Teacher Alienation And Burnout Essay

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Broadly speaking, alienation is an unhappy, unwelcome, and/or indifferent metaphysical disconnect between a person or group of people and something else. Alienation has been studied in all the social sciences and by philosophers and education scholars for some time. However, for all of the interest in alienation, there is little consensus as to how the phenomenon is properly defined or studied. In most lines of inquiry, the nature of this disconnection is primarily social or psychological, and the person or group may be disconnected from any number of things. For example, research suggests that people and groups have been alienated from the products and processes of their labor; political processes and outcomes; other people and groups; social and cultural institutions, values, mores, and norms; and technology.

Although alienation can be traced through a variety of theoretical traditions and disciplines, this entry emphasizes concepts gleaned from three distinct forms of teacher alienation research: those that consider alienation as a philosophical phenomenon; those that regard alienation as a social phenomenon; and those that treat alienation as a psychological phenomenon. The entry concludes by discussing the relationship between teacher alienation and teacher burnout.

A Philosophical Phenomenon

Some have argued that Western philosophers’ interest in alienation can be traced as far back as Heraclitus, Plato, and pre-Socratics such as the Orphics, who noted that humans were always distanced from their ideal states and were destined to fall short of perfection by design. This argument was later explained brilliantly by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who argued that because individuals were inferior to the divine by design, they were doomed to a life of despair. To Kierkegaard, the only possible escape from alienation and despair was to fully commit oneself to an authentic spiritual existence.

However, Kierkegaard’s contemporaries, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, placed emphasis on other aspects of alienation. To Nietzsche, alienation is a characteristic common to the hopelessly weak “Last Men,” people whose lack of intellectual depth and will-to-power float through life, adopting others’ values as their own because they are scared, unable, or too indifferent to do otherwise. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the work of others such as Jaspers and Heidegger later inspired a strand of philosophy called existentialism.

Alienation was among the central philosophical issues that captured existentialists’ attention. Philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote compelling treatises on alienation, exploring the phenomenon from various perspectives, all of which generally argued that alienation was an inescapable aspect of modern existence. Among twenty-first-century philosophers, Richard Schmitt has made a useful contribution by pointing out that alienation is multidimensional and can manifest as a global phenomenon, wherein a person is wholly alienated, or other forms of alienation that are either situational or affect only one aspect of existence.

Alienation is largely ignored among educational philosophers, save for a few such as A. S. Neill, who speak of it implicitly as a condition opposed to freedom. The one notable exception to this is Maxine Greene, who, over the course of her career, has engaged in a “dialectic of freedom” through which she has sought to deal with existential themes; among these is alienation. For Greene, the key to escaping alienation is individual agency and choice. Where some philosophers, such as Sartre, suggest that choice and freedom are twin burdens to be borne alone, Greene instead gives educators a framework through which they can meaningfully connect their individuality to others, thereby forming powerful relationships and communities. These communities can create a social network that can overcome, or at least combat, alienation.

A Social Phenomenon

Although social contract theorists such as Hugo Grotius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes dealt with alienation in major works, discussions of alienation as a social phenomenon usually begin with Karl Marx. In many respects, Marx’s discussion and treatment of alienated labor was sociological and economic. He argued that alienation is the result of a fundamental problem with capitalism. Because workers do not actually own or control the products or processes of their labor, the system inherently induces alienation.

Max Weber extended Marx’s theory beyond alienated labor and instead suggested that Marx’s observation was but one example of a more pervasive phenomenon. Weber hypothesized that society’s alienation was rooted in bureaucracy rather than capitalism. The relationship of the modern working person to both bureaucracies and rational systems were of great interest to Weber. He developed theories to explain tensions in these relationships, which to him were distinctly social (as opposed to, say, a psychological or philosophic explanation). Weber saw as the critical feature of these relationships the way they affected the individual’s capacity and ability to move toward rationally chosen goals.

Teacher alienation has been studied as a social phenomenon by neo-Marxist, conflict, and critical theorists. Conflict theories derive mainly from Marx’s and Weber’s ideas of alienated labor and work, and they suggest that conflict and a lack of certainty, rather than equilibrium, characterize educational institutions. Among conflict theorists who have studied schools and the systems to which they belong are Henry Giroux, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jean-Claude Passeron. Giroux in particular made important contributions by pointing out that cultural and curricular norms extant in modern schools perpetuate a situation of domination in both school and society. Bourdieu and Passeron also helped extend Marx’s theories of alienated labor beyond the workplace by using them to develop concepts such as cultural capital. The implications of cultural capital and reproduction theory for teacher alienation studies lie in their usefulness in explaining interactions particular to the milieu of public schooling.

A Psychological Phenomenon

Erich Fromm’s research reveals sustained and detailed analysis of psychological alienation in many different forms. Indeed, Fromm went so far as to suggest that the study of man was the study of alienation. The immense popularity of his work forever changed popular conceptions of alienation and turned what was largely a scholarly puzzle into a matter for popular debate. However, although his work was engaging and astute, Fromm did no favors to those attempting to form a concise definition of alienation. His ambiguous use of the term renders his work obtuse and a precise meaning is difficult to grasp at times.

Fromm built his analyses on Marx’s (and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s) concepts, applying them to a variety of other milieus. However, Fromm deviated from Marx in one important respect; the essence of Fromm’s alienation was that it was an internal phenomenon. He approached the relationship between the psychological individual and society without an assumption that it could be refashioned into a healthy partnership; there is no wistful sentimentality for a better time lost in the work of Fromm. Fromm sought to understand not only the causes of alienation, but also how people made sense of these issues in their daily lives. He saw alienation as the defining feature of modern society and used it as a framework to explain everything from the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party to the individual’s place in the natural world and his or her inner life.

Karen Horney’s application of alienation to psychoanalysis reveals some affinity with Fromm in both emphasis and ambiguity. Her treatment of “alienation from self” is central to her psychoanalytic system, and she developed a crucial and useful method for understanding alienation as an empirical phenomenon. Horney’s system focused on “inner conflicts” that result from the distance between two psychological entities: (1) the alienated self, and (2) the “real self.”

The study of alienation as a psychological phenomenon took an important turn when Melvin Seeman conceptualized alienation as a multidimensional domain of inquiry. Through an exhaustive and systematic review of both empirical and theoretical studies of alienation, he identified an empirical cluster of five distinct variants of alienation. These five meanings constitute the domain of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and estrangement. Since publication of Seeman’s work, educational researchers such as Anthony G. Dworkin and Jeffrey S. Brooks have used these categories to explain and explore teacher alienation.

Teacher Alienation And Burnout

Even though the rich lines of inquiry informing alienation studies suggest that the theory of alienation might be useful in investigating many social, political, economic, psychological, and philosophical teacher related issues, alienation is often used as a synonym for teacher burnout. Studies of teacher burnout include Margaret LeCompte and Dworkin’s important work, in which they connected the construct of alienation to the lives of teachers and students vis-à-vis Seeman’s theories (among others). LeCompte and

Dworkin also found that powerlessness and normlessness cause estrangement and lead teachers to experience alienation as dissatisfaction and disaffection, adopt defensive teaching strategies, and ultimately may compel them to leave the profession. LeCompte and Dworkin write of alienation in relation to classroom autonomy and place alienation-related constructs such as de-skilling and locus of control at the center of discussions of teachers’ lives.


  1. Brooks, J. S. (2006). The dark side of school reform: Teaching in the space between reality and utopia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Israel, J. (1971). Alienation: From Marx to modern sociology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. LeCompte, M. D., & Dworkin, A. G. (1991). Giving up on school: Teacher burnout and student dropout. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.
  4. Schacht, R. L. (1970). Alienation. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  5. Schmitt, R. (2003). Alienation and freedom. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  6. Seeman, M. (1959). On the meaning of alienation. American Sociological Review, 24(6), 783–791.

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