Curriculum Opinion

Guest Blogger Sol Stern Weighs In on Social Justice Teaching

By Eduwonkette — April 30, 2008 5 min read
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Sol Stern, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, responds both to my post and Bill Ayers’s post on social justice teaching.

Thanks for posting my articles on social justice teaching and for being willing to open up this space for more discussion of what I regard as a retrograde education movement.

Unfortunately you [eduwonkette] avoid dealing with the harm done by this movement when you suggest that there’s really no “coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country.” If you believe that, you’re somewhat out of touch with some of the biggest stars of the Ed schools. If you can stomach it, I suggest reading the works of Maxine Greene, Michael Apple, William Ayers, Peter McClaren, Carole Edelsky, Henry Giroux, Eric Guttstein, and their many epigones. Several years ago, David Steiner, presently the Dean of the education school at Hunter College, published a study of the syllabi of the basic “foundations of education” and “methods” courses in 16 of the nation’s most prestigious Ed schools. The mainstays of the foundations courses were works by Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux and Jonathan Kozol (who wrote one of the earliest manuals on how American teachers can sneak left wing social justice lessons into the classroom.) For the methods courses, Bill Ayers’s To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher tops the bestseller list. Among those education writers who are almost never included on course lists are advocates of a knowledge-based and politically neutral curriculum, such as E. D. Hirsch Jr. or Diane Ravitch.

You also minimize the problem by suggesting that even if it could be shown that social justice teaching was a significant part of the Ed schools’ agenda, “they largely have been unsuccessful.” I don’t know how we might measure success or failure in this regard. I do note that just two months ago, The Nation, always on the alert for signs of resurgent leftism in our civic institutions, celebrated the growth of the social justice education movement. In my City Journal articles I have cited numerous examples of New York City schools devoting their curriculums to social justice themes and have described specific units taught to children (including in elementary schools) that clearly fall under the rubric of political indoctrination. For example, the radical education group NYCoRE created a “Katrina curriculum” that has been piloted by one of the group’s leaders in the fourth grade of a Manhattan elementary school. The curriculum leaves nothing to chance, providing teachers with classroom prompts designed to illustrate the evils of American capitalism and imperialism. One section, called “Two Gulf Wars,” suggests posing such questions to the kids as: “Was the government unable to respond quickly to the crisis on the Gulf Coast because the money and personnel were all being used in Iraq?”

So it seems to me that the question isn’t precisely how widespread social justice teaching is right now (although more studies would be welcome) but rather what public school leaders – state education commissioners, teachers union leaders and district superintendents – might do to make sure that intrusion of left wing or right wing political ideology into the classroom doesn’t spread any further. We need a professional code of ethics for teachers, a Hippocratic Oath if you will, that makes clear that our public school classrooms are not laboratories for social and political change, with the kids serving as guinea pigs. Perhaps Stanley Fish put it best: “Teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk show host.”

Unfortunately, in his recent New York Times column, Professor Fish somewhat hypocritically ignored his friend Bill Ayers’ blatant violations of this injunction. So it’s useful that Ayers surfaces here and proudly affirms that he is “in favor of teaching for social justice.” Still, he’s unusually reticent in this post and comes close to defining the social justice teaching he advocates as nothing more than mom and apple pie. He denies that he is out to indoctrinate students in left wing ideology. This is understandable, considering the current news cycle and the public tribulations of Ayers’ Hyde Park neighbor Barack Obama. I admire Ayers’s loyalty to Obama and his sense of political discipline (unlike Reverend Wright.) I assume that after November 8th we will be getting the full, unexpurgated Bill Ayers again. In the meantime I offer a few more snippets from Ayers academic corpus:

For a course called “Social Conflicts of the 1960’s” Ayers posted his introduction to his collection of Weather Underground agitprop —called, with no intended parody, Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974. “Once things were connected,” Ayers’s introduction recollects, “we saw a system at work, we were radicalized, we named that system—imperialism—and forged an idea of how to overthrow it.” If this isn’t an attempt at indoctrinating students, I don’t know what would qualify for that characterization. Similarly, Ayers offers these comments about the role of K-12 teachers for his course on Urban Education: “Homelessness, crime, racism, oppression—we have the resources and knowledge to fight and overcome these things. We need to look beyond our isolated situations, to define our problems globally. We cannot be child advocates . . . in Chicago or New York and ignore the web that links us with the children of India or Palestine.” So, not only should public school teachers be working to overcome racism and oppression in Chicago but they should be advocating for the “children of Palestine.” Considering that Ayers’ website includes rants against Israel and Zionism, we can just imagine what he means by that exhortation. And here is the entire required reading list for that same Urban Education course:

- Freedom School Curriculum (Distributed in class).
- Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.
- bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress, Routledge, 1994.
- William Ayers. Teaching Toward Freedom, Beacon Press, 2004.
- William Ayers, Pat Ford. City Kids, City Teachers, New Press, 1996.

Now that’s real intellectual diversity. No left wing ideology, no indoctrination here. Perhaps Professor Ayers’ Urban Education course answers Eduwonkette’s question about whether “teaching for social justice involves a particular pedagogical approach?”

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