Educators are lucky to live in a time when so many corporations want to empower learning rather than simply profit from a product. Microsoft aims to “empower students and teachers worldwide” through its new platform.  McGraw-Hill say they will “Empower students with learning resources that adapt to their unique style.” Pearson will help schools “empower their students to master the Common Core State Standards and excel on the new Common Core assessments.”

According to Maryellen Weimer, we would be wise to look to the business world to understand what empowerment is all about since that’s where the concept originated:

“Like many widely used descriptors in higher education, ‘empowered learners’ has acquired a more generic meaning, and that is unfortunate because it’s the specific meanings that give this moniker its teeth. As a concept, empowerment was first used to describe a kind of relationship between managers and employees. It was defined as ‘the process of creating intrinsic task motivation by providing an environment and tasks which increase one’s sense of self-efficacy and energy.’”1 Weimer refers us to Frymier, A. B., Shulman, G. M., and Houser, M. (1996). The development of a learner empowerment measure. Communication ...continue

It’s tempting to criticize Weimer because the radical left put ‘empowerment’ into use decades before it was co-opted by the business world. Yet, Weimer is correct in the sense that corporations target the education sector in precisely the business-friendly terms that Weimer references. With the radical history erased, a new and diluted sense of what empowerment might mean has taken hold.

We should be alarmed to see the awareness of the radical roots of the term vanish, since even the neoconservatives in the administration of George Bush Sr. had the historical awareness to know about the term’s radical use in the 1960’s. In 1990, Jack Kemp, head of the Economic Empowerment Task Force, proposed to ‘empower’ the poor by privatizing public housing, and thus with his “rhetorical dexterity” Kemp had “virtually banished the term ‘privatization’ from the housing debate.” Vouchers for ‘school choice’ and ‘enterprise zones’ were also part of their ‘empowerment program’. Kemp’s colleague Richard Porter recounts how they found it “fun” to use “empowerment” because it meant “stealing one of the Left’s words.” The NYT argues that empowerment became a way of “sounding activist and conservative at once.”2Sources include this article in The Yale Law Review, Cruikshank’s The Will to Empower, and this article from the New York Times

The Heritage Foundation (1992) called Kemp’s move to privatize public housing his ‘perestroika’ and Bush (1990) hailed the opportunity for “urban homesteaders”, comparing it to the Homestead Act of 1862 which gave “160 acres to any family that wanted to make a go of it in the wilderness and reach for the American dream. … Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act empowered people, it freed them to control their own destinies, to create their own opportunities…”

To give you a flavor of Kemp’s rhetoric, here’s how Kemp framed his vision in Washington Post (1991):

“… any new and successful War on Poverty requires a dramatic and radically different approach. If we are to have such a war — and we should — it ought to be based on empowering people rather than bureaucracies, expanding individual ownership and increasing economic incentives. These are precisely the distinctions the social engineers of the Great Society missed, notwithstanding their laudable goals and noble aims.

Our mainstream economy is based on democratic and entrepreneurial capitalism. It links individual effort with reward and is based on private property and incentives for work, saving, investment, education and family. But our second economy — the welfare economy — is more akin to the Third World socialist economy than to the capitalist West. It is a grim world in which the rules of the market are reversed by government fiat, and where there is too little private property and too much publicly owned and managed property. Human effort and productivity is punished: Those welfare recipients and unemployed fathers who take jobs and get married end up as net losers.”


Privatization gets to the heart of the theft of ‘empowerment’ from the left. Alongside the purely economic sense of privatization, there’s a sociopolitical sense of privatization that encourages individuals to focus on their privatized troubles, rather than on public issues, which as Dag Leonardsen explains, “transcend the local environment of the individual and concern the broader society and its structure.” If people experiencing poverty are expected to purchase their own ‘low-cost’ housing, it then becomes a private and individual responsibility on their part, rather than a public obligation. In the examples of empowerment I cited from Microsoft and Pearson, their tools are marketed along the same individualistic lines, and systemic problems are transformed into personal problems of motivation and individual style. Empowerment sounds “activist and conservative at once”. 

In one advertisement, Microsoft tells us that “we go beyond memorization of facts and figures and a one-size-fits-all education, where students learn in the way they learn best, on the tools they will use in the future, where teachers create experiences that spark creativity, and everyone can collaborate anytime, anywhere.” We are shown such a wide range of privileged educational contexts – from students photographing art in a modern gallery, to adults looking at a skeleton with augmented reality goggles – which are contrasted with a barebones classroom with Black children raising their hands to come up to the board. This juxtaposition encourages us to see Microsoft as leveling the playing field – creating what Thomas Friedman calls a ‘flat’ world – where all that’s needed are the devices to connect everyone. 


In a 2016, Microsoft convened a “gathering of high-level officials from the wider education community in more than 40 African countries.” Microsoft sees Africa as a ‘growing and untapped market’. Note the hand holding out cash.


There’s a similar story to be told about Bridge International Academies (BIA), a chain of for-profit, ‘low-cost’ private schools. BIA writes about “empowering women and girls” because its “affordable fees mean that parents don’t have to choose which child to send to school and are less likely to prioritize a boy’s education over a girl’s.” In a leaked prospectus, BIA very much sees Africa as an untapped market – $64 to $179 billion dollars – much like Microsoft does. 


Curtis Riep and Mark Machacek (2016) extensively document how the unlicensed teachers – many of them the kinds of women BIA claims to empower – get paid half of what they would at the lowest end of the public school scale. According to their calculations, the most economically disadvantaged families in Uganda with two children – the average household has 6 people – “would have to expend 46 – 55% (including lunch) or 30 – 39% (excluding lunch) of their total household income on school fees at Bridge.” It’s hard to see how this fee structure stops parents from having to choose which children to educate.  

Now that empowerment has been embraced by corporations, we paradoxically need to ask: are we really empowered? Is this what empowerment should feel like? In The Battle for Open (2014), Martin Weller asks much the same question about the idea of ‘open’. Noting that many companies market themselves as ‘green’ (environmentally friendly), Weller writes “From the perspective of the 1950s, this looks like radical progress, a victory of the green message. And yet for many in the green movement, it doesn’t feel like victory at all.”  Companies have greenwashed themselves  in branding more than they have really addressed the concerns of the environmental justice movement. Similarly, the idea of ‘open’ has “penetrated so successfully into the mainstream that it is now a marketable quality.” Empowerwashing in another step along the same kind path. We’re not all magically empowered now except in the mirages of marketing. 


From Engagement to Empowerment


While in the first section of this essay I hoped to encourage all educators to ask more critical questions about corporations, in this section the work is somewhat more difficult. I want to encourage all educators to ask more critical questions about ourselves. I often see educators who aim to push beyond making school ‘engaging’ to empowering students. My concern comes from how we too often operate with an apolitical and ahistorical concept of empowerment. We sell our students – and ourselves – short of what we can really be doing. Just like these educators often write to push our practice, that’s the spirit that I’m writing this in: not to shut down a conversation, but to pull it even more in a radical direction. 

Empowerment is repeatedly linked to ‘mindset’ and entrepreneurialism. In Empower, a recent book from A,J. Juliani and John Spencer, empowerment is all about the “mindset that students develop when they define themselves as makers”, a mindset which is key if students hope to “stay relevant” and be “nimble” in a world where life has become precarious. In order to bridge the “creative chasm” between “the makers and the takers”, students need to “think like an entrepreneur”. “Entrepreneurs stand out because they don’t wait their turn… They are self-starters who turn an idea into a reality, then into a business. They write their own rules.”3I have taken this paragraph from a longer post  

Returning to Weimer’s article, she argues that ’empowerment’ is primarily about “those tentative, cautious learners who … lack confidence in themselves and, above all else, want learning to be pleasant and painless.” For Bill Ferriter, shifting from mere engagement to empowerment is about shifting from “us” to “them”, about “giving kids the knowledge and skills to pursue their: passions, interests, future.” Will Richardson quotes Gayle Allen: “With an abundance mindset, we can create click-through spaces in our schools and in our curriculum. We can empower students to direct their own learning and to take full advantage of the unlimited courses and access they already have outside of school.” And Ken Robinson argues “The best teachers are not only instructors. They are mentors and guides who can raise the confidence of their students, help them find a sense of direction, and empower them to believe in themselves.”

In Creative Schools, Robinson connects creativity and empowerment directly to what he perceives as the failure of schools to produce economic actors: 

“There is an ever-widening skills gap between what schools are teaching and what the economy actually needs. The irony is that in many countries there’s plenty of work to be done, but despite the massive investments in education, too many people don’t have the skills needed to do it. Although all the rhetoric of the standards movement is about employability, the emphasis has not been on courses that prepare people directly for the work but on raising standards in academic programs.” 

Robinson, citing Yong Zhao, goes on to say that when new jobs replaced the jobs that have been lost over the past decades,“The work went to employees who had refined those talents already and to people with the creative and entrepreneurial ability to make careers and training adjustments.” Thus, schools are failing because they don’t supply what the economy needs, but those with the right individual abilities make the right adjustments and land on their feet. That’s Robinson’s long-term logic behind empowering students. He never hints that we ought to make adjustments to the economic system or that school might have a broader purpose beyond creating economic actors, such as cultivating students who protest and challenge the system. 

But the concept of empowerment has more radical roots. In The Will to Empower (1999), Barbara Cruikshank argues that we can distinguish two different uses of ‘empowerment’: “the left uses empowerment to generate political resistance; the right, to produce rational economic and entrepreneurial actors.” I think the educators that I just surveyed complicate this left/right division since Robinson, Ferriter, and Richardson definitely occupy an identifiable strand of progressivism. Nonetheless, it’s a progressivism divorced from a call for political resistance. In the field of social work, Dag Leonardsen (2007) critiques the individualistic conceptions of empowerment that suggest it is “simply a matter of will, either on the part of those who are disempowered, or on the part of those in a position to empower.” The focus on individual choice, will, and human capital as the determinants of success in our society “can primarily turn out to be a crack of the whip within the existing structure of modern society.” It blames the character of the poor – those who didn’t refine their talents, lacked creative or entrepreneurial ability, those who didn’t adjust – for their problems, rather than the system. “When the structural framework seriously restricts the universe of potentialities one should become very aloof in the language of empowerment.”

While the term ‘empowerment’ entered social justice discourse in the context of challenging discrimination and systematic inequality, in contemporary neoliberal discourse it all too often serves to put the responsibility on the individual to be an entrepreneur and take charge of her life. In  the neoliberal context, ‘empowerment’ isn’t about sparking social revolution, but about therapeutic self-improvement. This trend towards individualistic conceptions of empowerment has been charted by Dag Leonardsen in the field of social work and by Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès in the field of international development.

Calvès notes several important publications that brought the concept of empowerment to the fore: Barbara Bryant Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (1976), Gita Sen and Caren Grown’s DAWN feminist book Development, Crises and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives (1987), and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). As part of the DAWN feminist movement, Sen and Grown (1987) argue that women in the third world aren’t held back by a lack of resources or insufficient ‘mass living conditions’, but by a lack of “political will” to bring about the “transformation of the structures of subordination”. “We cannot expect politic will for systemic change to voluntarily emerge among those in power. It must be fostered by mass movements that give central focus to the ‘basic rights’ of the poor…” As one concrete example, they called for a “worldwide reduction in military expenditures and resource use” since “there are close links between growing military budgets and poverty in industrialized countries, on the one hand, and diversion of resources, depletion of minerals, suppression of dissent, armed conflict, and distortion of development priorities in the Third World, on the other.” Those structural changes are a far ways off from microfinance. 

Though Freire didn’t use the term empowerment, Calvès notes that “the vast majority of works on empowerment make some reference to Freire” because he emphasized the importance of developing a critical consciousness through an “active teaching method that would help the individual become aware of his own situation, of himself as ‘Subject,’ so that he may obtain the ‘instruments that would allow him to make choices’ and become ‘politically conscious’.” Ken Robinson’s individualistic conception of empowerment seizes on the first part of what Freire said – active teaching methods – by advocating a shift away from teachers transmitting knowledge. But as Calvès writes, “empowerment has become synonymous with individual capacity, realization, and status.” 

While the classroom is supposed to be transformed into an anti-authoritarian space focused on student choice, Freire’s point about transforming the world is abandoned. The self-confidence and skills accumulated in school is supposed to provide the human capital needed to be an entrepreneur in adult life. The dominant use of empowerment in education is liberal rather than liberating, and focuses on “individual capacity, realization, and status” and “the maximization of individual interests.” It’s as if people stop reading Freire half-way through Chapter 2 where he critiques the banking model of education in which the “scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” Friere’s larger political project of revolutionary futurity drops out of the picture to be replaced by constructivism, the dominant psychological theory of learning in education. The ‘child-centered’ focus of constructivism blends neatly with the individualistic tendencies of neoliberalism which equates freedom with the free-market. Thus, we have corporations catering to a choice of learning styles – a consumer choice – rather than cultivating a critical consciousness which would challenge their interests.4 Henry Giroux has also extended the political project of empowerment in the tradition of Freire: “Authority must be used to provide the ...continue 

In short, the individualistic conception of empowerment lacks the “revolutionary futurity” that Freire called for when he argued that education should bring about a “critical consciousness” since “a deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of transformation.” In each of the corporate examples I opened with, political resistance is notably absent, while instead the companies and consultants focus on providing tools to allow students to become ever more self-directed participants in the economy and classroom. Corporations adopt the language of empowerment because it’s one of those “vague, resolutely optimistic, and ‘just’ terms which … can only bring about consensus.”5Calvès credits Cornwall and Brock (2005) for this general idea.

But rather than consign ‘empowerment’ to the buzzword dustbin, I think we should be more critical about how we use it. I wonder if we should stop applying the term to something we have done: I empowered you! Now go forth! If we think we have empowered someone else, then it’s a fait accompli; what else could we do? Perhaps we should reserve the word as a term of recognition that should only be used by those who have felt empowered. 

I write all of this as part of my own critical practice. Once I had a new student with a visual impairment and she didn’t yet have her school tablet (I work in a very privileged context) because IT was waiting on special software. I decided to go and get her tablet for her anyways, and in the time I left her to go back to my classroom to check on the other students, she had turned on the computer’s basic text-to-speech and got down to what she needed to do. When I came back, she said, “Mr. Doxtdator? Can you please get me the admin password so that I can install the software I downloaded?” 

I tell this small anecdote for two reasons. First, given everything I’ve said about empowerment and technology, I don’t want my criticism of the corporate branding to be confused with a criticism of the possibility that technology can be empowering. There’s already far too many ableist calls to ban laptops from lecture halls. But I also am more cautious about how I ‘brand’ myself in my own thoughts. In the moment, I felt quite proud (after I got IT to enter the password), and I know it made a difference to my student that I didn’t assume she couldn’t help herself. But, really, she did help herself, and if I stayed satisfied with my warm empowerment feeling it would have prevented me from talking with her about other structural barriers she faced even though her world had been ‘flattened’ and she now could ‘connect to anyone anywhere’ on her computer. 

I do empathize with Ferriter’s idea of pushing beyond ‘engagement’ to something more. More to the point, I applaud teachers like Ferriter who clearly work hard to make schools into a welcoming and stimulating place for students. But simply pursuing passions isn’t enough to raise critical consciousness: the system can happily chug on by as we individually get lost in what interests us. So instead of asking ‘am I empowering my students?’, I suggest that we should avoid the buzzword in our thinking, as a way to elevate our critical practices and instead say what we actually mean:

Are we allowing students to pursue their passions and interests?

Are we raising critical consciousness?

Are we helping to transform the structural conditions that hold others back?

Audrey Watters (2014) argues that we have in a similar way been swept up with the idea of ‘innovation’, but “We forget that ‘innovation’ does not give us justice. ‘Innovation’ does not give us equality. ‘Innovation’ does not empower us.” That’s an important thought. Watters’ answer – much like the DAWN feminists – is collective organizing. “Our response to both changing technology and to changing education must involve politics — certainly this is the stage on which businesses already engage, with a fierce and awful lobbying gusto.” Empowerment connects pedagogy and politics more deeply than any other concept, which makes it worth keeping at the front of our practice, always a destination ahead.







If you enjoy what I write, I highly encourage you to donate to support independent media and scholarship: Rethinking Schools, Democracy Now!, Digital Pedagogy Lab, and Audrey Watters.  

Benjamin Doxtdator

English Teacher, Personal Learning Co-Ordinator - Views Own, The International School of Brussels

References   [ + ]

1. Weimer refers us to Frymier, A. B., Shulman, G. M., and Houser, M. (1996). The development of a learner empowerment measure. Communication Education, 45 (3), 181-199.
2. Sources include this article in The Yale Law Review, Cruikshank’s The Will to Empower, and this article from the New York Times
3. I have taken this paragraph from a longer post
4. Henry Giroux has also extended the political project of empowerment in the tradition of Freire: “Authority must be used to provide the pedagogical conditions that empower students not only to speak but also to develop the critical capacities and courage to transform the conditions that oppress them and others in the first place.” Henry Giroux, Border Crossings
5. Calvès credits Cornwall and Brock (2005) for this general idea.
I footnotes