Critical theory is problematic, perhaps more for what it leaves out than what it teaches. Oppression has sown tragedy the world over—not exclusively by the West. Men in power often take advantage of the vulnerable (as do powerful women)… There’s plenty in American history and culture to criticize, but critical theory casts a pall of blame more defeatist than progressive.
“Critical Theory” is the umbrella term for various branches of academic thought that grew out of 1980s postmodernism. A basic tenet of critical theory: All the arts and social sciences—and to some extent hard sciences—can be understood as a vast scheme of oppression by a privileged group (chiefly straight white males). Children’s literature largely escaped the influence of critical theory until 2017, when the push for youth activism opened the floodgates. Here are several examples.
Postcolonialism, the most venerable form of critical theory, casts Western civilization as the oppressor of the globe. The young-reader adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2019 to wide acclaim, narrows that view to the story of Native American persecution by whites and their “Christian god.” The book joins Howard Zinn’s People’s History as a standard school text.
Critical race theory, or CRT, examines the history of black slavery and discrimination in the United States. Advocates like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi have topped the bestseller lists for years, but the death of George Floyd gave their work new urgency.