Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Arizona Bill and the Politicizing of Education: A Response to NY Times Commentator Stanley Fish

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog)

The meaning of Arizona HB 2281 that we posted is perhaps best understood by analyzing it within the political and social context that motivated its passage. In the May 17th issue of the New York Times, commentator Stanley Fish chooses instead to examine the conflict within two philosophical paradigms. Fish’s concern is not with the motivation behind HB 2281 but rather with arguments around its justification or lack of justification. His argument leaves open many questions.

What is Fish’s argument? On the one side, Fish portrays the ethnic studies program at the Tucson Unified School District as an example of attempts to politicize education by indoctrinating students into certain beliefs about social justice that will lead to actions consistent with that political agenda. He writes:

The Social Justice Education Project means what its title says: students are to be brought to see what the prevailing orthodoxy labors to occlude so that they can join the effort to topple it. To this end the Department of Mexican American Studies (I quote again from its Web site) pledges to "work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student" and "promote and advocate for social and educational transformation."

While students may act on beliefs they are exposed to, Fish objects to teaching that sets out to agitate rather than educate. Fearing indoctrination, Fish sees the Tucson program as a “Trojan horse of a political agenda” and one that ”the people of Arizona should indeed be concerned.” Let’s disentangle a few points first. Is Fish intending to include in his charge that the ethnic studies program is violating the new Arizona bill. If one looks at the website , nothing that is mentioned seems to violate the details of the law that stipulates that curriculum should not: "promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." And, of course, this is the argument that the school district is making. Perhaps, Fish isn’t accusing the district of this. His argument is more subtle, and as a result, more in need of critical examination.

On the other side, Fish sees HB 2281 attempts to ban certain ethnic courses in the public school as a similar attempt to politicize education. Rather than removing politics from schools, House Bill 2281 mandates an opposing political ideology of individual rights. Fish writes:

The idea of treating people as individuals is certainly central to the project of Enlightenment liberalism, and functions powerfully in much of the nation’s jurisprudence. But it is an idea, not a commandment handed down from on high, and as such it deserves to be studied, not worshipped. The authors of House Bill 2281 don’t want students to learn about the ethic of treating people equally; they want them to believe in it (as you might believe in the resurrection), and therefore to believe, as they do, that those who interrogate it and show how it has sometimes been invoked in the service of nefarious purposes must be banished from public education.

Fish is right in seeing the state’s solution to what it sees as politicizing education by politicizing it to serve its own agenda as wrongheaded. In his attempt to avoid both the school district and the state legislature's attempts to politicize education, Fish proposes that we should return to an objective, neutral concept of education as a pursuit of knowledge where all sides are presented in a fair-minded way. Fish’s concept raises a number of questions that need to be further examined because his critique of an approach that apparently is serving an underserved population well will have consequences.

What does it mean to politicize education? What would constitute a neutral, objective approach to education? In one sense, public education is a political endeavor in the broadest sense of the word. It serves to reproduce in the young the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to function effectively in the political life of the nation. But perhaps Fish has in mind a more narrow sense of politicizing, one which narrows the choices available consistent with a particular ideological stance. Indeed, this more narrow sense is contradictory to the larger understanding of the political philosophy of a liberal democratic society. Although this larger political philosophy rules out the narrowing of the curriculum to reflect only a particular partisan view, it isn’t clear that a neutral presentation of both sides of an issue will necessarily provide the kind of critical awareness that Fish values. If students come with certain assumptions that are often embedded in the conventional thinking of their time, would a neutral presentation of sides largely leave the dominant assumptions unexamined in any meaningful way? And would students really care about the implications of their thinking?

This is the thinking that not only underlies Paulo Freire’s thought that Fish criticizes, but it also underlies the approach that goes back to Socrates. For in any philosophical dialogue, Socrates always starts with where his opponents are and simply challenges them with questions until they come to see the problems in their own ways of thinking and realize that what they thought they knew they never really knew at all. Creating cognitive dissonance was part of the educational journey. Indeed, an education that reveals and uncovers the injustices embedded in the dominant forms of thinking that have been internalized in the minds of the students leads to a truer, more objective understanding of the reality that Fish so values. That such an education becomes transformative and may lead to action follows not from the attempt to indoctrinate or agitate that Fish claims, but rather from the journey that the student has embarked upon. Of course, any particular incident of teaching can involve a betrayal of the intent here, but it shouldn’t lead us to the kind of generalizations that Fish makes.

Stanley Fish, "Arizona: The Gift That Keeps On Giving," New York Times, May 17, 2010

Afterwords: Stanley Fish disagrees with some of my characterization of his position. You can see his comment at the end of the original post on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog.

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