“The Critical Turn in Education,” a book by Iowa State associate professor Isaac Gottesman, has been named a 2017 Critics' Choice Book by the American Educational Studies Association. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Iowa State professor’s book about critical theory selected as critics’ choice

An Iowa State University professor is receiving top accolades for writing a book that provides a historical look at the intersection of education, social justice, and radical political movements.

The Critical Turn in Education,” a book published in 2016 by Isaac Gottesman, an associate professor who is division head of teaching, learning, leadership, and policy in the School of Education, has been named a 2017 Critics' Choice Book by the American Educational Studies Association.

The award is expected to further increase the book’s visibility. People from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have already purchased Gottesman’s book. It’s also being used as a teaching tool at the University of Colorado Boulder, Saint Louis University, and at The University of Utah, where Gottesman gave a talk about the book to about 100 people.

“Books like ‘The Critical Turn in Education’ only appear once in a generation,” said Zeus Leonardo, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who’s considered one of the nation’s leading critical theorists. “We don’t just read it. We are deeply affected by it.”

A historical look at critical theory in education

The book details what some describe as the “educational left” — the historical emergence and development of critical theories in education, from the introduction of Marxist and other social theories in the 1960s to the contemporary landscape.

It contextualizes the development of critical ideas and political projects within a larger international history, and charts the ongoing theoretical debates that seek to explain the relationship between school and society.

“The book does not offer a sweeping survey of the landscape of critical educational theory,” Gottesman says in the book’s introduction. “Rather, I attempt to offer sustained attention to significant ideas, individuals, texts, moments, and debates in the field that I see as core to both the history of the development of critical educational studies as a subfield in education, particularly in the United States, as well as to future scholarship in the field.”

“Critical theory” looks at how political ideology shapes education as a way of maintaining existing regimes of privilege and social control. Gottesman said the book does not attempt to define what it means to be critical, but aims to enrich dialogue in the critical educational community through a look at history.

“It really focuses on when people in education as a field began using the language of ‘critical’ and the ideas that underpinned that move — what people were reading, what was influencing them from other fields and disciplines, and from political theory and social movement activism especially emerging in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.

Few historical books selected as critics’ choice

This is the first book authored by Gottesman, who’s in his eighth year at Iowa State. However, he’s been working on the history of critical thought in the field for 15 years. The book builds on research Gottesman did as a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Seattle, and even work he did as an undergraduate.

“The main interest for me are radical political movements and thinking about radical social change,” Gottesman said. “Education is the main space — I see it as an important component of building political movements. This work is central to that conversation.”

The book is part of the Routledge series in critical and social thought, which is the oldest series in the field that focuses on critical scholarship. The series is edited by Michael W. Apple, the John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who approached Gottesman about writing the book.

“I was really happy about being able to publish the book in ‘the’ series in the field of education in critical and social thought,” Gottesman said. “That is a point of pride for me.”

The book is one of 12 selected for the Critics’ Choice Book award. Gottesman said it’s very rare for a historical book to be selected.

Award recipients will be honored at the American Educational Studies Association’s annual conference, which will be held Nov. 1 to 5 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The book will also be displayed in the association’s book exhibit room. AESA is the premiere overarching organization for scholars in the field of social foundations of education.