Monday, May 30, 2016

The Limits of Social Justice Curriculum

For a number of decades now, the topic of social justice curriculum has dominated the progressive wing of education. Teaching culturally-relevant curricula, reading diverse books, focusing on social justice inside our classrooms is immensely important work. There are many great organizations that have centered that work such as Teaching for Change, Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, or Teachers for Social Justice here in Chicago. There are still a number of teacher prep programs and university-based educators who push for social justice curriculum in schools, although like everything else in neoliberal higher education, those programs are under attack.

However, I want to write today about the limitations of this kind of work in truly pushing for the liberatory change we need.

The Rise of Social Justice Curriculum Under Neoliberalism

First of all, let's be clear that the reason this form of social justice curriculum came into vogue was because of decades of attacks on working people and the repression of the uprisings we saw in the 60s and early 70s. The focus on the individual classroom experience for students outside the fight for systemic change-or even as a proxy for collective action-came about precisely because those movements of the 60s and 70s were being viciously beaten back. The collective had failed so so-called liberatory educators turned their focus to individuals. This shift happened throughout academica as neoliberalism took hold. The idea that became popular was if only students were exposed to histories that were relevant and told the often misrepresented or completely erased histories/herstories of people of color, working people, women, indigenous peoples, LGTBQ, or any other oppressed groups, students would learn more deeply and become advocates for change themselves.

Now I want to stop here to say, clearly and loudly, that I applaud the call for this type of full and culturally-relevant teaching. Learning about our world from outside the ruling class' narrative is extremely important. As is learning that math can be used to stretch empathy or Science to push for equality. My point is not to say that this push is not important-it is!!-but it is not sufficient. And we need to go deeper in our understanding of how these ideas are sometimes being used to dismantle the possibility of actual action that could lead to the transformative change we need.


This type of focus on the curricula can and is too easily co-opted by the other side. If you go to the Teachers For Social Justice Curriculum Fair, you will likely meet administrators in charters schools and other people who support neoliberal education reform. There are history teachers in CPS who will teach Howard Zinn while actively working with Teach Plus, an astro-turf faux teacher voice group that intentionally circumvents union activity. There are so-called "social justice advocates" who spend their time online attacking rank-and-file teachers who are pushing back on racist testing, on Common Core, on charters, on the attacks on our pensions, on Teach For America claiming that the only relevant work is social justice teaching in our classroom. Teach For America does an amazing job of spouting social justice language while doing the work of the 1%. And these misuses of social justice language and curriculum must examined.

The teaching of social justice curriculum has been strangely warped into a tool for the oppressors. Too often, the loudest voices from universities berating average teachers for not doing enough social justice curriculum would never be caught on a picket line or risk their jobs by challenging the neoliberal status quo of their own universities. They focus on a hyper-individualism of teachers alone in their classrooms against all odds teaching social justice, pretending that teachers don't operate in a system that will squash these attempts.

Teaching Social Justice Curriculum, something that is a highly political act, has been co-opted by some into an individualistic moral act. The individual teacher must teach these one-off lessons as proof that they are legit "social justice educators", but their political ideologies, actions, and affiliations outside the classroom remain unchallenged. This is how Teach For America has infiltrated groups like Teaching Tolerance or even Black Lives Matters.

It's not right to berate teachers already under a horribly oppressive system that is attacking teachers in every way. Until we win more battles through our fighting unions, social justice curricula is severely limited. There may may be a few teachers who teach specific subjects (usually Social Studies) in specific grade levels (7th and higher), often only in general education settings and who are privileged enough to teach in a setting where their every move in not monitored and scrutinized by administration. But for many of us, reading that culturally-relevant book or designing lessons around real-world problem is something we must do "in the cracks". We are exhausted and beaten down by the weight of a thousand harmful mandates, but the social justice warriors out there would beat us down further for not teaching the "right way."

Twisting "culturally-relevant" Teaching

But what even is the "right way" to teach social justice? In the elementary school where I teach, teachers are for the most part only teaching culturally-relevant books. Go into any teacher's room and see the majority of read-alouds feature people of color or girls. If anything, the push for "culturally-relevant" curriculum has pushed out a focus on any other people or places than the direct community where we work even in the Middle school grades. Since we are an African-American school, that's all we study. Definitely better than a Eurocentric curriculum, but kids have no exposure to any other global perspective. It's a weird perversion of what I believe the original folks pushing cultural-relevancy in classrooms were seeking, but it's a reality that no one is talking about. My kids know everything about the Civil Rights Movement-at least in the sanitized and a-political way it is taught today. They can spout off famous Black scientists or tell about the life of George Carver Washington. But they don't know where Mexico is. The could not understand a story about Mexican-American families also fighting for desegregation in schools. They had no understanding of global problems and oppressions much less how all our fights are connected.

At the end of the day, this diversity of curriculum does not challenge the ruling class. In fact, neoliberal 1%ers have no problem advocating for this type of work precisely because it does not challenge their power. Heck, go to my high school-one of the most privileged public schools in the U.S.-and you'll find Howard Zinn and other social justice materials being used. Even 20 years ago, I remember having those conversations about race, about oppression, about the realities of our world. And it didn't matter! Most of my peers went on to the ruling class lives they were destined for. Social Justice curricula did not change the realities of our systems.

Instead of this strange worship of superteacher-inspired social justice curricula, I wish that educators would be encouraged to actually organize in their buildings/places of work. Organizing is not the same as teaching and social justice advocates would be wise to remember the difference. Recently, the CTU sponsored an event geared towards helping educators facilitate student activism. While I did not attend the event, my understanding is that the speakers focused on classroom-level social justice curricula and not on practical ways to foster actual action. It was a completely missed opportunity for giving helpful advice to teachers who want to support student activism that is happening independently from the classroom. The advice could have included trainings for students & teachers to have organizing conversations, how to set up an actions, social media tools that have helped in the past, and a clear outline of the legalities involved with this type of work including when and where organizing can happen legally so people can know how radical they are actually being.


When "social justice" is taught in an intentionally apolitical way, it misses the whole point it was intended to accomplish. It's how someone can be a Teach For America apologist and simultaneously push "social justice" in the classroom. It's that same contradiction of apolitical teachers teaching about the Labor Movement in class-about working people and people of color-while refusing to participate in their own union that is actually fighting the powers that be. It's those online bloggers who write about how teachers are failing their students by never teaching social justice while berating those same people for organizing nationally to stop the current attacks. What IS that?

We have to be honest about what is happening out there. It was not the amazing social justice-inspired Social Studies curricula that saved Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment neighborhood high school in that area of the city-from closure. It was the courage and bravery of a small handful of people who went on a hunger strike. Action! Students in Chicago are not hitting the streets in protest thanks to the powerful curricula of their teachers-though I'm hoping that that must have helped. It's the addictive nature of the movement that is arising in this city. Many of the student leaders are children of teachers. That is not a coincidence. Others have parents who were thrust into this movement after experiencing the horrors of having their child's school closed. It's the movement. How can we help to nurture folks into action during these exciting times if we keep misdiagnosing the causes? Organizing matters. Movements matter.

Organizing and being part of a growing movement is what is activating people. You can't control when movements arise. But it's happening now. It hasn't been like this for a long long time. We must change our rhetoric and historical understandings to match our times. Social Justice curriculum is important. People should keep doing it when possible, but don't let that become a cop-out to actual action.

Get off the blogs and twitter. Get out of the universities. Stop moralistically bragging about your lesson plans. Stop attacking rank and file teachers trying to start resistance where there is none. And for god's sake, stop partnering with our enemies who speak the language of social justice while doing the work of the ruling class.

Now is the time of action and organizing.