Little Ego Deaths in the Social Justice Classroom: An Existential Perspective on Student Resistance

  • Remy Yi Siang LowEmail author


Denial, displacement, defensiveness, disengagement. These are common responses from students in classrooms that invite critical reflection on the intersecting vectors of privilege and marginalisation such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, and nationality. Such responses are commonly read from the perspective of the educator as “resistance”—a concept that has been productively theorised from a critical psychoanalytic perspective. This chapter offers another perspective on student resistance in social justice classrooms. With reference to conceptualisations of the ego from existential analysis, Low reflects on how intersectional analyses may precipitate little “ego deaths”, especially in teacher education classrooms where the complicity of schooling with systemic oppression confronts those whose identities as preservice teachers are tied up with benevolent intent. Reflecting on techniques developed within existential analysis for dealing with such experiences, the chapter offers some tentative suggestions for their adaptation in a classroom context for working with student resistance.


  1. Applebaum, B. (2007). Engaging student disengagement: Resistance or disagreement? In Philosophy of education archive (pp. 335–345). Retrieved from
  2. Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2013). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  3. Bell, S., Morrow, M., & Tastsoglou, E. (1999). Teaching in environments of resistance: Toward a critical, feminist, and antiracist pedagogy. In M. Mayberry & E. C. Rose (Eds.), Meeting the challenge: Innovative feminist pedagogies in action (pp. 23–46). New York/London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Berila, B. (2016). Integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy: Social justice in higher education. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Cho, K. D. (2009). Psychopedagogy: Freud, Lacan and the psychoanalytic theory of education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, applications, and praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 785–810.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Collins, P. H. (2015). Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  10. Cooper, M. (2003). Existential therapies. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  11. Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum (pp. 139–67). Retrieved from
  12. DiAngelo, R., & Sensoy, O. (2014). Leaning in: A student’s guide to engaging constructively with social justice content. Radical Pedagogy, 11(1), 1–15.Google Scholar
  13. Dunn, A. H., Dotson, E. K., Ford, J. C., & Roberts, M. A. (2014). “You Won’t believe what they said in class today”: Professors’ reflections on student resistance in multicultural education courses. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(2), 93–98. Scholar
  14. Ewing, R., & Smith, D. (2003). Retaining quality beginning teachers in the profession. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 2(1), 15–32.Google Scholar
  15. Felman, S. (1987). Jacques Lacan and the adventure of insight: Psychoanalysis in contemporary culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. Retrieved from
  17. Freud, S. (1912). Concerning ‘wild’ psychoanalysis. In Selected papers on hysteria and other psychoneuroses (A. A. Brill, Trans.). Retrieved from
  18. Freud, S. (1920). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
  19. Gössling, S., & Peeters, P. (2007). ‘It does not harm the environment!’ an analysis of industry discourses on tourism, air travel and the environment. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 15(4), 402–417. Scholar
  20. Gunnlaugson, O., Sarath, E. W., Scott, C., & Bai, H. (Eds.). (2014). Contemplative learning and inquiry across disciplines. Albany: Suny Press.Google Scholar
  21. Hytten, K., & Warren, J. (2003). Engaging whiteness: How racial power gets reified in education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 65–89. Scholar
  22. James, W. (2001). Pragmatism and other writings. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  23. Joyner, T. (2016, January 6). How Sydney university courts the best and brightest students. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from
  24. King, J. E., & Swartz, E. E. (2014). “Re-membering” history in student and teacher learning: An Afrocentric culturally informed praxis. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Kumashiro, K. (2002). Against repetition: Addressing resistance to anti-oppressive change in the practices of learning, teaching, supervising, and researching. Harvard Educational Review, 72(1), 67–93. Scholar
  26. Magee, R. V. (2013). Contemplative practices and the renewal of legal education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (134), 31–40. Scholar
  27. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  28. Nest, M. (2011). Coltan. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  29. Ringrose, J. (2007). Rethinking white resistance: Exploring the discursive practices and psychical negotiations of ‘whiteness’ in feminist, anti-racist education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 10(3), 323–344. Scholar
  30. Sandler, B. I. (2015). Dying before death to truly live: Therapeutic implications of the ego death experience for the treatment of death anxiety. Doctoral dissertation, California Institute of Integral Studies. Retrieved from
  31. Sartre, J. P. (1960). The transcendence of the ego (F. Williams & R. Kirkpatrick, Trans.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.Google Scholar
  32. Spinelli, E. (1994). Demystifying therapy. London: Constable.Google Scholar
  33. Spinelli, E. (1997). Tales of unknowing: Therapeutic encounters from an existential perspective. London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  34. Spinelli, E. (2001). The mirror and the hammer: Challenges to therapeutic orthodoxy. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  35. Spinelli, E. (2005). The interpreted world: An introduction to phenomenological psychology. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  36. Stahl, R. J. (1994). Using think-time and wait-time skillfully in the classroom. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. Bloomington. ED370885.Google Scholar
  37. Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Walsh, S., Bickel, B., & Leggo, C. (Eds.). (2014). Arts-based and contemplative practices in research and teaching: Honoring presence. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  39. Wark, M. (2017). General intellects: Twenty-five thinkers for the twenty-first century. London/New York: Verso.Google Scholar
  40. Weheliye, A. G. (2014). Habeas viscus: Racializing assemblages, biopolitics, and black feminist theories of the human. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations