does have the requisite talent. The most meritorious for the top of the pyramid are the most Machiavellian.

    The question for me is must one be virtuous and talented, or is talented enough? An argument which goes back to Socrates and probably before.