Category Archives: Social Studies

Teaching and the ideology of neutrality

This week, in my course on secondary social studies curriculum, we discussed various ideological stances toward curriculum. Predictably, the issue of “neutrality” in social studies teaching came up.

Indeed, my students reported that as part of their professional preparation in the UBC B.Ed. program they have been repeatedly told that teachers should always strive for neutrality in their classrooms, I disagree.

Teaching (and curriculum) cannot be separated from politics. And, adopting the ideology of neutrality is to surrender agency and professionalism as a classroom teacher.

The ideology of neutrality is based upon theories of knowledge and conceptions of democracy that constrain rather than widen civic participation and has consequences that include passive, rather than active, learning; representation of democratic citizenship as a spectator project; and ultimately the maintenance of status quo inequalities in society.

Below is an excerpt from a recent paper I wrote with Kevin D. Vinson that takes up the issue.

Ideology of Neutrality, or What Exactly Are We Protecting Students From?

… Educators often eschew openly political or ideological agendas for teaching and schools as inappropriate or “unprofessional.” The question, however, is not whether to allow political discourse in schools or to encourage particular social visions in the classroom, but rather what kind of social visions will be taught?

There is a misguided and unfortunate tendency in our society to believe that activities that strengthen or maintain the status quo are neutral or at least non-political, while activities that critique or challenge the status quo are “political” and inappropriate. For example, for a company to advertise its product as a good thing, something consumers should buy, is not viewed as a political act. But, if a consumer group takes out an advertisement charging that the company’s product is not good, perhaps even harmful, this is often understood as political action.

This type of thinking permeates our society, particularly when it comes to schooling and teaching. “Stick to the facts.” “Guard against bias.” “Maintain neutrality.” These are admonitions or goals expressed by some teachers when asked to identify the keys to successful teaching. Many of these same teachers (and teacher educators) conceive of their roles as designing and teaching courses to ensure that students are prepared to function non-disruptively in society as it exists. This is thought to be a desirable goal, in part, because it strengthens the status quo and is seen as being an “unbiased” or “neutral” position. Many of these same teachers view their work in school as apolitical, a matter of effectively covering the curriculum, imparting academic skills, and preparing students for whatever high-stakes tests they might face. Often these teachers have attended teacher education programs designed to ensure that they were prepared to adapt to the status quo in schools.

Anyone who has paid attention to the debates on curriculum and school reform knows that schooling is a decidedly political enterprise (DeLeon & Ross, 2010; Mathison & Ross, 2008a; Mathison & Ross, 2008b; Ross & Gibson, 2007; Ross & Marker, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c). The question in teaching (as well as teacher education and school reform) is not whether to allow political discourse in schools or whether to advocate or not, but the nature and extent of political discourse and advocacy. “The question is not whether to encourage a particular social vision in the classroom but what kind of social vision it will be” (Teitelbaum, 1998, p. 32).

It is widely believed that neutrality, objectivity, and unbiasedness are largely the same thing and always good when it comes to schools and teaching. But, consider the following. Neutrality is a political category—that is—not supporting any factions in a dispute. Holding a neutral stance in a conflict is no more likely to ensure rightness or objectivity than any other and may be a sign of ignorance of the issues. Michael Scriven (1991) puts it this way: “Being neutral is often a sign of error in a given dispute and can be a sign of bias; more often it is a sign of ignorance, sometimes of culpable or disabling ignorance” (p. 68). Demanding neutrality of schools and teachers comes at a cost. As Scriven points out there are “clearly situations in which one wants to say that being neutral is a sign of bias” (p. 67). For example, being neutral in the debate on the occurrence of the Holocaust; a debate on atomic theory with Christian Scientists; or a debate with fundamentalist Christians over the origins of life and evolution. To rephrase Scriven, it seems better not to require that schools include only neutral teachers at the cost of including ignoramuses or cowards and getting superficial teaching and curriculum.

Absence of bias is not absence of convictions in an area, thus neutrality is not objectivity. To be objective is to be unbiased or unprejudiced. People are often misled to think that anyone who comes into a discussion with strong views about an issue cannot be unprejudiced. The key question, however, is whether and how the views are justified (e.g., Scriven, 1994).

“A knowledge claim gains objectivity…to the degree that it is the product of exposure to the fullest range of criticisms and perspectives” (Anderson, 1995, p. 198). Or as John Dewey (1910) argued, thoughts and beliefs that depend upon authority (e.g., tradition, instruction, imitation) and are not based on a survey of evidence are prejudices, prejudgments. Thus, achieving objectivity in teaching and the curriculum requires that we take seriously alternative perspectives and criticisms of any particular knowledge claim. How is it possible to have or strive for objectivity in schools where political discourse is circumscribed and neutrality is demanded? Achieving pedagogical objectivity is no easy task. The objective teacher considers the most persuasive arguments for different points of view on a given issue; demonstrates evenhandedness; focuses on positions that are supported by evidence, etc.

This kind of approach is not easy, and often requires significant quantities of time, discipline, and imagination. In this light, it is not surprising that objectivity is sometimes regarded as impossible, particularly with contemporary social issues in which the subject matter is often controversial and seemingly more open to multiple perspectives than in the natural sciences. However, to borrow a phrase from Karl Popper, objectivity in teaching can be considered a “regulative principle,” something toward which one should strive but which one can never attain. (Corngold & Waddington, 2006, p. 6)

The “ideology of neutrality” that dominates current thought and practices in schools (and in teacher education) is sustained by theories of knowledge and conceptions of democracy that constrain rather than widen civic participation in our society and functions to obscure political and ideological consequences of so-called “neutral” schooling, teaching, and curriculum. These consequences include conceptions of the learner as passive; democratic citizenship as a spectator project; and ultimately the maintenance of status quo inequalities in society.

 

For more on this issue, you may want to read this piece: “Redrawing the Lines: The Case Against Traditional Social Studies Instruction.”

Reforming Academic Labor, Resisting Imposition, K12 and Higher Education (Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, No. 25)

New Workplace Issue #25

Reforming Academic Labor, Resisting Imposition, K12 and Higher Education

Workplace and Critical Education are published by the Institute for Critical Education Studies. Please consider participating as author or reviewer. Thank you.

Schooling Corporate Citizens: A Conversation with Ronald W. Evans

Fireside Chat with Ron Evans on Education Reform, Social Studies, and Democratic Citizenship, Hosted By E. Wayne Ross 

This conservation with Ron Evans was conducted in the plenary session of the 2015 retreat of College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte on January 16, 2015. Evans discusses his new book, Schooling Corporate Citizens, the politics of education reform and how that recent reforms have affected the (official) nature and purposes of social studies education, his approach to research and writing, and life in the academy.

Introductions

Ron Evans is a leading authority on social studies and curriculum history. His book The Social Studies Wars was named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2004 by Choice Magazine. His biography of controversial progressive educator Harold O. Rugg, This Happened in America, won the 2008 Exemplary Research Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). His book The Hope for American School Reform, on the origins and development of the new social studies of the 1960s, also won the Exemplary Research Award from NCSS (2011). He founded the Issues Centered Education Community of NCSS in 1988. Currently, he is a Professor in the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University.  He lives in the San Diego area with his wife, two children, and a cat.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. His books include The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities Critical Theories, Radical Pedagogies and Social Education.

 Listen to the interview here (audio starts a minute or two into the interview):

Books by Ron Evans:

Schooling Corporate Citizens: How Accountability Reform has Damaged Civic Education and Undermined Democracy (2015)

The Hope for American School Reform: The Cold War Pursuit of Inquiry Learning in Social Studies (2011)

The Tragedy of American School Reform: How Curriculum Politics and Entrenched Dilemmas Have Diverted Us From Democracy (2011)

This Happened in America: Harold Rugg and The Censure of Social Studies (2007)

The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach The Children? (2004)

The Handbook of Teaching Social Issues (1996) 

Questions

How did you come to write Schooling for Corporate Citizens?

What motivates your work?

How did you come to write this book?

What motivates your work?

What sources did you draw on?

Where do you do your writing?

Describe your daily routine.

Describe how you do your research. Did you have formal training in archival research?

You’ve written four previous books of curriculum/social studies history, what did you learn from writing Schooling for Corporate Citizens?

Looking back across your books on curriculum history and education reform in the 20th and 21st centuries, you’ve trace the corporate/capitalist agenda in school reform and it’s anti-democratic, anti-community consequences:

  • Do you still have faith in schools to promote democracy / democratic citizenship?
  • Did you find out anything that surprised you?  That excited you?  That disappointed you?

How does a boy from Oklahoma who slacked his way through college end up doing all this work as a teacher/scholar in social studies?

What do you do when you’re not writing?

 

Ursula K. Le Guin on art, freedom, and the dangers of capitalism

Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 – simply, eloquently describes the commodification of art and the destructive effects of capitalism.

The parallels to the work of teachers is easy enough to see. Capitalism turns “writers into producers of market commodities rather than creators of art,” just as it turns teachers into producers of human capital rather than free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

Le Guin continued, “we will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.” We need those teachers too.

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

Cultural Logic Releases Three Volumes of Critical Scholarship In One Day

Cultural Logic has just announced an epic launch of three volumes of critical scholarship addressing a wide range of issues.

Cultural Logic, which has been on-line since 1997, is a open access, non-profit, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal that publishes essays, interviews, poetry, reviews (books, films, other media), etc. by writers working within the Marxist tradition.

Volumes 2011 and 2012 were edited by David Siar.

Volume 2013 is the open access version the Education for Revolution issue that was published by Works & Days in December 2013, which I co-edited with Rich Gibson. Thanks to everyone for your contributions, to David Downing and his team for publishing the issue in Works & Days, to David Siar for his editorial and site management, and to Joe Ramsey for suggesting the WD/CL collaboration for the Education for Revolution issue.

Below are the Contents for Volumes 2011, 2012, and 2013

Cultural Logic, Volume 2011
Articles
Mathias Dapprich
“A Contribution Towards a Critical Theory of School Shootings”

Jerry Leonard
“Reading Notes on Sangeeta Ray’s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Polemic with Digressions on a Theory of Irreducibility”

Ronald Paul
“The Politics of the Personal in Edward Upward’s The Spiral Ascent”

Spyros Sakellaropoulos
“On the Causes of the Civil War in Nepal and the Role of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)”

Larry Schwartz
“Apocalypse Then: Philip Roth’s Indignation”

Daniel Silvermintz
“Enlightenment in the Shopping Mall”

Response and Counter-Response
Mike Jones
“Some Comments on Sven-Eric Holmström’s ‘New Evidence’ Concerning the Hotel Bristol in the First Moscow Trial of 1936”

Sven-Eric Holmström
“Reply to Mike Jones”

Poetry
Christopher Barnes
(From) The Electric Chair Poems

Cultural Logic, Volume 2012
Articles
Julianne Buchsbaum
“Alienation, Reification, and Narrativity in Russell Banks’ Affliction”

Alzo David-West
“North Korea and the Theory of the Deformed Workers’ State: Definitions and First Principles of a Fourth International Theory”

Haidar Eid
“White Noise: Representations of (Post)modern Intelligentsia”

Doug Enaa Greene
“Leninism and Blanquism”

Desmond Peeples
“Toward an Anarcho-Empiricism: Integrating Precedent, Theory, and Impetus in the Anarchist Project”

E. San Juan, Jr.
“In Lieu of Saussure: A Prologue to Charles Sanders Peirce’s Theory of Signs”

Huei-ju Wang
“Becoming ‘Migrant John’: John Steinbeck and His Migrants and His (Un)conscious turn to Marx”

Poetry
George Snedeker
Selected Poems

Cultural Logic, Education for Revolution, Volume 2013
Preface
E. Wayne Ross & Rich Gibson
“Education for Revolution”

Foreword
David B. Downing, Nicholas P. Katsiadas, Tracy J. Lassiter & Reza Parchizadeh
“Forward to the Revolution” (Forward to the Works & Days Edition)

Articles
Rich Gibson
“Barbarism Rising: Detroit, Michigan and the International War of the Rich on the Poor”

E. Wayne Ross & Kevin D. Vinson
“Resisting Neoliberal Education Reform: Insurrectionist Pedagogies and the Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenry”

Julie A. Gorlewski & Brad J. Porfilio
“Reimaging Solidarity: Hip-Hop as Revolutionary Pedagogy”

Timothy Patrick Shannon & Patrick Shannon
“Learning to Be Fast Capitalists on a Flat World”

Brian D. Lozenski, Zachary A. Casey & Shannon K. McManimon
“Contesting Production: Youth Participatory Action Research in the Struggle to Produce Knowledge”

Mike Cole
“Schooling for Capitalism or Education for Twenty-First Century Socialism?”

Curry Stephenson Malott
“Class Consciousness and Teacher Education: The Socialist Challenge and the Historical Context”

Deborah P. Kelsh
“The Pedagogy of Excess”

John Maerhofer
“Undermining Capitalist Pedagogy: Takiji Kobayashi’s Toseikatsusha and the Ideology of the World Literature Paradigm”

Grant Banfield
“Marxist Sociology of Education and the Problem of Naturalism: An Historical Sketch”

David J. Blacker
“The Illegitimacy of Student Debt”

Alan J. Singer
“Hacking Away at the Corporate Octopus”

Richard A. Brosio
“A Tale of Two Cities —— and States”

Alan Spector
“SDS, the 1960s, and Education for Revolution”

Your social studies teacher is wrong, the United States is not a democracy

No, this is not some arcane argument about democratic versus republican forms of government. Rather it is the conclusion of what has been described as the first ever scientific study of the question of whether the United States is a democracy.

The study, by Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University, is titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” and will be published in the fall 2014 issue of Perspectives on Politicsan APSA journal.

The study aims to answer the questions “Who governs? Who really rule? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless” by examining a huge data set that addresses thousands of policy issues.

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. (p. 2)

The findings provide “substantial support” for theories of Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism, in short the U.S. is found to be an oligarchy. No surprise really, unless you’ve had your eyes wide shut for the past 40 years. While the political and media elites, capitalists and other oligarchs (along with social studies textbooks and teachers) continue to promote the fiction that the U.S. is a democracy, this study concludes that the average citizens’ influence on policy making is “near zero.” So, don’t bother writing that letter to your “representative.”

The researchers used a single statistical model to pit the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other using a unique data set that included measures for key independent variables on policy issues. Their “striking findings,” include “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” (p. 21).

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threaten. (p.24)

While some critically minded observers may claim that this study only confirms what we already know, we should not underestimate the importance—and pedagogical power—of this empirical investigation of democracy in the U.S.. which puts a lie the most powerful trope of school curriculum and mass media propaganda. The U.S. is not democracy;  the central features of American democracy are illusory.

The narrative of “American democracy” promulgated in schools and in the media is distraction from the triumph of neoliberal capitalism and the rule of oligarchs.  If we—social studies educators—are truly committed to the principles and practices of social equality it requires engaging with our students in systematic analysis and inquiry into our present circumstances (as well as historicizing preconditions of the present). From that point we can start to pose questions and envision tactics, strategies, and grand strategies that point toward resolution of problems/contradictions our analyses identify. This study presents findings that will surely provoke dialogue about (and deconstruction of) of what currently passes for “democracy” in the U.S., and, one hopes, inspires not merely more powerful teaching, but actions to reclaim/remake the political landscape.

On government …

“No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historical, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.” — Richard Feynman,”The Uncertainty of Values”, in The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist (1999)

Call for Papers: NETWORKED REALMS AND HOPED-FOR FUTURES: a trans-generational dialogue

CALL FOR PAPERS
NETWORKED REALMS AND HOPED-FOR FUTURES:
a trans-generational dialogue

During the past decades, people from all walks of life – educators, information scientists, geeks, writers, film makers etc. – envisioned various futures for the relationships between education and technologies. Step by step, the logic of technological and social development has cherry-picked the most viable options and dumped others deep into the waste bin of history. Yesterday, our present was just one of many possible futures – today, it is our only reality.

This Special Issue of the journal E-Learning and Digital Media (www.wwwords.co.uk/ELEA) invites authors to step back from the never-ending quest for new concepts and ideas and to revisit past insights into the relationships between education and technologies – including, but not limited to, the formal process of schooling. Based on analyses of historical ideas, we invite authors to reflect on the relationships between past, present and future.

What is viable today might not have been viable yesterday: history of human thought is packed with excellent ideas that once failed to make an impact because of wrong placement, timing or simply bad luck. Therefore, we are particularly interested in identification and examination of ignored/abandoned/neglected/forgotten concepts and ideas that might shed new light to our current reality and/or (re)open new and/or abandoned strands of research.
Working at the intersection of technology, psychology, sociology, history, politics, philosophy, arts, and science fiction, we welcome contributions from wide range of disciplines and inter-, trans- and anti-disciplinary research methodologies.

SUBMISSIONS
All contributions should be original and should not be under consideration elsewhere. Authors should be aware that they are writing for an international audience and should use appropriate language. Manuscripts should not exceed 8000 words. For further information and authors’ guidelines please see www.wwwords.co.uk/elea/howtocontribute.asp

All papers will be peer-reviewed, and evaluated according to their significance, originality, content, style, clarity and relevance to the journal.

Please submit your initial abstract (300-400 words) by email to the Guest Editors.

GUEST EDITORS
Petar Jandrić, Department of Informatics & Computing, Polytechnic of Zagreb, Croatia (pjandric@tvz.hr)
Christine Sinclair, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, UK (christine.sinclair@ed.ac.uk)
Hamish Macleod, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, UK (h.a.macleod@ed.ac.uk)

IMPORTANT DATES
15 February 2014 – Deadline for abstracts to guest editors
1 May 2014 – Deadline for submissions/full papers
1 July 2014 – Deadline for feedback from reviewers
1 October 2014 – Final deadline for amended papers
Publication date – in 2015, to be decided

The old guy is still relevant…

We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror. But the royal terrorists, the terrorists by the grace of God and the law, are in practice brutal, disdainful, and mean, in theory cowardly, secretive, and deceitful, and in both respects disreputable. —Karl Marx, final editorial in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1849)