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


  1. This is a very interesting topic. As a teacher (albeit of adults at a professional school), I am very uncomfortable with any notion that it's my job to teach my students the right values to have. The only value I think an educational institution should promote is free, open, and intelligent inquiry.

    How to promote that in practice, though, is complicated, as you point out. I don't think K-12 education can or should avoid engaging kids on the topics of what is right and wrong and how they should conduct themselves and treat other people. To try to avoid that entirely would be to exclude the heart of the humanities -- and to exclude the topics that are potentially most meaningful to the kids -- from education.

    On the other hand, to deal with those issues with schoolchildren in a way that's not either overtly or subtly indoctrinating appears to be a superhuman task. Adults -- even if they agree with the principle, which many probably don't -- just cannot be trusted to do it successfully on a large scale. So school, as you point out, ends up effectively indoctrinating kids into all kind of values that we might not consciously choose for them.

    I think I prefer the model where moral reasoning (or call it philosophy) is a formal part of the curriculum, and where the teacher makes a conscious effort not to reveal his or her own value choices, but just raises difficult ethical issues with the kids and then challenges whatever the kids say with questions designed to get them to think even more deeply about the topic and to anticipate the counterarguments that come from other value choices. I can't say I have a lot of faith that schools would be able to consistently follow that approach, though.

    It seems like people are so freaked out by hot-button issues being discussed in school that we end up with the worst of both worlds: lots of subtle and overt indoctrination going on, but little to no open discussion of ethical choices in a way that recognizes that kids are free to reach their own conclusions about them -- which they are, in the end, whether the schools like it or not.

    I really wonder whether the cliquishness and casual cruelty and soap-opera-like interpersonal dramas that we associate with childhood and adolescence are a product of the extent to which the school experience is largely a moral and ethical vacuum, where the most meaningful aspects of life are ignored in favor of less controversial and drier academic subjects. Kids naturally want meaning in their lives, and will find ways to generate it if the school doesn't address that need itself. I went to a Catholic high school where there was no shortage of indoctrination, but there was also open, unembarrassed discussion of ethics and morality, and I do think it was a kinder and gentler place as a result of that.

    I suppose my idea of a good sex education class is pretty non-mainstream, but I think it would ideally be one part science, one part history, one part literature, and one part philosophy. In fact, I wouldn't mind taking that class now!

  2. northTOmom, another fabulous post.

    I completely agree about the hidden curriculum, which is never discussed, and is actually the most powerful force in a child's life at school.

    Your post reminds me of the old Cary Grant movie, "Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House." There's a very funny scene where one of the daughters has been given a school assignment to find pathos in an advertisement. (The kids are attending a progressive schools with a Communist-leaning teacher.) The father works for an advertising agency!

  3. @Chris, my Sainted Husband attended Catholic schools in the Midwest and, in hindsight, it's surprising how good they were. They were very influenced by Vatican II. He had groovy priests who wanted to discuss world religion in a very open and questioning way.

    I doubt schools like that exist any more, because the Church has moved so far to the right.

  4. Chris -- Thanks so much for your comment. You make so many great points, I don't know where to start! I agree with you that bringing up current issues in the context of a course on "moral reasoning" or philosophy would be ideal, but I think it might be unrealistic to expect teachers to conceal their own values or positions entirely. What would be key would be the teacher's ability to encourage the expression of alternative views, and allow for true, open debate within the classroom. It's interesting that you say you remember this kind of "unembarrassed discussion of ethics and morality" occurring in your Catholic high school. I also remember it happening in various courses -- History and English, for example -- in my public high school. So maybe it's that there was space for it then, before the era of overstuffed curricula and standardized testing. Or perhaps teachers, who were operating in a very different socio-political climate at that time, were simply less fearful of allowing open discussion. (I remember heated discussions about topics such as Apartheid, capital punishment, gay rights, etc.)

    I think your question about whether some of the cliquishness or cruelty of childhood and adolescence may be due to the moral and ethical dryness of the student's experience at school is a fascinating one. I don't know the answer, but I do know that even young kids are interested in ethics and morality. My daughters have been deeply affected by some of the "social justice" issues they've been studying this year--especially the issue of fair trade chocolate and child labour. The problem, though, is that the topics are not really debated, so much as presented to the kids (through disturbing films, for instance) or explored through projects (e.g., homework!). What is missing is classroom discussion -- i.e., the kind of exercises in moral reasoning that you mention above. (My husband fears that the kids are going to rebel against the school's approach by becoming ultra-conservatives!)

    Finally, I wanted to say that your concept of an ideal sex ed course sounds great! You should design one -- and I'll sign up for it!

  5. FedUpMom: It's interesting what you say about the Catholic schools your husband attended. Here in Ontario, Catholic schools have traditionally had very good reputations, and some people still think they are better than the public schools at teaching subjects like philosophy, ethics, etc., possibly because kids in enrolled in these schools (which are publicly funded, by the way!) have to take "religion" courses. I'm not sure exactly what is taught in these courses (I should ask my niece who teaches one, though she's an atheist), but I believe that social justice is part of the religion curriculum.

    That said, Catholic schools have moved to the right here, too, as is evidenced by the recent controversy over gay-straight alliances. The Ontario government, which funds Catholic schools, mandates that students be permitted to form gay-straight alliances in every high school, but many of the Catholic boards have disallowed them, or have tried to make the students call them something else. I'll try to post a link tomorrow.

  6. I'm a student going to an ontario catholic high school. The religion classes are, were, and forever will be, a joke. They attempt to teach the Catholic faith most of the time, but really don't cover much. As in, using pencil crayons in grade 8. It's sad, they could teach us a great deal of philosophy and theology but instead we beat our angry birds high score. In grade 7 a teacher told me that spirituality was one of the essential traits of a human being. (Catholic position; All humans are capable of knowing God in some way and experiencing His influence, regardless of their beliefs.) But that wasn't explained, I thought it meant everyone accepted that God is real, so I asked how it applied to atheists. He never answered. This year my teacher happens to know the Catholic faith, to know that many students aren't Catholic/baptized but don't know the first thing about their faith. He also says that "I believe" is a good defense of his beliefs. There are good defenses of christianity. and atheism, and islam, and judaism, and I'd like to hear them all really.

    In grade 11 they will try to teach us about world religions -I haven't taken this course yet but having seen some projects it's not encouraging. Good news; they seem to treat other religions with the same dignity Christianity gets. Bad news; that's not saying much. Attempting to detail another religion & culture in the space of 1 page of Bristol board is a recipe for stereotypes.
    As for an anti-gay, my school has posters saying "That's So Gay Is So Yesterday" and no inclass discussions of the topic. There is kind of a major problem with the alliance -it tells us to accept gays, and their actions, regardless of whether you think it's okay/ whether it is okay. It doesn't typically distinguish between accepting the action and accepting the person.
    The rumor seems to be that we excel in Math and English -I don't know if that's true. Anyway, the hidden curriculum is more of OBEY ALL GROWNUPS. And they tell us all humans are equal because of our unique skills, please don't ask about the severely handicapped kids in wheel chairs. The school admin dances awkwardly around the topic of disability.

    Debate would be ideal. And kinda fun too. Students have things to say, just not in school.

  7. Margaret -- Thank you so much for your insightful comment. It's so wonderful (and rare) for me to have an insider's view of what actually goes on in high school -- Catholic or not. And I feel I should say, they must be doing something right, since you write so well!

    The picture you paint, though, is rather sad. So different from what it could be; after all, as you point out, the religion classes *could* conceivably be a place where important ethical and moral issues are discussed openly. I believe that in both Catholic and public schools, such open discussions did occur more regularly in the past. I had a teacher in my final year of high school who changed my life. In his English class, no topic was out of bounds. Through the texts he chose, we ended up tackling all the issues that we cared about at the time. I remember him challenging students' racist views in class quite directly -- but he did it by pointing out the weaknesses in their reasoning. I get the impression that this sort of thing doesn't happen very often any more. I was going to say that it seems there are fewer inspiring teachers, but I don't actually think that's the case. I think the climate of teaching has changed, and teachers perhaps don't feel they have as much autonomy vis a vis the curriculum, or even as much political autonomy as they once had.

    As for the "hidden curriculum," it certainly existed when I was in school, but there was so much room within it -- multiple small, contradictory spaces -- for resistance that it didn't feel completely overwhelming. I also had the sense that many of my teachers supported resistance -- that they inhabited the contradictory spaces with us, at least in spirit. So it didn't seem so bleak. Not sure what it feels like to be a high school student today. I know my daughters already experience middle school as a bit of a prison.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comment. I learned a lot from it.

  8. The term, social justice appears to have different meanings to different people. It was felt that an increased understanding of social justice and its practice would aid the educational institutions themselves and other educational providers to develop a deeper insight of how to create or further enhance a socially just environment. Thanks a lot.

  9. The biggest issue parents and other members of the public have with educators discussing social justice issues, or any controversial issues, in schools isn't that they don't want students to be indoctrinated but that they want to be the ones indoctrinating them. Anyone working with children or teens should be in the business of teaching kids how to think, not what to think, and that includes parents. Parents who don't do this are shocked when their children bow to peer pressure and engage in negative behaviour. What they often don't realize is they have taught their children to do what others tell them, but they have been replaced as the source of control.

    It's very important that students are asked to consider critical issues on a regular basis and discuss them. The homogenous classroom, where a teacher can get on a soap box and 'hold forth' without offending someone are few and far between.

    Two Examples:

    I was discussing the dangers of unplanned teen pregnancy and how it can have disastrous affects on your life, with a grade 7 class a few years ago. I thought this was a pretty safe position. I noticed that some of the students were looking uncomfortable. I stopped and asked how many of them were the products of unplanned teen pregnancies and over half the class raised their hands. Awkward.

    On another occasion I randomly chose to show a short video biography of Barack Obama as an example of the elements of a biography. The mother of one of my students was a 'birther' and hates Obama. She was offended and complained.

    Can we discuss any issue without running the risk that someone in the class will have a connection to it and be offended? The approach has to be that educators provide a forum for students to discuss social justice issues as a way to develop critical thinking and expressive skills and let students find their own positions on it.

    And students want to discuss them. They yearn to be connected to the bigger world outside and understand it. My current class demanded we discuss the Boston Bombings in class. They wanted to know all about it and what it means. In an environment where we are often seeking to engage students in learning, shying away from anything controversial means avoiding really engaging topics.

    It's a complex issue with many facets to it.

  10. Thanks for your comment Andrew. I agree that it's a complex issue! I'm wondering what you would say to parents who believe that it is their right, not to "indoctrinate" their kids (they wouldn't use that term), but to pass on their own values. The man in the article I cite in the post says, with respect to teaching social justice, "that's my job," and I think a lot of parents feel that way. I don't happen to agree with him -- I think schools have a role to play in instilling certain values -- civic values, for instance, such as tolerance, co-operation, inclusiveness. With respect to controversial issues, I think I agree with you that teachers should not (overtly) take sides, but rather provide a forum for critical discussion (though I confess I have some sympathy for the critical pedagogical position that I described in my post). For me, the problem is that issues that affect the students directly, such as the school's own hidden curriculum, which inculcates obedience to authority as its main value, are almost never put forth as suitable topics of discussion. So there's a certain hypocrisy to the social justice curriculum that my daughters have certainly picked up on.

    As for your example of the Boston bombing discussion, I'm wondering whether you were certain that all your students were in fact comfortable discussing it. (And how does one determine that?) I know when my kids were younger, they were easily traumatized by the school's handling of current events. So I think that when the topic is potentially frightening, more caution is needed. I would even argue that perhaps such events should not be discussed in school at all, especially in younger grades. I'm thinking of the Newtown shootings, for instance.

  11. I think when parents say they want to 'pass on their values' that's really just code for teaching their kids what to think. It's about seeing their kids as extensions of themselves rather than independent people with their own separate thoughts and ideas. The danger in this is two-fold:

    1) If you train your kids to obey an external voice you are setting up the scenario where they replace the external voice with someone else (a peer, another adult, a partner). This is the classic scenario where parents are shocked when their kids go off the rails in their teen years. All that's happened is that rather than listening to their parents they are listening to their friends. The kid hasn't learned to think for themselves and make independent decisions.
    2) Ultimately, to be happy, I think we all have to learn to be our authentic selves. Layering over years of 'values' from parents just makes it even harder for kids to figure out who they are.

    It's always much better to show kids how to think not what to think and to respect the times when their thoughts and ideas are different than their parent's. Have confidence in them and trust them. They'll make good choices.

    Before we started to discuss the Boston Bombing I checked to make sure that all were comfortable with the topic. I further let anyone know that if the felt uncomfortable they should let me know and we would either stop or provide somewhere else they could go until we'd finished.

    I didn't raise the issue, they did. I had no need to discuss it with them, but they had the need to ask questions and express their opinions. Maybe even be reassured.

    I should also point out the larger context. With another teacher they had been exploring other similar events such as 911 and the holocaust so they had some background and perspective and some skills. It wasn't an isolated discussion but part of a larger discussion. It's also part of the curriculum we're working on in developing students ability to express ideas, thoughts and opinions orally and respond to those of others.

    The discussion was entirely student driven with them raising points and asking questions and me responding. My contributions were to provide factual information based on what I knew. If I didn't know I said so and on a couple of occasions we stopped and tried to find information. I don't know if I was able to remain entirely neutral but that was what I tried to do and that was my intent.

    Conversely we didn't discuss the Newtown shootings simply because they didn't raise it. I don't know why they did and I didn't ask. It's for them to raise it, not me.