Search This Blog

Oct 26, 2020

Teaching is not political activism

The Antiracist movement captured the academia, provided urgency, energy and a new focus to our work for justice. Many of our previous efforts with time became benign conversations about culture, broad and homogeneous inclusion, tolerance, etc. Somehow, despite all the critique, the “tourist approach” to multiculturalism remained strong. The antiracist uprising of 2020 changed that dynamics by focusing on one of the two original sins of the American project: Black slavery and extermination of Native Americans.

I have to say that I don’t find anything controversial about including the considerations of justice, including racial justice, in the aims of public education. The worn argument regarding political neutrality of education has been debunked. Neutrality is a conservative position, and education in contemporary society cannot be very conservative. I don’t want to go into a long-winded argument about why that is the case. The simplistic version of it is that societies change too fast for a conservative model of education to be relevant. Education is a huge public sector consuming some 8% of GDP and including a large portion of the population. We cannot afford not to use it for effecting and managing some desirable social change. We can debate which change is desirable, but it is too expensive to be the dead weight. Therefore, if it can help such problems as racism, we should. And if can do it more forcefully and more effectively, we should, too.

The question is how. The antiracist education has a fairly robust theory, but few established practical pedagogical approaches. One of the most problematic areas is the issue of educator’s authority and how it can and should be used for the purposes of antiracist education. In the political arena, the antiracist activism is almost always about confronting the political power, exposing and changing crypto-racist policies, practices, and discourses. A typical classroom is a much more complex environment than any city hall. An anti-racist educator has to confront his or her own and students’ racist attitudes and behaviors. And yet the educator is the agent of power, and students, even if they are ignorant and prejudiced, are also the relatively powerless. I can only imagine how difficult this terrain for faculty of color. The students they see are often both the oppressors and the oppressed: by the virtue of their own identities for the former, and by virtue of being students for the latter. In addition, the students in the classroom are not exactly volunteers. Students cannot walk away if they politically disagree with the instructor. Because the classroom is not a voluntary group, the freedom of speech for the instructor is somewhat limited. To add more complexity, some students will use their protected status to advance prejudice. While it is always tempting to use the full educator’ authority for the greater social good, the indiscriminate use of such power may do more harm than good.

All I am saying is that it is very-very difficult to manage. Teaching is not exactly the same as political activism, although they often overlap. The institutional arrangements and the power tensions are different here. And we all need to develop a common, pragmatic understanding of where the boundaries are and how they are enforced. For that, an open discussion is needed.

No comments:

Post a Comment