It’s hard to know what Sol Stern is worked up about. He quotes me exactly once, urging new teachers to work to “be aware of the social and moral universe we inhabit and…be a teacher capable of hope and struggle, outrage and action, a teacher teaching for social justice and liberation.”
In spite of the ellipses, and in spite of the fact that this is a tiny excerpt from a syllabus for a class I taught to masters level students, it makes sense—all great teaching, after all, comes back to the twin goals of human enlightenment and human freedom. Whether “teaching underprivileged children to read” or teaching history or physics to graduate students, education involves a search for truth through evidence and argument, and teaching at its best allows students to become more powerful and more purposeful, more informed and intelligent, more aware and more ecstatically free in their projects and their pursuits. That’s teaching.
Stern repeats several times that I want to “indoctrinate students” and turn classrooms into “laboratories of revolutionary change.” Not true, not even close. He claims that I want to “promote left-wing ideology in the nation’s classrooms,” and that my work is based on the idea that “the American public school system is nothing but a reflection of capitalist hegemony.” Not true, not true. He offers no accompanying quote or citation, which is a little odd since he states that it’s a “major theme.”
The one true assertion he makes about my actual work—and he repeats it several times—is that I am in favor of teaching for social justice. He never explains why that’s a bad thing—Stern favors teaching for social injustice?—but simply calls it the “social-justice teaching agenda.”
So a brief word on schools and social justice: all schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on. Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. In fact none of these features distinguishes schools in the old Soviet Union or fascist Germany from schools in a democracy. But in a democracy one would expect something more—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.