Greer – “No Smiling Madonna”: Marian Wharton and the Struggle to Construct a Critical Pedagogy for the Working Class, 1914-1917

Greer, Jane. “‘No Smiling Madonna’: Marian Wharton and the Struggle to Construct a Critical Pedagogy for the Working Class, 1914-1917.” College Composition and Communication. 51.2 (1999): 248-271. Print.

In this essay, Greer does historiographic work and discusses the life and work of Marian Wharton. Wharton helped shape the English curriculum at People’s College from 1914-1917 with a specific focus on empowering the working-class.

Greer hopes that by exploring Wharton’s struggles she can highlight and learn more about the contradictions that women and other marginalized people face when trying to enact liberatory pedagogy within existing traditional institutions i.e. “free choice and restricted options.” She cites Elizabith Ellsworth and Ira Shor as contemporary teachers that also struggle with these issues in their scholarship on critical pedagogy.

Greer finds that the main tension in Wharton’s work are the unacknowledged existing hierarchies among competing linguistic systems that ultimately disrupt her project (265). For example, in Wharton’s English textbook Plain English designed to teach “revolutionary English” she equates error-free writing with “clear thinking” implying that her students’ different language use made them cognitively deficient (265).

Greer draws parallese between Wharton and contemporary writing instruction:

Just  as Wharton’s  voice  in Plain English moves  among a range of radical and conservative  registers that reflect her personal commitments as well as institutional and cultural  influences,  so  too  our  own  pedagogical  discourse  is  never  fully  our own: it is freighted with competing languages, some of which may reverberate at frequencies  so  low  and  subtle we  may have  difficulty hearing them  ourselves.

Greer suggests that by acknowledging our own tensions and making them transparent to our students we may become role models of the critical students we want them to be.

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