Rios 2018* offers this stunning quote from Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook:
It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime, it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society (p. xxi).Rios 2018 p175
Cultural pedagogy (my definition, based on Freire etc) is a pattern of teaching which prioritizes social justice above knowledge transfer so that learners can understand the larger and often invisible systems in which they live and act. When teaching members of typically oppressed and marginalized populations (and that definition is fluid; it depends on the local and larger contexts), teachers need to surface and discuss ways in which systems and institutions can propagate discrimination, whether people mean for this to happen or not. In doing so, students can learn to navigate those systems more to their advantage, and they can also choose to try to change them.
But what Lessing says here, and I cannot escape the sense that she is right, is that teachers cannot get away from the moral and political elements of education.
Either you are complicit or resisting.
Either you acquiesce to dumping information into learner’s heads so they can show competency on some standard or end of course test, or you build educational experiences to expand the learner’s understanding of the moral, political, social, cultural, and cognitive dimensions of the universe. And that kind of learning is incredibly hard to measure.
I took a cultural diversity & awareness course in my doctoral program this summer, a remarkable experience really – one of the best courses I’ve had. Perhaps the 2020 context gave that course an unfair advantage, but I’d like to think that it was also a well-crafted course by an outstanding professor who was careful to give us opportunities to “surface the systems” while not placing us under an undue burden of “activities.” We met voluntarily for Zoom sessions every Thursday, and at least 1/3 of the class showed up every week for some of the best discussions I’ve had in a while.
This is the forum post I submitted a few days ago, my final one for the course:
After posting Lessing’s quote above, I wrote the following:
What was lost to me in many ways within my education up to this point was the realization which so many Black educators have always had (and it’s my fault for not listening, and somewhat the fault of my White professors for never telling us): all teaching is political. All education is a moral act, one which says to students, “This is how the world ought to look!” And as soon as you make any statement about the “oughts” of the world, you are on moral ground.
I think back to the Kincheloe* reading from the very first week of this course, where he reveals the inadequacies of most attempts at multiculturalism and pluralism because they either iron out all differences in the name of unity or all differences are placed on the same moral ground and given the same weight. Kincheloe’s assertion of critical multiculturalism is a rallying call to a particular moral viewpoint: that individuals deserve freedom from oppression arising out of class, race, or other demographic markers.
What attracts me to critical theory at least in a general sense (I don’t always like the particular applications that I read) is this emphasis on being able to stand on a box and say, “This thing about the world right now is bad, because it hurts people, and we would be better people if we changed it.” It’s hard to find other research paradigms which not only enable but also encourage the researcher to have a moral position without also demanding that the morality be linked to a particular religious viewpoint. The readings in PLP830 have deeply expanded my understanding of the issues related to critical theory, critical race theory, culturally responsive pedagogy, and diversity in general. If anything, I am more likely now to see lack of diversity as a moral failure (perhaps a forgivable one, depending on the situation, but still a failure).
Returning to the quote by Lessing at the top of this post, we educators would serve our students much better if, like a good qualitative researcher, we surfaced our biases at the very outset and laid them before our students for examination — at some point. (Depends on the students, the class, the level of education, the goals of the teacher.) But if we ourselves do not take time to parse out our values, if we are not willing to discuss openly with students how the American systems uphold racism while refusing to talk about it, then we are likewise part of the problem. If we are not actively pushing against the System, then we teachers are serving as willing agents of the behemoth American Culture which would prefer us all to quietly acquiesce to whatever makes power-holders more powerful and more wealthy and more comfortable.
To educate well is to produce students who ask uncomfortable, awkward questions that force us to see when the emperor’s clothes are missing. American Exceptionalism is a myth unless you’re talking about America’s exceptional success at brutalizing indigenous peoples, taking land from people, building wealth on the backs of slavery, and expecting everybody to just “get over it” so we can get to the NASCAR race on time.
Yeehaw! I can already hear the phone calls from angry parents once they realize the history teacher had the audacity to teach the kids actual American history and not the family-friendly, Jesus-thick, Rated-G version we were raised to love.
Every education is indoctrination into a particular way of thinking. PLP830 does not escape. It’s likely we’re blind in ways we cannot see because our group’s collective experience is limited by its membership, circumscribing the diversity we’re able to experience here.
But I do believe that we, like good critical realists, can look at the evidence, we can surface the hidden values and biases, and we can make judgments about which values seem more in line with a moral arc of the universe that promotes health and equity and flourishing for all people, not just the people who are already lucky.
Kincheloe, J. L., & Steinberg, S. R. (1997). Changing multiculturalism. Open University Press.
Rios, F. (2018). The legacy and trajectories of multicultural education: Recognition, refusal, and movement building in troubling times. Multicultural Education Review, 10(3), 165–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/2005615X.2018.1497876
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash