Critical Theory, Critical Pedagogy and the Permanent Crisis in Community Colleges

Critical Theory, Critical Pedagogy and the Permanent Crisis in Community Colleges

Howard A. Doughty
DOI: 10.4018/ijavet.2014040103
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The historical failures of Marxism in the twentieth-century came in three forms: the inability to account for the rise of fascism and Nazism; the establishment of authoritarian regimes where “communist” revolutions had occurred, largely in pre-industrial societies from barely post-feudal Russia to peasant-based China and “developing” nations such as Vietnam; and the incapacity of the proletariat to develop class consciousness and foment class conflict in advanced industrial societies, where Marx and his followers knew capitalism to have arisen and where they assumed it would first be transcended. Seeking to understand these failures, yet to preserve and apply foundational elements of Marx's thought, the “critical theorists” of the Frankfurt Institute—at home and in exile—drew on additional sources including Hegel and Freud to diagnose the pathologies of modernity, though rarely to offer restorative treatments for Enlightenment values or Marxian transformation. Jürgen Habermas, the acknowledged leader of the “second generation” of critical theorists refused to succumb to the pessimism of his elders and reached out to increasingly diverse scholars in an effort to redeem the goals of reason, democracy and equity in modern life. His theoretical work—often abstract and dense—remains almost as marginal to mainstream thought as that of Adorno and Horkheimer before him; yet, it has influenced a minority of philosophers and social scientists still interested in education as an emancipatory human project. Using the specific context of contemporary community colleges, this contribution seeks to build bridges between Habermas' combination of basically Marxian, often Kantian, and always eclectic thought to show how educators could profitably reflect upon their professional lifeworlds, better comprehend the neoliberal ideology and power relations that entrap them, and find new inspiration and advice should they wish to interrogate and confront the corporate world in which they ply their trade.
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Transcending Marxism: The Problematics Of Social Class

Habermas and his intellectual forebears in the Frankfurt School are regularly accused of seeking solutions in abstract philosophical transcendentalism for problems that arise in concrete social relations. Arising out of the Hegelian/Marxist tradition but distressed by multiple twentieth-century atrocities and discomfited by a proletariat reluctant to fulfill its designated revolutionary role as an agent of change, the founders of “critical theory” lapsed into disappointment with the present and despair for the future. The European Enlightenment had failed to replace war with peace, tyranny with democracy, ignorance with knowledge, injustice with equity, disease with health and domination with liberty. What was to be done?

One of the most important themes with which updated types of Marx’s analysis had to deal was the uncertainty of Marx’s central concept of social class. Critical theorists observed the material gains made by working-class people under welfare capitalism and the dulling of their ideological edge as both wage-earners and the indigent sought and ultimately won some relief from their material worries. The legalization of trade unions and the collective bargaining process elevated the standard of living of workers while state-sponsored benefits such as unemployment insurance, social security and a “social safety net” assisted people unable to support themselves through their own labour. Apart from occasional displays of populist resentments, corporate capitalism was not genuinely threatened by proletarian insurrection. Rather, once-despised trade unions achieved improvements in wages and working conditions, but also provided employers with industrial discipline, labour peace and an expanding domestic market for goods and services. As Habermas (1984, p. 367) put it: “developments in the United States showed … the integrating powers of capitalism: without open repression, mass culture bound the consciousness of the broad masses to the imperatives of the status quo.”

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