Micro Review: Joy Ann Williamson, Lori Rhodes, and Michael Dunson, “A Selected History of Social Justice in Education,” Review of Research in Education 31 (2007) p.195-224.

Jonathan Fisher

March 19, 2020

Micro Review: Joy Ann Williamson, Lori Rhodes, and Michael Dunson, “A Selected History of Social Justice in Education,” Review of Research in Education 31 (2007): 195-224.

I came down with a fever two days ago, which I was afraid might be the COVID-19 bug, but turns out to be just a regular cold. Anyway, on the advice of my family and coworkers I have stayed home these past two days, which has given me a good chunk of extra reading time in a quiet house. So, I’ve been able to dig into some of the pieces I downloaded connected to my matriculation at UW in the fall, my future advisers there, and the topics which I will pursue leading up to the research for my dissertation.

This piece, I am proud to say, was co-authored by one of my future advisors, Joy Ann Williamson-Lott (I am guessing she has gotten married since the publication of this piece 13 years ago, since her last name is hyphenated now). It appeared in the AERA Review of Research in Education while Dr. Williamson-Lott was still at Stanford University. And it is important to me both because of its scope, and the force of its concluding argument for the necessity of historical research to projects of social justice in education.

That this is a “selected” history of social justice in education, I suppose is meant to be a nod to other groups such as LGBT people or to other religious or cultural minorities such as Jews or Muslims whose stories are somewhat conspicuously absent from this narrative, which is inclusive of Asian, Native American, Latinx and Black as well as White ethnic groups in its discussion. But from the beginning, this piece, importantly sets the stakes as more than just an enumeration of identifiable sub-groups within educational jurisdictions of the United States, but as the struggle of what constitutes education for social justice in the first place, broadly education that promotes assimilation, or education for cultural maintenance (“or something in between”). Will it “give students skills to alter the social order,” or “enable students to fit themselves into a higher station in that social order?” (195). Also, citing Donato and Lazerson’s earlier essay on contemporary problems in educational history, the authors consider the ends to which history of education is deployed, and caution against flat historical arguments that employ unbroken chains of causality through time.

I suppose this last caveat is aimed at a Marxist critical historical view, although I need to dig more deeply into the pieces cited by Donato & Lazerson, as well as Franke, (2000), to be sure. And yet, the conspicuous absence of a specifically materialist critique in this selected history is perhaps its most intriguing fault. It is an especially glaring absence in light of the inclusion of W.E.B. Du Bois quote, resonant not only among Black people, but, as the authors acknowledge, across a range of ethnic minority communities in the U.S.: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.” I read Du Bois here as making the materialist (not identitarian) argument. For, as the authors of this paper show, in the case of the Chinese American community in San Francisco who revolted against a 1971 desegregation order issued on behalf of students in predominantly Black schools. Assimilationist arguments are not the be-all, end-all of social justice education. Indeed, assimilationist calls for social justice may be wielded just as easily as segregationist racism as a tool of capitalists to exploit minority groups.

Despite a possible blind spot in the area of class analysis, the authors rightfully see the duty of historians of education as one of making sure previously untold stories make their way into policy discourses. They rightfully characterize this discourse as a “battle over our national collective memory.” They also note the power of historical scholarship to bring out narratives of how racial and ethnic groups and individual members of these groups have thought about their own struggles, and “defined social justice for themselves” (215). This mode of intellectual history is particularly attractive to me, and one which I want to pursue in the future.

For instance, I am interested in the question of how teachers or activists in various educational movements/ struggles through history of held up or looked to figures from other movements for inspiration or guidance, despite their goals or particular ideological stances differing. The contemporary case I’m thinking of is Tsuru for Solidarity, survivors of Japanese incarceration, and others recalling the voices of members of those activist movements to fight against the incarceration of children at the US/ Mexico border. Or else, Black Lives Matter’s use of Palestinian Liberation movement, but in a more specific educational context. I need to go back and read that Angela Davis essay about Palestine and Black Power… But also, I imagine somewhere amongst imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII there were those who saw their plight as of a piece with earlier oppressed groups– students at Indian Boarding Schools perhaps.

I’m rambling on a bit here, but this is illustrative, again, of the power that history of education has, as a mode of research to inform policy decision shape the narratives that define curriculum at a variety of levels– personal, community, regional, state, and international.