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Guest Blogger Bill Ayers on Social Justice Teaching

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I asked Bill Ayers, Professor of Education at the University of Illinois - Chicago, to weigh in on teaching for social justice. You can read his blog here.

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.
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Over at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio responds:

The talented Eduwonkette scores the blog equivalent of the the talk show “good get” by having Bill Ayers guest blog a response to Sol Stern’s broadside. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But mixed up in Ayers’ innocuous sounding responses (”Stern favors teaching for social injustice?”) is, as always, the great unasked question: Who is the true progressive? The teacher, self-consciously teaching for social justice, seeking to empower students in her child-centered classroom, a well-thumbed copy of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed near at hand? Or the “instructivist” who seeks to give the have-nots the intellectual capital they need to be full participants in society? How do we best serve our students, through opposition or access to power? Ends or means? Who is really ”serving the interests of oppressor” here, Professor Ayers?

One might argue that education in America–hence the cause of social justice–has been set back decades by wrapping any number of ineffective pedagogical fads with the progressive label. What earnest young teacher, starting out in an inner city or rural school doesn’t see him or herself as progressive? Yet an emphasis on academic curriculum or direct instruction–sound, academic content and effective practice–is somehow branded “anti-progressive.” It takes a long time, and a fiercely independent streak, for a teacher to realize that perhaps they’re failing their students by accepting these narrow, dogmatic labels.

eduwonkette, thanks for getting this from the so-called horse's mouth. And in that I'm referring to Ayers, not Pondiscio. But responding somewhat to Pondiscio, I think he's setting up the same binary scenario that Stern uses, but ensuring that it stays cloudy but not really talking about what social justice "practice" really is. Pondiscio intentionally sets up so-called progressive techniques up against what he's calling "sound...and effective practice" a la Direct Instruction. But doesn't show either that DI really works, or that what he is categorizing as "progressive" is not. And as your original post about this put it, what is it that we actually mean by social justice?

I'm more inclined to hear what Ayers has to say about that, than either Pondiscio or Stern, seeing as they are coming to the discussion already pre-disposed to, well dispose of the whole concept. Stern's accusations of Ayer's indoctrinating students and starting some revolutionary force among K-12 students is a little over the top. But that's the kind of rhetoric that is usually thrown into the mix when these issues come up.

I think it's interesting that Pondiscio can accuse Ayers and his "ilk" of accepting these narrow, dogmatic labels, but he probably can't consider how narrow and dogmatic DI turns out to be in the classroom. I say let's go all Gold Standard research and do a mixed methods, randomized trial of DI and what I'll refer to as the "Ayers" method, and see what happens. I don't think anyone has ever done that, and I think it would in fact move the conversation further along if the "progressives" in curriculum and instruction could document their success (assuming they're having some, and based on the available evidence, it's hard to say).

I meant the phrase direct instruction as a contrast to inquiry learning, for example, not "Direct Instruction" a la Engelmann. I have no direct personal experience with that "DI." (Nor any reason to doubt its effectiveness) But I agree with you, Mark, about the desirability of "gold standard" research. Except to an ideologue, all that really matters is what works for kids. Effective schools serve the ends of social justice. Ineffective schools thwart it. Right?

Becoming a classroom teacher is like becoming a parent - in a bunch of ways. Early on, a teacher has to honestly weigh how dearly they hold their ideology along with their commitment to their students. In my experience, we teachers get more eclectic.

As a Government, Multiculturalism and Black Studies teacher, I have to watch for my biases in the subject matter, but especially if you listen to the students, that is not the bigger or more important issue.

The key is really listening to what the students as human beings are saying they want from teachers as human beings. Experience has pushed me towards Pondiscio's basic approach, even though I wish it hadn't.

The funny thing is that the kids understand. To them, I'm an old hippie and Leftist, although I was actually just a Social Dem (and we never get to that concept). But they know I'm dead serious about classroom instruction, and thus run one of the tighter ships around our chaotic school.

We've got to love the kids enough to say "No" when it is necessary, even though we might wish that it wasn't necessary.

My comment about gold standard was actually somewhat tongue and cheek, especially since attempting to do randomized assignment at the expense of some kid is not on my list of things to do. That being said, some manner of assessment would be helpful (and I don't know of any). If so-called social justice teaching works, what's the problem?


Am fairly new to this debate, but fail to understand the definition Ayers proposes: "social justice" is "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."

Basically, 1 + 1 = 7?

He seems to be referring to critical-thinking abilities and ethical values. Both make sense. But how do they equal "social justice"-what is that? how do I assess it? how do I encourage its development?

Now, perhaps the problem is that it is not clear what "social justice" is, and whether it is one of the core ethical values accepted by all members in this democracy: are we talking about "everyone a changemaker" and empowering our children to make their own decisions, or "let's indoctrinate them into whatever philosophy/ religion we personally favor? are we respecting our students?

As Alvaro sums up, our comments suggest that we need a working definition of "social justice teaching" before we can discuss it. We're talking about at least four different issues here:

1) SJ teaching as addressing political/controversial content

2) SJ teaching as a pedagogical approach (student versus teacher centered)

3) SJ teaching as a classroom management philosophy (see John's comment)

4) SJ as a foundation that underlies a teacher's philosophy of education

Perhaps I am being too concrete, but I would like to hear more examples of what social justice teaching looks like in the classroom.

Since all of you on this blog are far younger than I am let me remind you where the words"Social Justice" were first put together.
There was this Nazi sympathizer in Royal Oak Michigan by the name of Father Charles Coughlin.
He was a rabid anti semite as well as a Catholic Priest.
His newsletter/magazine was called "Social Justice" so please forgive me if I'm not too impressed with people who call themselves by this name.

Those of us who are really old know that the term "Social Justice" predates Father Coughlin. It would be a shame if the fact that he named his rag "Social Justice" were to be connected to the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the concept.

My reading of what Ayer's has written here is that the key idea of social justice teaching is the idea that the goal of teaching is to enable your students to become independent intellectual agents -- and, as a by product, active, engaged citizens.

But reading Sol Stern's follow-up post to this, it seems that he sees Ayer's presentation here as sheep's-clothing for a more wolf-ish indoctrination agenda.

My first observation about "social justice": the term itself is asinine. All justice is "social." One is not "just" on an island by himself.

"Social justice" is nothing more than a euphemism for liberal causes and beliefs. Conservative ideals are never deemed "social justice" by bomb experts like Ayers.

So defenders of the unborn? Not social justice.

Working toward smaller government, less taxes and support of the free market? Not social justice.

Opposing racist hiring at corporations and acceptances at universities (i.e., "affirmative action" now renamed "diversity")? Not social justice.

Teaching children and teens to be proud of their nation, proud of their flag, proud of their military? Not social justice.

Bill Ayers and Bernie Dorhn both belong in a prison. They don't belong at any university receiving a paycheck while preaching their self-indulgent 1960s rhetoric. Shame on the University of Illinois and Northwestern for hiring those two lunatics.

In the classroom?

Hmm.

1) addressing political/controversial content

So only for social studies teachers? Hm. How do I do this in a math class?

2) A pedagogical approach (student versus teacher centered)

Tell you what. The conflation of "progressive" education and "progressive" politics, I don't get it. The label fools lots and lots and lots of people, but there's nothing just about teaching kids badly.

3) a classroom management philosophy (see John's comment)

Well, sort of. Democracy in the classroom? Self-awareness of the importance of education? Not sure any of this is really impressive.

4) SJ as a foundation that underlies a teacher's philosophy of education

Ah. Sounds good. We've returned to an empty statement.

Couldn't one offer

5. SJ as excellent "traditional subject" teaching where the goal is to prepare a student to (perhaps be the first in his family) to succeed in college?

Aren't there lots of excellent math and English and science teachers who perceive themselves as trying to uplift kids, particularly poor kids, by delivering rigorous, challenging content and pushing the kids really hard to step up?

The reason these excellent "traditional" teachers choose to work in high-poverty schools is SJ, no?

From my perspective of trying to teach Social Justice in a socially just manner, I look at it as a means of identifying individual and systematic oppression in society (including in the educational system)and giving students the information, confidence and power to alleviate that oppression.
This could pertain to any subject and could be practiced by any teacher.
two cents,
Mark Webber

It is not the role of the school to teach social justice. It is the right of the parent to instill in his or her child the values they choose, not the school system. This secular social justice indoctrination philosophy does not belong in the schools for the same reason that religion is not taught in our schools. Quite frankly, Mr. Ayers, your effort to impose your value system on our society through first, violence and now indoctrination of our youth does not belong in a democratic society. I have the right to instill the values that I choose in my children, not the schools. I thank God I live in the United States of America. Last I looked Hugo Chavez was jailing anyone who spoke against him or his government and has nationalized the press. Is this the social justice you seem to revere? Our press is free and people are even free to say horrible things against our President. I recently heard a Vietnamese man who had escaped his government by boat and sought asylum some years ago in the US speak at a naturalization ceremony in Virginia to a group of new US citizens. He is so grateful to the US for the freedoms he enjoys here and the success he has achieved through a small business that would never have been possible in the country of his birth. In fact he stated in his speech, he could have been tortured had he spoken against his government the way we take for granted so freely and he and his wife had been put in a government camp from which they escaped. This is the government you seem to think is so great and whose government you defended during the Vietnam era. We live in a great country and in spite of its flaws, it is still better than just about any other country in the world. If it were not so, we would not have so many people standing in line to come here, Mr. Ayers. I hope some day you and your wife have to pay for the people you hurt. And all those bombs you set cost taxpayer money. And the family of that New York Judge, where was that young man's social justice? You robbed that poor child of his childhood as well as his family. You are every bit as guilty as the people you criticize.

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