Friday, May 11, 2012

Teaching the Unteachable: Social Justice Diatribe

If you shoot a man in cold blood and then perform the surgery to save his life, does that make you a good person?

A good friend of mine - my intellectual brother - sent me this note the other night.  Read it.  Think about it.  Apply it.

 On Friday we will have teachers share with us their social justice best practices because our school would like to infuse a social justice theme into their curricula.  It fucking bothers me to no end.  Social justice is not an import to influence your teaching.  Social justice to me is a substantive understanding of issue regarding power, privilege, context, hierarchy, history and so on.  Social justice teaching cannot just be how it is that we conceptualize ideas and frame them within an unjust curriculum and system.  The quotes below indicate this: 

a)Social justice education does not merely examine difference or diversity but pays careful attention to the systems of power and privilege. Heather Hackman (2005)

b)It [is] not possible to have real social justice if the economic system that shaped social and political life [is] fundamentally unjust. … social justice should not be equated with distributive justice: social justice goes beyond that and addresses fundamental issues of oppression and domination.  Wendy Kohli (2007).

That means that to infuse social justice into the curriculum means you MUST, in my opinion, question the curriculum.  Social justice cannot just be reading about certain issues, it must inform your pedagogy.  That means you must have a pedagogy.  What is that?  Roger Simon says : 

"To me “pedagogy” is a more complex and extensive term than teaching … all of the aspects of educational practice [curriculum content and design, strategies and techniques, evaluation and methods] come together in the realities of what happens in classrooms…talk about pedagogy is simultaneously talk about the details of what students and others might do together and the cultural politics such practices support.  To propose a pedagogy is to propose a political vision."  

Therefore, regardless of what you do, you are conducting a political act.  To not talk about social justice is political, to discuss it in soft liberal ways is political, and to discuss it in robust and substantive ways is also political.  Teaching is a political act.  Therefore, teachers MUST, in my opinion, root their politics in some type of theory or discourse.  If they don't and it is just what they think without any real reflection on themselves the world and teaching, it will revert back to dominant conservative norms.  These norms reproduce the inequities social justice work intends to correct.  In fact, they may be more insidious because their affects are much more subtle and therefore undetectable often until damage is done.  This is what we consider to be a new colonialism in teaching.  We "other" people, we speak for them, we save them, and we continue to take away power through our action and inaction.  We speak and act without reflection of its affect. 

Paulo Freire said "Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply blah, blah, blah and practice, pure activism."  

To be a thoughtful and critical educator, one need look at their practice.  In that practice, to actually do social justice work, it must be embodied in how one looks at teaching and learning, students and administration, authority and freedom, democracy and oligarchy.  Once cannot look at student with a deficit mentality but then propose to do social justice work.  Then the work is merely blah blah blah, as Freire says, and it is not at all impactful.  Social justice must be what one lives and breathes.  That is not to say that one gets it "right" on the first go.  However, one is open to being "unfinished", in that they realize they will never get it done and that they are always learning.  True social justice teaching, in my opinion, that is, teaching that is intended to bring about change, need be rooted in the teachers conception of self as a learner that questions even their own motives.  Rumi said " Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself".  Critical reflection on self and practice is foundational to social justice work.  Without it, one is like a ship in a sea without a compass, drifting from here to there, wherever the current takes it.  

In summary, to read a few biographies does not make us social justice educators.  To be angry with systems does not make us social justice educators.  To engage with ideas, conceptions, theories, philosophies, and research that embodies an ethic seeking to bring substantive change to systems that are unjust, is what I believe makes us closer to the noble experiment of social justice education.  Without it we run the risk of reproducing hegemonic ideas, colonial or neocolonial ethics, and aspects of violence that harm children.

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