“Key assumptions, goals, and pedagogical practices fundamental to the literature on critical pedagogy–namely, ’empowerment,’ ‘student voice,’ ‘dialogue,’ and even the term ‘critical’–are repressive myths that perpetuate relations of domination. By this I mean that when participants in our class attempted to put into practice prescriptions offered in the literature concerning empowerment, student voice, and dialogue, we produced results that were not only unhelpful, but actually exacerbated the very conditions we were trying to work against, including Eurocentrism, racism, sexism, classism, and ‘banking education.'”
–Elizabeth Ellsworth

“What diversity do we silence in the name of ‘liberatory’ pedagogy?” asks Elizabeth Ellsworth in “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy” (1989). In her article, Ellsworth details her experience in critical pedagogy and how she found that this approach to education ultimately failed.

Setting an Agenda

Ellsworth begins by offering a mission statement for her critical pedagogy: “The goal of critical pedagogy was a critical democracy, individual freedom, social justice, and social change–a revitalized public sphere characterized by citizens capable of confronting public issues critically through ongoing forms of public debate and social action” (300). Ellsworth asserts that published literature on classroom practices tends to omit “historical context and political position” and cites the difficulty she had in even naming the course she uses as the basis for the article: “To describe the course as ‘Media and Critical Pedagogy’ or ‘Media, Racism, and Critical Pedagogy,’ for example, would be to hide the politics of the course, making them invisible to the very students I was trying to attract and work with–namely, students committed to or open to working against racism” (300).

Clearly, Ellsworth sets a very political, even overtly activist agenda, and I must applaud her desire to be straightforward in doing so. Further, she is interested as treating her students as serious agents who will actively participate in public discourse. These are key connections that arise for me from reading her approach–and further, she indicates her opposition to erring too much in the direction of the academic insider: “I wanted to avoid colluding with many academic writers in the widespread use of code words such as ‘critical,’ which hide the actual political agendas I assume such writers share with me–namely, antiracism, antisexism, anti-elitism, anti-heterosexism, anti-ableism, anticlassism, and anti-neoconservatism” (300). These “code words,” she argues, offer only “the most abstract, decontextualized criteria for choosing one position over others” (300-301). Citing a dearth of research into how critical pedagogy has actually enacted change within educational institutions or beyond them, she asserts that critical pedagogues have a responsibility to state their political alignments and purposes to avoid misrepresenting their intentions with the use of public resources.

A Challenge to Rationalism

Here, her argument challenges me. Citing the ideas of Valerie Walkerdine, Ellsworth claims that, “Rational argument has operated in ways that set up as its opposite an irrational Other, which has been understood historically as the province of women and other exotic Others. In schools, rational deliberation, reflection, and consideration of all viewpoints has become a vehicle for regulating conflict and the power to speak, for transforming ‘conflict into rational argument by means of universalized capacities for language and reason'” (301). It is at this point that Ellsworth plunges deeply into some very radical argument, and I can see how in certain contexts–such as a course centered around a specific sort of political activism, such as she was teaching–there might be a need to accept a polemic stance on some issues. That said, I find that I balk at the idea that in general we should approach teaching students in such an overtly agenda-driven manner. I suspect I stand a half-step between Ellsworth and those she disparages in many respects, but I do believe that it is my job to teach students to examine an issue thoroughly and to think and express themselves more clearly. I do not believe that it is my job to make activists of them–activists who might happen to support my own political ideology, however much I feel that ideology is valid. As I proceed through her article, I find this conflict highly present in my thoughts.

I pause to note that I am unresolved on the subject of an overtly political, activism-oriented course. I can see the value, and if (as Ellsworth advocates) the course is described as such in an above-board fashion, then I believe it is ethical to do so. However, for my own approach to pedagogy, I simply cannot see treating the classroom as such an explicitly political space. Perhaps this is because I have largely taught freshmen composition and similar courses at this point, and due to the wide breadth of perspectives that are inevitable in such a course it is difficult to imagine impressing such a specific political ideology upon the curriculum.

Ellsworth proceeds to claim that “[The rationalist assumptions underlying critical pedagogy] have led to the following goals: the teaching of analytic and critical skills for judging the truth and merit of propositions, and the interrogation and selective appropriation of potentially transformative moments in the dominant culture” (303). She characterizes the purpose of critical pedagogy as inherently political, which seems to get to the crux of her argument so far–and it is here where she somewhat regains me as a reader. On the one hand she makes statements I find outlandish, such as “Literary criticism, cultural studies, post-structuralism, feminist studies, comparative studies, and media studies have by now amassed overwhelming evidence of the extent to which the myths of the ideal rational person and the ‘universality’ of propositions have been oppressive to those who are not European, White, male, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, thin, and heterosexual” (Ellsworth 304). On the other hand, the farther I go, the more it becomes clear that she is attacking the idea of a sort of “pure” or “removed” universal rationality. While I don’t see what being thin or able-bodied, for instance, has to do with rational thinking, I can only correlate this to the idea that privileged ideology frequently attempts to masquerade as neutral or unbiased.

A Digression (Wherein I wrestle with Ellsworth’s ideas)

So, it seems likely to me that Ellsworth idea of rationality and my own may be quite disconnected in some respects. When she asserts that open discussion of contentious issues, such as racism, would “force students to subject themselves to the logics of rationalism and scientism which have been predicated on and made possible through the exclusion of socially constructed Others,” she is framing an understanding of rationality that I do not share (Ellsworth 305). Here again, the rationality she discusses is one that one that must operate on prejudiced principles. As I would define it, a truly rational discourse would need to seek constantly to divorce itself from specific agendas and biases, instead seeking to become a method for the examination of ideas. However, this rationalism would need to include the capacity for acknowledging bias–for every individual is of course always already partisan in some fashion. Thus, my concept of rationality would entail striving for critical consciousness, seeking to understand one’s own position, interests, privilege, and biases alongside those of others. Like the scientific method, rationality must be self-revising, seeking to account for inevitable variation, error, and bias in order to help us see as clearly as possible. If, after all, we are not prepared to question our fundamental assumptions, then errors or limitations in those assumptions cannot be amended.

Perhaps the central issue is the degree to which I believe “liberation” is the province of my role in the classroom. To, this has always been a question of empowering students to draw their own conclusions, yet much of critical pedagogy would seem to take the position that I should hold much more politicized notions of liberation as central to my role in the classroom. I remain deeply conflicted on this point and very reluctant to abandon my position that, really, my job is to teach students to write–not to tell them what their political ideology ought to be. In contrast, Ellsworth takes this politicized classroom as a matter of course, and she operated from the belief that dominant ideologies–like rationalism–can be used as tools of oppression. I certainly take her point, here, but I believe that our differences come more from different fundamental motivations than from widely divergent logic. In the end, she takes the project of critical pedagogy much farther than I ever have. Thus, it is very plausible that she should find limits that I have not encountered.

Limitations of Empowerment

Ellsworth next targets the academy itself, arguing:

“Yet theorists of critical pedagogy have failed to launch any meaningful analysis of or program for reformulating the institutionalized power imbalances between themselves and their students, or of the essentially paternalistic project of education itself. In the absence of such an analysis and program, their efforts are limited to trying to transform negative effects of power imbalances within the classroom into positive ones.” (Ellsworth 305)

She criticizes the concept of teaching students analytical skills and then allowing them to choose their positions objectively, here again citing the limitations of rationalism as she has characterized it. That is, she claims that this model would never allow students to truly question or attack the underlying assumptions of the prescribed rationalism (Ellsworth 306). I find this a very logical and apt claim, even though I retain my contrasting conclusion that this illuminates a problem with bad thinking about what is rational, not a bad method of empowering students. Essentially, Ellsworth constructs the argument that popular modes of critical pedagogy offer only synthetic empowerment to students while in reality furthering their oppression.

Central to Ellsworth’s objections is the notion that student empowerment must be explicitly defined, and her critique of critical pedagogy illustrates the tendency toward broad and abstract articulations of the question, “empowerment for what?” (307). For me, this seems (perhaps deceptively) a simple question. To my mind, a broad answer is appropriate: The point of empowerment is to enable students to make their own decisions and arguments, helping them to ask better questions and articulate more sophisticated, well-reasoned answers. If abstractions come into play, I acknowledge that what this means must be to some degree fluid. The students cannot simply have good thinking and good argument deposited in their minds; rather, they must be an active, equal part of discovering and defining what these concepts even mean. As I move through the article, I wonder what role Ellsworth envisions for her students in defining their ideologies. I also wonder if she is as critical of prescriptive moral positions (even seemingly obvious positions that stand in opposition to racism, classism, or sexism) as she is to the “paternalistic” authority embodied in the classroom?


Generally, Ellsworth seems highly critical of what she terms “utopian” ideas of rationality and approaches to critical pedagogy. She attacks the implicit disingenuousness of these concepts when they offer only false empowerment to students and is wary of the power structures that emphasize centralized classroom authority and knowledge in the person of the teacher. She advocates acknowledging partiality and agenda, openly acknowledging the projects and motivations of a particular pedagogy rather than attempting to hide them behind coded language. She treats difference between students as a resource, and she treats students themselves as real, active participants in real projects rather than following something akin to Bartholomae’s model of playacting. Ellsworth also makes a serious interrogation of then-popular (and possibly still-popular) methods of pedagogy, seeking to challenge and revise methods that do not achieve the aims they claim to support. Perhaps most importantly, she calls out the notion that labels such as “critical pedagogy” somehow create miraculous solutions or render the challenges of the teacher uncomplicated. She advocates for a classroom practice in which teacher and student both acknowledge partiality, self-interest, and the potential to oppress–so that “we can work together on shaping and reshaping alliances for constructing circumstances in which students of difference can thrive” (324).


Ellsworth, Elizabeth. “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review. Sep. 1989: 297-325. PDF File.

  1. Katrina Herd says:

    I’m just beginning my doctoral studies and reading Ellsworth was one assigned reading this week. Your view point was helpful to me in synthesizing some of her writing. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.