I’m please to announce the publication of my new book Rethinking Social Studies: Critical Pedagogy in Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship (Information Age Publishing, 2017).
The book is published as a volume in the series: Critical Constructions: Studies on Education and Society, which is edited: Curry Stephenson Malott, West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Brad J. Porfilio, CSU, East Bay. Marc Pruyn, Monash University. Derek R. Ford, DePauw University. Thanks to all the editors for their support of this project.
I would also like to thank Peter McLaren for writing the Foreword to the book. You can read of version of McLaren’s foreword to Rethinking Social Studies here: A Message to Social Studies Educators of the US in the Coming Trump Era.
Social studies is the most dangerous of all school subjects. Its danger, however, is a matter of perspective.
Like the schools in which it is taught, social studies is full of alluring contradictions. It harbors possibilities for inquiry and social criticism, liberation and emancipation. Social studies could be a site that enables young people to analyze and understand social issues in a holistic way – finding and tracing relations and interconnections both present and past in an effort to build meaningful understandings of a problem, its context and history; to envision a future where specific social problems are resolved; and take action to bring that vision in to existence. Social studies could be a place where students learn to speak for themselves in order to achieve, or at least strive toward an equal degree of participation and better future. Social studies could be like this, but it is not.
In practice social studies has been and continues to be profoundly conversing in nature. Social studies is the engine room of illusion factories whose primary aim is reproduction of the existing social order, where the ruling ideas exist to be memorized, regurgitated, internalized and lived by. If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! If you do not memorize these facts, accept these myths as truths so you can pass these exams to get those credentials, then you will not get any pudding. That is the way the world works. And good social studies teachers are here to make the meat palatable because they want everyone to be able to have some pudding.
Social studies too often teaches myths instead of encouraging critical explorations of human existence. Schools are fundamentally authoritarian, hierarchical institutions, they produce myriad oppressive and inequitable by-products and social studies is an integral component in this process.
The challenge, perhaps impossibility, is discovering ways in which schools in general and social studies in particular can contribute to positive liberty. That is a society where individuals have the power and resources to realize and fulfill their own potential, free from the obstacles of classism, racism, sexism and other inequalities encouraged by educational systems and the influence of the state and religious ideologies. A society where people have the agency and capacity to make their own free choices and act independently based on reason not authority, tradition, or dogma.
Does that sound too idealistic to you? Utopian even? I would not be surprised if it did. Many of my students (and more of my colleagues) say the same. They argue for the importance of being “realistic” or “adjusting to circumstances as they are” as if the really existing social studies classes in all their boring and socially reproductive glory are natural phenomenon beyond human capacity to change. I can understand this point of view, but cannot embrace it. You can just throw up your hands or argue for being realistic, but in the face of a world filled with injustices I do not believe sustaining the status quo is an admirable goal and neither is sustaining a social studies that offers conventional (non)explanations of the world.
In 1843, Arnold Ruge overcome with revolutionary despair, wrote a letter to Karl Marx lamenting the impossibility of revolution because the German people were too docile: “our nation has no future, so what is the point in our appealing to it?” To which Marx replied “You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it, this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope.” This is an example of what philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called “the courage of hopelessness.” The courage of hopelessness is an optimistic response to pessimistic circumstances. The equivalent of responding to the criticism that you are “being too idealistic” with “be realistic, demand the impossible!”
The hegemonic system of global capitalism dominates not because people agree with it. It rules because most people are convinced “There Is No Alternative.” Indeed, as I argue in this book the dominant approach to schooling and curriculum, particularly in social studies education, is aimed at indoctrinating students into this belief.
Utopian thinking allows us to consider alternatives, such as the pedagogical imaginaries which this book explores, in attempt to open up spaces for rethinking our approaches to learning, teaching, and experiencing the world. These imaginaries are necessary because traditional tropes of social studies curriculum (e.g., democracy, voting, democratic citizenship) are essentially lies we tell ourselves and students (because democracy is incompatible with capitalism; capitalist democracy creates a shallow, spectator version of democracy at best; democracy as it operates now is inseparable from empire/perpetual war and vast social inequalities).
We certainly have plenty of fuel for our hopes. The challenge we face as social studies educators is to not warm our students’ hearts with empty hopes, but rather confront what are seemingly hopeless times for freedom and equality with a pedagogy and curriculum that come from a courage of hopelessness.
This book aims to rethink social studies so it becomes a site where students can develop personally meaningful understandings of the world and recognize they have agency to act on the world, to make change. Social studies should not be about showing life to students, but bringing them to life. The aim is not getting students to listen to entertaining lectures, but getting to speak for themselves, to understand people make their own history (even if they make it in already existing circumstances). These principles are the foundation for a new social studies, one that is not driven not by standardized curriculum or examinations, but by the perceived needs, interests, desires of our students, our communities of shared interest, and ourselves as educators.
Rethinking Social Studies is organized into three parts. Part 1 – Redrawing the Lines, expands on the basic premises discussed above. Chapter 1 presents a description and critique of traditional social studies education. The chapter deconstructs the ideology of neutrality, which is frequently taught as part of social studies teacher education and examines the deleterious effects of conceiving of learning and citizenship as spectator projects. Chapter 2 presents a case study of right-wing think tank report on social studies as an example of the politics of the social studies and its connections to movement conservatism. By taking a close look at neo-conservative efforts to control the field and destroy the (at least theoretical) pluralism that has long characterized social studies we can better understand the normative nature of social studies and the inadequacy of adopting a neutral stance as social studies educators. Chapter 3, “Insurrectionist Pedagogies and the Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship,” is in many ways the heart the book. This chapter presents an analysis of neoliberal education reforms in North America. Part of a Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), these corporate-driven reforms include three key strategies: (1) School choice and privatization; (2) human capital policies for teachers; and (3) standardized curriculum coupled with an increased use of standardized testing. The idea of “dangerous citizenship” is presented as a possible antidote to the stultifying effects of GERM on the freedom to think, learn, and teach social studies outside of a hegemonic worldview that is authoritarian and harbours racially, sexually, and class-based discriminatory traditions. Various possibilities for creative disruption of dominant assumptions and practices of social studies teaching and curriculum are presented as imaginaries for what might become insurgent pedagogies that foster dangerous citizenship.
The chapters in Part 2 – Social Education for Critical Knowledge for Everyday Life explore questions such as: What is the social justice? Chapter 4 takes a look at the relationship of social justice and power and argues that social justice requires much more that adopting a new vocabulary and socially and culturally inclusive curricula, rather it requires a revolution of everyday life.
Chapter 3 asks, What is critical pedagogy? Then takes a critical look at an approach that is filled with contradictions and too often comes across as either a theory-laden field for left wing academics or a radical idea that is domesticated by liberal teachers and teacher educators, or both. The chapter emphases the importance of everyday life and becoming as part of what it means to practice critical pedagogy.
Why is class an invisible concept in social studies? What would social studies look like if we put class at the center of the curriculum? Chapter 6, “Why Teaching Class Matters” describes both the invisibility of class in the social studies curriculum (and research) and presents an example of how class can be (and is) used as the organizing concept for a high school American Studies course. Chapter 7 analyzes the American empire – making connections between politics, foreign policy and the economy to illustrate the really existing class war in the United States (and the world) – as the context for the political and pedagogical project that is teaching and organizing for social change.
In an era marked by regimented curriculum, bureaucratic outcomes-based accountability systems, and corporatized educational aims, how do you keep your ideals and still teach? The answer to this question is multifaceted, but as argued in Chapter 8, there are at least two necessary, if insufficient responses. First, working in opposition to the mainstream of educational practice requires a question-posing approach. Secondly, collaborative thought and action are crucial to understanding and transformation of educational practices and social relations. Two counterstories are presented in this chapter. The first is based on the individual perspectives of two novice teachers. The second is the counterstory of a collective known as the Rouge Forum.
I often ask the social studies teachers to write about and examine the beliefs that inform their practice as educators. This task is useful in unearthing unstated assumptions that underlie our classroom practices and broader beliefs regarding the role of schools in society and reasons we teach what we teach. In Chapter 9, I have taken my own assignment and completed it, presenting a “my pedagogical creed” (based on the framework of John Dewey’s famously titled article). My hope is that you will be inspired to write your own pedagogical creed as a way analyzing and gaining insight into your practice as a social studies educator.
Part 3 – Beyond the Classroom, extends some themes from earlier in the book and provides an overview of key ideas found in Parts 1 and 2 (plus a few new ones). Democracy within the social studies curriculum is too often presented in its most weak and superficial form, that is, as process of electing of representatives and the functions of government. I say, “don’t vote, engage politics!” and Chapter 10 presents one approach to political engagement, writing for popular media. Chapter 11 is my own “educational autobiography,” another assignment I ask my students to complete, this activity aims to make sense of our current assumptions, thinking, and practices as educators by historicizing and analyzing their preconditions. The idea is that if we can better understand the sources of our present thinking and practice we can then better understand our present circumstances and more clearly envision how what we think and do today can help us achieve our goals in the future. The book closes with an interview conducted by Carlo Fanelli in which I discuss a wide-range of topics, including corporate education reform, critical pedagogy, and educational and politic activism. In many ways this interview is an overview and summary of ideas from the previous chapters.
As researcher, teacher, book and journal editor I have had the privilege and honour to collaborate with many fine educators and scholars. When considering my work it is impossible to separate ideas and accomplishments that could be described as my own from those that are the result of collaboration with others. Mark Twain said,
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Twain is right, but only up to a point. If we continue to manipulate that kaleidoscope at some point we will witness something entirely new, yet carrying forward aspects of what it was. We can understand and change the world and in the process we create ourselves anew. This is what I have experienced in my collaborative relationships with others and it is important for me to acknowledge those folks who contributed to who I am today as a person, a teacher, and a scholar.
This book emphases my collaborations with Kevin D. Vinson, Perry Marker, Rich Gibson, and Gregg Queen.
Kevin and I have had a long and fruitful collaboration as writing partners, but most importantly as friends. I came to now him when he submitted an manuscript to a journal I was editing and I like it so much I had to call him up and talk about it. That was, of course, back in the day when people actually called each other on the phone. Our interests and thinking has been so intertwined over the years that each of us has written pieces then given the other credit for writing. We allowed ourselves the conceit that our relationship was not unlike Lennon and McCartney, without the hits.
Perry and I met as graduate students when Ohio State University and Indiana University regularly held colloquia for social studies students and faculty, since then we have worked together on nearly twenty presentations, articles, and journal issues. Perry’s work as a social studies teacher educator and curriculum scholar is the exemplar of critical, democratic praxis and I have long admired his dedication to both the ideals of democracy and his students, but most of all I appreciate his friendship, particularly his willingness to engage with me in spirited discussions of politics and baseball, which are often fuelled by bourbon whiskey.
I was chairing the question and answer part of a conference session when this fellow wearing a black leather jacket stood up and asked a question that pulled the rug out from under the assumptions of all the prior presentations. Afterwards, I chased the guy down and found out his name was Rich Gibson and soon learned he was a full-time troublemaker and revolutionary. We began working together almost immediately, helping to found the Rouge Forum and writing articles for newspapers, political and academic journals, co-editing books and journals. He has been my mentor on Marx, martial arts, spaghetti westerns, revolution, and all things Detroit (and I reciprocate by sharing obscure blues, R & B, and rockabilly recordings with him).
Greg Queen is Rich’s former graduate student and in my mind he is one of the most unique and accomplished high school social studies teachers ever. He has provided leadership for social change in his community and nationally as the Community Coordinator for the Rouge Forum. His teaching embodies a critical, revolutionary spirit and he has been honoured for his dedication to teaching against the grain with the National Council for the Social Studies’ defence of academic freedom award. Greg does what most social studies teachers are afraid to do, objectively teach the unvarnished truth of United States history. When my students say nobody can teach that way and keep their job, Greg is the person I point to.
The influences of Kevin, Perry, Rich, and Greg are easy enough to spot in the pages of this book, but I must acknowledge a number of others who have influenced my thinking and practice as an educator. As a social studies educator I am deeply indebted to my professors, particularly Richard C. Phillips (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and M. Eugene Gilliom (The Ohio State University) and my teachers at Independence High School in Charlotte, NC, the epitome, in a curricular sense, of the “shopping mall” high school.
I have learned much from many superb colleagues in the field of social studies education, including: Ceola Ross Baber, Jane Bernard-Powers, Jeffrey W. Cornett, Margaret Smith Crocco, Abraham DeLeon, Ronald W. Evans, Stephen C. Fleury, Four Arrows (aka Don T. Jacobs), Todd Hawley, Neil O. Houser, Gregg Jorgensen, Joseph Kahne, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Christopher R. Leahey, Merry Merryfield, Jack L. Nelson, Nel Noddings, Paul Orlowski, Valerie Ooka Pang, Marc Pruyn, Doug Selwyn, Özlem Sensoy, Walter Werner, Joel Westheimer, and Michael Whelan.
It has been a privilege to collaborate with many great scholars on a variety of projects including, Derek Ford, David Gabbard, David W. Hursh, Kathleen Kesson, Johnny Lupinacci, Curry Stephenson Malott, Gail McCutcheon, Stephen Petrina, Ken Saltman, Patrick Shannon, Larry Stedman, Ken Teitelbaum, John F. Welsh, and Mark Wolfmeyer.
All the people in, and around, The Rouge Forum have continued to be a huge inspiration to me as a scholar, teacher, and activist, most especially Brad Porfilio, Faith Agostinone Wilson, Gina Steins, Bryan Reinholdt, Joe Wegwert, Amber Goslee, Dennis Carlson, Peter McLaren, and Adam Renner (1970-2010).
Colin and Rachel continue to make me a proud father. And, as always, the person who provides my life with love, happiness, and excitement is Sandra Mathison.
Table of Contents
Foreword, Peter McLaren.
PART I: REDRAWING THE LINES
CHAPTER 1: Redrawing the Lines: The Case Against Traditional Social Studies Instruction.
CHAPTER 2: If Social Studies Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right (with Perry Marker). CHAPTER 3: Insurrectionist Pedagogies and the Pursuit of Dangerous Citizenship (with Kevin D. Vinson).
PART II: SOCIAL EDUCATION AND CRITICAL KNOWLEDGE FOR EVERYDAY LIFE
CHAPTER 4: Social Studies Requires a Revolution of Everyday Life.
CHAPTER 5: Broadening the Circle of Critical Pedagogy.
CHAPTER 6: Why Teaching Class Matters (with Gregg Queen).
CHAPTER 7: Education for Class Consciousness (with Rich Gibson).
CHAPTER 8: How Do I Keep My Ideals and Still Teach (with Rich Gibson, Greg Queen, and Kevin D. Vinson).
CHAPTER 9: Teaching for Change: Social Education and Critical Knowledge for Everyday Life.
PART III: BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
CHAPTER 10: Social Studies as Public Pedagogy: Engaging Social Issues in the Media. CHAPTER 11: A Sense of Where You Are.
CHAPTER 12: Critical Education and Insurgent Pedagogies: An Interview With E. Wayne Ross.
About the Author.
The Institute for Critical Education Studies is please to sponsor two upcoming seminars on curriculum issues in Latin America and Spain.
Curricular Discourses with Practical Implications:
Perspectives and Experiences From Spain & South America
September 22, 2016
11:30am – 1:30pm
University of British Columbia
This seminar brings together scholars from Spain and South America working within a variety of curriculum studies traditions to discuss curriculum issues in contexts ranging from elementary education to higher education. The seminar will be an opportunity to explore how curricular discourses have implications in educational practices in local, national, and global contexts.
Panelists include Dr. Renato Gazmuri (Universidad Diego Portales, Chile); Sandra Delgado (Colombia), Fernando M. Murillo (Chile), Breo Tosar (Spain), and Héctor Gómez (Chile).
Curricular Ideologies in the Discussion and Negotiation of the Chilean Social Studies Curriculum
Monday, September 26, 2016
Noon – 1:oopm
University of British Columbia
Renato Gazmuri, PhD, Assistant Professor at Universidad Diego Portales (Chile).
Dr. Gazmuri will discuss his research on the construction of the social studies curriculum in Chile. The Chilean social studies curriculum has been defined through processes of discussion and negotiation between diverse actors and institutions with different views on the subject. In order to identify and describe these ideologies, a sequential and recursive methodological device was designed and applied in three stages of production and analysis of information: a documentary compilation around three curricular events of debate and negotiation, application of questionnaires, and interviews. At each stage a content analysis was performed. Five curriculum ideologies are identified and described, considering their assumptions about how the curriculum should define the subject matter, as well what its aims, contents and its guidelines for teaching.
These seminars are free and open to the public.
The Institute for Critical Education Studies (ICES) was formally established in October 2010 to conduct and support cultural, educational, or social research within a critical education or critical pedagogy tradition. The ICES network consists of two flagship journals (Critical Education and Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor), two primary blogs (ICES blog and Workplace blog) and an array of other social media.
“Be Realistic Demand the Impossible”
Rejoinder to Peter Siexas’s
Dangerous indeed: A response to E. Wayne Ross’ ‘Courage of hopelessness’
University of British Columbia
Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
Seminar Series: Diverse Perspectives on Curriculum & Pedagogy
February 26, 2016
1. The “courage of hopelessness” is, perhaps ironically, an optimistic position.
The publicity blurbs for Peter’s talk stated that he would offer “a way to steer a course between the two closely related traps of hopelessness and utopianism.” This is a misreading of my use of the term “courage of hopelessness,” which is a position of some great optimism.
[Read the text of my January 15, 2016 seminar “The Courage of Hopelessness: Democratic Education in the Age of Empire.” Watch video my talk here. Watch Seixas talk, my response and Q&A with audience below.]
2. Utopia – “Be realistic demand the impossible”
We need Utopia / utopian thought more than ever because we live in a time without alternatives when neoliberal capitalism reins triumphant and uncontested.
[This circumstance is captured in Margaret Thatcher’s declarations: “There is no alternative” and “there is no such thing as society.” The latter of which was embodied in Stephen Harper’s refusal to “commit sociology,” which was an ideological attempt to prevent the identification of and responses to structural injustices that result from capitalism.]
The so-called global free market works well for the One Percent, but not for rest of humanity. In my talk, I provided some examples of the ways in which capitalism trumps democracy (pun intended).
The hegemonic system of global capitalism dominates not because people agree with it; it rules because most people are convinced “There Is No Alternative.” Indeed, as I have argued, the dominant approach to schooling and curriculum, particularly in social studies education, is aimed at indoctrinating students into this belief.
Utopian thinking allows us to consider alternatives, such as the pedagogical imaginaries which I presented in my January seminar, in attempt to open up spaces for rethinking our approaches to learning, teaching, and experiencing the world. And these imaginaries are necessary because traditional tropes of social studies curriculum (e.g., democracy, voting, democratic citizenship) are essentially lies we tell to ourselves and our students (because democracy is incompatible with capitalism; capitalist democracy creates a shallow, spectator version of democracy at best; democracy as it operates now is inseparable from empire/perpetual war and vast social inequalities).
Stephen Duncombe argues that Utopia is politically necessary even for people who do not desire an alternative society,
“Thoughtful politics depend upon debate and without someone or something to disagree with there is no meaningful dialogue, only an echo chamber…Without a vision of an alternative future, we can only look backwards nostalgically to the past, or unthinkingly maintain what we have, mired in the unholy apocalypse that is now.”
3. The Nature of Method or Inquiry
I believe the key question to be posed in social studies and one that history can help us answer is “why are things as are they are?”
[Marx’s method, dialectics, is a tool that does not necessarily require a Marxist politics or practice (class struggle), see for example the dialectical approaches of individualist libertarians Chris Sciabarra and John F. Welsh.]
What we understand about the world is determined by what the world is, who we are, and how we conduct our inquiries.
Things change. Everything in the world is changing and interacting. When studying social issues we should begin by challenging the commonsense ideas of society or particular social issues as a “thing” and consider the processes and relationships that make up what we think of as society or a social issue, which includes its history and possible futures.
Inquiries into social issues help us understand how things change and also contribute to change.
In understanding social issues and how things change it helps to “abstract” or start with “concrete reality” and break it down. Abstraction is like using camera lenses with different focal lengths: a zoom lens to bring a distant object into focus (what is the history of this?) or using a wide-angle lens to capture more of a scene (what is the social context of the issue now?)
This approach raises important questions: where does one start and what does one look for? The traditional approach to inquiry starts with small parts and attempts to establish connections with other parts leading to an understanding of the larger whole. Beginning with the whole, the system, or as much as we understand of it, and then inquiring into the part or parts of it to see how it fits and functions leads to a fuller understanding of the whole.
Analysis of present conditions is necessary, but insufficient. The problem is that reality is more than appearances and focusing on appearances, the face value of evidence from our immediate surroundings, can be misleading.
How do we think adequately about social issues, giving issues the attention and weight they deserve, without the distorting them? We can expand our notion of a social issue (or anything for that matter) to include, as aspects of what it is, both the process by which the issue has come to life and the broader interactive context in which it is found. In this way, the study of a social issue involves us in the study of its history (the preconditions and connections to the past) and the encompassing system.
Remembering, “things change,” provokes us to move beyond analyzing current conditions and historicizing social issues, to project probable or possible futures. In other words, our inquiry leads to the creation of visions of possible futures.
This process of inquiry, then, changes the way we think about a social issue in the here and now (change moves in spirals, not circles) in that we can now look for preconditions of a future in the present and use them to develop political strategies (i.e., organize for change).
4. The School and “Social Progress”
The fundamental parts of human nature include a need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effects of coercive institutions.
Schools are continually threatened because they are autocratic and they are autocratic because they are threatened—from within by students and critical parents and from without by various and disparate social, political, and economic interests. These conditions divide teachers from students and community and shape teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and action.
Teachers then, are crucial to any effort to improve, reform, or revolutionize curriculum, instruction, or schools. The transformation of schools must begin with the teachers, and no program that does not include the personal and collective rehabilitation of teachers can ever overcome the passive resistance of the old order.
Schools should places that enable people to analyze and understand social problems; envision a future without those problems; and take action to bring that vision in to existence.
Social progress is enhanced when we rewrite the narrative of the triumphant individual working within the system into a story of the creation of self-critical communities of educators in schools (and people in society) working collaboratively toward transformative outcomes.
People who talk about transformational learning or educational revolution without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about learning, and love, and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, are trapped in a net of received ideas, the common-nonsense and false reality of technocrats (or worse).
Schools are alluring contradictions, harboring possibilities for liberation, emancipation, and social progress, but, as fundamentally authoritarian and hierarchical institutions, they produce myriad oppressive and inequitable by-products. The challenge, perhaps impossibility, is discovering ways in which schools can contribute to positive liberty.
That is a society where individuals have the power and resources to realize and fulfill their own potential, free from the obstacles of classism, racism, sexism and other inequalities encouraged by educational systems and the influence of the state and religious ideologies. A society where people have the agency and capacity, to make their own free choices and act independently based on reason, not authority, tradition, or dogma.
 These remarks were presented immediately following Seixas’ presentation and prepared without the opportunity to read the text of his talk in advance. As a result, they are based upon the abstract circulated prior to his seminar and my understanding of Seixas’ perspective based upon his published work and our interactions as faculty members at UBC.
Video of Seixas presentation, Ross response and Q&A with audience (February 26, 2016):
Date: Friday, February 26th 2016
Venue: Scarfe Room 310
Time: 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
Title: Dangerous indeed: A response to Wayne Ross’ “Courage of hopelessness”
Speaker: Dr. Peter Seixas, Professor, EDCP
Light lunch served at noon outside Scarfe room 310. The Lecture commences at 12:30 pm. There is no need to RSVP.
Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky—to be realistic.
–Tom Crick, the history teacher, in Graham Swift’s Waterland, p. 108
In his EDCP Seminar on January 15, Dr. Wayne Ross challenged commonplace notions of schools, teacher education, the subject of social studies, democracy and freedom. In this talk (text, video, powerpoint), I review the arguments and confront them as a colleague—in the department, in social studies education, and in the project of educating teachers for British Columbia schools. As the basis of my critique, I offer a theoretical framework through the concept of “historical agency,” which calls attention to the abilities of people to act individually and collectively to shape the course of history, as well as the limitations on those abilities. It offers a way to steer a course between the two closely related traps of hopelessness and utopianism. I sketch its utility specifically in relation to 1) understanding our own social and political situation, 2) thinking about the role of schools and teachers in democratic societies, 3) developing useful curriculum and pedagogy in Canada today, 4) educating student teachers in the Faculty of Education, and 5) conducting educational research that matters.
Dr. E. Wayne Ross| Professor, EDCP
January 15, 2016
E. Wayne Ross is Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC. He has written and edited numerous books including: Critical Theories, Radical Pedagogies and Social Education (Sense, 2010); The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems and Possibilities (4th Ed., SUNY Press, 2014) and Working for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom (Peter Lang, 2016). He also edits the journals Critical Education, Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, and Cultural Logic.
In this talk I argue there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of democracy in North America that subverts traditional approaches to democratic education. The tropes that have historically dominated the discourse on democracy and democratic education now amount to selling students (and ourselves) a lie about history and contemporary life. Our challenge is to re-imagine our roles as educators and find ways to create opportunities for students to create meaningful personal understandings of the world. Education is not about showing life to people, but bringing them to life. The aim is not getting students to listen to convincing lectures by experts, but getting them to speak for themselves in order to achieve, or at least strive for an equal degree of participation and a more democratic, equitable, and justice future. This requires a new mindset, something I call dangerous citizenship.
Wayne Journell, secondary social studies education professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has put together a new book on social studies in a post-9/11 world.
The book, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield next year, examines social studies curriculum from a wide-range of perspectives (see the Table of Contents below). The book will be a unique contribution to the fields social studies and curriculum studies.
A draft version of my chapter is available to read at the link below.
Table of Contents
Margaret Smith Crocco
Michael J. Berson and Ilene R. Berson
Introduction: September 11, 2001: The Day that Changed the World . . . But Not the Curriculum
Chapter 1: International Conflict and National Destiny: World War I and History Teaching
Keith C. Barton
Chapter 2: 9/11 and the War on Terror in American Secondary Curriculum Fifteen Years Later
Jeremy Stoddard and Diana Hess
Chapter 3: Including 9/11 in the Elementary Grades: State Standards, Digital Resources, and Children’s Books
Chapter 4: How Patriotism Matters in U.S. Social Studies Classrooms Fifteen Years After 9/11
Mark T. Kissling
Chapter 5: National Identity and Citizenship in a Pluralistic Society: Educators’ Messages Following 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo
Chapter 7: Civil Liberties, Media Literacy, and Civic Education in the Post-9/11 Era: Helping Students Think Conceptually in Order to Act Civically
Stephen S. Masyada and Elizabeth Yeager Washington
Chapter 8: Role-Playing and Role-Dropping: Political Simulations as Portals to Pluralism in a Contentious Era
Jane C. Lo and Walter C. Parker
Chapter 9: The Psychology of Controversial Issues Discussions: Challenges and Opportunities in a Polarized, Post-9/11 Society
Christopher H. Clark and Patricia G. Avery
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.”
Public school curriculum in British Columbia is undergoing a transformation, at least that’s the claim of the Education Ministry, which for the past two years has been conducting consultations with the public and an curriculum framework advisory group on a new curriculum.
The ministry’s efforts have largely been conducted without teacher input or participation, which is problematic, but the general aims of the new curriculum as represented in ministry documents are surprisingly promising, has I pointed out in a letter published in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun:
While it remains to be seen what the B.C. education ministry’s curriculum plans will produce, especially since teachers are not at the table, their aims are promising.
Reducing prescriptiveness and the sheer volume of the curricular mandate is laudable. As it stands, the breadth of the curriculum makes in-depth study of topics a pipe dream in most classrooms.
Curricular flexibility should allow teachers to foster more motivated learning, that is motivation of students to acquire new knowledge and skills, rather than expecting a standardized curriculum to meet the needs of all students.
Less of an emphasis on transmitting facts and more of a focus on big ideas will encourage increased student engagement and create graduates who are more likely to possess personally meaningful understandings of subjects they study.
A curriculum that focuses on concepts is not a curriculum that ignores facts. Concepts are abstract ideas generalized from particular instances or evidence (e.g., “facts”).
A fact is just a piece of information, which schools generally ask students to memorize. Concepts are understood.
Lastly, curriculum is more than a document or set of guidelines. It is what students experience, the dynamic interactions of teachers, learners, subject matter, and the context. The true measure of success in any curriculum will be found in its effects on students thinking and actions, not in how many facts students can regurgitate.
Predictably, there has been some negative reaction to the idea of a concepts-based (as opposed to facts-based) curriculum, from folks who think students are blank slates and education is about memorization. See, for example, this column by a former teacher in the Vancouver Sun.
I’m not without skepticism regarding the Ministry’s effort to transform the curriculum.
The ministry’s project is essentially about changing the content of the curriculum container. That is, when it comes to conceptions of what curriculum is, the BC Education Ministry operates on a hierarchical/industrial model of curriculum. For the ministry,“curriculum defines for teachers what students are expected to learn and be able to demonstrate in their grade or course of study.”
Thinking of curriculum this way separates the conception of teachers’ work from its execution. In other words, teachers are merely conduits through which “the curriculum” flows. The result is a de-skilling of teachers (and a degradation of the work of teaching) that is, teachers’ work is narrowly defined as delivering a product that has been produced elsewhere. Ironically, most teachers in BC and the teacher education programs that prepare them, accept this division of labor as natural.
An additional irony: the dominant conceptions of curriculum and teachers work in BC contradict the stated goals of reduced prescriptiveness and increased flexibility and responsiveness of the curriculum. Think about it, what we have here is a government mandating reduced prescriptiveness and more flexibility. Really?
Perhaps the rhetoric around curriculum transformation is just a cover the governing BC (neo)Liberal Party to advance profiteering in the education sector just has they have in others. See this analysis of what “personalizing” the curriculum might mean.