From Teaching Tolerance:  Who Decides What’s “Civil”?

This is a fantastic short article geared towards teachers.  It’s also a great reminder of what a wonderful resource the website, Teaching Tolerance is.

In the piece, we are reminded of the intersecting meanings of being “civil,” meanings that may have to do with a mutual respect, but also may be couched in colonialist stories about “savages.”  So, in just one word, students and teachers alike might find a radical connection between Black History in the 20th century– the so-called “Civil Rights Movement”– and the anti-colonialist struggles of indigenous people in the Americas.  Brilliant!

I am reminded again of Wayne Ross’s  conceptualization of K-12 social studies curriculum in terms of a focus on “dangerous citizenship.”  My hunch is that this configuration of citizenship education has applications even more broadly across curriculums.  What I am trying to get at, I think, is the necessity of historicisation of curriculum, or the necessity of teachers’ bringing a historical awareness to their lessons– whatever they are teaching.  It’s a historicity that need not be confined to social studies, but one which includes things like etymologies (in the literal, linguistic sense of the histories of the meanings of words) as well as the historiographies of curriculum– the changing ways in which teachers and students have thought about their lessons over time.  Such a historicisation is the big first step in bringing the focus of public education back to the progressive as well as more radical social reconstructivist aims that have guided it since the beginning.

When acts of protest are met with calls for civility, it’s a good idea to give students some historical context about the concept.

Source: Who Decides What’s “Civil”?

EDST 580—Entry 7: Progressivism and Anti-Racism in Mid-20th Century America

Baker, S. (2011)Pedagogies of Protest: African American Teachers and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1940-1963.

This week’s article was a joy to read.  Baker explicitly connects his historiography of African American secondary education with the activist politics of the American Civil Rights Movement AND explicitly connects all of the above with John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of education.  I knew it could be done.  I struggled to connect similar dots when I was writing about Black Mountain College earlier this year.  Baker’s paper is exciting, particularly in that his interviews reveal that there remained a subterranean progressivism, which had not devolved into the instrumentalism that is so rightly reviled today in the form it has taken in mainstream American schooling— a philosophical justification for the hyper-rationalization of curriculum with effects ranging from student tracking, to over-reliance on standardized tests, to the rampant marketization of schools.  Baker’s article reveals that teachers in segregated black southern schools translated Dewey’s cries for Democracy as the truest aim of education into a curriculum for racial justice and African American agency.  What’s more, this transformation of the segregated school curriculum along progressive lines took place even as predominantly white school superintendants were pushing painfully outmoded nominally “progressive” vocational education programs for black segregated schools.

Baker’s research is also important to me for its methods.  He combines a historiography of African American teacher agency in the Civil Rights Movement based on archival research as well as interviews with a brief discussion of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ways it manifested itself in these segregated schools.  He carefully moves back and forth among a variety of different sources as he traces the progressivism of African American teachers from schoolyards to sit-ins.  And more than any other article I’ve read for this course so far, Baker presents progressivism as a still viable ideology for meaningful change, not only within the boundaries of the education system, but in the whole of society by way of education.

The African American teachers and principals whose work Baker celebrates in this article are at once philosophers and activists.  Despite their working in the belly of a terrible beast—a racist education system that used a perverted version of progressive educational ideology to justify pigeonholing bright young students in vocational training programs—African American teachers used their relative invisibility to their advantage.  In Baker’s words, these teachers and principals were “institution builders,” who were able to stoke the fires of the nascent Civil Rights Movement in the United States by creating safe spaces for their students to be able to challenge the authorities, which demanded their continued subjugation and disenfranchisement.

According to Baker, black teachers in America in this era have gotten a bad rap from high-profile civil rights leaders like Stokley Carmichael who thought black educators had sold out their race “for security and status” (Carmichael & Hamilton, qtd in Baker, p.2778).  But as Baker goes on to point out, so much of this is just rhetoric.  And Baker wields his archival evidence to great effect in refuting such remarks.  One of the most inspiring examples Baker gives to this effect is that of Julia Brogdon (p.2787).  Brogden taught a class at the Burke Industrial School in Charleston, South Carolina called “Problems of Democracy” in which she required her students to apply to (and presumably to be rejected from) the segregated College of Charleston.  I can’t think of a more relevant, challenging, and empowering lesson in social studies.  And it is precisely this type of grassroots curriculum design, informed as it was by progressive educational philosophy that Baker argues helped the American Civil Rights movement grow.

I hope that more brilliant teachers such as Julia Brogden continue to be inspired by a progressive aim for democracy and social justice.  I hope that these individuals are not dissuaded by the efforts of the powerful to continue to use education for enslavement rather than for freedom.  I hope that progressivism in education will never completely harden into a rigid instrumentalism.  But it will take the continual efforts of progressive teachers, like those in Baker’s essay, who are willing to be critical, to struggle in whatever niche they may carve out by their strategic non-compliance to create change and further just causes.  Progressivism in education can at least be a means to those ends.

Re-reading Freire

Paulo Reglus Neves Freire

When I first read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 2010 I was frustrated with my job as a native English speaker-teacher in Hiroshima, Japan.  It was reading this book, which, in part inspired me to go back to school to try and re-make the way I think and act as a teacher, as a student, as a reader and as a writer.

Now, two years later I am a graduate student in UBC’s Educational Studies department in the process of doing just that.  For the past three months, I’ve been very much focused on coming to some deeper understanding of John Dewey’s Pragmatic program of Democratic Education.  That has been tempered somewhat by readings in Neo-Marxism as well as Ivan Illich’s specific brand of Libertarianism in the domain of critical studies devoted to that cultural practice known variously as “education” or “schooling.”

Now, this week, I’ve finally had the opportunity to return to Freire, the writer/teacher who inspired me to come here in the first place, and it’s as if I’m getting a fresh start.  This is Freire through a certain lens, I suppose: a Freire tinged with Pragmatism not un-criticized by feminists like bel hooks, a Freire across National and even continental boundaries, across Religious traditions, and a generation of poetry and politics between us.  What other differences ought I embrace in my reading?

Most striking in this most recent reading of Freire is his articulation of virtues for teachers, students or anyone who may engage in capital ‘D’ Dialogue.  We have love, humility, faith in humankind sans naïveté, and critical thinkingeach virtue being intimately involved with a subjective understanding of “the word”– I’m reading “word” as it is translated here as logos, one of the Greek roots of Dialogue.

Freire writes:

Dialogue is the encounter between men [sic], mediated by the world, in order to name the world.  Hence, dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming– between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak is denied them.  Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression.


It is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it…


I have been struggling this week with the tendency I perceive myself to have of shutting down Dialogue in progress.  I want to be more sensitive to the flow of words around me, particularly when I am in a classroom (as a teacher or as a student, but particularly when I wear the skin of a teacher).  Am I needlessly aggressive.  Who might I be silencing or overpowering with the sound of my voice, even accidentally?  Am I reaching out by naming and not fencing in.  I want to make sure I transgress the boundaries I have become comfortable with– boundaries so often demarcated by silence only, a silence which I want to learn to live more peacefully with and within, listening intently but for silence.  I want to try to come to a deeper knowledge of the silence itself.  I want to reemerge from the loud noises I have been inhabiting wearing my student boots and student tuque.  I want to pose a problem to my self at all times and be comfortable in such a challenge-state.

Finally, as Freire positions himself as the eternal optimist, prophet of the “revolutionary futurity” of education, I certainly feel it in my power to change.  I am hopeful with Freire.  I believe in Education as the practice of freedom still.  Though, perhaps lately I had lost sight of it as such.  I will not anesthetize.  I will not be anesthetized through education.  I will live with and within the conflict, the uncertainty but also in the hope of the possibility of liberation, both for myself, and for my teachers.