Journal of Educational Controversy


Sunday, January 3, 2010

C.A. Bowers critiques Bill Ayers' book on Social Justice Education

Editor: Both C.A. Bowers and Bill Ayers have written articles for the Journal of Educational Controversy in the past. Among other things, this blog is a forum for authors to continue the conversations started in the journal. Below Chet reviews Bill Ayers book, The Handbook on Social Justice in Education.

Is It Relevant as a Guide for Understanding Social Justice Issues in the Twenty-First Century? A Critique of the Handbook on Social Justice Education
Author: C. A. Bowers

The Handbook on Social Justice in Education, edited by William Ayers, Therese Quinn, and David Stovall was so highly regarded that the reference librarian at the University of Oregon placed it in a special collection out of a concern that it may be lost or damaged if allowed to be taken out of the library. As I read through the many aspects of social justice issues to be addressed by educators, which range widely from historical perspectives to the continuing challenges in the areas of race, gender, disabilities, and globalization, I was struck by how dated the collection of well-intentioned essays had already become. Perhaps the reference librarian was unaware that the Handbook would perpetuate the silences that characterize the last 30 or so years of thinking about how teacher educators should address social justice issues. There are some books that never become dated, such as Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write (1986), Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation (2002 edition), and Daniel Worster’s Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1997). Other books, including many that address changes occurring in the world’s ecosystems, quickly become dated as their authors either continue to remain silent about the ecological crisis or write about environmental changes and their impacts on cultures that are quickly surpassed by more recent changes.

Books by educational reformers that fail to acknowledge that the ecological crisis is altering the prospects of humanity in fundamental ways cease to be useful guides for how to address the new injustices that are being magnified by recent environmental changes. Their usefulness is not only limited, but becomes part of the mis-education that students encounter in other university courses that fail to address the cultural roots of the ecological crisis. But the Handbook suggests another failure. Namely, it serves as evidence of the failure of educational theorists to break out of their mutual quoting circles that share the same silences. Unfortunately, many graduate students are likely to be encouraged to consider the Handbook as a primary scholarly resource that should guide their thinking, which would again lead to reproducing the silences and misconceptions their professors learned to take-for-granted in their own years of graduate study. These may seem like overly harsh criticisms of the editors and the contributors of what must have been initially viewed as an important contribution to overcoming social injustices in society. As scientists are warning that we may have as little as a couple of decades before global warming can no longer be slowed, and as we are already witnessing with the collapse of local ecosystems the suffering and deaths of millions of people, it’s time that educational theorists be held accountable for not rethinking the orthodoxies that now make their prescriptions for addressing social justice issues so dated.

My criticisms are not directed at such sensible recommendations as hiring faculty that are representative of a multicultural society, or at the need to incorporate into the curriculum awareness of the range of social injustices—ranging from race, gender, poverty, etc., or for the need for students to learn about the systemic roots of these forms of injustice. Rather, my criticisms fall into three different categories.

First, This 774 page tome has only one reference to “ecological analysis”, and it focuses on patterns of human interaction--and not on the cultural and natural system ecologies. And the phrase “ecological crisis” appears in one sentence along with the usual list of unresolved social problems. Given that even Wal-Mart as well as other major contributors to a hyper- consumer, toxic producing lifestyle are attempting to lighten their ecological footprint, and the plethora of books addressing both the nature of the ecological crisis and ways that local communities are working to recover their traditions of mutual support and self-reliance, the reader might expect that social justice issues might be understood in a more current way. There is now a huge literature on the impact of water shortages being experienced as a result of climate change, and it would seem that this would be a critical social justice issue. In the United States alone, twenty percent of the population does not have access to clean water. World-wide, there are more people dying from the lack of potable water than are being killed in current wars. The range of toxins that are affecting the development of children, as well as the range of illnesses experienced throughout society from the thousands of synthetic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, have been the focus of attention since Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (now in its 27th edition), and the first Earth Day held in 1970. Climate change is now recognized as responsible for the melting of ice fields that are the source of water for hundreds of millions of people, as well as the droughts that are forcing people to become environmental refugees. The regions of the United States experiencing serious droughts in the last few years are contributing to unemployment, changes in diets, and a further decline into poverty. The evidence has been available in responsible media that social injustices will expand exponentially if one considers the implications of the changes occurring in just one area of ecological degradation. Scientists, for example, are documenting that the chemistry of the world’s oceans is becoming more acidic and is having an adverse impact on the bottom of the ocean food chain upon which the fish stocks humans rely upon depend. This, combined with over-fishing, has already led to the collapse of major fisheries in different regions of the world. If the shortage of fresh water does not lead to international conflicts, the lack of ocean sources of protein will.
One has to ask why these well-publicized changes have escaped the attention of the contributors to the Handbook. If they had given any thought to the social justice issues that have been the focus of a wide range of national and international organizations, one might have expected a radical reconceptualization of the social justice issues that can be traced directly to the globalization of the western model of development. These are issues related to actual homelessness, disease, death, hunger, and the refugee status of millions that involves the loss of the ability to achieve one’s most basic potential as a human being. How does one explain the silence on the part of the contributors to the Handbook? One possible explanation can be found in the long list of books cited at the end of each chapter. Most of the citations refer to articles and books written by colleagues in the field who share a similar educational background. There are few books cited written by environmentalists, by scientists concerned with how our bodies and environments are being poisoned by our industrial/consumer oriented lifestyle, and by community activists.

Second: While the Handbook includes recommendations for achieving social justice in nine areas, the failure to address how the ecological crisis, as well as the impact of economic globalization, are expanding the list of social injustices experienced by the majority of the world’s population, leads to an excessive amount of repetition. References to the contributions and failures of past approaches to multicultural education, to the need to foster critical thinking and a transformative lifestyle, to anti-biases in curriculum materials and pedagogy, and to the need to create positive learning environments, are important. But the repetitiveness of these recommendations does not help the reader obtain an understanding of the curricular changes that can help alleviate the scale of poverty, and will provide the conceptual basis for exercising communicative competency in resisting the further commodification and monetizing of the local cultural and environmental commons that is a major contributor to poverty. Again, the contributors rely upon the formulaic prescriptions of the late twentieth century, which include more critical thinking, more concern about the plight of social groups and individuals who face a myriad forms of injustice. But the prescriptions do not translate into recommendations for how individual and community gardens can be promoted, how traditional technologies for preserving food can be intergenerationally passed along, how volunteerism and mentoring in a wide range of non monetized and mutually supportive activities can be promoted, and how to enable students to recognize the differences between their experiences in the cultural commons and market-oriented sub-cultures that will lead to the development of the communicative competence necessary for resisting the further enclosure of what remains of their non-monetized lives.
With the spread of economic globalization, colonization to a western individualistic/consumer oriented lifestyle, and the unrelenting quest for new technologies and markets, one of the dominant features of the future will be scarcity—in access to protein, to potable water and water for agriculture, to sources of a dignified and community supporting livelihood, and to the intergenerational knowledge that has enabled many cultures to achieve a degree of self-reliance without destroying the bioregions they were dependent upon. The double bind the world is now facing is that the emphasis on material progress is leading to more forms of scarcity—including the loss of intergenerational knowledge and skills that enable people to live less consumer dependent lives.

Several contributors focus on the systemic causes of social injustices, and suggest that students should be engaged in a discussion of how to bring about needed changes. However, what they miss is that students should also be encouraged to engage in auto-ethnographies of their local communities in order to identify the forms of intergenerational knowledge and skill that need to be renewed. Indeed, the possibility that critical inquiry should also lead to an awareness of what should be conserved goes unrecognized by the contributors to the Handbook. Traditions such as the gains in civil liberties, as well as recent achievements by the labor, civil rights, feminist, and now environmental movements—all essential to addressing unresolved social justice issues—need to be part of the curriculum. Passing this knowledge on to the next generation is part of the process of conserving important social justice gains. Social justice education, contrary to the impression left by some of the contributors, should not represent all traditions as being the source of oppressive. The legacy of previous social justice struggles should be part of the collective memory, as it provides evidence of the importance of collective action focused on the common good—a value that is increasingly being marginalized in our consumer and technologically addicted culture.

Third: Since both the students who are victims of social injustice, as well as those who will dedicate their lives to improving the prospects of others, will encounter mostly a middle class, consumer-oriented curriculum that may include shallow introductions to the cultures of minority groups, the following questions arise: Do the contributors to the Handbook provide guidance for recognizing how to reframe the analogs that are encoded in the vocabulary that students encounter in most areas of the curriculum? Will readers of the Handbook be able to recognize how the vocabulary in the curriculum serves as a form of linguistic colonization of the present by past thinkers who were unaware of environmental limits? Granted, social justice-oriented educators are more likely to be aware of the linguistic colonization that goes on in multicultural classrooms. But they are unlikely to be aware of the history of the analogs that frame the meaning of words in the curriculum they take-for-granted, such as “individualism”, “progress”, “traditions”, “ecology”, and so forth. Introducing students to the fact that words have a history would seem especially critical in a social justice-oriented curriculum—and there was no mention of this in the Handbook.

Nor is there any discussion of how to introduce students to the many ways in which the idea of individual intelligence is problematic—for ecological, cultural, and moral reasons. It would seem that if the contributors spent less time reading the writings of their professors and colleagues who share the same silences and historically rooted misconceptions, they might be able to focus on how to introduce their students to the many cultural alternatives that serve as evidence that intelligence is not an attribute of the autonomous individual. That is, they might understand how to introduce students to the limited ways they already exercise what can be called ecological intelligence—and the problems that arise in the students’ interpersonal relationships when they assume that the preconceived prejudices, ideas, and judgments they act upon are based on their own perceptions of reality. That is, when they ignore the differences which make a difference in their ongoing relationships with other students, parents, others in society—and in their relations with the other participants in the local and global ecological systems they are part of, their sense of being an autonomous individual (which was promoted in different ways both by Rene Descartes and by many current educational reformers) cannot help but promote further social injustice. There are many non-western examples of how the exercise of ecological intelligence fosters mutually supportive community relationships as well as how to live in more ecologically sustainable ways, but the question to be asked of social justice educators is: How do we begin to help students make the transition to exercising in a more conscious way their ecological intelligence? Somewhere in the 774 pages of the Handbook this question should have been raised, particularly since one of the major contributors to the many forms of social injustice that exist in American society is the lack of awareness of how the hyper-subjective sense of individualism and entitlement marginalizes an awareness of how one’s actions adversely impact others, including cultural groups.

Hopefully, the Handbook will be viewed by educational historians as a well-intentioned effort of educational reformers who are out of touch with the dominant realities of their times. And hopefully, these historians will possess the conceptual ability to explain the linguistic reasons that one generation that has been colonized by many previous generations succeeds in colonizing the next generations. This hope should not be interpreted as giving support to Paulo Freire's universal recommendation that each generation should rename the reality of the previous generation. The process of linguistic colonization is far more complex than he understood or his followers understand today. But this is another story—and another potential source of misunderstanding.


Anonymous said...

Great critique of Ayer's book. Thank you!

roji said...

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Marty Schmidt said...

I whole-heartedly agree with this critique of Ayers' book from my own vantage point as a social conscience teacher at an international school in Hong Kong. We have developed a 9th grade interdisciplinary course over the last 10 years with great attention to what students feel is important, for it is their future. Ecological analysis and globalization are two of the major units of the study during the second semester. The third critique of the history of words, while not a major unit, is one that we are constantly aware of in the course. Living in Asia where different values are apparent, questions about individualism vs. collectivism or progress vs. tradition are addressed directly. If you are interested in these courses and my Ed.D. research, please visit my site: