Silencing in Education Essay

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Silencing in education (as verb) refers to the state of being forgotten; to put to rest; to be quiet, as with selected voices of students, public school teachers, and professors. Silence (as noun) suggests concealment or secrecy; the absence of sound or noise; omission of mention or expressed concern.

In its theoretical variations, silence has been categorized as either cultural or ontological. Within the cultural—for example, socioeconomic, feminist, and postcolonial theory—silence is used to expose hegemonic workings, linguistic dispossession, and sites of repression. In contrast, Western ontological theory imbues silence with a transcendental signifying capacity, disassociated from language’s contingency, or, following post-structuralism, grants it a constitutive role at the heart of language. Silence, like meaningfulness, has both an absence and a presence. It requires one to rethink, to welcome in, to host difference, for it is neither literal silence, as in the absence of speaking, nor epistemological silence, as when faced with the unspeakable, but ontological silence, the silence of Being or Life itself. This entry addresses the theoretical variations and the implications of silence in education.

In cultural terms, silence is a form of resistance. For example, some researchers describe a continuum of women’s perspectives on knowledge, where silence is a position of unconsciousness. Silence as such reflects a position in which women experience themselves as mindless and voiceless and subject to the whims of external power. Silence is thus contingent upon the individual’s relationship to a community of speakers, institutional structures, and the individual’s relationship to power and language. Silences also express power struggles because certain voices or accounts count while others are discounted. For instance, pre-service teachers express their practice in what they name and what remains unnamed. Since enactment of the No Child Left Behind legislation, there have been widespread efforts to silence those whose views challenge current political polities and initiatives, to restrict forms of research by funding and supporting only those aligned with current policy, and to curtail what public school teachers can say and do in the classroom.

Michel Foucault’s description of silence captures some of the implicit power dynamics of discourse. Power lies not only with the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, but also with the authorized type of discourse or form of discretion required by those who can and cannot speak of such things. He emphasizes there is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.

Foucault considers silence essential to speech. Silence is meaning without language and can be a substance with meaning, just as language can be without meaning. Silence is not mere background to speech; it is a state of being shaped and colored by meanings. When institutionally sanctioned, discourse becomes powerful because it positions the subject in relation to what and how something is said and in relation to a community that favors and makes available particular practices. When the powerless use silence to avoid conflict, it is not a deficit of language but a counter-language of critique.

Janet Miller explains that the silence of both her students and herself belies the claim that educators have overcome historical, social, cultural, economic, racial, gender, and class constraints that deny them the power to decide about curriculum and what counts as knowledge. Professors, preservice teachers, and those in public schools continue to be constricted by hierarchical structures of schooling and the legacy of a behaviorist-oriented curriculum field that requires the separation of classroom experiences from everyday lives. Such unnatural silence may envelop educators and researchers in a comforting sense of supposed completeness or a muffling of questions.

Curriculum, critical, queer, and feminist theorists are moving not only into areas that may break that unnatural silence but also into the silencing aspects of communication features in studies across the social sciences, especially in clinical, psychotherapeutic, and experimental psychology. In organization studies, scholars frequently note that organizations with a deeply embedded patriarchal discourse are generally intolerant of dissent, so employees are often reluctant to speak about problems. The silence sustained within such discourse, argues Adrienne Rich, severs women from their history and constitutes one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking are made to seem sporadic, errant, and orphaned of any tradition of their own. This belief is true not only of women but also of various groups, including racial and ethnic minorities. The result is not just to render them voiceless but to blame them for not having a voice, thereby weakening their relationship to a community and their relationship to power and language. This silence in organizations can make people unable to articulate certain types of experience, such as the aesthetic, or the emotional, when silence seems governed by norms or rules that dissuade people from speaking out. This structure has led to a focus on organizational conspiracies, cultures, and climates of silence. Silence is a feature of all organizations, including schools and universities, which may be theorized as an effect of both power and management.


  1. Belenky, Mary F., Blythe M. Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberger, and Jill M. Tarule. 1996. Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. 10th ed. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Bollnow, Otto. 1982. “On Silence—Findings of Philosophico-Pedagogical Anthropology.” Universitas 24(1):41-47.
  3. Dauenhauer, Bernard P. 1980. Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  4. Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by R. Hurley. New York: Vintage.
  5. Jaworski, Adam. 1993. The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  6. Miller, Janet L. 2005. Sounds of Silence Breaking: Women, Autobiography, Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.
  7. Polanyi, Michael. 1969. Knowing and Being. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  8. Polanyi, Michael. [1974] 1998. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. New ed. New York: Routledge.
  9. Rich, Adrienne. [1979] 1995. On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: Norton.

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