I n 1980, Bill Ayers and his partner Bernardine Dohrn came up from the underground—the Weather Underground, that is. It had been a wild ride for the Bonnie and Clyde of the sixties New Left. They first went into combat during the 1969 “Days of Rage” in Chicago, smashing storefront windows and assaulting police officers and city officials in the fantasy that they were aiding their Vietnamese allies by “bringing the war back home.” They spent the next few years planting bombs at government buildings around the country, including in restrooms at the Pentagon and the Capitol. When their little war against America sputtered to a halt, the revolutionary couple rationalized that at least they had not caused any deaths. But three of their comrades had blown themselves up in a Manhattan townhouse while preparing a bomb to detonate at a dance at the Fort Dix army base.
Ayers has acknowledged committing crimes during his underground days—crimes that arguably amounted to treason. Yet thanks to procedural complications and a lack of witnesses, he never went to trial or to jail. A few years after stepping out of the shadows, Ayers reflected on his odyssey in a conversation with journalists Peter Collier and David Horowitz: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country,” he exulted.
B ut that was just half the wonder of it. Ayers would soon go on to disprove thoroughly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous though mistaken aphorism that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Ayers’s spectacular second act began when he enrolled at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1984. Then 40, he planned to stay just to get a teaching credential. (He had taught in a “Freedom School” during his pre-underground student radical days.) But he experienced an epiphany in a course taught by Maxine Greene, a leading light of the “critical pedagogy” movement. As Ayers wrote later, he took fire from Greene’s lectures on how the “oppressive hegemony” of the capitalist social order “reproduces” itself through the traditional practice of public schooling—critical pedagogy’s fancy way of saying that the evil corporations exercise thought control through the schools.
It hadn’t occurred to Ayers that an ed-school professor could speak or write as an authentic American radical. “There are vast dislocations in industrial towns, erosions of trade unions; there is little sign of class consciousness today,” Greene had proclaimed in the Harvard Education Review. “Our great cities are burnished on the surfaces, building high technologies, displaying astonishing consumer goods. And on the side streets, in the crevices, in the burnt-out neighborhoods, there are the rootless, the dependent, the sick, the permanently unemployed. There is little sense of agency, even among the brightly successful; there is little capacity to look at things as if they could be otherwise.”
Greene told future teachers that they could help change this bleak landscape by developing a “transformative” vision of social justice and democracy in their classrooms. Her vision, though, was a far cry from the democratic optimism of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., which most parents would endorse. Instead, critical pedagogy theorists nurse a rancorous view of an America in which it is always two minutes to midnight and a knock on the door by the thought police is imminent. The education professors feel themselves anointed to use the nation’s K–12 classrooms to resist this oppressive system. Thus Maxine Greene urged teachers not to mince words with children about the evils of the existing social order. They should portray “homelessness as a consequence of the private dealings of landlords, an arms buildup as a consequence of corporate decisions, racial exclusion as a consequence of a private property-holder’s choice.” In other words, they should turn the little ones into young socialists and critical theorists.
All music to Bill Ayers’s ears. The ex-Weatherman glimpsed a new radical vocation. He dreamed of bringing the revolution from the streets to the schools. And that’s exactly what he has managed to do.
I n record time Ayers acquired an Ed.D. with a dissertation titled “The Discerning ‘I’: Accounts of Teacher Self-Construction Through the Use of Co-Biography, Metaphor, and Image.” There wasn’t much biography, metaphor, or image in the 180-page text. Ayers’s research consisted solely of a few days spent interviewing and observing the classroom practices of three nursery school teachers he knew personally. (In Ayers’s own autobiographical section of the text—de rigueur for Teachers College dissertations—he reminisced about growing up in a wealthy Chicago suburb, about his warm family, and about having been arrested in campus antiwar demonstrations. Of his bomb-making skills or his ten years in the underground he said not a word.)
With his Teachers College credential in hand, Ayers landed an ed-school appointment back in Chicago, where his father was CEO of Commonwealth Edison and nicely plugged in to the city’s political establishment. These days, Ayers carries the joint titles of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of his several books on the moral imperative of teaching for social justice is a bestseller in ed-school courses. Like many other tenured and well-heeled radicals, Ayers keeps hoping for a revolutionary upheaval that will finally bring down American capitalism and imperialism. But now, instead of planting bombs in bathrooms, he has been planting the seeds of resistance and rebellion in America’s future teachers, who will then pass on the lessons to the students in their classrooms.
Future teachers signing up for Ayers’s course “On Urban Education” can read these exhortations from the course description on the professor’s website:
“Homelessness, crime, racism, oppression—we have the resources and knowledge to fight and overcome these things.”
“We need to look beyond our isolated situations, to define our problems globally. We cannot be child advocates . . . in Chicago or New York and ignore the web that links us with the children of India or Palestine.”
“In a truly just society there would be a greater sharing of the burden, a fairer distribution of material and human resources.”
For another course, titled “Improving Learning Environments,” Ayers proposes that teachers “be aware of the social and moral universe we inhabit and . . . be a teacher capable of hope and struggle, outrage and action, a teacher teaching for social justice and liberation.”
T he readings that Ayers assigns are as intellectually stimulating and diverse as a political commissar’s indoctrination session in one of his favorite communist tyrannies. The reading list for his urban education course includes the bible of the critical pedagogy movement, Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; two books by Ayers himself; another by bell hooks, a radical black feminist writer and critical race theorist; and a “Freedom School” curriculum. That’s the entire spectrum of debate.
For students who might get bored with the purely pedagogic approach to liberation, Ayers also offers a course on the real thing, called “Social Conflicts of the 1960’s.” For this class Ayers also posts his introduction to the soon-to-be-published collection of Weather Underground agitprop that he edited with Dohrn—called, with no intended parody, Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974. “Once things were connected,” Ayers’s introduction recollects, “we saw a system at work, we were radicalized, we named that system—imperialism—and forged an idea of how to overthrow it. We were influenced by Marx, but we were formed more closely and precisely by Che, Ho, Malcolm X, Amílcar Cabral, Mandela—the Third World revolutionaries—and we called ourselves small ‘c’ communists to indicate our rejection of what had become of Marx in the Soviet Block [sic]. . . . We were anti-authoritarian, anti-orthodoxy, communist street fighters.”
Ayers makes clear that his political views haven’t changed much since those glory days. He cites a letter he recently wrote: “I’ve been told to grow up from the time I was ten until this morning. Bullshit. Anyone who salutes your ‘youthful idealism’ is a patronizing reactionary. Resist! Don’t grow up! I went to Camp Casey [Cindy Sheehan’s vigil at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas] in August precisely because I’m an agnostic about how and where the rebellion will break out, but I know I want to be there and I know it will break out.”
A merica’s historical ideal of public schooling as a means of assimilating all children (and particularly the children of new immigrants) into a common civic and democratic culture is already under assault from the multiculturalists and their race- and gender-centered pedagogy. Now Ayers and his social justice movement, by dismissing the civic culture ideal as nothing more than “capitalist hegemony,” subvert the public schools even further—while subsidized by the taxpayers, including the capitalists who supposedly control the schools.
And it’s not just from his government-funded outpost at the University of Illinois that Ayers is spreading the word about radical social justice teaching. He maintains a busy lecture schedule at other ed schools around the country, and he does teacher training and professional development for the Chicago public schools. All that still leaves him enough time to give nostalgic lectures on college campuses about his Weather Underground experiences.
He also turns up from time to time as a guest lecturer at Teachers College, where he gets a hero’s welcome. In describing one of those events, the official college publication, Inside TC, turned as ecstatic as a groupie at a rock concert: “A man sporting sunglasses, an earring in each earlobe, khaki pants, a sweater and tweed jacket strode purposefully past the entry and down the hallway toward the auditorium. . . . His intensity and passion were tangible in the way he walked through the crowd. He was the speaker for the evening, William Ayers. . . . A former leader of the radical Weathermen organization in the 1960s, Ayers not only believes in the obligation to assist people on the bottom, he acts on it.”
I n 1997, Ayers and his mentor Maxine Greene persuaded Teachers College Press to launch a series of books on social justice teaching, with Ayers as editor and Greene serving on the editorial board (along with Rashid Khalidi, loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University). Twelve volumes have appeared so far, including one titled Teaching Science for Social Justice.
Teaching science for social justice? Let Teachers College professor Angela Calabrese Barton, the volume’s principal author, try to explain: “The marriages between capitalism and education and capitalism and science have created a foundation for science education that emphasizes corporate values at the expense of social justice and human dignity.” The alternative? “Science pedagogy framed around social justice concerns can become a medium to transform individuals, schools, communities, the environment, and science itself, in ways that promote equity and social justice. Creating a science education that is transformative implies not only how science is a political activity but also the ways in which students might see and use science and science education in ways transformative of the institutional and interpersonal power structures that play a role in their lives.” If you still can’t appreciate why it’s necessary for your child’s chemistry teacher to teach for social justice, you are probably hopelessly wedded to reason, empiricism, individual merit, and other capitalist and post-colonialist deformities.
T he series doesn’t yet have a text on mathematics, but it’s sure to come, since the pedagogy for teaching social justice through math is even more fully developed than for science. One of the leading lights of the genre is Eric Gutstein, a Marxist colleague of Ayers’s at the University of Illinois and also a full-time Chicago public school math teacher. Gutstein’s new book, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice, combines critical pedagogy theory and real live math lessons that Gutstein piloted with his predominantly minority seventh-grade students.
Like Ayers, Gutstein reveres Paolo Freire. He approvingly quotes Freire’s dictum that “there neither is, nor has ever been, an educational practice in zero space-time—neutral in the sense of being committed only to preponderantly abstract, intangible ideas.” Gutstein takes this to mean that since all education is political, leftist math teachers who care about the oppressed have a right, indeed a duty, to use a pedagogy that, in Freire’s words, “does not conceal—in fact, which proclaims—its own political character.”
Accordingly, Gutstein has relentlessly politicized his math classes for years, claiming that this approach has improved his students’ math skills while making them more aware of the injustices built in to capitalist society. One lesson, for example, presents charts showing the U.S. income distribution, aiming to get the students to understand the concept of percentages and fractions, while simultaneously showing them how much wealth is concentrated at the top in an economic system that mainly benefits the superrich. After the class does the mathematical calculations, Gutstein asks: “How does all this make you feel?” He triumphantly reports that 19 of 21 students described wealth distribution in America as “bad,” “unfair,” or “shocking,” and he proudly quotes the comments of a child named Rosa: “Well I see that all the wealth in the United States is mostly the wealth of a couple people not the whole nation.”
Gutstein’s book will likely sell very well, not because all math teachers will thrill to his Freirian dialectics or Chomskyite denunciations of American foreign policy, but because they may find his lesson plans and classroom projects useful. After all, they are under intense pressure from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to move away from the traditional emphasis on computational skills like multiplication tables and algorithms—a teaching method that university mathematicians still favor but that many K–12 math teachers dismiss as “drill and kill.” Teachers (particularly liberal and left-leaning teachers) who instead use a “constructivist” or “discovery-based” pedagogy, sometimes called “fuzzy math,” in which students learn mathematical concepts by trying to solve real-life problems, will see Gutstein’s social justice lessons on how military budgets for the war in Iraq deny poor Americans their fair share of resources as an advance beyond problems about baseball statistics, shopping, or building.
Even more important, Gutstein’s book comes with the imprimatur of two of the nation’s most influential ed profs, Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin and William F. Tate of Washington University in St. Louis—the outgoing and incoming presidents of the American Education Research Association. The 25,000-member AERA is the umbrella organization of the ed-school professoriate, and over the past two decades it has moved steadily left, becoming more multicultural, postmodernist, feminist, and enamored of critical race theory and queer theory.
And now the organization has just hired its first national Director of Social Justice. In fact, Ladson-Billings and Tate have coedited their own volume of essays on educational research and social justice, wherein they argue for a critical race theory approach, based on the idea that institutionalized “white supremacy” remains pervasive in American public education. Left unexplained is how these two particular critical race theorists, both black, could have been elected by their overwhelmingly white peers to preside over the education establishment’s premier organization.
O ne by one, the education schools are lining up behind social justice teaching and enforcing it on their students—especially since they expect aspiring teachers to possess the approved liberal “dispositions,” or individual character traits, that will qualify them to teach in the public schools. The National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the main accreditor of education schools, now monitors how well the schools comply with their own social justice requirements.
With the caveat that not all education schools have yet joined the trend, here is a sampler, going from east to west.
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York recently declared: “Because democracy requires a substantive concern for equity, the faculty of the School of Education is committed, in theory and practice, to social justice. . . . We believe that an education centered on social justice prepares the highest quality of future teachers. . . . Our teacher candidates and other school personnel are prepared to demonstrate a knowledge of, language for, and the ability to create educational environments based on various theories of social justice.”
The teacher education program at Marquette University in Milwaukee proclaims that it “has a commitment to social justice in schools and society” and to using education “to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.” It requires that all education degree candidates demonstrate a “desire to work for social justice, particularly in an urban environment.” Similarly, the University of Kansas ed school declares that “addressing issues of diversity includes being more global than national and concerned with ideals such as world peace, social justice, respect for diversity and preservation of the environment.”
On the West Coast, the highly regarded Claremont Graduate University not only requires teacher candidates to commit to social justice teaching but screens applicants to make sure they have that essential “disposition.” According to a recent university publication, “CGU’s recruitment efforts focus upon individuals who have an understanding of societal inequities. . . . By reflecting the cultures and languages of the student populations in area K–12 schools and by caring about issues of social justice, CGU’s teachers are role models to their students in a variety of ways.”
At Humboldt State University in northern California, the social studies methods class required for prospective high school history and social studies teachers best demonstrates the school’s commitment to social justice teaching. The professor, Gayle Olson-Raymer, states the course’s purpose right up front in her syllabus: “It is not an option for history teachers to teach social justice and social responsibility; it is a mandate. History teachers do their best work when they use their knowledge, their commitment, and their courage to help the students grapple with the important issues of social responsibility and when they encourage them to direct their lives towards creating a just society.”
H ow does your average, traditional-minded future teacher cope in an education class taught from a social justice or critical race theory perspective? Such students are well-advised to bite their tongues or risk career-threatening penalties. For all their talk about teaching for “freedom and democracy,” the professors often run their own classes like leftist political indoctrination sessions.
Brooklyn College and Washington State University, according to recent published reports, have denied students the right to become teachers after they ran afoul of their ed schools’ social justice dispositions requirements. Then there’s the notorious case of Steve Head, a 50-year-old Silicon Valley software engineer who decided to make a career switch a few years ago and obtain a high school math teaching credential. In a rational world, Head would be the poster boy for the federal government’s new initiatives to recruit more math and science teachers for our high schools. Instead, his story sends the message that education professors would rather continue molding future teachers’ attitudes on race and social justice issues than help the U.S. close the math and science achievement gap with other industrialized nations.
Head was smoothly completing all his math-related course work at taxpayer-supported San Jose State University. Then in the fall of 2003, he enrolled in the required “Social, Philosophical, and Multicultural Foundations of Education,” taught by Helen Kress, whose main scholarly interest appears to be “critical whiteness studies,” a noxious branch of critical race theory that posits that white racial identity is a socially constructed characteristic and must be confronted and purged to overcome America’s institutionalized system of white supremacy. The foundations course functions as a sort of military checkpoint to guarantee that every student who passes through toward a teaching credential has properly imbibed the pedagogies of multiculturalism, critical race theory, feminism, and, of course, social justice teaching.
T he easy way out would have been for Head to spew back the expected answers on racial and gender oppression and move on, as most traditional-minded education students do. But something about Steve Head—a Christian and a libertarian—made him gag at the big lies and logical absurdities about American race relations and immigration issues that he was being asked to regurgitate. So he turned the tables and deconstructed the hegemony of anti-Americanism in the classroom.
In a sworn legal document, Head recounted that when his professor showed the class a videotape purporting to reveal institutional racism against immigrants, he responded by suggesting that most immigrants actually came here because they realized they would be better off, including benefiting from healthier race relations. Professor Kress responded that anyone holding such opinions was clearly “unfit to teach.” Head further infuriated the professor by suggesting that the class be allowed to read black social scientists like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams to provide some intellectual balance on the issues of race and education.
After turning down Kress’s offer to reeducate him on these issues personally, Head received an F for the class, even though a grade below B for a student who has completed all assignments is almost as rare in ed schools as serious intellectual debate. The school wouldn’t let Head enroll in the student teaching class, and so, for the time being, it has blocked him from getting his teaching certificate. After exhausting his appeals to the university, he filed suit earlier this year, charging that the school was applying a political litmus test to become a teacher and had violated his First Amendment rights.
“I could have lied about my beliefs in class, but what is the point of that in America?” Head told me. “We are not free unless we choose to exercise our freedoms without fear of reprisals. I choose freedom, and I choose to defend my beliefs against state indoctrination.”
Though no one has as yet surveyed how far social justice teaching has pervaded America’s 1,500 ed schools, education researchers David Steiner (now Hunter College ed-school dean) and Susan Rozen did a study two years ago on the syllabi of the basic “foundations of education” and “methods” courses in 16 of the nation’s most prestigious ed schools. The mainstays of the foundations courses were works by Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux (a leading critical pedagogy theorist), and the radical education writer Jonathan Kozol (“America’s Most Influential—and Wrongest—School Reformer,” Winter 2000). For the methods courses, Bill Ayers’s To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher tops the bestseller list. Neither list included advocates of a knowledge-based and politically neutral curriculum, such as E. D. Hirsch Jr. or Diane Ravitch.
A n ed-school system that bars math teachers like Steve Head, who want to teach without bringing politics into the classroom, while celebrating Eric Gutstein’s Marxist indoctrination of future math teachers, is fundamentally corrupt. And this travesty is now reaching beyond the ed schools to local school boards and district superintendents, who are setting up entire schools dedicated to social justice. Not only do these schools infuse social justice throughout the curriculum, but they also often require students to engage in “community activism” outside of school hours.
New York City teems with many more of these schools than any other district in the country. A handful have been around for years, including El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, with its wacky hip-hop curriculum (“An F for Hip-Hop 101,” Summer 1998). But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein’s project to break up many of the system’s dysfunctional large high schools and replace them with new small schools has spawned many more. The Department of Education’s website lists at least 15 of the new small high schools that either are explicitly named as social justice schools or whose mission statements declare that their curricula center on social justice concerns. Curiously, while left-wing community organizations, including ultraradical Acorn, helped create some of these schools, some have also received funding from über-capitalist Bill Gates’s charitable foundation. Lenin quipped that “a capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with.” Now it seems he just gives it to you.
Chancellor Klein sees no problem with social justice schools. “Giving schools ‘leadership’ or ‘social justice’ themes is fine with me, as long as the teachers and principals do not bring politics and ideologies into our classrooms,” he told me—though of course that’s just what ed schools instruct social justice teachers to do. “Themes don’t drive school programs; state standards do. Our small secondary schools are academically rigorous. We cannot afford to vilify schools that help us accomplish our top goal as a school system: boosting our students’ achievement and academic success.”
O f course, the social justice schools have hardly been “vilified,” or even scrutinized. They’re worth a close look. With Chancellor Klein’s approval, for example, Héctor Calderón recently became the new principal of El Puente Academy. Calderón immediately told an interviewer from the leftist education publication Rethinking Schools that he is a dedicated follower of—you guessed it—arch-anticapitalist Paolo Freire. His school, he says, now fully incorporates “the Freirian idea of education for liberation” through a comprehensive social justice curriculum that embraces all academic subjects, including math and science. Calderón declined to invite me to visit to see how his school teaches those subjects.
Another Freirian, Nancy Gannon, was recently recruited from the Leadership Academy, the city’s training program for new principals, to start up the School for Democracy and Leadership, a Gates-funded school in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section. In announcing the school’s opening in September 2004, Gannon declared that it “fulfills a long held belief that empowerment is the foundation of democracy. . . . In the words of Paolo Freire, an internationally acclaimed author and educational thought-leader, our goal is to create a ‘pedagogy of hope.’ ”
Gannon, a Williams graduate in her late thirties, told me that she had seen the relevance of Freire’s theories of a “liberating education” during her Peace Corps experience teaching in a poor village in northern Thailand and then later in a Baltimore school for former dropouts. All the members of Gannon’s school-planning committee—parents, some prospective teachers, and community activists—read Freire’s books on pedagogy during their deliberations about the school’s mission and then decided to infuse the school with social justice projects. “We are incredibly steeped in activism,” she says. “We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together.” She gave prospective teachers the same message. “Stop sitting on the sidelines feeling nauseous about the state of our world,” she urged in a recruiting e-mail. “Jump in. Make a difference. . . . We’re political, we’re smart, we believe in the voice of youth and the power of activism and the need for us all to be the change we want to see in the world.”
Accordingly, students in the school’s Education Activism group have put out a brochure saying that they are “committed to fighting against the injustice and inequality within our education system.” They therefore support the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the state to secure more funding for New York City schools, and they call for “mandatory African-American history classes in all New York City public schools.” And ninth-grade science teacher Jhumki Basu, inspired by Freire and by the teaching science for social justice approach of Teachers College’s Calabrese Barton, told me that, as one way of making her students attentive to political and social justice issues around the world, she devised a three-week project in her physics class on the international controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
A nother Gates-funded social justice high school, the Leadership Institute on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, illustrates some of the perils inherent in turning over schools to community groups with a political agenda. Three years in the making, the school is the brainchild of the radical Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and its youth branch, Sistas and Brothas United. Almost inevitably, the school’s mission statement is thoroughly Freirian in its pedagogy, assuming that teachers can enhance the academic achievement of disadvantaged children by giving them a voice through “leadership, community action and social justice.” The school opened last September with 100 poor minority students and great hopes. When I visited recently, though, it was already clear that the idea of democratic empowerment for the students was subverting any hope for a rigorous education.
Principal Ron Gonzalez told me that the students learned at their first weekly Town Hall meeting this year that they could pick some policy or institution in the community that they believed should be changed and then work together on a “social action” project to bring about the change. Using the school’s democratic decision-making process, the students decided that the most oppressive thing they could think of was the school’s dress code (students initially had to wear brown or black slacks and a shirt with a collar) and other classroom regulations, and they quickly achieved the goal of changing the code. The school, having established that student democracy and engagement was its prime mission, was instantly hoist with its own petard.
The street culture of the students’ tough Bronx neighborhoods seemed to pervade almost every class I visited. Kids wore ghetto garb, chewed gum, ate potato chips and drank soda pop, talked whenever they wanted to. Girls and boys sometimes snuggled up to each other. Students addressed one teacher as “hey mistah.” The sense of order and decorum necessary for any serious academic effort had unraveled, and teachers and administrators seemed powerless to repair it. But students did engage in one other major social action this year, thus partially fulfilling the school’s mission. They were bused up to Albany to participate in a day of lobbying organized by the teachers’ union to persuade the legislature to appropriate the additional billions in school funds ordered by the courts in the CFE school finance case.
T hese schools are a perversion of an already misguided idea. Paolo Freire developed his liberation pedagogy out of his experiences teaching illiterate peasants in northeastern Brazil, whom he saw, understandably, as victims of an oppressive, semifeudal society. The traditional “banking” approach to education, as he called it, in which the teacher “deposits” socially approved knowledge into the minds of the oppressed but passive students, is the mechanism that “reproduces” that oppression. In response, Freire proposed instead a liberatory pedagogy, in which the poor students become democratic participants with their teachers as they learn a critical literacy that enables them to analyze the causes of their own oppression.
Whatever might be said about this theory in the context of rural Brazil in the 1950s, it is educational malpractice to apply it to the problem of educating minority children in New York City schools in the twenty-first century. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the bad and oppressive “banking” approach that the city’s public schools used somehow managed to lift millions of children out of poverty—something the social justice schools of today seem unlikely to do.
It cannot be repeated often enough: ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. The Freirian theories that carry over to social justice teaching are incapable of “liberating” the children of America’s so-called oppressed. As E. D. Hirsch has exhaustively shown, the scientific evidence about which classroom methods produce the best results for poor children point conclusively to the very methods that the critical pedagogy and social justice theorists denounce as oppressive and racist. By contrast, not one shred of hard evidence suggests that the pedagogy behind teaching for social justice works to lift the academic achievement of poor and minority students.
Social justice teaching is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, grievously harmful to poor children, who start out with a disadvantage. School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes. The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action.
S o why do education professors who claim to care for the poor continue to agitate for instruction that holds back poor children? Either the professors are stupid (possible), or (more likely) they care more about their own anti-American, anticapitalist agendas than they do about the actual education of children. The literature of social justice education is obsessed with the allegedly “dark” side of American political, social, and economic life. Thus in a book about teaching for social justice, Arizona State University ed prof Carole Edelsky whines that she “thinks a lot about dark times—the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, the period of the Third Reich, the McCarthy years. Times when certain knowledge was banned and certain knowers were banished, persecuted, incarcerated, even killed.” In one essay alone Maxine Greene writes that “We live after all in dark times,” that this is a “peculiar and menacing time,” and that “These are dark and shadowed times.” A collection of essays edited by Bill Ayers and dedicated to Greene is called A Light in Dark Times: Maxine Greene and the Unfinished Conversation. In their ideologically induced paranoia about America, the radical education theorists, like most ideologues, cannot see what is right in front of their eyes—that America and democratic capitalism are actually doing very well, thank you, but that the children of the minority poor are getting a lousy education because of the education establishment, and that teaching for social justice provides no solutions.
Unfortunately, there is little chance that the hegemony of social justice teaching in the education schools can be challenged from within that hopelessly closed thought world. That being the case, elected officials will have to address the issue. After all, state legislatures are constitutionally empowered to regulate and oversee almost every aspect of K–12 education, including curriculum and the professional standards for teachers. At the very least, legislatures should be holding hearings to determine the extent to which the radical ideology of the education professors is leading to political indoctrination in public school classrooms and undermining the rights of all children to a solid academic and politics-free education.
They then ought to do something the critical pedagogy theorists accuse them of doing anyhow—reestablishing the hegemony of our open democratic society in the classroom. Bill Ayers has the academic freedom to say and write anything he wants about America and its schools. But academic freedom protects neither him nor the teachers he trains when they bring their leftist version of social justice into the schools. Legislators should ask their state education boards to write a new set of guidelines that discourage teaching for social justice and social justice schools and that forbid teachers from indoctrinating students with their own politics, whether left or right. This ought to be the teacher’s Hippocratic Oath: to do no harm.City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529). SUPPORT