Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hell Yes, We'll Write Chants: Social Justice in Schools

Recently an article appeared in the National Post giving voice to the complaints of a couple of parents whose kids attend Glenview Senior Public School, a middle school located in an area of North Toronto — Lytton Park — that happens to be home to more than a handful of one percenters.

The controversy (though one wonders if the complaints of two anonymous parents a controversy make) stems from an assignment in which students were asked to come up with a slogan for the Occupy Toronto movement. According to the article, a father was irritated when his daughter told him about the project, and particularly when she reassured him: "[T]his is about the 1% — this isn’t about you — it is about the billionaires and the millionaires that don’t pay any taxes." Oops. Odds are high that, unbeknownst to the poor "indoctrinated" seventh-grader, it was about her dad. The father called the school to complain. The Post article quotes one other disgruntled father:
People will say, well, it is important to stay current so that the kids understand what is on the news. But I say that is my job, sitting at home, as a father — to talk to my kids. 
Chris Selley has written a well-argued response to this familiar complaint (which is often raised about another parental bugaboo, sex ed), so I won't address it here. As the parent of two kids in Grade 7 who've been given comparable assignments, I have a different point to make. But first I feel should set the record straight: I have it on good authority that the "media literacy" assignment in question was not as simple or clear cut as the Post article makes out. According to my "sources," kids were divided into groups and allowed to choose a "cause" for which to come up with a slogan. One group chose animal welfare; another chose the rather generic cause of  human rights.

But details of this particular assignment aside, the question of the place of social justice in the curricula of public schools is an important one; in fact it's a question which goes to the very heart of the nature and purpose of education in a democracy. If education is meant to serve as a means to replicate the status quo — through the production of obedient workers in what used to be called the "military industrial complex," now more commonly referred to as the "global economy"— then issues of social justice should either not be raised at all or should be raised in a manner which does not seriously affect the class-based belief system children absorb from their parents. The classic way to raise political issues in this harmless way — the method preferred by public schools in previous eras and by many private schools today — is through the formal debate. In a debate, students use their "critical thinking skills" to argue whatever position they are handed, regardless of their opinion about the topic or the merits of the position in question. The mock debate is an example of what might be called a pedagogy of disengagement: it allows schools to teach about current issues, both political and ethical, without invoking either ethics or political feeling.

There is something to be said for such an approach (see Selley's article), insofar as it eschews any kind of overt indoctrination of children. But there are both practical and theoretical problems with it. In the first place, it assumes that the issues being debated are inherently neutral — i.e., that there is no consensus regarding the morality of particular political positions or attitudes towards past events. Yet clearly no such neutrality exists. For instance, no school would have students debate the existence of the Holocaust or the benefits of slavery. There are of course events and issues on which current opinion is still divided — and the banking crisis may well be one of them — but even in such cases, the disengaged approach can be problematic. For example, asking a child whose family has lost its home due to the sub-prime mortgage fiasco to assume the banker's position in a debate may not be ethically defensible. Pedagogically, it could prove counter-productive as well, if the child is encouraged to weigh the evidence and use his or her "critical thinking skills" to decide on a position, but is then told he or she must argue the opposite.

A deeper problem with the debate method — and the "transmission model" of education that it exemplifies — is that while it overtly eschews indoctrination, it brings it in through the back door. Its very structure teaches kids that a disengaged intellectual approach to issues of social justice is both possible and preferable. It is, in other words, an approach to teaching that, like all pedagogies, embodies a political position, however unwittingly.

In that respect, it is not so different from the critical pedagogy being practiced in many public schools throughout Canada, and of which the slogan assignment at Glenview middle school is an example. Critical pedagogy is informed by the Frankfurt School of Critical theory, as well as by educational thinkers and activists such Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. It is essentially an activist pedagogy which assumes that the role of education is not to reproduce the status quo, but to produce informed citizens (as opposed to workers or consumers) who can question the society in which they live and possibly change it for the better. What it shares with the transmission model of education is an aversion to overt indoctrination:

Advocates of critical pedagogy make their own commitments clear as they construct forms of teaching consistent with the democratic notion that students learn to make their own choices of beliefs based on the diverse perspectives they confront in school and society. Education simply can't be neutral . . . .  Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy. *

Hence, in the slogan assignment, the importance of allowing the children to choose a cause. The assignment assumes engagement and interest on the child's part, but it allows for choice as to where this incipient political energy is directed. Although I believe this to be a more honest way of grappling with the teaching of social justice, the approach is not, in my opinion, without its own problems and contradictions. One practical problem is that there is no official "social justice" school subject and, as a result, topics such as the Occupy movement, or child labour must be raised in time slotted for other subjects. Social studies is the most logical place to raise such issues, but in Ontario (and other provinces) the social studies curriculum has been stripped of most non-Canadian content (history and geography), which limits the topics that can be addressed. As a result, you see social justice projects being injected awkwardly into subjects like English or "digital immersion," and you have backlashes from parents who believe such an emphasis either detracts from the teaching of "the basics," or is being imposed artificially on a structurally neutral curriculum.

This practical problem reveals a deeper theoretical problem with the critical pedagogy espoused by many front line educators: the system within which teachers teach about social justice is not inherently activist or even progressive. Concepts from critical pedagogical theory have trickled down from universities (such as OISE in Ontario) and teachers colleges, but the educational system in which they have landed remains essentially undemocratic. The crucial paradox here is that you have social justice being "taught" to students in schools whose hidden curriculum — the emphasis on rules, compliance, and authority-pleasing "achievement" — is deeply conservative, in the most literal sense of the term.

I have written about the hidden curriculum elsewhere, so will not discuss it in depth here. It suffices to point out that it is in no danger of being overturned or destroyed by a few lessons about Occupy movements. In fact the 21st-century hidden curriculum, which serves to inculcate in students behaviours and thought processes befitting their future role as workers in the global economy, is supported quite overtly by broader educational trends and practices, such as the recent focus on standardized testing, character education, time management, and mastery of technology.

So Lytton Park parents can relax. Their offspring may be writing slogans for the 99% but, in the end, schools like Glenview will help these kids end up where many of them started: comfortably ensconced in the 1%.

* From Critical Pedagogy Primer, by Joe L. Kincheloe