The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching

By Stephen D. Brookfield | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Exploring the Meaning
of Critical Theory
for Adult Learning

Theory is a dangerous word, one that should not be used lightly. Acting on what they believe are accurate theories of human nature or political development, people have started wars, committed murder, and sanctioned torture. As Zinn (1990) observes, "How we think is … a matter of life and death" (p. 2). Sometimes those who use the word theory give off a whiff of self-importance, as if telling the reader "look out, here comes something truly profound." Monty Python's Flying Circus hilariously parodied the theorist's tendency to portentousness in a skit involving John Cleese as Miss Anne Elk, the proud possessor of a new theory concerning the brontosaurus. After archly and repeatedly declaring to a TV interviewer that she has her very own theory, Miss Elk reveals (after considerable coaxing by Graham Chapman the interviewer) the substance of the theory: the brontosaurus was thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle, and then thin at the other end. The sketch ends with Miss Elk trying in vain to disclose her second theory.

It is not only the Monty Python team that mocks the pretensions of theorists. Given what theorists see as the contextual, splintered nature of reality, postmodern analysis views large-scale theory generation as a naïve and self-deluding modernist project, as so much wasted effort. Postmodernism contends that the world is essentially fragmented and that what passes for theoretical generalizations are really only context-specific insights produced by particular discourse communities. Academics aware of this critique who are leery about

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