Date of Award

Fall 2005

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Barbara Houston


This dissertation is a philosophical inquiry into what it means to be a 'witness' and to 'bear witness'; it is also an investigation into what place witness has in education. I undertake this broad conceptual work to formulate a conception of witness that supports liberatory education---education that aims at freedom from oppression.

The inquiry is rooted in work with writing groups in Bolivia, and the idea that young people may have come to the group to find witnesses. I critically appraise three contemporary proposals that employ the notions of 'witness' and to 'bearing witness' in liberatory education. My critique notes that the conceptions of witness employed are unduly restrictive in that they attend only or primarily to how students should listen to accounts of violence and oppression, and specifically indicate what students should do because of the testimony they have heard. I argue for a broader conception of witness that includes bearing witness to what we most value, as well as to violence, and that takes into account the fact that students themselves may, at times, be looking for witnesses.

From the clear cases analyzed in the dissertation, we can recognize on the part of the person looking for a witness a need to have one's perceptions acknowledged in the face of incomprehensible refusal or steady indifference. We look for witnesses when others turn away. To answer this need, the response of a witness is characterized by (a) listening with 'moral humility' and (b) acknowledging the other's testimony. The conception of witness put forward in the dissertation is fundamentally a relational account. The moral and epistemological dimensions of this relation of witness are elaborated drawing on a pragmatist conception of truth and inquiry. Specifically, I argue that the relation of witness can be generative of situated knowledge, and is indeed sometimes required for the generation of situated knowledge.

Returning to the aims of liberatory education, the inquiry concludes that finding a witness fosters the relationships and the generative knowledge that allows the complex understanding of our lives required for liberation.