Rethinking Empowerment

No, I am not rethinking “empowerment” in the sense of is it a good or bad thing? But after reading a very thought provoking essay called  Empowerwashing Education by Benjamin Doxtdator  I am rethinking how I have used the term and what the term means and implies.

The first thing that jumped at me as I started reading was that if I am a teacher and I am thinking about that ways I empower my students, that still puts the starting point (i.e., the control) of the empowering with me. That is, there is still an oppressive or, at least, paternalistic tone to empowerment when considered in this way. So often educators think: I need to do things so that my students are “empowered.” I don’t like the idea that I am holding the keys to the empowerment of my students. I don’t like the idea they get empowered through me.

On the other hand, I do have power and privilege that was and is afforded to me at a very high cost to others historically, socially, and economically. I consider it a moral imperative to use that power and privilege I have to try to transform status quo conditions that disempower, discriminate and oppress others (in this context, my students). Isn’t it a good thing to want to and try to empower and help others?

My concern when reflecting on this is the question of who decides how my students are empowered? I confess that until I read this essay, I only considered it in one direction: to what extent do all the daily decisions I make as a teacher empower my students? If that is true, then isn’t that idea based on the assumption that empowerment is something done to other people? That sounds wrong to me now. He makes another point that is still resonating with me: he posits that the current use of the word empowerment in education is often meant more as “liberal” than “liberating.”

I think Benjamin makes it very clear that there is (and always was) a lot of context connected to the term empowerment but that current use of the term by educators (and by corporations) seems to have emphasized striving to support passions, innovation, design, voice and choice and deemphasized social justice, politics, activism and radicalism.

His essay ends with some sound advice and three questions to consider instead of using the term “empowerment” in a buzzword kind of way:

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Be sure to take some time to read his essay: Empowerwashing Education

2 Comments on “Rethinking Empowerment

  1. Jim – thank you for your thoughtful reflections here…it really made me think. I know that in education we often get caught up in acronyms and buzzwords. I am trying to be more conscious of this!

    • Thanks for your comments, Kate! Yeah, reading Benjamin’s post today really opened my eyes to thinking in other directions and to the historical use of the term. And I never realized how quickly terms can become buzzwords/jargon and can also start to lose meaning when they are used several times a day…

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