Monday, February 11, 2008

Social Justice Education

A defense in "The Nation" of "social justice education"

[S]uccessful social justice education ensures that teachers strike a balance between debating sociopolitical problems that affect children's lives and teaching them academic basics on which they will be tested. A science teacher can plant an urban garden, allowing students to learn about plant biology, the imbalance in how fresh produce is distributed and how that affects the health of community residents. An English teacher can explore misogyny or materialism in American culture through the lens of hip-hop lyrics. Or as Rico Gutstein, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggests, a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling. These are "examples of lessons where you can really learn the math basics," he says, "but the purpose of learning the math actually becomes an entree into, and a deeper understanding of, the political ramifications of the issue."

The first roadblock I hit is in the first sentence: "debating." In a classroom setting, with one teacher and a pack of students, exactly whom is the teacher supposed to be "debating?" Perhaps the word was chosen because "indoctrinating" just doesn't sound too good, even if it's the right word.

The pitch is that this is hands-on education, that its recipients not only learn, they apply the learning as they go. But the problem is, this approach conflates the methodology of scientific inquiry or the skill of reading with the required opinions and theories that are leavened into the lesson. It falsely sets them up as equal, and mutually supporting. They are not. You can use statistics, close reading, lab experiments to reach conclusions that are anathema to the "social justice" fetishists.

The "purpose of learning" is higher than "political ramifications." The ways of perception obey no ideologies. To teach in this way is the educational equivalent of teaching just enough "science" to lead a child to be a Creationist, to teach statistics alongside evidence of genetic racial inferiorities, to teach history as the inevitable working of Marx's dictums.

Why do we need all this? Whose fault is it that these indoctrination academies exist? First and foremost, it's the fault of ... you'll never guess ...

In part, the growing interest in social justice education can be attributed to a kind of Bush backlash. Surging inequality and further disinvestment from urban cores to offset tax cuts and military spending have given teachers and activists the impetus to speak frankly to kids about ideas of fairness and justice, even if the President's No Child Left Behind Act has limited curriculum flexibility. "I think it's the ... polarization that you see," says Gutstein. "People are talking about things in ways which I don't think I've heard since the 1970s, and that includes education."

Talking like "indoctrinating" means "debating." Less like the '70s than "1984."