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Why Demarginalization is Not Enough

by Dorothy F. Slater & Robert O. Slater - January 08, 2018

The authors of this commentary argue that demarginalization does not go far enough in satisfying the principle of restorative justice, which demands that marginalized students be given access to a humanizing education.

The concept of marginalization has played a central role in social justice educational leadership theory. A decade ago, Theoharis (2007) wrote that social justice is centered "on addressing and eliminating marginalization in schools" (p. 223). Since then, O’Malley and Capper (2012) have argued that there is a need for ". . . continued development among the professoriate of the knowledge, skills, and reflective consciousness to counter marginalization of particular populations." Scanlan (2013) has also maintained that ". . . understanding learning as situated in communities of practice can help school leaders facilitate practices that reduce educational inequities and marginalization in schools" (p. 349). Focusing on leadership preparation, Galloway & Ishimaru critique the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards because they "do not explicitly articulate how leaders can address and counter disparities between dominant and nondominant students . . . through this silence, issues like race and other marginalizations" are ignored and "discussions and explorations of systemic exclusion and inequities become an afterthought in leader preparation” (p. 374). DeMatthews and Mawhinney (2014) have observed that "despite the wide range of definitions of social justice leadership, there is a clear consensus that social justice leadership involves the recognition of the unequal circumstances of marginalized groups…" (p. 846). In these and other studies, marginalization has figured prominently; it has been and continues to be a critical conceptual component of theoretical work on social justice educational leadership.

Marginalization is the denial of specific groups to equal access to educational services, and runs counter to a basic principle of distributive justice, namely, the principle of strict equality or "strict egalitarianism" (Lamont, 2017). Strict egalitarianism holds that all persons, by virtue of being persons, are entitled to equal treatment and an equal distribution of the benefits of social cooperation. When applied to schools and schooling, it holds that all students, regardless of color, disability or ability, ethnicity, background, gender, and sexuality should have equal access to the benefits of education; none should be excluded.

Because marginalization runs counter to distributive justice, its elimination is a necessary condition of social justice educational leadership. In this we are in agreement with demarginalization scholars. However, while the elimination of marginalization is a necessary condition of social justice educational leadership, it is not a sufficient one. The responsibilities of social justice educational leaders go beyond demarginalization.


Demarginalization is not enough because marginalization is a form of oppression (Young, 2004) and as such is dehumanizing. That marginalization is a form of oppression and is dehumanizing should not require elaborate explanation, particularly as the present context is education. To deny some students access to quality instruction because of their race, class, gender or sexual orientation is not simply to deny them the equal opportunity to learn science, mathematics, reading and social studies, it is to deny them the opportunity to make themselves more completely human, and it is to mistake students as objects of instead of subjects in a process of humanization in which they themselves have a role to play. Marginalization, therefore, does not just keep students from developing their literacy and numeracy skills; it keeps them from developing themselves. As Freire (1970) would have it, ". . . men and women are searchers and their ontological vocation is humanization . . . ." Marginalization refuses students the chance to make themselves into complete human beings, and does so in the very context that is supposed to be most dedicated to that end.

Demarginalization alone, therefore, does not compensate for the damage done to students’ humanity. Dehumanization implies that the process of enabling students to be more human, the work of aiding them to realize their capabilities to be more human, has been halted and the humanization process itself even reversed. It is this humanization and humanity that must be restored. This task of restoration is a primary task of leadership, and is grounded on the principle of restorative justice, not distributive justice alone. So, while demarginalization, the dismantling of marginalizing structures, is necessary for social justice, it is not sufficient to compensate for the harmful effects of dehumanization.


Moreover, if we look more closely at dehumanization in the context of schooling, we realize that one of its most pernicious effects is that it undermines students’ selves and self-formation. As David and Derthick (2014) emphasize, exclusion of a group’s members from access to benefits and resources made available to others is a form of oppression that results not only in a "devaluation or inferiorization" of one’s group but also of one’s self (p. 2).

The devaluation or inferiorization of one’s self undermines the uniquely human capability to achieve reflective self-knowledge, which is precisely the kind of knowledge that the American philosophers John Dewey (1916) and David Norton (1991) say is necessary to sustain a democratic society, and the kind of self-awareness that Paulo Freire maintains is necessary for authentic freedom. Norton maintains that a democracy depends "at bottom . . . on how each of us conceives of himself or herself . . ." and that some self-conceptions are more supportive of a democracy than others. Particularly relevant are those self-conceptions in which individuals conceive of themselves as being partly responsible for their own self-development. Norton says that this self-conception informs one’s initiative to self-development.

Freire also thinks that the development of a certain type of self is needed for freedom, namely, a self that is aware of his or her relations to the world, particularly where these relations involve contradictions. He calls this level of self-awareness a conscientizacao or, in English, conscientization. We are here referring to it as “reflective” self-awareness. The purpose of a “problem-posing” as opposed to a “banking” education, he says, is to enable students to achieve this level of self-awareness. Moreover, Freire argues that not only are students capable of achieving this type of self-awareness, but that as human beings, they have an innate desire to do so (1970).


If marginalization is dehumanizing, the socially just response is not only demarginalization, but also a humanizing education. A humanizing education is, in the first place, a caring education (Noddings, 1984). A caring education, an education done with love, to use Freire’s formula, makes for the kind of teacher-student relations that a humanizing education requires, namely, one without the mind-numbing and heart-freezing domination and fear that suppress thinking, undermine the capability to understand and know oneself, and cloud one’s perception of relations with the surrounding world.

However, while a caring educational environment is a necessary condition of the teacher-student relations required for students to develop reflective self-awareness, it alone is not sufficient for a humanizing education. Also required is a problem-posing pedagogy, a term which we, again, borrow from Freire (1970) but also view in light of Dewey’s distinction between knowledge and thinking.

We do not believe it is doing Freire’s problem-posing pedagogy an injustice to interpret it along lines suggested by Dewey in Democracy and Education, wherein Dewey makes a sharp distinction between knowledge and thinking, a distinction that is suggested by Freire’s own contrast between banking (conveying knowledge) education, and problem-posing (thinking and reflecting) education. Dewey says, ". . . all which the school can or need do for pupils, so far as their minds are concerned . . . is to develop their ability to think” (1916, p. 179).

For Dewey, and we would argue for Freire as well, thinking involves several steps. For present purposes, these can be roughly summarized as follows. First, it involves paying attention to the world around us and to what is going on in it, and to how it affects us. Second, it is imagining what we and our relations to the world will be if they are allowed to continue on their current trends. Third, it is reflecting upon who we are, what we might make of ourselves, and how our relations to the world are likely to affect our aspirations to become what we wish to be. Fourth, it is formulating the actions we must take to change ourselves and our relations to the world if we are to realize the self-transformation we desire. Fifth, it is acting to change ourselves and the world in which we live so as to produce the outcome we desire, a final step that completes our praxis.

Needless to say, a problem-posing education designed to teach us how to think requires ongoing communication between a teacher and her students. For Freire, and for Dewey and David Norton as well, this communication takes the form of a dialogue between teacher and student wherein the caring teacher expresses concern not only for what students know and can do academically, but who they are in the present and what they can make of themselves in both the short and long term. In other words, as Norton suggests, one of the first and on-going problems that the caring teacher poses to her students is the problem of understanding themselves and recognizing that they are problems unto themselves, (i.e., their first problem is one of deciding what kind of human being they wish to make of themselves, and endeavoring to become that kind of person). The first problem of a problem-posing education is the problem of humanization, particularly that of humanizing one’s self.


Demarginalization, the disruption of marginalization, and marginalizing social structures, are necessary processes for a socially just education, but they are not sufficient. It is also necessary to develop a humanizing education designed to restore the humanity lost and the humanization process interrupted by oppressive marginalization. The creation of a caring pedagogy designed to develop students’ reflective self-awareness that also supports and motivates their initiative to self-develop their academic capabilities is a primary task of social justice educational leadership.



David, E. J. R., & Derthick, A. O. (2014). What is internalized oppression, and so what? In E. J. R. David (Ed.). Internalized oppression: The psychology of marginalized groups, (1–30). New York: Springer.


DeMatthews, D., & Mawhinney, H. (2014). Social justice leadership and inclusion: Exploring challenges in an urban district struggling to address inequities. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(5), 844–881.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury.


Galloway, M. K., & Ishimaru, A. M. (2015). Radical recentering: Equity in educational leadership standards. Educational Administration Quarterly, 51(3), 372–408.


Lamont, J. (Ed.). (2017). Distributive justice. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.


Norton, D. (1991). Democracy and moral development: A politics of virtue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


O’Malley, M. & Capper, C. (2015). A measure of the quality of educational leadership programs for social justice: Integrating LGBTIQ identities in principal preparation. Educational Administration Quarterly, 51(2), 290–330.


Noddings, N. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Scanlan, M. (2013). A learning architecture: How school leaders can design for learning social justice. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(2), 348–391.


Theoharis, G. (2007). Social justice educational leaders and resistance: Toward a theory of social justice leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 43(2), 221–258.


Young, R. (2004). White mythologies: Writing history and the West. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 08, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22233, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:34:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Dorothy Slater
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    DOROTHY F. SLATER is a graduate assistant at the College of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
  • Robert Slater
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT O. SLATER coordinates the doctoral program in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's College of Education and directs research development for the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning.
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