Feminist Critical Pedagogy and Critical Theory Today

By Gur-Ze'ev, Ilan | Journal of Thought, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Feminist Critical Pedagogy and Critical Theory Today


Gur-Ze'ev, Ilan, Journal of Thought


Feminist Critical Pedagogy

Current Feminist Pedagogy is at a crossroads. One force draws it to an ethnocentric foundationalist emancipatory commitment, while using postmodern rhetoric which negates essentialism, foundationalism and any sort of universalism and collectivism. A different force directs it to save some of the Enlightenment's ideals while criticizing central elements of present day's postmodern discourse and paying tribute to others. This trend manifests a weaker ethnocentrism than the other. In some aspects it is theoretically weaker than the separatist essentialist and ethnocentrist version of Feminist Pedagogy which negates altogether the humanist emancipatory commitment in education. In both versions, one represented by Kathleen Weiler, the other by Elizabeth Ellsworth, present-day Feminist Pedagogy's attitude towards Critical Theory and its realization as Critical Pedagogy sheds light on its essence, goals, possibilities, and limitations. Both versions of Feminist Pedagogy are philosophically problematic and politically dangerous, as they lack a general Critical Theory or a philosophical framework that will protect them from being drawn into a strategic-instrumentalist orientation, which by definition is fundamentally violent. In the absence of anti-instrumentalist and dialogical elements, they are drawn to serve and reflect the repression typical of other versions of strategic-oriented education. Feminist Critical Pedagogy and Feminist Pedagogy do not contribute to the advance of emancipatory counter-education and for an essentially more human reality.

Feminist Critical Pedagogy, however, does have many critical and potentially emancipatory elements, primarily because it is a genuine political and philosophical challenge to Western hegemonic educational ideologies. It questions educational praxis as well as education's philosophical, psychological, and gender context. The differences in feminist philosophies are responsible for the differences in feminist pedagogies. Basically, these differences spring from the different postmodern versions they are committed to. According to Weiler, "Feminist theory, like other contemporary approaches, validates differences, challenges universal claims to truth, and seeks to create social transformation in a world of shifting and uncertain meanings. In education, these profound shifts are evident on two levels: first, at the level of practice, as excluded and formerly silenced groups challenge dominant approaches of learning and to definitions of knowledge; and second, at the level of theory, as modernist claims to universal truth are called into question" (Weiler 1991, 449-450). Feminist Critical Pedagogy is a progressive element within the current realm of self-evidence. However, it is meaningless without a general concept of the current totality, the powers that produce, control, and challenge this totality, and intersubjectivity whereby the feminist movement, in all its versions, is but a dynamic element within other powers. The problem of constituting a general Critical Theory, or for that matter of constituting a defensible theory of negating a general Critical Theory as part of reality and its change, challenges today's Feminist Critical Pedagogy. Feminist Critical Pedagogy cannot escape this challenge, which emphasizes its importance, its weaknesses, and its dangers.

To a great extent "Feminist Pedagogy" (Weiler 1991, 449-474) is not to be understood outside the framework of Critical Theory. According to Kathleen Weiler, Feminist Pedagogy, as evolved in the United States, is a historical example of Critical Pedagogy in action (Weiler 1991, 450). The Critical Pedagogy on which this kind of Feminist Pedagogy is based is explicitly conceived as having strong tries with, if not being constituted from Critical Theory. This connection is important in three respects: from the point of view of Feminist Pedagogy's self-understanding as an emancipatory project; from the view point of its self-understanding as an alternative to this paternalistic Critical Theory (and the paternalistic Critical Pedagogy derived from it); and the possibility of reformulating Critical Theory or Critical Pedagogy in light of some central elements in Feminist Pedagogy's critique of the humanist emancipatory project and the postmodern discourse in general. …

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