Ed School TnT 4: Bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is…

What is worse than one of these?

[Irritated, angry, I’m just furious. So angry! Part 4 of a series starting here]

Last post, I wrote about weak research standards in education from two angles: empty scientism and excessive skepticism. I already covered the scientism issue, so, while I have free time again on spring break, let’s hit the skepticism side. I’ll lay out the problem with a simple expression:

Critical Theory + poor scholarship.

Gasp! Critical Theory with capital letters, that bug-a-bear of our modern American culture wars! For now, define the term however you want because in my view it has become conventionally meaningless through extreme politicization and overuse. I’ll get to a formal textbook definition down below.

Until then, let it suffice for me to say that I am quite sympathetic to various pessimistic and skeptical approaches to philosophy. I don’t have a problem with critical theory per se and I’m not going to pull a Sokal / Boghossian et al. and reject an entire field of thought because, even if much of the work invoking it is junk, as I wrote last time, much data-driven, so-called “positivist” research is too. A substantial portion of academic output just kind of sucks in general. Happy times! 

However, combine lazy usage of critical theory with the dog-awful educational research standards described in the previous post, and you get a uniquely noxious mess. To set the mood, I’ll just slap myself a poignant Lyotard quote, pulled from Francois Cusset’s funny intellectual history French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of The United States:

My opinion is that theories are themselves narratives, but hidden; that one must not let oneself be deceived by their pretention to omnitemporality. — Jean-Francois Lyotard, Instructions Pai’ennes.

My frustration with critical theory (or, more properly to this post, “critical social justice”) doesn’t come from the content of the theory itself, which, I will admit, I lack the skill or knowledge to criticize. Beyond Cusset’s book, I have only read a very little “French”-ish theory — Foucault, Bourdieu, Said, and a scattering of others across a couple of undergraduate survey courses that I didn’t much enjoy and consequently don’t remember.

Rather, reflecting Lyotard, I hate the way certain scholars treat “theory” as a universalized holy cow in much the same way I described others venerating “the science” in the previous post. Deployed badly, critical theory becomes legitimizing “narrative” with no meat to it: maybe an inspecfic citation to one Foucault, 1961 (which the reader, of course, should know refers only to his opus Madness and Civilization) and a few key words like “deconstruction” or whatever scattered about in fealty to the masters — all the intellectual justification necessary for our beliefs and methods, if only you’d “do the work” and “educate yourself” by reading the infamously awful prose of writers in that genre. The way so many scholars employ “theory” seems to me to violate the narrative-interrupting impulse behind the originals like Lyotard, which confounds my own skeptical outlook.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is critical theory?

My program’s primary textbook, Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal? (a self-identified work of “critical social justice”), defines it as “a body of scholarship that examines how society works, …  guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment.” Drawing from Marxism and various relativist, constructivist, and/or subjectivist philosophies (ironic?), much of it stands in direct opposition to scientific “positivism” and “liberal humanism,” which DiAngelo and Sensoy darkly describe as “a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality.”

Alright. My immediate problem with this theoretical approach is that it explicitly defines the scholars’ preferred moral outcomes. That doesn’t sound so obviously bad, but consider that truth might not always align with a fallible human’s ethical instincts, especially after accounting for political (or financial!) motivation. I think of Soviet Lysenkoism, a bogus biological theory that dismissed modern genetic science because of perceived contradictions with the state ideology of Marxism-Leninism. In general terms, research in a field of study that embraces moral and political prescriptions ante facto runs the potential of suppressing inquiry for intensely personal reasons: can I ethically report findings that might detract from a good cause and remain a “good” person? If you think I am asking a trite rhetorical question, I have drawn the example from a real academic publication about “critical” pedagogy:

In this article, the authors argue that inquiry into critical public pedagogies, public sites of counterhegemonic educational activity, requires that researchers’ epistemological, representational, and ethical obligations extend to examine how their practices might undermine the political possibilities of these sites, diminish the transformative potential that public pedagogies hold, and ultimately reinscribe normative, limiting notions of educational possibility.

Translated out of such torturous academese, doesn’t this effectively say that research which might question critical pedagogy undermines the political mission of critical pedagogy, thus making such research itself problematic, even a violation of “ethical obligations?” If you believe that what is true derives from what is socially good, I suppose that that philosophy might hold. But, if you are a pessimist like me that believes that what is true is often quite bad, the sentiment in the above quote is, well… a bit looney. As a researcher, should I suppress my findings for their political implications or do I have a commitment first to truth?

Here, I hit the more difficult of my criticisms. I am not convinced a serious portion of “critical social justice” scholarship in education has much concern for the concept of truth. This is a problem of poor scholarship rather than of critical theory alone.

Going back to the Sensoy and DiAngelo book, the authors write that “critical theory challenges the claim that any knowledge is neutral or objective, and outside of humanly constructed meanings and interests” and elsewhere that “a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal.” To the first quote, I take the point about the social construction of knowledge and will not pretend that humans can access a perfect, “objective” truth, if it even exists. I am agnostic on the issue, though I am happy to take rigorous empirical evidence on the simple basis of “it’s the best we’ve got.” However, to the second, how does it follow that the mere invocation of objectivity contributes to social injustice?

Well, the authors refer to “countless [uncited] studies [that] show that humans are not and cannot be objective … about one another” – a point that seems to me hypocritical and circular – and otherwise lean on the historical abuses of science, mostly of 19th and 20th century race theorists who helped to justify colonialism and genocide. It is a good point, but hardly a decisive one: didn’t post-war geneticists use empirical insights to dismantle race science even faster than the old anthropologists had constructed it? Empirical science is of course fallible, like all things human, but it is hardly irredeemable. In critical social justice though, once sinned, never forgiven, I suppose.

Frustratingly, the anti-empirical position is not a fringe one among my professors or peers, who often adopt it in ideological opposition to “evidence-based” education practices promoted by “neoliberal” boogeymen. In one flustering conversation, a classmate argued that testing in schools for the purpose of data collection is unethical because such tests have historical origins in IQ research, which once justified race science, which somehow means that any present testing remains unethical by association..? The logic is incoherent, but at least that’s just a (graduate!) student. From a stronger authority, I encountered an even more explicit expression of the anti-empiricism rampant in education (from this paper, cited in this book chapter about educational research):

proponents of evidence-based education unknowingly promote a colonial discourse and material relations of power that continue from the American-European colonial era. I posit that this colonial discourse is evident in at least three ways: (1) the discourse of civilizing the profession of education, (2) the promotion of colonial hierarchies of knowledge and monocultures of the mind, and (3) the interconnection between neoliberal educational policies and global exploitation of colonized labor.

…uhhh, what? Do you see why I struggle to take some of these critical theory approaches seriously? Slippery words like “promote” and “discourse” and “unknowingly” dilute the claim, but it’s still a remarkable one: evidence-based education is comparable to colonialism? Really? I don’t even know how to argue against something so outlandish. It’s flatly conspiratorial.

Returning to my prior arguments, let’s apply a critical lens to critical social justice. I think that the basic problem of “critical” approaches in education research is that by positing the moral goal of “social betterment,” the work falls into one of Lyotard’s “narratives” with “pretention to omnitemporality,” even despite the insistence that no objective or universal knowledge exists. The cause of social justice provides a common narrative; the utopia it seeks ensures that it remains eternal. It is a noble goal and, in structure, little different from science’s endless pursuit of “truth.” But then human psychology, sociology, ideology and politics jumps in the way.

Employing critical theory, however badly, signals that the writer belongs to an academic in-group of “good” people: not a conniving neoliberal or evil conservative, but a bleeding-heart leftist who just wants to uplift the oppressed. It is psychologically attractive to consider yourself a good person, especially so sociologically supported by high-status peers (professors!) who praise you regardless of the quality of your work (the autoethnography fad I mentioned last post…). Lysenkoism kicks in, too. A critical theorist should not rigorously criticize another critical theorist, no matter how stupid or conspiratorial, because it might provide ammunition to a political enemy. It’s the keystone strategy of partisan politics: circle the wagons! …or, as it plays out in academia, write in such impenetrable, jargon-laced prose that only isolated peers can even understand you. The production structure of the field permits a substantial degree of intellectual sloppiness.

So, to give an example proximate to my program, when my social studies methods professor gushes over the “critical pedagogy” of Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he’s not introducing it to teach us students something (because in this unrigorous course (part one), we didn’t read or discuss *any* scholarship, including that of the professor’s supposed luminary in Freire) so much as to declare his left-loyalties in a cliquish, status-seeking game played in the American academy. Plus, as an added bonus, he can dress up in the stylish radical chic of the #resistence (is it a coincidence that this particular professor is an avid user of Twitter? And has encouraged us students to follow him in class?) to fight on the imaginary battlelines of a war last vigorously fought 30 years ago (the so-called “science wars,” if you care). Meanwhile, up in his academic+social+media bubble, he hardly has to care about the actual outcomes of his preferred methods because, to the acclaim of his peers, he has convinced himself that outcome-oriented scientific research as such is flawed beyond repair. Evidence? Oppression!

I’m being unfair because — straight honesty here — I don’t respect that professor as an intellectual. But I’m not joking either. When I feel like I am slipping into strawman arguments, that I’m losing my charity out of sheer resentment over the low quality of my certification program, statements like the following from Lather (2004) pull me back and remind me that some of these critical claims are… too strong:

This article mobilizes three counterdiscourses [Foucauldian analysis, feminism, post-colonialism] … to situate such [positivist and empirical] scientism as a racialized masculinist backlash against the proliferation of research approaches that characterize the past 20 years of social inquiry. Congressional disdain for educational research is addressed within a context of the Science Wars and the needs of neoliberal states, including conservative restoration.

Are you kidding me? I’m sorry, but just that’s ridiculous grandstanding. The evidence-based approach isn’t just scientism, akin to crystal therapy, but nothing short of a racist, misogynistic pillar of some reactionary backlash to reify an oppressive capitalistic state. Do you see how I might get the impression that certain education scholars might have a problem with science in general? Their paranoid “critical” lens pushes them towards a skepticism so blinkered that they categorically reject empirical research methods.

I am just absolutely furious and so, so sick of writing and thinking about philosophy. Let me summarize my frustration in personal terms:

I entered this education program to learn how to become an effective teacher. A demonstration of effectiveness requires evidence of outcomes. Education researchers have a number of tools to measure outcomes, one among them test scores. To my professors then: quit whinging about how testing is racist or evidence-based practice is colonialism and Tell. Me. What. Works.

Or if you don’t know, and if you would rather obfuscate that lack of knowledge through endless but politically-satisfying “critical” navel-gazing, why the hell are you teaching teachers?

Move to a sociology department or get out of teacher education.

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