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.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crunch that celery! Quebec teachers union uses unorthodox tactics in work-to-rule campaign

A splinter Francophone teachers union, the Federation Autonome de l'Enseignement (FAE), has been in the headlines around here lately due to an ongoing contract dispute with the Quebec government. However, the union has made the news today for another reason: a controversial handout on pressure tactics that was leaked to Jean-Luc Mongrain, a populist TV host who is famous for his tirades (here's a good one about a man who was fined for feeding a squirrel).

The handout is pretty interesting. It begins with a directive in caps--"IT IS VERY IMPORTANT NOT TO MAKE PHOTOCOPIES OF THESE STRATEGIES OR TO OTHERWISE CIRCULATE THEM." This is followed by 30 specific ideas for teachers to disrupt meetings with school administrators. Each strategy has its own name.

A few of the more interesting/extreme ones:

1. Operation "The administration is blinding me."--All personnel wear sunglasses during the meeting.

4. Operation "I'm burning calories."--All personnel should munch loudly on celery throughout the meeting. Eating celery burns more calories than you're taking in. Crackers, carrots, or other noisy foods can also work.

10. Operation "We speak good French here."--This is a matter of continually correcting the administration's usage of French--whenever they make an error, you say, "What you want to say instead is..."

19. Operation "Gilles Latourette."--During the meeting, you take turns making random gestures like raising your hand, shaking your head, rocking in your chair, etc. You can also add some words to your gestures by saying random things.

22. Operation "I do the wave."--In turns, during the meeting, move your chair back and forth, cough, raise your hand, etc. Regardless of the method, it's a matter of enacting a magnificent human wave which will submerge your administrators. Do this wave many times throughout the meeting.

Mongrain's reaction to the list is here. As you'll see, he re-enacts several of the strategies for his viewers. His line is basically that these strategies are unworthy of the teaching profession. It should be noted, however, that Mongrain is not exactly what one would call a fountain of innovative educational commentary.

Personally, I have to admit that I find the idea of doing the wave during a meeting kind of fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Social media disaster? A Québec teacher is suspended for a controversial YouTube video

Michaël Pratte, a Québec Grade 9 "univers social" (social studies) teacher, was recently handed a controversial 20 day suspension for his participation in a student film.

The Journal de Montréal reports the story (in French) as follows:

The troubles of this 7th year teacher began when he agreed to participate in a student film in which he agreed to pretend to lose his temper, to the point of being about to hit a student. The students' idea was to parody other similar clips which have been circulating on the internet, unbeknownst to the teachers who are the unwitting stars.
The student film was posted to YouTube, where school board officials later discovered it.
Note that Pratte never actually hits the student in the film--the film stops before the climactic moment.

Pratte's students, who had already apologized to the administration for making the film, were extremely upset by this decision. A group of current and former students have created a Facebook group to support their teacher, which now has more than 1500 members. There's an abundance of student testimonials (in French) on the site in support of Pratte, like this one:

A high school teacher that is capable of making us love his subject gives us an interest that will last throughout our entire lives. The impact of a good teacher, especially at the high school level, is incalculable.

For its part, the Commission Scolaire des Trois-Lacs (Three Lakes School Board) commented that Pratte bore "a responsibility" for the affair. Collette Frappier, a school board spokesperson, remarked, "Perhaps if the video was accompanied by a message of non-violence, we wouldn't have gotten to this point."

The interesting thing about this case is that Pratte doesn't seem to have done anything that was particularly harmful to student learning. He is clearly well-liked by many of his students, who enjoyed making the film. Certainly, one can understand why the school board would prefer that the film not be on YouTube. On the other hand, a formal suspension seems a high price to pay for a relatively small mistake by an apparently dedicated and popular teacher.

Clearly, there is clearly a question here of teacher freedom of expression. If Pratte was operating within the bounds of the "univers social" curriculum by making this film with the students, does he deserve to be censured for how this student activity turned out? In a 2002 court decision, Richard Morin, a PEI teacher, was found to have had his freedom of expression violated when the school administration prevented him from showing a film that was critical of Christian fundamentalism.

In addition, this story raises the issue of how schools are going to deal with new media technologies. Obviously, technologies like Facebook and YouTube bring with them the potential for PR disasters, but young people are avid users of these tools and will continue to upload interesting and sometimes controversial content.