What’s the Big Deal with Critical Theory Anyway?

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In today’s episode we are starting the discussion on Critical Theories in our classrooms by talking about what a Critical Theory is and ways that these theories have leached out of academia into our culture at large.

Below you will find the full show notes and reference list for Episode 14 of The State of Education Podcast, presented by One-Room Education, along with links to the resources mentioned in this episode.

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Question of the Week:

What was your understanding of Critical Theories before you listed to this episode?

Did you find out anything new by listening?

What was your favorite fact about today’s topic?

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What’s the Big Deal with Critical Theory Anyway?

Show Notes

Welcome back to The State of Education podcast, presented by One-Room Education.

In today’s episode we are starting the discussion on Critical Theories in our classrooms by talking about what a Critical Theory is and ways that these theories have leached out of academia into our culture at large.

Defining Critical Theory

critical theory, Marxist-inspired movement in social and political philosophy originally associated with the work of the Frankfurt School. Drawing particularly on the thought of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, critical theorists maintain that a primary goal of philosophy is to understand and to help overcome the social structures through which people are dominated and oppressed. Believing that science, like other forms of knowledge, has been used as an instrument of oppression, they caution against a blind faith in scientific progress, arguing that scientific knowledge must not be pursued as an end in itself without reference to the goal of human emancipation. Since the 1970s, critical theory has been immensely influential in the study of history, law, literature, and the social sciences.


Human emancipation has never happened solely through thoughts and ideas. It always, 100% of the time, is done through the use of force.

Katie J., The State of Education podcast, Episode 14. 2022.

critical theory is any approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture to reveal and challenge power structures. With roots in sociology and literary criticism, it argues that social problems stem more from social structures and cultural assumptions than from individuals. It argues that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation. Critical theory finds applications in various fields of study, including psychology, sociology, history, communication theory, and feminist theory.


Specifically, Critical Theory (capitalized) is a school of thought practiced by the Frankfurt School theoreticians Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” Although a product of modernism, and although many of the progenitors of Critical Theory were skeptical of postmodernism, Critical Theory is one of the major components of both modern and postmodern thought, and is widely applied in the humanities and social sciences today.


Traditional and Critical Theory

Traditional Theory is essential the social and academic structures that we know based in facts and rational thought. It is based on hard facts that are assumed true by the wider culture and used heavily in the natural sciences.

Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory

Traditional theory is a theory of the status quo, in that it is designed to increase the productivity and functioning of the world as it presently exists.


When education only teaches how to work within the current system, and deters the questioning of established theories, it’s not just boring, it’s called “indoctrination”.

Katie J., The State of Education podcast, Episode 14. 2022.

Theories under Critical Theory

A basic list of theories and ideologies that fall under the Critical Theory umbrella are:

  • history
  • law
  • literature
  • psychology
  • sociology
  • history
  • communication theory
  • feminist theory
  • feminism
  • critical race theory
  • forms of postcolonialism

ThoughtCo adds:

  • cultural theory
  • gender and queer theories
  • media theory
  • media studies

The point is that Critical Theory has permeated almost every facet of our social and public lives if we are to understand that all of these fields of study have been saturated with it.

I will be doing episodes on almost all of these topics individually in the future, so make sure that you are signed up to get One-Room content straight to your inbox.

Rules within Critical Theory

Historically, Horkheimer suggested that critical theory MUST do 2 things:

It must account for society within a historical context, and it should seek to offer a robust and holistic critique by incorporating insights from all social sciences.


Education or Indoctrination?

Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: employing critical theory by Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe

In this reconceptualized context, contemporary critical theory argues that so-called democratic societies are not as democratic as generally believed. Democratic citizens are regulated by the forces of power operating in a general climate of deceit. In this contemporary condition individuals are acculturated and schooled to feel comfortable in relations of either domination or subordination rather that equality and interdependence.

Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: employing critical theory

What might something like this look like? According to Steinberg and Kincheloe put it:

As our doctoral students, for example, learn to employ critical semiotics, they often uncover emancipatory meanings in particular television programs. They integrate such meaning into their own teaching, engaging students both intellectually and at the level of pleasure in the emancipatory struggle. Their students, in the process, learn to identify with marginalized groups who traditionally have been ignored or degraded in the schools setting.

As it counters the mainstream, a reconceptualized critical theory decenters the unchallenged interpretations, employing both semiotics and a tranformative hermeneutics to engage with the previously excluded. In this context it helps drag us out of the stagnant moral pond of twenty-first-century Western culture.

Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: employing critical theory

Critical thinking skills … is the primary role of education, especially on a secondary level.

Katie J., The State of Education podcast, Episode 14. 2022.

A critically grounded education is dedicated to challenging comfortable assumptions about politics, culture, psychology, human potential, and the moral domain. What are the consequences of schooling? Is the United States really a democratic society? Is intelligence genetically determined? When one has exposed asymmetrical power relations and their harmful effects on human beings, what moral actions are mandated? These are only a few of the questions that emerge from a critical politics of skepticism.

Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: employing critical theory

Critical Theories in Schools and Children’s Books

Below is a list of only some books that I have seen in the bookstores and online.

All are liked to the Amazon pages where you can have a look for yourself and let me know what your thoughts are.

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