Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Being critical

When you hear someone say that they don’t like being criticised, they are likely to be associating the word with the act of “finding fault with”, often accompanied by an intention to hurt or humiliate. This is how the word tends to operate in common parlance.

There is another kind of criticism which, mostly, has a kinder face that the negative kind of criticism that the one I have just mentioned. This is the kind of criticism which, for example, an art critic or a film critic might engage in. In response to the question, “What do critics do?”, Elliot Eisner asserts that, “Criticism is the art of disclosing the qualities of events or objects that connoisseurship perceives. Criticism is the public side of connoisseurship” (2002, p. 219).

Through literature and through effective criticism we come to know what it feels like to be in prison, to be in ecstasy, to be in a particular classroom in a particular school. Through the arts we have the opportunity to participate vicariously in the lives of others, to acquire an empathetic understanding of situations, and therefore to know them in ways that only the arts can reveal (2002, p. 223).

In Eisner’s words, the language of criticism is presentational, rather than representational. When connoisseurship is applied in educational settings, it becomes educational criticism, and has three aspects each with a different emphasis:

  1. Description: Eisner uses the term to refer to “vivid rendering of the qualities perceived in the situation”;
  2. Interpretation: This attempts “to provide an understanding of what has been rendered by using, among other things, ideas, concepts, models, and theories from the social sciences and from history”;
  3. Evaluation: This “attempts to assess the educational import or significance of the events or objects described or interpreted” (2002, p. 234).

Eisner is clear that the distinction between description and interpretation is not hard and fast. There is a suggestion that description embraces the perception of pattern and value indicators in what is observed. Interpretation involves a somewhat more conscious attempt to apply a particular discursive frame to the reading of a situation. In respect of evaluation, Eisner sees it as a given that different individuals and groups conceive the ends and means of education differently. And if perception is discursively coloured, an evaluative slant is inescapable. The aim of the educational critic is “to provide grounds for the value choices made while recognising that others might disagree with these choices” (2002, p. 232). To the above three aspects, Eisner adds a fourth he calls thematics. By this he refers to the attempt to provide a succinct commentary on the implications of what has been described, read and evaluated in terms of provisional generalizations on what might be learned from the critical act. When we offer the “grounds” for an act of critical evaluation, we are indicating to others what our criteria of evaluation are. [Locke.Riley.2009]

I want to move now to another way of thinking about this term critical, this time in relation to that contentious concept of critical theory. Kincheloe and McLaren (1994), in an overview of critical theory and qualitative research, describe as “risky” attempts at identifying an underlying commonality among “criticalists” Nevertheless, they suggest a critical orientation assumes:

  • “that all thought is fundamentally mediated by power relations that are social and historically situated;
  • “that facts can never by isolated from the domain of values or removed from some form of ideological inscription;
  • “that the relationship between concept and object and between signifier and signified is never stable or fixed and is often mediated by the social relations of capitalist production and consumption;
  • “that language is central to the formation of subjectivity (conscious and unconscious unawareness);
  • “that certain groups in any society are privileged over others and, although the reasons for this privileging may vary widely, the oppression that characterises contemporary societies is most forcefully reproduced when subordinates accept their social status as natural, necessary, or inevitable;
  • “that oppression has many faces and that focusing on only one at the expense of others (e.g. class oppression versus racism) often elides the interconnections among them;
  • “that mainstream research practice practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproduction of systems of class, race, and gender oppression” (pp. 139-140).

I cite the above list, not so much to endorse it as to communicate the discursive “flavour” of the tradition that has constructed it.

Theorists and practitioners of critical literacy, critical language awareness and critical discourse analysis themselves endow the term with different shades of meaning. This is not surprising, since criticalist traditions draw on distinct schools of social inquiry: the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School, Foucaultian archaeology, poststructuralist deconstruction and postmodernism. [Locke, 2004]

References

Eisner, E. (2002). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Kincheloe, J., & McLaren, P. (1994), Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds),

Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 138-157). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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