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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Ellsworth – Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering?

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. “Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering? Working through the Repressive Myth of Critical Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review. 59.3 (1989):297-324. Print.

In this article Elizabeth Ellsworth offers an interpretation of an anti-racism course she offered and uses that  interpretation to support her critique of then current (1980s) discourses of critical pedagogy. She argues that key critical pedagogy terms such as “empowerment,” “student voice,” “dialogue,” and even “critical” are repressive myths that sustain relations of domination and exacerbated “banking education” (298).

One major premise asserted by Ellsworth is that a critical pedagogue is one who enforces rules of reason in the class and that rationalism can also be used to dominate. Drawing on feminist studies, Ellsworth suggests that while post-structuralism can also be used to dominate, it also offers critique against the violence of rationalism that excludes women, people of color, and other marginalized groups (303). Post-structuralist thought is not bound to “reason, but to discourse, literally narratives about the world that are admittedly partial” (303).

Ellsworth asks the question, “what diversity do we silence in the name of ‘liberatory’ pedagogy?” (299) and interrogates the unnamed agendas of courses enacting critical pedagogy and professors teaching them. She concludes with a quote from Trinh T. Minh-ha: “there are no social positions exempt from becoming oppressive to other… any group – any position – can move into the oppressor role” (322).