Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Reviews and resources

Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change

Reviewed by Scott Marratto, Toronto, Ontario

Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, by Ira Shor, 1992 (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 286 p., paper, $13.95).

The federal government in Canada has recently produced a remarkably candid document on education entitled, "Action Plan for Prosperity." The document signals the advent of a new paradigm, or at least a renewed vigilance on the part of the capitalist state in imposing a paradigm designed to reduce formal education to the service of corporations. Throughout the Western world we see a heightened interest on the part of the State in the role of education in maintaining technological growth.

This particular document argues that secondary and post secondary education must be geared more exclusively toward skills development and, in that capacity, focus on "results" rather than "process." It encourages educational institutions to establish closer practical ties to corporations so as to respond more effectively to the demands of the job market.

Such a model as this may provide a student with opportunities for jobs, but not with a sense of her or his place in history; it may make for more dynamic and resilient capitalist economies, but will effectively undermine any attempts to create an authentic democracy; it may provide students with the skills to survive, but not to become active citizens of a meaningful and compassionate community.

In this chilling climate of dehumanizing and strictly "goal oriented" education, Ira Shor's book Empowerinq Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change represents a kind of handbook for resistance. It poses a direct challenge to those who would reduce the educational process to the manufacture of technical skills or to the transfer of information from "teachers" to "students."

Shor effectively argues that such a challenge is in the best interest of learning, of individual teachers and students, and that it is essential for the development of a healthy integrated democracy.

Ivan Illich once wrote that an authentic pedagogy would involve "educational webs which would heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his (sic) living into one of learning, sharing, and caring" 1. Shor's book is filled with practical insight and techniques for those who would respond to the challenge of such a critical pedagogy.

In his capacity as professor of English at the City University of New York, Shor has had a rich and varied experience with the actual application of Paulo Freire's "education for critical consciousness" in a North American context. This recontextualizing of Freire's work alone makes Empowerinq Education an extremely important work. But Shor offers us a great deal more than that.

Shor's point of departure is the essential question which vexes every critical or popular educator: "How can I promote critical and democratic development among students who have learned to expect little from intellectual work and from politics?" 2

Education has long suffered from a debilitating malaise. In its function as an instrument for the reproduction of existing power relationships (class, gender, race, etc.), in its claims to being neutral while celebrating the status quo, and in its authoritarianism, it has become stale and alienating, particularly for those who find themselves on the margins of society.

Shor discusses the many ways in which education serves to link students to the political world, to its values, and to its prevalent discourse. Education that claims to be objective and neutral, instead serves to further mystify the political universe and in effect to prepare students for either submission or self-defeating revolt in the form of inaction.

The traditional model of education is described by Paulo Freire as "banking concept" education. Shor adopts this description and proceeds to show how this model involves the transfer of official knowledge into the minds of passive learners. Over and against this, Shor proposes "problem posing" education as a way of "orienting students to democratic transformation of society by their active citizenship." 3

Among the particularly radical and exciting characteristics of this model are the emphasis on a non-hierarchical relationship of educator and student, the democratic structure of relationships in the classroom, the effective use of co-operative research, the critical approach to the standard canons of Western knowledge, the encouragement of an active response to new knowledge and insight, and the generation of curriculum as well as learning techniques from the culture and life setting of the students, from the many impasses, obstacles, and curiosities they may experience in daily life.

Shor is, however, very honest about the many difficulties involved in this kind of work. The prevailing ideologies in the West act as a kind of border around critical imagination and thought. Shor writes, for example, of the last decade's extraordinary preoccupation with "personal improvement," with "self-esteem" and "personal power" as catch-phrases of the day. It is then very difficult to talk of political and social limitations to our freedom because such concepts have been made to seem abstract. Long-standing myths become "habitual limits on public discourse and imagination," 4 while critical examination seems strange and disquieting.

Shor proposes that the key to overcoming these limitations is in the skill and patience of the teacher (facilitator) who must persist in struggling to create an environment where a radical curiosity, a critical analysis, and a sense of responsibility and citizenship is allowed to flourish, and in fact to become the framework for true learning.

In order to meet with any measure of success in this area, as any creative educator is bound to discover, the educator must be fast on her feet, ready to integrate and contextualize material, ready to comment, question, and offer resources during dialogue. Shor's book is loaded with helpful insights into these skills. We are provided with a significant body of resources, including the experiences of people who have applied critical democratic education techniques in various contexts from whom we may learn important strategies.

One of the particularly exciting principles which Shor discusses is the democratization of curriculum and classroom process. He argues that students "are denied the essence of democracy, which I define as co-governance in private and public life...(they) bring few democratic habits to the classroom because they have few opportunities to practise them in school." 5 To address this problem Shor provides us with a detailed description of how his classes undergo the process of making decisions about matters of curriculum, dialogue content and structure, evaluation and grading.

One thing to note is that Shor's work is based largely on the experience of an educator working in a formal institutional context, an educator who works with a group over an extended period of time in a classroom setting. The problem arises for most such people in that few institutions would tolerate this kind of radical approach to the structure of the classroom and to curriculum. Most educators operate within fairly tight parameters which significantly limit the potential for such a revolutionary praxis.

Shor implicitly suggests that we must also work to create a context for such critical learning, that "teachers and students alike need to desocialize from the dominant influences on their development" 6. In effect, we must also move our transformative vision beyond the classroom, deeper into the political-economic matrix wherein the educational models and techniques aimed at the reproduction of the status quo are formulated and handed down.

For anyone who is interested in education as radical praxis, and in arriving at a deeper understanding of how education may be either a tool for liberation or an instrument of the dominant ideology, this book is a significant resource. In particular, I would highly recommend it for anyone who is looking to better understand the nuts and bolts of critical pedagogy, who understands the theory but lacks an effective methodology. Shor has provided us with both an effective synthesis of pertinent theory, and a very helpful manual for application.


1. Ivan Illich, 1970, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper and Row), p. xix.

2. Ira Shor, 1992, Empowering Education (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 10.

3. Ibid., p. 29.

4. Ibid., p. 72.

5. Ibid., p. 168.

6. Ibid., p. 203.

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