Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.

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“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”

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And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)

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What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

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