Needless Suffering: Critical Theory and the Classroom

Martin Shuster, Ph.D., Philosophy, UNC Charlotte

Critical theory is nowadays daily in the news in the United States, especially with references to critical race theory dominating discussion. Yet, almost no one in these discussions—critics as much as admirers—has a concrete and informed understanding of critical theory. The aim of this seminar is thereby quite simple: to give participants an understanding of what critical theory is (its aims and approaches), how and why it began (its origins and history), and its continuing possibilities (why it continues to be relevant).

To accomplish this task, we will explore key primary texts in critical theory, understanding especially their philosophical aims and historical contexts. We will also ask whether and how these texts remain relevant, and how we can use critical theory in an educational context at all levels of instruction.

Critical theory originated 100 years ago in 1923 with the so-called “Frankfurt School,” a group of thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Max Horkheimer, one of the first directors of the Institute, argued that critical theory arises from the acknowledgment of needless suffering. This sort of suffering is needless because it comes about from the systems and structures in which we are embedded. If such systems/structures were different, such suffering would not exist. It thereby can be avoided—is thereby needless—because these structures/systems are humanly created, and could be different.

Some of the questions we will explore in this seminar, then, include: how do we determine what counts as needless suffering? How do we assess systems and structures? How are such systems and structures created and maintained? What prevents people from noticing needless suffering? And what is required for social change? We will work through these questions by also focusing on sessions dedicated to “case studies” particular systemic ills like white supremacy, patriarchy, antisemitism, etc.