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Critical Theory In Education

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The work Critical Educational Science is in reference to Critical theory with regard to the empirical educational science and the humanist pedagogy. Apart from these two paradigms it is closely related to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. The main function would be to analyse the social conditions of production and application that dominate its field of intervention.

Critical educational Science emerged in the aftermath of the Critical Theory of Frankfurt School. It emphasizes the social character of education and of educational science. It aims to make us of the critical theory to achieve emancipation of mankind.

Educational science stood for plurality and variety in its design and references. The educational science is influenced by critical theory given by Max Horkheimer. The theory is based on a number of propositions; the smaller the number of fundamental principles the more the theory is considered perfect and that the real validity of a theory depends on the relation between propositions and facts and if there is a contradiction then either there is something wrong with the experience observation or the principle.

The traditional theory is based on the idea of labor division. Horkheimer tries to distinguish between traditional and the critical theory as one based on appearance and the latter based on essence of society. Critical thought is refers to a conception of man as one who is in conflict with himself. The critical theory links the reduction of dominion and violence and tries to support the evolution and development of humanity.

In his book Dialectics and Enlightenment (1947) Horkheimer talks on how emancipation is just more than increase in freedom. According to Marx it can only be achieved through modification of social practice, however for Horkheimer the process can also be undergone without capitalism. It is based on the double theory of myth and light for myth is light and light can be diverted into mythology. In Negative Dialects (1966) by Adorno he tries to re examine systematically the issue approached in the Dialects of Enlightenment i.e. inversion of enlightenment. So emancipation depends not only upon educational but on political action as well.

Another dimension is given by Marcuse that the creation of all social existence is very complex, thus we are unable to gauge the totality of the process. He opines that social phenomena can be attributed to the capitalist production and has a close relation with materialism. He believes that one can only get happiness from money or from political implications. He draws a relation between reason and social practice which highlighted that the conception of a society is very different from reality and thus, the possible and the real could merge into one dimension. He reveals how magic and science, life and death, joy and misery merge together through technology and politics. We live in a world where rational appears to be irrational and the irrational seems to be rational so the only way out for human beings is to believe in the ‘power of the negative.’

Now, technology has become the means to rationalize production processes and relations but also a means of incapacity to the logic of domination. Habermas contributed to not only educational science but to epistemology, communication, language and social theory. He establishes a link between theory of society and the philosophy of knowledge and science. He aims at humanity’s education and not just individual development and the processes of individual education depend upon many factors like the social and historic development. There is a link between practical, instrumental and critical reason on the basis of three different interests of knowledge i.e. an interest in technology, an interest in practice and an interest in the knowledge of emancipation.

He opines that for theory and practice to succeed reciprocal knowledge in needed with the following;-

  • The creation and development of theorems to resist scientific discourses
  • The organization of explanation to verify the theorems.
  • The choice of appropriate strategies and the conduct of political struggle.

The first aspect in this corresponds to affirmations while the second and third aspect corresponds to verifiable affirmations and judicious choices respectively.

The main concept of Critical Theory includes Enlightenment which is closely linked to the European tradition of Enlightenment. Kant opines it as the ability to break free from the dependence for which he is himself responsible. Thus to be clear, to have the courage to use one’s own reason is the motto of enlightenment that can be attributed to freedom through self-determination. It involves challenging any authority and domination which cannot be justified rationally and insisting on autonomy for human development.

Horkheimer and Adorno call the transformation of enlightenment into myth and madness.’ This happens when an individual who fights for the oppression and comes to power, he is again choked into the viral structure of power dynamics thus oppressing others under him and he must break open this chain. We need to avoid replacing one power structure with the other.

There are three dimensions that have put forward in the context of critical theory which aim to attain enlightenment despite the restricting factors. The first dimension talks about Adorno and his work. In his concept of ‘negative dialects’ he has clearly outlined that the effect of enlightenment must be to liberate every human being from his powerlessness and reification and this can be achieved through rationality of mind.

The second dimension by Critical Theory highlights that the emancipation process must focus on liberation from the pleasure provided by reification. And the third dimension is inspired from the model of the ‘therapeutic discourse’, where self-reflection aims at enlightenment grasped as the interiorisation of a ‘therapeutic discourse.’

The concept of emancipation is used in different contexts within the context of Critical Theory and the social sciences. Marx refers to forms of emancipation i.e. political and human emancipation. The goal of both the forms is to make the man a human whose self- reflection would be linked to an interest in full capacity and emancipation.

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Emancipation can be subjective to the socio- historical factors. For some countries it might mean liberation fro, hunger and material needs but for some it could mean human emancipation in the form of self fulfillment. The other important concept of enlightenment is to defend against reification as it limits man’s capacity for self definition, his field of action and reflection.

Criticism is a central condition for emancipation. The critical analysis of the social and the economic factors provides a partial liberation from their constrictions. If education has to serve its purpose towards young generation then it must take into account constructive criticism and keep away thoughts that are not didactical. Education must keep into consideration the personal and social situation of each individual to be fulfilling.

By Society we mean the division of labor and Critical Theory refers to the theory of society to throw light on the social system. The relation between theory and practice is central to Critical Theory and critical social science.

Habermas tried to link practice to theory and thus, elaborates three aspects between them-

  • The empirical aspect between science politics in capitalism
  • The epistemological aspect between knowledge and interest
  • The methodological aspect of theory of societies to take on the role of social criticism.

In self reflection, pure knowledge and the desire for autonomous power are inter-related and it is believed that the process of reflection is itself a step towards emancipation.

To distinguish critical science from traditional science Habermas has developed four criteria-

  • Critical sociology avoids reducing intentional action to behavior.
  • Critical sociology is wary of a casual reduction of the network of meanings objectified in societal systems.
  • Critical sociology is wary of reducing all social conflicts to unresolved problems within self regulated systems.
  • Critical sociology is wary of the abuse of power exerted by philosophical concepts.

The function of Critical Theory of education is to aid and help teachers in their educational practice. The dependence of the educational system on the social system is on a large scale. Critical Theory can thus, assist to reduce the dependence and impact of the social system on the education structure. For this it must use ideological criticism, which means a scientific disclosure of the social conditions of production and the revelation of erroneous rationalizations which are the result of flawed understanding and of the possibilities of intervention upon this situation. The main aim of ideological criticism is to identify the difference between false consciousness caused by a social or an economic factor and clear and scientific consciousness.

Most of the times it is the general public is fooled in the process of ideology and truth. For example most of the times the promises made by the political party in power are fake and just aim to restore the social peace. They do not intend on doing anything to solve the problem at the earliest. Thus, it leads to confusion among the subjects between the concept of ideology and truth. They fail to see through the dominating party’s ideological tactics the reality of the situation and thus, cannot grasp the truth.

The article also talks about the critical ideology and how ideologies are the expression of an alienated consciousness. Critical Theory deals with concepts of enlightenment, emancipation, liberation from reification, social justice, peace, solidarity, freedom and self determinism. The major thought is not criticism but improvement of educational practice. Educational spheres use the method of Action- Research for more efficient results.

In this discourse Mollenhauer and Blankertz tried to oppose traditional humanist and empirical theory of education to introduce a new critical theory. It should aim for self-achievement. It highlights how there exists a difference between reality and ‘virtuality’ i.e. how theory and practice can be so different from each other. The major aim for critical theory of education sets emancipation as the aim of education so as to overcome irrationality and become liberated. When this idea is understood by the common people only then the process of enlightenment can succeed.

According to Klafki, the critical theory of education is quite different from critical theory. The latter professes negativity whereas the former does not, Critical theory of education and development aims to resist the power structures and aid man to find himself in the process.

Mollenhauer opines critical theory of education as primarily a theory of communicative action on a symbolic level and thus divides his work in three dimensions namely- education as a communicative action, education as an interaction and education as reproduction. He also highlights that many times communicative processes fail not because of individual responsibility but because of structural over determinations of the socio-economic context.

The functions of critical knowledge lie in the fact that it should not be treated just a methodology but a means to address the issues of the right from the wrong.

The book speaks about Educational Science and the importance of criticism in it. Educational Science is related to pedagogy which is related to teaching and includes examination and research of different methods and how students perceive those methodologies. But in a critical science classroom students’ views and questions serve as the starting point for scientific investigation for better living conditions. It throws light relation of domination and subordination and how hegemonic systems would not help in the achievement of goals. The main aspects discussed by Christopher Wulff in this book talks about three important factors – Emancipation, self –realization or self- fulfillment.

Thus, critical theory of education has not been only influenced by the critical theory of society but also from other paradigms of social sciences. All the problems of difference between critical theory and critical educational science cannot be solved; hence, action research is the best way to resolve such a situation.

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Critical Theory In Education. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“Critical Theory In Education.” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022,
Critical Theory In Education. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
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