Teaching Opinion

The Case for Woke Education

How to resist anti-intellectualism and anti-truth in education
By Altheria Caldera, Dalia Bernstein, Kimiya Parker-Hill, Kerry Testen, Charlie Kistenbroker & Jasmine Theermann — July 25, 2023 5 min read
Vector line illustration of a huge clunking fist of oppression held up by one small solitary figure.
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In early 2018, I (Altheria Caldera) wrote a journal article theorizing a pedagogical approach that I still believe is integral to education in the 21st century. Since its publication in Diversity, Social Justice, and the Educational Leader, “Woke Pedagogy: A Framework for Teaching and Learning” has been downloaded more than 17,000 times, far surpassing the most article downloads in the journal’s history.

In a nutshell, I contend that teachers should be woke, meaning that they should have a critical disposition, which can be summarized as willingness to examine the root causes of disparities and to question why social groups have inequitable lived experiences. Woke teachers are aware of how laws and policies impact their students’ lives and integrate intellectual discussions about systemic oppression—in all its forms—into their curriculum and instruction.

Since the article’s publication almost five years ago, the term woke has been widely assailed by those who argue for apolitical education, education that prepares students for the workforce instead of their roles as U.S. citizens. Critics of wokeness prefer a version of civics education that instills the blind loyalty and nationalism characteristic of fascist governments. Woke has become a slur hurled against those who are critically aware and advocate social justice.

But it’s not just the terminology that is being opposed. In states throughout the country, legislatures and school boards have banned instruction, materials, and curricula that invite analyses of racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

These attacks are evidenced by “anti-CRT” laws, book bans, limitations on African American studies courses, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ materials that we have seen introduced in at least 44 states in the last several years. Such laws aim to protect teachers and students from having to encounter several truths: that racism in the United States is systemic, that it is sustained by white supremacy, and that people of color continue to be victimized by this racist system.

Continuing its pattern of academic suppression, Florida has once again committed an egregious educational injustice this past week. Florida’s board of education released revisions to the state’s African American history standards required by the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in 2022. These new standards, which have been denounced by the state’s teachers’ union (among many others), soften the harsh and dehumanizing realities of slavery and equivocate on the racial violence African Americans endured in the early 20th century.

These efforts are examples of anti-intellectualism and anti-truth in education. Anti-intellectualism often presents as a hostility toward critical thinking and rejection of evidence. Anti-truth presents as a denial of accurate history and rejection of facts. These dispositions are both detrimental to education that creates citizens who are able to think critically, engage in constructive dialogue, and move our democracy closer toward its guiding principles.

Though all educators should embrace the woke practices we describe in the remainder of this commentary, we appeal especially to white educators because they occupy most of the teaching and administrative roles in U.S. schools.

Below, we describe how educators can resist anti-intellectualism and anti-truth in education. Educators must hold fast to a commitment that empowers students to bring about social change. This kind of principled work can only be effective when coalitions of educators support each other—even those who work in states where the most Draconian restrictions have been legalized—and who together fight for policies that support a truly democratic education.

1. Resisting anti-intellectualism and anti-truth in education requires bravery—not fragility, comfort, shame, or guilt. It is understandable and frankly reasonable for white educators to feel shame about white supremacy and a racial hierarchy that benefits white people. This feeling of shame can easily lead to a cycle of guilt that causes one to retreat into comfort, refuse to acknowledge, and pretend the problem will eventually go away.

However, this cycle is detrimental to both white educators themselves and the people around them. Educators must be aware of their own fragility and ways that they might cater to their own comfort. Confront the “I don’t feel comfortable teaching that” moments and make decisions that are just not comfortable.

This work requires bravery. White educators need to hold themselves and those around them accountable for learning about systems of oppression and how they manifest within schools and society. For example, when learning about racial inequities, white people must address the inherent privilege they have because they are white.

In order to be brave and confront the power that exists due to whiteness, teachers must facilitate an anti-racist classroom environment and curriculum. This means having conversations that may be uncomfortable—addressing historical racism as well as the racism that is seen today, in and outside of schools.

White educators are in a unique position to be able to create change in their classrooms if only they are willing to step out of their comfort. They have the ability to build confidence, cultivate compassion, create space for important conversations, and help students envision a just future for themselves. But this can only happen when teachers are brave!

2. Resisting anti-intellectualism and anti-truth in education requires open-mindedness. Open-mindedness is about being open to having conversations about race and being open to acknowledging the privilege you hold (whether it’s white privilege, male privilege, or wealth privilege). It is important to have conversations with people who may not recognize their privilege, to educate them, and to help them understand.

With this consciousness, take it a step further and do something with the knowledge: Take action! Learn about all the systems put in place that disadvantage Black and brown people and recognize there is a systemic hierarchy that benefits white people. Not taking action is just perpetuating racism. (This is true for all -isms.)

In sum, it is perfectly acceptable for a teacher to be woketo embrace intellectualism and truth. In fact, they should be woke—or aware of ways our society extends to some and denies to others certain rights. As educators are taking time off during the summer months, it’s important that they spend some time thinking about their responsibilities as teachers and the kind of students they aim to shape. We think that these responsibilities include a commitment to criticality, truth, and democracy.

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