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  • Writer's pictureTobias Kroll

Everything must burn! (Not.)

A disputation of critical theory based on Nair et al. (2023)

Have you read the most recent issue of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools? Specifically, Nair, Farah and Cushing's contribution? Do you feel, after reading them, that you have to burn all your standardized tests (and your clinic reports with them, and your Certificate of Clinical Competence while you're at it) and start from scratch in an ideal and perfect speech therapy commune somewhere in the woods? If so, do not despair. I am here to tell you that you don't have to do all that - that your reaction is simply a sign that your conscience and your integrity are alive and well. That's a good thing. And it doesn't mean you have to take their writing at face value.

Now, if you have already dismissed them as mere cranks because their piece is so laden with ideology, I'll have to ask you to reconsider. For the ideology they espouse serves to veil the fact that they are addressing some very real problems in our field. We cannot afford to dismiss that, even as we engage critically with their idiosyncratic style of narrating them. But one thing at a time. First, though, I have to give you a bit of the big picture and get something related off my heart that's been troubling me.

We live in peculiar times. Us whose calling it is to care for people find ourselves caught between competing voices that are less interested in human flourishing than in scoring points. I am talking about the endless tedium of the culture wars, of course. We’re feeling it rather acutely, right now, down here in Texas where I reside. On the one hand, there is the Texas Legislature passing laws that do nothing but put people down who are already disproportionately burdened. On the other hand, there are our “coastal” peers – that's my term for a certain brand of progressive academic elitism – who have swallowed the epistemic absolutism that is critical theory hook, line and sinker. As teachers and clinicians, we find ourselves caught in the middle, trying to navigate this minefield to the benefit of our students and our patients. And it’s tiring.

Let me give you some details. You may have heard of Senate Bill 17, which bans Texas universities from investing in DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) work outside of research and teaching. In other words, they shut down all DEI offices, any efforts at recruiting a more diverse student body, and Hispanic Heritage month (I kid you not). What’s the point of that? I honestly don’t know. What I do know, and worry about, is that it could send a message to our students which, put in words, might sound something like this: “You may enter our higher education system if you conform to our (White, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual) norms. If you don’t, or can’t, you’re not welcome.”

Put otherwise, if you are e.g. Black, transgender, gay, or working-class, you may be reading SB17 like this: "well, looks like I'm free to attend Texas universities if – and that’s a big if – I conform to White, cis-het, middle-class culture. But I'm not quite welcome in my Blackness, gayness, trans-ness, or working-class-ness" (that’s not a word but you know what I mean). You may feel that since we're made to shut down the spaces you could have turned to for a bit of reprieve from the dominant culture, all that's left for you is to conform. And you would be well in your right to feel that way.

Let me assure you, though, that this is not how we are reading the bill - we, as in: myself, my colleagues, and those of us in the institution who care about these issues. I can't speak for everyone at TTUHSC, of course, but I know more than a handful of people who'd agree with me here - including some in high places. To us, this is just one more of the many byzantine regulatory overreaches we have to abide by for reasons unknown to humankind. As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome here, exactly the way you are.

The argument for SB 17 was, of course, that there was a sprawling, unaccountable DEI bureaucracy at universities that needed squelching, and ideological tyrannies in academic departments that needed to be brought down. And yes, such outgrowths of DEI efforts do exist, as shown in the Hamline debacle or in the ideological litmus tests the TTU Biology Department tried to institute for new faculty hires. But here at TTUHSC, I can vouch by my academic integrity that we had no such problems. I was part of our DEI efforts from the beginning, and I was proud that we took a down-to-earth, middle-of-the-road approach to things – until we got shut down.

And now we are being asked, by out-of-state colleagues, how in the world we can stay in Texas. And for those of them that hail from "coastal", critical theory-drenched places, the reply I would like to give to that but have kept to myself until today is, how can you stay in an environment where one rather outmoded style of thinking is vying for hegemony over the entirety of academic discourse? At least in Texas I’m still allowed to think and feel for myself and to say what I believe is right in the classroom and in my scholarly writing. In places where critical theory has gained too much foothold, I might lose even that bit of freedom.

(And lest this puts you at risk of thinking too highly of the State of Texas, let me mention that as a state employee, I am barred from dissing my employer using my employer’s resources. So I am writing this paragraph and the ones above on my own personal laptop, on my own personal time. Take that, State of Texas.)


If you're active in the field of speech-language pathology, or simply alive and awake in 2020s America, I assume you have heard of the term "critical theory" (CT). Probably with the modifier "race" added, as in "Critical Race Theory" (CRT). But that's just one of the many critical theories out there. CT is the framework of choice for (too) many scholars investigating e.g. women's issues, disability, economic inequality, culture... the list goes on. And for some reason, it is all the rage in America at the moment, while it's long been superseded in the intellectual culture where it originated: continental European, specifically German philosophy. They're on CT's third or fourth "generation" now, depending on how you count, and it has changed substantially through each of it, to the point where our American critical theorists wouldn't recognize it.

I was introduced to CT in my sociology minor, studying for my Master's in early 2000s Germany. And I disliked it from the start. More precisely, I disliked the original iteration, the one that's so popular in the US at the moment. For you see, I am steeped in the good, old-fashioned German bildung ideal, the idea that education is formation - of the person, of the character. And for a bunch of rather personal reasons, I was in deep need of formation. I was looking to the philosophies I encountered to feed my soul and shed a light on my path in life. And CT did neither.

There are various reasons for that, but they all boil down to one overarching problem: CT has a warped worldview, and it espouses it with revolutionary fervor and the self-righteous assurance of superior morality. There is little room for skepticism or doubt in it, for questioning, for individual uniqueness, for nuance or contradiction, for depth. It is conformist to the point of authoritarianism, making it look as if you have only one choice that matters: to agree with it, or to be accused of lack of morals and a type of "false consciousness" (that is, delusion and ignorance).

Why is that, you may ask? And what does CT actually espouse? Well, both of it - the warpedness of its views and the conformism with which it propagates them - happen because it has an exclusive, laser-like focus on one thing, and one thing only: power relations. Critical theory is all about asking questions like, "Who has the (material or social) power to make things happen in this space, and who doesn't?"; "How can we understand social structures and practices in terms of ideologies that have power in a given society?"; "How do present structures and practices arise from power relations of the past?", and so forth.

In and by themselves, those are all important questions. Power relations are ubiquitous, after all, and if those in power fail to be intentional and wise in how they wield it because of their ideological bent, those who lack power suffer the consequences. The problem arises when this "critical" lens is taken as the only one worth looking through, when you start believing that power relations are all that matters when studying human life. When that happens, it's almost like your gaze becomes a squint. You distort your vision to look at one particular thing really hard. And in the process, your big picture becomes warped.

And that's a problem for anyone who has ever had even one tiny smidgen of power. Even if it's just the power of making decisions about your own life. Which, in late/postmodern society is not only a power we have, but one we are forced to exert, whether we like it or not. No one is going to make your decisions for you. And if you're like me back in the day, looking for a guiding framework to make your decisions by, CT is not your friend. Thanks to its extremely narrow lens, it can tell you only two things. Either you are in power, in which case you need to use and/or relinquish it for the benefit of those who are not. Or you are powerless, in which case you must rail against the prevailing power structures until they come down, and that's your only shot at a meaningful life.

The problem is that none of us neatly fit this duality. Let's take the clinical situation. As an SLP, you do have power over your patients, especially in the pediatric/school realm: your diagnoses can make or break them, put them on a trajectory towards inclusion and belonging, or towards exclusion and ostracism. At the same time, however, you are also powerless: the structures of our field, of the school system, of the healthcare economy etc. etc. are what they are. You're navigating them on behalf of your student with a degree of limited power but without the ability to radically change them.

So, can you relinquish your power to the student? Hardly. That kind of "de-/centering" works in the college-seminar type of spaces that are CT's natural habitat: protected environments without much at stake. In the real-life clinical world, you won't be able to get your kid all that they need, exactly the way they need it; also, their needs are not going to be determined by them alone but by you, too, to a significant degree. And that's true even though your knowledge of them is always partial and incomplete. So you have to navigate a situation of relative, limited power within clear constraints of resources and information, and an enormous amount of responsibility while wielding the power you have do. Good luck trying to do that using CT.

For you see, CT operates with the implicit assumption that everything that's going on right now is absolutely, totally bad, and needs to be absolutely, totally dismantled in order to make room for an ideal new world. The classic formulation of that is Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen, which translates to "There is no right life within wrong life". In this absolutist attitude, CT is as rigid as it is starry-eyed. Everything must burn, and from the ashes we shall rise!

Even if you bought into that idea - instead of seeing it, as I do, as a cognitive fallacy, a not-so-subtle attempt at evading responsibility and fallibility - it wouldn't serve you well in the clinical situation. The power structures that exist now are what they are, and while they should change and will change, no amount of you agitating for their radical remake at some point in the distant future will be of benefit to the kid in front of you who needs a diagnosis from you and a way forward, now. You have to make a decision, now, within all the limitations and uncertainties that are part of our human condition.

CTers don't like to hear that, though. For they are not only absolutist in their view, they also claim superior morality for it, precisely because it claims that we're in a battle of good and evil and there is a pure, unalloyed good that must prevail. (We'll see concrete examples of all that below.) In their understanding, you are either with them, or you're wrong! - not just factually but morally wrong! - as in: you're racist, sexist, ableist etc. etc.

That kind of authoritarianism is an intellectual and a practical problem. And both go together, since how you think - about the world, your role, the needs of your students - influences your practice. In addition, CT is known to squash dissent quite actively. I'd hate for it to become the dominant theoretical framework in our field, as it has in various others. It would amount to a great scholarly impoverishment, and to a great disservice to whose for whom we are called to care.

And yet - take a deep breath now - we cannot, must not, should never simply dismiss critical theorists as ideological cranks. For their worldview and their sense of being totally, absolutely right both rest on, yes, a whole boatload of actual facts and actual problems. Were we to dismiss those, we would do so at our own peril and that of great harm to our students. So my task is to make clear that while I am thoroughly opposed to the diagnoses CT presents to us, I fully agree that what it diagnoses is in dire need of attention. And I have to navigate this awkward space. Like I said, we live in peculiar times.

So, today I'm going to take a look at the practical issues with CT when applied to clinical practice in speech-language pathology. (There will be another post where I explore the intellectual consequences in more depth.) I'll do that using Nair et al. as an example, but I don't mean to single them out personally. There are many more in our field who think like they do, and I assume they are all driven by the same sense of integrity as I am in speaking out. So, this is not meant to be read as an ad hominem but as an ad rem: not an attack on colleagues, but a serious dispute with their espoused worldview. Or, perhaps, an attempt at translating their lofty theories into usable everyday concepts.


Let's start with context. The piece that sparked this post is a CT-style analysis of that problem-riddled mainstay of our field, standardized testing. And the authors tackle it in the unique style that is CT writing, tying it not just to the concrete problems that come with it today but to the ugly underbelly of history in the past 500 years. Which you can do, but that's a pretty big hammer to wield at clinicians just trying to do their job! Remember I said critical theory has an authoritarian bend? That shows, among others, in the sweeping moral condemnations it bludgeons you with.

I picked some quotes from their piece to illustrate what I mean. I know, there is iffiness in using quotes out of context - but I assure you that these are quite representative of the whole article. The authors give a (somewhat warped) history lesson of the intersection of science, colonialism and capitalism that climaxes in the statements I pulled. So as you go through them, I invite you to be aware of your internal reactions - thoughts and feelings - they spark.

  1. "This review article critically interrogates the racist, ableist, and capitalistic ideologies inherent to standardized testing and how they embody a hostile form of market-driven economics for profit generation. (...) We end this review article with a call for speech and language therapy practitioners to engage in criticality and reflexivity to disrupt systems that perpetuate standard language ideologies, racism, and degradation of Black and Brown bodies." (pp. 782-783).

  2. "[S]tandardized testing is neither objective nor based on meritocracy but is rooted in colonialism, war, and racist thinking." (p. 784).

  3. "Standardized testing in speech and language therapy utilizes similar [racist] ideology to hierarchically order children either based on presence/absence/delay of a set of socially constructed speech and language skills. This process violates all principles of justice and panders to the wealth generation of the testing industry." (p. 787).

  4. "[D]isorder or impairment exists only because of material and social structures failing to understand variability in communication as natural part of human diversity." (p. 789).

  5. "Could we as practitioners or educators really participate in a racist practice that deliberately oppresses minoritized communities for economic profit? While there could be arguments regarding the merits of standardized testing such as receiving a disability label for disability benefits, this rationale cannot justify speech and language therapists’ complicity in utilizing racist tests in their clinical practice." (p. 791).

So, what was it like reading those? Did you feel... outrage? Dismay? Hopelessness? Revolutionary fervor? Are you ready to burn the entirety of your therapy tools and stage a protest at ASHA, clad in black, shouting "speech-language pathology is fascism! down with the oppressors"?

I'm asking because that's what I felt reading the article - more precisely, that's what I felt the authors were trying to invoke in me. And I'm not happy when someone uses absolutist moral condemnation of our entire human situation to emotionally manipulate me into submitting to their view. It reminds me, rather eerily, of certain brands of religious fundamentalism.

It may therefore come as a surprise to you when I tell you that I actually agree with much of what they say. Not with everything - some of it is blatantly inaccurate or unsalveageably hyperbolic. But by and large, they're not wrong. Standardized testing does come with a whole chock of problems - among others that it never captures the full human reality of a person, compares students to cultural norms that are not their own, and is part of a healthcare industry that does, indeed, care more about profits than people. Good clinicians (should) know all this, and good clinical programs (should) teach about it.

So, my issue is not with the facts they bemoan. It's with the ideology they espouse, and with the message, implicit in their writing, that you have to agree with their ideology or you're a bad person practicing racism, ableism etc. I also object to the fact that after all this condemnation, they never tell you what to actually do about these problems in real life - they only offer some sort of quasi-religious absolution to you by subscribing to their views.

Let's dissect the quotes above to illustrate what I mean by all of this.


Quote 1, part 1: This review article critically interrogates the racist, ableist, and capitalistic ideologies inherent to standardized testing and how they embody a hostile form of market-driven economics for profit generation.

Let's first delve into "critical" bit. That's where critical theory gets its name from, of course. And when using this term they don't mean "critical thinking", a form of inquiry that investigates an issue from all sides, taking all the facts and multiple viewpoints into account, and maintains a sense of skepticism and humility even towards its own conclusions. No, by "critical" they mean they're going to look at power, and power alone, and they will condemn what they find. Like I said above, that extremely narrow lens is a problem when you need to make a decision, particularly one that affects someone else's life, as when you use a standardized test on someone and give them a diagnosis. Whatever we do in such a situation, it will come with inherent problems, limited information, and resource constraints - and yet we have to act and move forward.

To make fraught decisions intentionally and wisely, you need a big picture and deep understanding - of the human condition, of life, of the limits of your own understanding and of present possibilities. But when you've deliberately confined yourself to one narrow area of inquiry, you're lacking all that. As the old adage goes, "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". When all you have is critical theory, everything looks like it needs to be burned down and built completely anew.

Let's move on to the racist, ableist, and capitalistic ideologies inherent to standardized testing and how they embody a hostile form of market-driven economics for profit generation. Are you getting dismayed yet? Good! For this, as you know by now, is their intention. Critical theorists do not simply produce scholarly articles - they write revolutionary pamphlets trying to rouse you to take action! Even though they never tell you what that action could be. And they do that by hammering down on your conscience with the most damning moral judgments available - racism! classism! ableism! money-grubbing! - so that if happen to care about real-life issues of justice you feel compelled to agree with their arguments, lest you side with all the evil "-isms".

There are also a bunch of fallacies and outright inaccuracies hidden in this statement-and-a-half. A sound history lesson, their article is not. I'll look at that in my next post.

Quote 2: [S]tandardized testing is neither objective nor based on meritocracy but is rooted in colonialism, war, and racist thinking.

Let's first establish that the first clause in this sentence is one hundred percent accurate. Indeed, standardized testing is neither an objective measure of a purported observer-independent reality, nor does it have all that much to do with the merit of achievement. Hence, every clinician worth their pay uses it with caution, and every academic program worth its tuition teaches them to do so. (Like us, for example.)

But then comes the second clause revealing the horrible roots of standardized testing: colonialism! war! racism! That's why all those evil isms are inherent in it (as per quote 1). More insidiously, they embody a hostile market-driven ideology (also quote 1)! Are you ready to fight back yet?

If so, hold it for a sec. For much of this is wrong, and what isn't wrong is either hyperbole or ideologically warped.

Let's start with their claim that evil ideologies are somehow inherent in standardized testing, implying that whenever you use standardized tests, you are acting on those ideologies. And that you do so for profit. (If you doubt that that's what they're wanting to say, check quote 5 again, where they're actually saying it.) Now, to be fair, it is perfectly possible to use standardized tests in a racist and ableist way. In fact, it happens every day, and way too often.

But here's the thing. I refuse to engage in a type of essentialist materialism that claims evil somehow resides "in" those tests. That's not only unscientific. It's also unethical: it negates our responsibility for using tests in harmful ways. Thus, these statements are both factually and morally wrong. And, frankly, a form of escapism: they reprieve us from thinking about why this happens by scapegoating an inanimate object. Yes, misuse of standardized tests is a real problem, and we are responsible for that. We shouldn't try to deny that responsibility by conveniently locating the problem in the tools of our trade rather than in us who use them.

(Also, even if we were to exorcise all standardized tests from our field, we'd probably not do a much better job - since it's our own lack of knowledge and our biases that make us use our tests in harmful ways, and both of those would still be there even if the tests were gone.)

But here's the other thing. It is also perfectly possible to use standardized tests for the benefit of our students. As the authors themselves concede in quote 5. Test results get students disability benefits and therapeutic support. For clinicians, they are one of many data points they use to determine a patient's status, needs and goals. When properly used, they are helpful and necessary tools, despite their limitations. And in a world built on science and data, they're indispensable for us to prove we do, indeed, belong to that world, to get a voice at the table.

We'll skip quote 3 for the moment and go straight to quote 4. I want to talk more about the impracticality of CT before moving on to its absolutist moralism.

Quote 4: [D]isorder or impairment exists only because of material and social structures failing to understand variability in communication as natural part of human diversity.

To be clear, they are, in fact, saying that there is no such thing as a communicative impairment or disorder. All there is are variations of healthy functioning, and the only problem is that society has decided only one way of communicating is correct, and all other ways have to be made to conform to that norm or labeled "disabled/disordered". All of this would come as surprising news to parents trying to get help so their child can live up to their fullest potential, or to adults grieving a loss of communicative abilities they used to have and no longer do.

But again, we cannot simply dismiss what they're saying. You have heard of the social model of disability, which views impairments as a function of the interaction of a person with their environment. (As opposed to the medical model, which locates the impairment in the person themselves.) We use it all the time: when we advocate for accommodations for our students, or get them a hearing aid, or counsel a teacher on making their classroom sensory-friendly, etc. Every time we work with the social context of a patient, we are, in fact, treating their disability as a variation that can be accommodated. And that's exactly as it should be.

The issues with critical theorists is that they subscribe to an extremist, exclusivist interpretation of the social model. None of us would ever toss the medical model out of the window for the sake of ideological purity - because it would be to the detriment of our patients. And it's not just about needing diagnoses, those hallmarks of a medical orientation, to get insurance reimbursement. It's also about patients' lived experience. When an adult loses, say, their ability to speak, they are "impaired" or "disordered" - if not with regard to social norms and expectations, then minimally with regard to their pre-loss functioning. Even if their entire social context were to adapt to their new functioning in a day's worth of time, and even if their prior abilities were never brought up, they would still feel the loss themselves.

Similarly, a child with a communicative disability needs our help to both improve their own behavioral functioning (medical model) and make their social environment more accommodating and inclusive (social model). And let's say we greatly enhance their ability to navigate life but there are still obvious limitations to their functioning in comparison to their peers. That is, then, a fact of life, not a matter of social construction. And even if the social context were entirely welcoming of the child, and entirely non-judgmental of their limitations (an ideal scenario, to put it kindly), their limitations would still be obvious to themselves. What good would it do for us to tell the child the only difference about them is the way society treats them? That would amount to a dismissal of their lived experience, and it could set them up for a form of learned helplessness, where they live in the constantly disappointed hope that they could be exactly like anyone else if only their environment gave them what they need. (As a side note, a more compassionate way of going about it would be to highlight that everyone has some sort of limitations to their functioning, and that the student is no different from others in that regard.)

On top of all that, all these scenarios involve an amount of suffering on part of our patients. It would be crassly harmful were we to dismiss that suffering as nothing more than a social construction. Thus, in making stark claims like this, CT exposes itself as being not just impractical but quite out of touch with the lived realities of those it claims to represent.

Not a quote but a synthesis of quotes 1, 2, 3, and 5: Standardized tests are inescapably racist, ableist, classist, profit-driven, unjust, and colonialist, and if you use them you make yourself guilty of using perpetrating all of those ills, of taking advantage of something made for war, and of perpetuating standard language ideologies.

So now we're tackling all the sordid remainders of our quotes, which can be summarized as I did here: into a scathing condemnation of you and me and everyone else who uses standardized tests. Like I said, CT wields big moralistic hammers at you to make you come away with the inescapable conclusion that everything must burn. And again, they're basing that on a shoddy reading of history. Their argument is that standardized testing is racist and ableist because it developed in a sociocultural context where racism and ableism - deluded ideas about the superiority of some people and inferiority of others - were even more prevalent than they are today. It also argues that the true purpose of testing is to make money and to create norms that keep "normal" people "in" and "abnormal" people "out".

To reiterate, the problems they address are real, it's just that their understanding of the problems is warped. They fall prey to the oldest confusion in science: mistaking correlation for causation (and, I'd add, mistaking coherence for intention). We'll talk more about that in another post, since this one is already way too long. So let's go back to their conclusions.

Since the path they take is crooked, so are their takeaways: they point their fingers at you, accusingly, without ever telling you how to do better. "Could we as practitioners or educators really participate in a racist practice that deliberately oppresses minoritized communities for economic profit?", they ask (on p. 791, emphasis mine). And lest we miss the point, they double down in their final "clinical considerations" (same page): "Does your practice acknowledge the racist and eugenic basis of standard language ideologies and standardized testing in speech and language therapy?", they inquire. And: "What does practice that subverts from [sic] standardized testing and resists racism look like to you?"

Imagine reading these injunctions after going through an entire article that explains, meticulously, how your OWLS or TILLS carries with it the burden of all the horrors of the past. And note how their wording implies that if you use a standardized test, you yourself engage in a racist, eugenicist etc. practice. And given the sheer weight of that burden, do you really want to bear it? Or are you ready to subvert and resist? But how can you, since tests are indispensable? I cannot bear this any longer! We must tear it all down, now! - and start everything from scratch... REVOLUTION!

At which point the SLP collapses on the floor, sobbing, and needs to be given an adult drink for revivification. You get the point. The story Nair et al. tell really gives you only two choices - either you dismiss what they're saying, or you change your professional life, right here, right now!

Relax, SLP. I assure you that you don't have to ritually burn your standardized tests. But you do have to reflect on how you are using them.

So, let's take a look at how we use our tests improperly. This common knowledge in our field, so I am going to take the liberty of summarizing it. Here are the three main pitfalls of standardized testing, according to my best understanding. You're doing your students injustice if you use your tests...

  1. ...with populations on whom they were not normed, and without questioning what that does to your results

  2. if your one favorite test were all you need to know about your student

  3. a way that takes them too seriously - where you start seeing the student as their test result rather than as a person

No. 1. is straightforward. It's what every teacher you've ever had told you - or should have told you. If your student is a dialect speaker, or English-language learner, your test is of no use (unless it was specifically normed on the dialect or ELL background you're working in, or allows for the variations that come with them). Even if they come from a lower-SES/working-class background without displaying an obvious dialect or ELL status, your test may not be useful, since the populations us researchers typically get to work with are notorious for skewing not only White and monolingual but also middle-class, and that's its own unique culture with its own communicative norms.

And that's where the racism piece comes in. The demographic and linguistic makeup of the US being what it is, your tests are going to be inappropriate for usage with a disproportionately BIPOC student body (BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, or People of Color). Put otherwise, every time you use your test inappropriately, you're probably harming a non-White student rather than a White one. Also, White students are more likely to match culturally White, middle-class norms, because, well, duh. (But don't forget there are White dialect speakers too!) And in this way, us SLPs are, indeed, a cog in the wheel of a machinery that puts inordinate burdens on non-White folk by expecting them to match our norms instead of their own. That's a problem so glaring that linguist John McWhorter, otherwise a fierce critic of critical theory, has written about it. (His work is a great example of how you can be 'woke' to the facts of structural racism without blindly subscribing to CT.)

So, America's population makeup guarantees our tests are never going to be fully appropriate for a majority of our patients (especially in the schools). And we use them anyway. Is that defensible? Yes, but only under one precondition: that we avoid pitfall no. 2. Nair et al. are fully correct when they say that tests have the power to construe a reality that is harmful for your student. The only way to navigate that is by eschewing the typical fallacy of our scientific, technological modernity: the idea that everything can be normed, that "hard facts" are all we need for decision-making. Listen, SLP: case history, close behavioral observation, your clinical intuition and the student's reactions to what you're doing all are just as important as those sterile numbers on your datasheet, if not more so! Thus, you must take into account all the information available to you when interpreting your test results: the student's cultural and linguistic background, your observations of their functioning, other tests, dynamic testing, etc. etc. And then you write it up saying something like "Results of test X are likely not reflective of the student's true status since..." And that's what good reports should look like, and that's how you avoid the peril of helping perpetuate race-based injustices.

Similarly for the "ableism" accusation. Again, it is fully possible to use your tests exactly like Nair and et al. insinuate: as a means of putting your student in a diagnostic box. And yes, that often does come with an assumption, however implicit, that your diagnosis represents a scientific proof that the student is "less than" their normal peers in some way. It is up to us to prevent that idea from gaining hold: within ourselves, within the student, and within everyone who plays a role in their life. And the best way to do that is to, again, avoid pitfall no. 2 above. Your student is a fully human person, with abilities and limitations like all of us, hopes and dreams like all of us, and the need to reconcile aspirations with what's possible, like all of us. See them as the person they are. To do that, you need to get to know them and to consider everything you know about them. Their test result and their diagnosis are just one piece of a much larger mosaic.

The good news is, with a sound philosophical framework like the one I'm offering you, you can see and communicate the full humanness of your student right here, right now. No need to paint them exclusively as a helpless victim of unjust power relations, like CT does, and defer the full recognition of their personhood to an unspecified future where all the unjust power relations have been torched to ashes.

Speaking of deferral, it is quite characteristic for the CT genre that after all the moral bludgeoning and all the condemnation, Nair et al. include a disclaimer in their manifesto: "It is not the intention of this review article to propose alternatives to standardized testing or reform speech therapy or chart a future for it." (p. 790). In other words, they just told you that everything you do is bad but they have no intention of suggesting how to do better. CTers never do. Because critical theory is not able to build and go forward - its sole purpose is, and always has been, to look backward and tear down. Which leaves the practicing clinician in the predicament that your entire line of work has just been exposed as a parade of abominable isms - but all you can do about it is, well, think about it. Good luck.


Ok, time to wrap this up. (You may be sighing in relief right now.) I said, at the beginning, that despite the bizarre strictures imposed on us by the State of Texas, I am still enjoying more academic freedom here than I would in a place steeped entirely in critical theory. I hope by now it has become a bit clearer why I said that. At least in Texas, I can (as of this date) still say and write what I stand for. Were I forced to work in an environment suffused with the same sweeping condemnations and sense of moral righteousness as the article I reviewed here, I'm not sure that would be the case.

And the same is true for our clinical practice, particularly that elusive yet crucial work of trying to understand our patients in the fullness of their humanity (as opposed to reducing them to a bunch of variables). Ironically, CT serves to impoverish human experience in a way that's quite isomorphous to what they accuse us of doing to our patients when we use standardized tests. Just like standardized testing, unchecked by conscious clinicians, can construe people as a set of diagnoses and dis-abilities , CT construes them as a set of identifiers that assigns them an unalterable place in fixed power structures.

(Even more ironically, CT's flattening of humanity bears some similarity to what the Texas Legislature is doing. CTers and Texas politicians both try to fit people into their preconceived schemes - oppressors/oppressed in the former case, White middle-class norms in the latter. But I digress.)

There is also an overgeneralization issue inherent in CT. They create sweeping abstractions which they then attack, Don Quixote-like, with the full force of moral condemnation. In contrast, I prefer staying close to the ground of clinical reality, embracing the messiness, imperfections and contradictions inherent in that. I trust those more than the simple good-vs.-evil ideas CT espouses.

That's not to say there is no good or evil in human life. There sure is, and people do oppress others unjustly. (Sometimes, those oppressors may be you and me!) But if we only think about life in terms of oppressor or oppressed, we dehumanize both perpetrators and victims, construing both as cogs without agency or inner conflicts, without human freedom or responsibility. As if perpetrators of oppression were just faceless serfs to some dark force, and their victims its equally faceless prey.

I said, above, that I'm offering you - and by extension our field as a whole, and perhaps healthcare as a whole - a better framework on which to base our clinical thinking. But I've been so busy, in this post, to express my discontent with CT, that I never quite got around to explicating what that framework is. In a nutshell, it's humanism - more precisely, a recent form of humanism that embraces pragmatism as its guiding framework and, interestingly, jells quite nicely with the latest iterations of CT (generations three and four). I'll be elaborating on all of this in upcoming posts. In the meantime, you keep doing what you're doing: use your standardized tests with the amount of detachment and skepticism they deserve. Or, if you've learned something about how not to use them in this post, give your practice a new spin by putting them in their proper place. There a many good reasons to cut their influence in our field down to size. But I assure you, you need not burn them.

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