Education-line Home Page

Reproduced from 1988 Conference Proceedings, pp. 176-180 ã SCUTREA 1997


Critical thinking and critical theory in adult education

Colin Griffin, Hillcroft College



The aim of this paper is to examine the claim that critical thinking and perspective transformation derive from critical social theory or critical social science. It is argued that in fact they are much more likely to reflect the paradigms of humanistic psychology, and rest upon unexamined assumptions about the relationship between personal emancipation and social change.


Critical thinking is the latest fashionable challenge, both to adult learners and to adult educators constantly in search of new professional roles to play1. The aim of this paper is to challenge the assertion sometimes made2 that this conception of critical thinking is really based upon critical social science or critical social theory. Indeed it will be suggested that it is not based upon social theory of any kind, being profoundly psychologistic in its construction of society. For here society itself tends to be conceived in reductionist terms: as the threat to individuality posed by culture and socialisation rather than as the historical and structural forms of social relations whose content is primarily economic and political. History, the state and the economy are fundamental concepts of any genuinely social science, however phenomenologically they may be constructed, but they are conspicuous by their absence from the concept of critical thinking currently being advocated as an object of adult learning and its facilitation.

Critical thinking is in fact little more than the old idea of liberal education for democratic citizenship in new guise, more self-consciously informed by humanistic psychology and sited much more evidently in workplace management contexts of adult learning. Its theoretical underpinning is derived directly from such influential figures as Rogers and Maslow, and familiar psychological constructs of personal growth, authenticity, self-actualisation, self-direction, peak experiences and so on. Reflective and dialectical dimensions are constructed from an oppositional (i.e. traditionally liberal) concept of the relation between individual and society: critical thinking is a strategy of resistance on the part of individuals against over-socialisation or cultural over-determination, rationally balanced by an acceptance of the reality of existing social relations of production and power.

The unresolved question, both for critical thinking and traditional liberalism, remains that of the relation between individual and social transformation, personal and political emancipation. In short, the absence of authentic social structural concepts of history, state or power empties analytic concepts of much of this critical function, so that 'transformation', 'adaptation', 'reflectivity', 'dialectics', or even 'criticism' itself convey only an 'individual and society' meaning rather than one explicable wholly in terms of social science or social theory. The implication that generally individuals' thinking is not critical, or at least that the capacity for critical thinking is not sufficiently realised, does not reflect any kind of social science analysis at all: attributing uncritical thinking to the mass of the population (and if this were not the case how could there be an important role for the adult educator?) is an attribution of individual pathology rather than a discovery of critical social science.

Thus, although critical thinking and perspective transformation through adult learning have been attributed to critical social theory, and specifically to Habermas3, in reality this is only a new manifestation of personal growth psychology. According to the adult education usage, society is constructed as a value system rather than as a structure of social relations in economic and political terms, and the relation between individual and society reflects a functionalist and evolutionary view of mutual adaptation and of the ubiquity of personal and social change. Critical thinking reflects no problematic analysis of economic or political social relations, and the claim that it is connected with democracy through critical social science analysis should be viewed with considerable scepticism. Whatever view one takes of critical social science and its derivatives, whether of the Frankfurt school or Habermas himself, or Freire or Gramsci, it is difficult to evade some analysis of the social division of labour and the distribution of wealth and power which are associated with capitalist or other relations of production. It is difficult, in other words, to be a critical theorist without engaging in some critical analysis of economic relations, the distribution of power, the role of the state, and the different historical forms in which these have been expressed.

In fact, there never was a single tradition of critical theory, and it tends to be resistant to summary4. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of a central core of issues which identify it as an intellectual movement, and its origins are generally located in the establishment in 1923 of the Institute for Social Research associated with the University of Frankfurt. The 'Frankfurt School' were primarily represented in the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, whilst that of Jurgen Habermas later continued the tradition in modified form. These four are usually taken to be the 'central figures' of critical theory5.

In order to see critical theory in relation to critical thinking, it may be useful to summarise its central features as these have recently been described6. In the first place, as has been suggested, we are looking at a diverse tradition and it would be more accurate to speak of 'critical theories'. The emphasis of them all was, however, highly theoretical, and they were all preoccupied with social theory and theory construction for its own sake. All were agreed, too, that social theory is logically distinct from theories in natural science: in a science of humanity 'facts' are socially constructed, and critical social science, as distinct from positivism, recognises and acknowledges relativity and subjectivity in its object and methods. The critical theorists were, however, preoccupied with autonomy and the emancipation of oppressed individuals and groups and, as a school of Marxist thought, conceived society in terms of the irreconcilable conflicts of interest which lie beneath a veneer of harmony. Unlike other varieties of Marxism, however, critical theorists asserted the relative autonomy of culture from the economic base of society, and were concerned with the study of culture and human creativity as such. In contrast with stereotypical Marxism too, critical theorists emphasised the significance of individual identity and purpose, and the origins of what has since become known as cultural studies can be traced to the concern of critical theorists with ideology and its permeation of everyday life in the form of the ordinary and familiar common-sense ideas by which individuals construct their day-today worlds.

They were concerned with aesthetics as an expression of human creativity, and influenced by Freudian psychoanalytic theory, perceiving an analogy between the conflicting subconscious forces of the personality and the hidden conflicts of interest which lie below the surface of society itself.

It is easy to see how this kind of social theory could make a humanistic and liberal appeal, with its stress on individuality, creativity, emancipation, the pervasiveness of ideology and so on, and it seems a long way from the deterministic categories of some varieties of Marxist thinking. But it would be a mistake to confuse humanistic Marxism with humanistic psychology, and Gibson and others have argued that too much can be made of the individualism of critical theory and its conception of the relative autonomy of culture: in fact, the critical theorists remain 'wedded to the original theory' and operated overwhelmingly at the structural level of analysis7.

This being the case, it is evidently a risky undertaking to select particular themes or ideas from critical social theory and put them into the service of humanistic psychology, neglecting others of possibly equal significance. For example, critical theory may be of more importance for adult education as a theory of knowledge than as an inspiration for perspective transformation or critical thinking. According to this view, all forms of human understanding are socially constructed in the course of the development of relations of production. Moreover, since critical theory challenges the whole idea of the separation of theory and practice in human concerns, the entire notion of 'theory application' is fundamentally undermined: there is no possibility of an ideologically indifferent theory or practice. It follows that there would not be an ideologically disinterested role for adult educators in facilitating critical thinking amongst adult learners. The idea of criticism itself could not be entirely detached from the ideological context of practice any more than concepts such as personal growth or self-actualisation. Yet this is the view which would be entailed in adopting the perspective of critical theory.

A more authentic influence of critical theory may be detected in fairly eclectic notions such as Freire's 'conscientisation', or that of the critical pedagogy associated with it. The fact is that critical theory denies precisely the kind of 'instrumental rationality' or pragmatic and process-orientated methodology which often characterises North American thinking about adult education, presenting itself as a 'natural science' of human learning. Critical thinking, perspective transformation, andragogy, can all be put to universal purposes, whether these be the reinvigoration of democracy, the struggles of oppressed groups, or the learning needs of managers of international corporations. This is because they lack any kind of social structural reference and are, apparently, of no ideological significance.

Freire's ideas, and those of critical pedagogy generally8 are not claimed to originate in critical social theory, and Freire's own analysis could hardly be described as Marxist. And yet there is here a concept of relatively specific struggle, conflict and oppression which does have some structural reference to social relations of production, and there are other North American educationists who are consciously working within, or revising, a critical theory paradigm9.

So it is to these kinds of authors that adult educationists should turn in order to gain an understanding of the significance of critical theory for their practice. Characteristically, perhaps, adult education theory focuses much more upon issues of developing professional roles, and upon the instrumental rationality inherent in this particular task. It is difficult, therefore, to locate critical thinking in any tradition of radical schooling or critical pedagogy. In selecting the more humanistic and individualistic aspects of critical theory - those which can be put to instrumental use in adult learning terms - the perspective transformation theorists have neglected its ideological critique of knowledge itself. In focusing upon the emancipatory possibilities of Habermas' theory it is possible to reflect the ideological and structural analysis in which, according to him, all our ideas about emancipation are embedded, namely, the 'descriptive model of advanced capitalism':

Genuine participation of citizens in the processes of political will-formation (politischen Willensbildungsprozessen), that is, substantive democracy, would bring to consciousness the contradiction between administratively socialised production and the continued private appropriation and use of surplus value.10

But is critical thinking really connected with 'substantive democracy' in adult education theory? Almost certainly not, for the vision of the critical theorists was of a socialist rather than a liberal democracy. For this reason, the derivation of principles of professional practice such as perspective transformation or critical thinking, from critical social theory should be treated with caution. In the haste to create a distinctive body of adult education knowledge we should beware the temptation to take ideas from sources which are too radical to assimilate to professional practice without distortion. In advocating critical thinking and emancipation as objects of professional attention we should distinguish between emancipating individuals and changing society, lest we promise more than we can deliver.



  1. Brookfield, S.D. (1987) Developing critical thinkers. Milton Keynes: Open University Pres.
  2. Marsick, V.J. (ed.) (1987) Learning in the workplace. London: Groom Helm.
  3. Mezirow, J. (1981) A critical theory of adult learning and education. In Adult Education, 32 (1), 3-24
  4. Connerton, P. (ed.) (1976) Critical sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; pp. 22-39
  5. Held, D. (1980) Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. London: Hutchinson; p. 15
  6. Gibson, R. (1986) Critical theory and education. London: Hodder and Staughton; pp. 3-16
  7. Aronowitz, S. and Giroux, H. (1986) Education under siege. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; p. 122; Gibson, 1986, op. cit. p. 15
  8. Freire, P. (1985) The politics of education. London: Macmillan; Freire, P. and Shor, I. (1987) A pedagogy for liberation. London: Macmillan; Livingstone, D.W. (ed.) (1987) Critical pedagogy and cultural power. London: Macmillan
  9. Apple, M.W. (ed.) (1982) Cultural and economic reproduction in education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Giroux, H.A. (1981) Ideology, culture and the process of schooling. London: Falmer Press.
  10. Habermas, J. (1983) A descriptive model of advanced capitalism. In T. Bottomore and P. Goode (eds.). Readings in marxist sociology. Oxford: Clarendon Press; p. 261

This document was added to the Education-line database on 29 May 2003