A Pedagogy of Culture and Power: School Reform for Social Justice

Should public schools in  a democracy prepare students for what is or what should be?

This question has been asked repeatedly by reformers since John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” appeared in 1897. The question continues in reformers’ quest for KIPP-like schooling for poor children of color or those reformers who swear by common core standards making U.S. schools competitive with Shanghai and Singapore, and, of course, advocates for transforming schools into high-tech havens. Don’t forget those who see schools as agents for reducing obesity in children.

Finally, add those champions of “critical pedagogy” to that list of what public schools in a democracy should be doing. Beyond preparing students with the language, social, and academic skills for a highly competitive labor market (e.g., KIPP, Common Core Standards), “critical pedagogy” and its various incarnations seek to equip low-income minority students with the language skills and academic content to analyze the culture and structures of power  in the U.S. and use both to gain access to equal opportunities and alter the trajectories of their lives with confidence rather than embarrassment (see Ball and Alim pdf Preparation, Pedagogy, Power, and Policy). Proponents of Black English, for example,  (see PDF Critical_language_awareness )  state that “[o]ur pedagogies should not pretend that racism does not exist in the form of linguistic discrimination. Nor should they pretend that linguistic profiling does not directly affect the personal and family lives of our students who speak marginalized languages.” An arsenal of sociolinguistic approaches exists to answer the question: “How might the vernacular of African American children be taken into account in efforts to help them do better in schools?” John Rickford at Stanford has spelled out different strategies and their classroom applications. All of these efforts seek to disprove that low-income minority African American, Hawaiian, Mexican American language practices brought into classrooms are deficits; they can be, in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled teachers–strengths.

That mission requires schools to attack political, social, and economic inequalities.  For that to occur, a critical mass of teachers holding these beliefs in their heads and possessing the requisite language and literacy knowledge and skills to engage children and youth have to be in classrooms. State and district leaders, teacher education institutions, and reliable funding also have to be mobilized to support teachers and schools as the vanguard in creating a better society.

For those who look to the past for lessons, the history of school reform could easily discourage those current reformers who press schools to be agents of social justice. John Dewey felt the glow of reform ebb after leaving his beloved Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Prior efforts before World War I,  in the 1930s and then in the 1960s to move schools to be in the front lines of making a better society ran aground (see 03-ERv33n5_Kantor-Lowe)

But looking to the past can be dispiriting–which is probably why many reformers spurn history. For those who argue that “rather than harming linguistically profiled and marginalized students, our goal should be arming them with the silent weapons needed for the quiet … wars that are waged daily against their language and person,” the Ann Arbor (or Black English) court decision in 1977 and the Ebonics episode in the Oakland (CA) school district in the early 1990s speak to the uphill road facing them in the second decade of the 21st century. (see PDF Critical_language_awareness)

What John Dewey unleashed in the last years of the 19th century with his Creed and the unrestrained enthusiasm of pedagogical progressives then and civil rights reformers to transform school and classroom in order to make a better, more just society has motivated generation after generation of reformers to see the school as tip of the lance in making societal change (see social_justice_-ok). Those selling “21st Century Skills,” “college for all,” KIPP, charter schools, common core standards, and  pay-4-performance, however, want schools to prepare children and youth for what is, not for what society should be. These advocates have seen, and continue to see schools as boot camps for society as it is. They often say that they seek equality of opportunity in dominating the landscape of reform since John Dewey worked in his University of Chicago Laboratory School.

Yet each generation of reformers has contained those who also see public schools as instruments of social change that can make the lives of marginalized children far better than now exist. They are hardy and tough-minded; they do not let the facts of the past cloud their dreams nor halt their efforts. The question, then, remains open as it was a century ago: What role should public schools in a democratic society play?



Filed under Reforming schools

11 responses to “A Pedagogy of Culture and Power: School Reform for Social Justice

  1. During the course of my 20 years in public education, I have come to believe that the primary and non-negotiable public purpose of our schools is simply this: to teach democracy. What could be more relevant to everything we as a country hold near and dear to our hearts?
    Democracy is a rich, multi-layered, inspiring ideal that is much more than a political system. Democracy is a way of living and working together based on the values of freedom, justice, equality, and respect. These values can be applied to any situation in which one person has to live or work with another – our world, our country, our community, our organizations and institutions, and even our families and personal relationships.
    And how do we teach democracy? Well, that’s what we have to figure out. For starters, we teach democracy not just by memorizing definitions or reading the Constitution or explaining how a bill becomes a law, but by actually experiencing democratic values and processes in the real context of our lives together. Our schools play a vital role in making this happen.
    We teach the arts of democracy by teaching students how to think deeply and critically, how to engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue, and how to value diversity and the unique gifts we each bring to our common table.
    We teach the arts of democracy by teaching students how to listen actively, how to communicate persuasively, and how to know when to compromise and when to stand firm.
    We teach the arts of democracy when we teach students how to plan together, how to decide together, and how to solve problems together.
    Finally, we teach the arts of democracy by teaching students how to balance their own personal goals with the need to connect, identify with, and relate to the rest of humanity.
    Will we take responsibility for making sure this conversation is going on in our communities? In our schools? Will we make sure these questions are being actively and inclusively discussed?
    1) How do we teach democracy?
    2) How do we know when we are being successful?
    There are no shortcuts or easy substitutes for this ongoing dialogue. The work will be messy and contentious at times, but the future of our democracy depends on it.

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  3. Andrew Humphries

    Larry, I’m a student at Stanford now and I just want to express thanks to you for writing this blog. It’s incredibly helpful for me as I attempt to process the multiple narratives, perspectives and sales pitches that are wrapped up in any given instance of ‘reform.’

  4. Cal

    I think teachers should stay far away from teaching democracy, which is inextricably linked to their own ideologies. (Jim’s post is, after all, nothing if not a statement of his personal values).

    We should teach our subjects and, when asking our students to think critically, be as careful as possible about identifying our own values and ethics.

    • Can we really teach anything without teaching values? Every lesson we teach is infused with underlying beliefs and assumptions — our own and those of our culture. Yes, democracy is a value system, but it is one which rejects indoctrination, promotes thoughtful and respectful dialogue, and encourages critical thinking. Teaching democracy is our way of indoctrinating against indoctrination!

  5. Steve Davis

    The public has many competing and often contradictory notions of the purpose of schooling. I believe that schooling’s primary purpose is to empower individuals. I agree that teachers should refrain from promulgating their specific ideologies; however, I believe that we need to acknowledge that our subject areas don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist within social, political, and economic realities. Students should know about these realities. How they choose to interpret those realities is up to them. Admittedly, bringing up topics like race, inequality and social justice is difficult. It would be much easier and safer to keep academic subjects compartmentalized from each other and from the world out there; it is also disingenuous. I often frustrate students by arguing both sides of an issue. They want to know what I think. I try my best to take the middle path. After taking a few college courses, students have noted to me that they feel like a lot of the realities of our world have been kept from them during their secondary education, e.g., the impact of tracking on educational attainment. I don’t want to produce citizens, consumers or employees; I want to produce free thinkers who question everything.

  6. JB

    Teaching children for a transformed society begs the question about how the transformation is going to happen. I think we can agree on the fundamentals: that children from minority groups be treated with respect, their culture honored as worthy, and their language never treated as inferior. On top of that, we can teach history honestly and highlight the many times when concerted effort led to redistribution of resources and power. Beyond that, I’m not clear on what “teaching for a transformed society” would really look like. I do know several teachers who end up emphasizing students’ victim status (whether racial, gender, nationality, or etc) and that does not seem to work out well. Schools need to give students more than a feeling of solidarity, and the transformation of society isn’t going to come from students who have a fortress mentality (or at least, students whose only effective response is to circle the wagons to use an old and offensive but probably accurate metaphor).

    Yes, KIPP schools seem focused on helping kids join and succeed in the rat race. However, even in a transformed society people are going to need to be educated and skilled. What would it look like to both maximize individual students’ progress in academic work, and also paint a picture of a more humane society?

  7. Cal

    Can we really teach anything without teaching values?

    If by “teaching values” you mean deliberately infusing lessons with ethics and morality, then yes, we can teach anything without teaching values. I believe that teachers do teach indirectly, but beyond things like “don’t cheat”, “hard work will always lead to better results for you, even if it won’t necessarily make you the best” and “there are adults in this world committed to helping you learn and make sense of the world”, I’m pretty convinced we should stay away from directly informing our lessons with values.

    Last year, I taught at a very progressive high school (why they hired me, short of desperation, I’ll never know). On March 4th, the school suspended lessons for the day. All but 20 of the freshmen were virtually required to go down to the beach and form a big SOS (for Save Our Schools). The students were all then required to attend sessions on the “history” of school funding (it was blatant propaganda) and the impact of the current CSU outside of their system–unmentioned was the fact that they could do it if they had good enough grades). The kids were then required to write letters to their state representative, or even call right then during class hours.

    I was a humanities/math teacher, and I had no idea that I was making a political statement when I told my freshmen that they could choose whether or not to be part of the SOS, or when I decided to pass on the teaching of the propaganda and teach math instead. However, I was the only teacher who didn’t teach the planned curriculum, and was identified as such by every other teacher on campus. Consequently, students walked up to me all day asking me why I hated schools. (Here’s an article mentioning that school–Ian Glazman was one of my students. He stayed home and wrote the letter; I suggested he send it to Debra Saunders.)

    That school was passionately committed to communicating democratic (or Democratic) values to its students. In its view, requiring the students to participate was simply teaching the students the proper values for a Democratic society. And I don’t want any part of it.

    • Cal, your story highlights the tensions we constantly struggle to balance when promoting the virtues of democracy in a compulsory (and often authoritarian) system. No one-size-fits-all answers there, but I think you did the right thing in making participation in the SOS demonstration optional. In fact, I believe you exemplified a basic democratic value — the freedom to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. Better watch out or you could be accused of teaching values in your math class!

      One of my favorite quotes on this issue is from Education for Everyone, co-authored by John Goodlad. In writing about the moral concepts and principles have been historically believed necessary to the well-being of humankind, the authors state: “Perhaps there is a word in a language other than English that encompasses the sum of these ideals, but we are unaware of it. The best we have come up with to embrace such moral concepts as compassion, civility, civicness, equality, fairness, freedom, and justice is democracy. But its usefulness in this regard is acquired only if our understanding of the word extends beyond formal governance to include all human associations.” These are the values I believe belong in our classrooms.

  8. JB

    Given the budget realities in California, a much more democratic way to present the CSU revenue issue would have been to have the students study the issue and have an in-class debate. There are very, very few issues where it can be defensible to simply prepare students with slogans and have them demonstrate. And I say this as someone who spent my entire youth/young adulthood demonstrating for civil rights and against the Viet Nam war, but without ever being manipulated by adults as Cal’s students were.

  9. Cal

    But why should schools be presenting the revenue issue at all? It’s not in the curriculum. It’s not their business. And, given that the teachers are directly impacted by the revenue decisions, they are exactly the wrong people to present it.

    You are arguing that there’s a “right way” to do it. I’m pointing out that the school under discussion believed it was doing, the “right way”, exactly what you both approved of: preparing its students for democracy. You just didn’t like their methods. Oh, well.

    The only “right way” is to avoid the discussion entirely. Teachers should never tell their students what to believe. (And the number of teachers who swear they do no such thing whilst handing out canonizations of King, Lincoln, or other “safe” historical figures would be enough to make me rich, if each one of them would just cough up a nickel).

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