In the aftermath of the Red Scare’s anti-communist witch hunts, the academy’s operating philosophy was surmised by Kenneth Keniston’s 1969 book Criticism and Social Change.
“Any attempt to distinguish between ‘objective’ and ‘partisan’ criticism ignores the role of judgement and values in the critical process. For all values and judgements can be deemed partisan by those who reject them,” Kenniston wrote.
Kenniston and his fellow academics in the American Association of University Professors believed a free market of ideas would allow universities to maintain a healthy dose of public scrutiny.
As universities welcomed radicals and reformers as tokens of intellectual diversity, the identity politics of the New Left, a coalition of second wave feminists, anti-racists and LGBT activists, converged with scholarly work to create leftist criticism of traditional society. What became known as critical theory and critical pedagogy gained significant traction among professors disillusioned with the lack of progress since the rights revolution of the 1960s.
Informed by psychoanalytic and Marxist theories of European postmodernists, critical theory is an umbrella term that encompasses many cultural and social criticisms. The methodology of critical theory asks how various aspects of western capitalist societies maintained an oppressive society.
Descendants of critical theory—like feminist theory, queer theory and critical race theory—adopted Marxist ideas of a class struggle between oppressor and oppressed but applied to various identity politics of the New Left coalition. Gender, sexual identity and race were now understood to be socially constructed fictions, rather than natural facts of the human life which actively maintain an oppressive society.
Harvard University legal scholar Derrick Bell, commonly referenced as the founder of critical race theory, argued racism was fundamentally ingrained in American society and therefore the politics of race must be at the center of analysis. In his field of legal studies, race was the focal point of legal proceedings. Strict textualist interpretation of law could allow for racist execution and preserved the racism of the time in which it was written.
Since then, critical theory has been integrated into curriculum of the humanities and social sciences of reform-minded professors, the very same ones who conservatives say make everything about race or gender. This is because their scholarly work begins with an assumption of an oppressive and looks for the recreation institutional oppression within seemingly apolitical subjects.
Among critical race theory’s foundational ideas, the 2015 edition of Critical Race Theory in Higher Education lists racism is permanent and ubiquitous in American society and that whiteness is cultural capital.
The book responds to the proposition of a post-racial society after the election of the country’s first black president. It points to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and other young African American men and disproportionate incarceration of people of color as recreations of an oppressive system and a race neutral rebranding of Jim Crow era laws.
The emergence of critical theory in the post-civil rights era marked a paradigm shift in left wing political thought: radicals and reformers rejected mainstream, color blind liberalism and meritocracy as race-neutral facades that turned a blind eye toward institutional oppression.
The most significant contribution to the contemporary academic lexicon is the distinction of institutional, rather than incidental, oppression. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression were understood to be inextricably ingrained the fabric of American society. Francis Lee Ansley wrote in the Cornell Law Review that white supremacy didn’t solely refer to self-conscious racists but to a broader system.
“I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings,” Ansley wrote.
And as a result, racism itself discriminated based on race. Only white people could be racist in a white supremacist society. People of color could only be prejudice.
By the 1980s, when to be “color blind” was the mode in American culture, criticisms of race-neutral liberalism had gained significance among academics. In 1985, Stephen J. Ceci, Cornell University professor of psychology, conducted a study to assess the implicit beliefs of professors in the social sciences. He sent out two groups of academic papers to 150 review boards. One paper hypothesized that racism against minorities was at play and the other suggested “reverse racism” against white males was at play, which was more often rejected.
Conservative critics like Pat Buchanan and Jordan Peterson describe critical theory as a rebranding of Marxism, which had become unpopular due to the devastation in eastern Europe and China, used to indoctrinate students into communism and anti-American sentiments. Proponents of critical theory view it as liberation from European hegemony ingrained in academic theory as well as the scholarship necessary to inspire social justice activism.
During the Fall 2006 semester, the Ithaca College Center for Faculty Excellence hosted scholars of critical race theory from across the country for a lecture series. The goal of the event, according to the program anthology, was to “explore pedagogical resources” and support “interdisciplinary research scholarship and activism”. One article by Kevin R. Johnson entitled “Law and the Borders: Open Borders” made a case against monitoring the border between U.S. and Mexico.
Critical theory and critical pedagogy contribute to the worldview of students and professors, particularly in the departments of social sciences, politics and humanities. Derek Adams, assistant professor in the department of English, said critical analysis played a role in the conversations by student and faculty protesters during the Fall 2015 semester. For example, activists contemplated whether or not white people could genuinely be an ally in the fight against oppression against people of color in a society which favors whites. Russell Rickford, Cornell University professor in the department of History, resolved this conflict of interest by saying white people could not be allies but they could be “comrades”, Adams said.
During the Spring 2015 semester, following former President Tom Rochon’s announcement that he would retire, POC @ IC, the student-faculty alliance against the former president, featured “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, by Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire, in a list of recommended texts to “continue conversations started and yet to be had.”
“The Ithaca College Journal of Race, Culture and Ethnicity,” a review of student essays, demonstrates how critical theory has become more than a theory but an operating methodology for students to understand society and themselves. Throughout the Spring 2015 volume, Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” appears in 22 footnotes.
The journal is published by the Center for Race Culture and Ethnicity, founded by Dr. Asma Barlas, professor in the department of politics, in 1991. Barlas includes “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in her “Race and Colonialism” class. In the journal’s essay “A Letter to my peers”, Sierra Council reflected on the insights gained in Barlas’ class.
“This class has been a reflection of the greater systemic forces that influence our lives— patriarchy, capitalism, hetero-normative, and racism,” Council wrote. “It has plagued our conversations and forced some students to withdraw, including myself at times.”
Today’s college administrators struggle to integrate classes in business and finance with classes in the humanities and social sciences. But how could they when students learn in one class that their other classes support the oppressive capitalist system?