The loud debate over the recently passed Arizona House Bill 2281, which bans from the public schools ethnic studies courses that promote race consciousness, is a clash between two bad paradigms.RTWT at the link.
The first paradigm is embedded in and configures the bill’s targeted program, the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District, which, its Web site tells us, adheres to the Social Justice Education Project model. That model includes “a counter-hegemonic curriculum” and “a pedagogy based on the theories of Paolo Freire.” Freire, a Brazilian educator, is the author of the widely influential book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
Freire argues that the structures of domination and oppression in a society are at their successful worst when the assumptions and ways of thinking that underwrite their tyranny have been internalized by their victims: “The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped.” If the ideas and values of the oppressor are all you ever hear, they will be yours — that is what hegemony means — and it will take a special and radical effort to liberate yourself from them.
That effort is education, properly reconceived not as the delivery of pre-packaged knowledge to passive students, but as the active dismantling, by teachers and students together, of the world view that sustains the powers that be and insulates them from deep challenge. Only when this is done, says Freire, will students cease to “adapt to the word as it is” and become “transformers of that world.”
To say that this view of education is political is to understate the point, although that descriptive will not be heard by its adherents as a criticism. 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.”
If the department is serious about this (and we must assume that it is), then there is something for the citizens of Arizona to be concerned about. The concern is not ethnic studies per se — a perfectly respectable topic of discussion and research involving the disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology, medicine, economics, literature, public policy and art, among others. The concern is ethnic studies as a stalking horse or Trojan horse of a political agenda, even if the agenda bears the high-sounding name of social justice. (“Teaching for Social Justice” is a pervasive and powerful mantra in the world of educational theory.)
It is certainly possible to teach the literature and history (including the history of marginalization and discrimination) of ethnic traditions without turning students into culture warriors ready to man (and woman) the barriers. To be sure, the knowledge a student acquires in an ethnic studies course that stays clear of indoctrination may lead down the road to counter-hegemonic, even revolutionary, activity; you can’t control what students do with the ideas they are exposed to. But that is quite different from setting out deliberately to produce that activity as the goal of classroom instruction.
RELATED: Victor Davis Hanson, "How Could They Do That in Arizona!"