Social Justice Teaching from the Students’ Side

A few years ago, while gathering information on arts education, I interviewed a professor of education at a distinguished northeastern university about the training of arts teachers. She was enthusiastic about what her school was accomplishing, citing in particular its focus on social issues in the classroom. According to her, the major concern in the training of arts teachers is to introduce them to challenging work in the arts on issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, disability, and other identity-based areas in which injustice still happens.

I asked her about what she does in the classroom, and she volunteered an interesting trend. The students resist her instruction, she admitted, but over the course of the semester they come around and recognize how important these lessons in social justice really are. For her, the pattern was a sign of how much the students learned, how much their awareness had broadened from Day One to the end of the semester.

What struck me was how certain she was of the process, how confident that the shift from resistance to acceptance was proof of success.  But what if the change in student attitude resulted not from a growth in enlightenment, but rather from a more practical stance? In other words, the teachers-in-training figured out what the professor wanted and supplied it in abundance. With a teacher so eager to have students come around, it wouldn’t be hard for them to pass off a staged commitment as a sincere one.

Who knows? In any case, the professor did not give an ounce of integrity to the initial resistance of the trainees.
A recent article by Dan Willingham does. It appears at Teachers College Record under the title “What Do Students Have Against Social Justice Education?” Willingham begins with the fact of many students resisting social justice education, and cites the professors’ perspective upon it:

“These researchers have interpreted the resistance as self-serving cognition on the part of students. Students are defensive about their own privileged status (Applebaum, 2007) and so are reluctant to discuss it. Or they try to remain silent, so as not to discuss it at all (Case & Hemmings, 2005). Or they try to avoid the topic by claiming that oppression is not really all that bad in American society, or that, at least, it’s better than it used to be (Aveling, 2002; Applebaum, 2007). Some students see discussions of oppression as entailing blame, and they want to remain blameless (Chizhik & Chizhik, 2005).”

In other words, resistance is explained by various psychological motives that originate in the students’ social condition. They tend not to suffer social injustice, and so they don’t or won’t recognize its actual existence and extent, or perhaps they do recognize it and feel guilty about not being a target of it.  Each explanation disallows any objective principle to the resistance.

These explanations prevail in spite of the oft-asserted axiom that teachers should listen to students, take their responses seriously, and avoid the authoritarian posture. How does this contradiction continue?

To Willingham, it survives because educators tend to have a single conception of social justice itself. They align social justice with certain beliefs and values, not realizing that students may bear a notion of social justice based upon different beliefs and values. As he puts it, “It is a very good bet that virtually all professors who teach social justice education courses are political liberals. But not all of their students are.”  So, when students resist social justice education, it is possible they don’t reject social justice per se, but only the version of social justice offered in that particular classroom.

Furthermore, students don’t feel comfortable articulating their resistance precisely because they sense that the professors have one conception of social justice. The course is aimed toward that conception as a learning outcome, not as a theory to be discussed and evaluated.

Their unwillingness to argue over which social justice theories are correct ends up confirming the professors’ monolithic conception.  It makes the students appear to be fleeing the truth–which only makes the professors work harder at imparting it.

A little experiment might change their assumptions.  Try this question. Would any education professor committed to social justice education be willing to admit to the legitimate range of theories the 1970 New York Times Magazine article by Milton Friedman entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits”?

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