Are You Teaching Social Justice?

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I came across the following post at Chris Wehner’s Blog4History site.  We’ve had our share of run-ins in the past, but Chris is a fellow APUS History teacher and somehow he managed to write a regimental history and teach at the same time.  That’s quite a feat.  Chris is a public school teacher and is worried about the influence of left wing ideologues shaping our history curriculum and influencing how our children think about themselves and their relationship to government.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this.

On the other hand, Wehner’s most recent post on the push to turn classrooms into labs for the teaching of social justice seems to me to be a case of serious hyperbole.  The US Social Forum sounds like a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in bringing about a certain kind of change to American politics, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea and as far as I am concerned it has no place in the classroom.  Wehner would have us believe, however, that this kind of agenda is infiltrating our public schools.  Now keep in mind that I am a private school teacher so he may be in a much better position to judge this program’s popularity among teachers.  In his post, Wehner claims the following:

This is called teaching for Social Justice and it is not about truth or honesty, it is about radicalism, indoctrination, and propaganda in our schools. And we wonder why our public schools are failing us? There is little learning going on and instead, lots of indoctrination.

They are teaching educators about radicalism and revolution, and they in turn will teach the children!

This is just more data that our educational system is being hijacked by a movement that seeks to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!

Now, perhaps I need to go back and browse the website more carefully, but where does it suggest that this conference is being marketed to history teachers or any teachers for that matter?  More importantly, how many school districts actually implement programs that fall in line with this agenda?  Wehner fails to provide any facts that would back up his claims.  One thing that is clear is that these conferences are marketed to America’s youth, but that should come as no surprise.  I suspect that I could just as easily find organizations on the conservative side that are engaged in exactly the same thing.  And I have no doubt that I can find accompanying texts for their programs that are equivalent to what William Ayers does in his book on the teaching of Social Justice.   In the end, however, I am still left wondering just how influential any of this is.  For example, how many history teachers actually implemented the curriculum outlined in the History Channel/Howard Zinn collaboration, “The People Speak”?  I’ve seen a few online clips of the show and concluded that it was a complete waste of time.  If the barbarians are actually at the gates than show it.

I’ve worked as a full time history teacher for the past ten years and in that time I’ve never met a fellow teacher who has turned his or her classroom into the kind of environment that is described by this organization and conference or one that reflects the kinds of concerns that Wehner has written about of late.  Again, I may be completely off base here, but if so it should be demonstrated and not just asserted.

Let me close by suggesting a different image of our most motivated and passionate teachers on their summer break.  If they are already thinking about the start of a new year they are not outlining new methods to indoctrinate their students into a certain ideology or preparing to attend the US Social Forum.  I suspect that most of these people will study a particular area of history that needs more attention.  Perhaps they are attending  one of the Gilder-Lehrman workshops or even the Civil War Preservation Trust”s 2010 Teacher Institute.  They may be exploring how social media and other online tools can aid them in teaching their subject.  More than likely, however, many of our teachers may simply be wondering how they are going to teach their curriculum in classrooms that are overcrowded and underfunded.  Our public schools are being threatened from any number of directions.  Let me suggest that the Howard Zinn/William Ayers/Social Justice front is not one of them.

30 comments… add one

  • Marc Ferguson Jun 17, 2010

    Or planning to attend one of the many TAH colloquia and workshops being offered throughout the country. I ask myself, who is it really that is pushing a political agenda for our history classrooms?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      I’ve been involved in a couple of TAH workshops and they are focused on the teaching of history and not a political agenda. And keep in mind that the funding for these workshops comes from the federal government. I can’t speak to a single conversation with a teacher who attended one of my workshops that indicated that they are engaged in anything close to the agenda outlined in the Social Justice movement.

      • JMRudy Jun 17, 2010

        Just my personal reflections…

        I, like Kevin, fail to see the problem with the TAH workshops. I have never attended one, as I am not a “teacher” by the traditional sense of the word, but I have been listening to the series of Podcasts they have released. If anything, these are not right-wing screeds, but discussions of good and solid socio-political history by many historians who are conservatives politically. Furthermore, a lot of their content (of what I’ve listened) is actually highly radical within the field.

        Now, as to social justice in the classroom, I personally think that students should be motivated to political participation, no matter what their stripe. I don’t think that teaching social justice needs be indoctrination; it is just as easily handing young people the realization that this is their nation to shape as they choose, conservatively or liberally.

        As far as Wehner’s claim that liberals intend, “to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!” That’s utter codswallop.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

          JM,

          Thanks for taking the time to comment. From what I’ve seen TAH workshops employ some of the best historians and teachers working in the field to help with their workshops. I’ve worked with Andy Mink from the University of Virginia on two workshops that teamed me up with Professors Robert Kenzer and Thavolia Glymph. In October I get to organize a workshop with Fitzhugh Brundage. I end up learning as much as the participants.

          I completely agree that students should be encouraged to get involved in politics and other social issues, but as you say it’s not my job to push them in any one direction. I have absolutely no interest in indoctrination. Actually, since I am constantly asking questions of my own views I probably wouldn’t be very good at it. :D

      • Marc Ferguson Jun 17, 2010

        I wasn’t clear – TAH workshops are generally excellent, and another example of the type of training teachers seek, and receive. I was questioning the agenda of those who continually see conspiracies to seduce our students to “liberalism.”

  • Rebecca Jun 17, 2010

    I just spent four and a half hours yesterday afternoon with a fantastic bunch of teachers at a TAH seminar here in Houston. (I presented on teaching precolumbian North America and how to teach Indian perspectives on early American history.) This was a smart bunch of folks who were absolutely dedicated to learning more so they can teach more effectively. I didn’t sense that any of them had agendas; they just want to teach students to think for themselves. I had an amazing time and was reminded how important it is for us to let our teachers teach.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      Hi Rebecca,

      The worst aspect of this is that such conclusions smack of some kind of conspiracy. You are absolutely correct in pointing out that most history teachers simply want to learn more about a subject they care about and want to do a better job of reaching their students. I absolutely hate the image of teachers that Wehner suggests and he is a teacher. Are we really that impressionable of a group to suggest that the next political/social agenda that comes around the corner is somehow going to end up in our classrooms?

  • Michael Lynch Jun 17, 2010

    Good points, Kevin. One of the things I’ve noticed about blogs that consistently critique the educational system is a tendency to over-generalize from anecdotal evidence. They point to news stories about teachers who engage in questionable behavior or cite statements without any effort to determine whether that sort of thing is representative. They need to realize that in many cases teachers themselves aren’t in a position to dictate educational policy; they do the best they can within the framework they’re given.

    –ML

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      Michael,

      You are absolutely right. I don’t pay much attention to those who generalize from the outside. Their observations are worthless, but this post was written by a high school history teacher. Here is something I would be much more interested in reading. Chris Wehner is a first-year AP teacher. I would love to know what he thinks of the overall curriculum as outlined by the College Board. Where are the gaps in the curriculum and even biases? That is much more relevant to understanding what actually goes on in the classroom than some Social Justice program that no one has ever heard of.

      • Michael Loret Jun 18, 2010

        Kevin-

        I respectfully disagree with your last statement. Your friend may have more expertise evaluating the merits of the AP curriclum since he TEACHES that curriculum, but the question of what/how to teach and why is absolutely crucial to our profession. I wish we could have a more heated discussion of that at STAB and in our department meetings. We can muddle in curriculum, gaps in skills, content, etc, but to me we have to begin with the question “what are we doing and what difference does it make?”. Another important question to ponder that this conversation gives rise to is “who is framing the debate and for what purpose?”. The dichotomy of teaching for social justice versus effective instruction/content coverage (what ever) seems like no coincidence.

  • Chris Wehner Jun 17, 2010

    According to their press materials: http://www.ussf2010.org/sites/default/files/USSFpresskit.pdf

    Their last event in Atlanta brought in 12,000 attendees. Also, according to their materials, “This year in Detroit we are expecting nearly 15,000 individuals and over 1,300 organizations to
    participate in over 1000 workshops, assemblies and trainings and 300 cultural events and
    performances.”

    This is but one of many similar conferences and events. This is not about someone’s cup of tea or not. I have no idea how prominent this movement is and I do not care. How is that relevant?

    I present the data to the best of my ability. Just because this seems soooo far-fetched does not mean that there is not a real movement here. How can one leave this conference without seeing history and the world through what is an (to quote Michael Lynch) “over-generalize” and “anecdotal” presentation of American history and society. I do not call 12K a year ago and 15K this year to be a small thing.

    I don’t expect much support here. Take that however you wish… However, I will address those here who responded:

    JMRudy: “As far as Wehner’s claim that liberals intend, “to do nothing more than fundamentally change this country into something it was never intended to be!” That’s utter codswallop.” WHERE did I write “Liberals”in that sentence? These attendees are not Liberals, they are wanna-be Socialists and Marxists. I would never accuse a Liberal of such a thing.

    Marc Ferguson: Not sure what you mean about the TAH…

    Michael Lynch: “Good points, Kevin. One of the things I’ve noticed about blogs that consistently critique the educational system is a tendency to over-generalize from anecdotal evidence.” How am I exactly OVER-GENERALIZING? Did you look through their workshops? Seems you are the one generalizing about what you have spent little time looking into. I have spent some time researching this. Please present specifics and support them.

    You guys really have no trouble with those workshops? Wow.

    So nice to be back!

    CW

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. The only point that I am contending of yours is the claim that this conference is being geared to teachers and that their curriculum is somehow finding its way into the classroom. You are the one who made the claim, but you fail to provide any evidence whatsoever. Like I said there are organizations on the extreme right and left who seek to attract young Americans, but that is nothing new. Again, you made the wild claims that these types of conferences constitute a threat to our schools. I look forward to seeing the evidence. By the way, what “data” are you talking about?

      It’s not that I have “no trouble with these workshops” it’s that I don’t see how they are relevant to your claims about supposed problems with history curricula. Do you know teachers who are utilizing this stuff? Thanks again for the comment and I hope you are enjoying a much deserved break.

    • Michael Lynch Jun 18, 2010

      I’m afraid you misunderstand what I mean by “over-generalizing.” I don’t disagree with your critique of the line of thinking you described. Nor, it seems, does Kevin. I do, however, have a problem with those individuals who will cherry-pick this or that news item or incident and then claim that it is representative or typical of what goes on in the classroom. That’s what I meant by generalization.

      And, in fact, I never specifically said that you do this; I merely indicated that some bloggers take this sort of item and then use it to paint the entire educational system as riddled with radicals and leftists.

      –ML

  • Marc Ferguson Jun 17, 2010

    Seeing that my initial comment was written hastily, and my mention of the TAH program was unclear, I want to by crystal clear on my meaning. All I meant to do was give another example, TAH seminars and colloquia, of the kinds of training that history teachers seek out and receive. I have participated myself with local TAH programs in various capacities, and have nothing but the highest praise for them. I can also speak from my experience teaching not only college history courses, but in public schools. Let me be blunt – I am sure that Chris Wehner is an excellent teacher, but his fears are absolutely groundless and without merit. As Kevin has said, there are organizations across the political spectrum that offer materials to the public, and to schools. Some of these are worthwhile, and some are garbage. The vast majority of teachers are able to easily discern the difference between genuine educational materials and training, and political propaganda of whatever leaning. There is no conspiracy here, and anyone who claims to see one, in my opinion, is revealing much more about their own fears than about anything occurring in public education.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      Hi Marc,

      I’ve left a couple of comments on Chris’s site, but it looks like there is no evidence to support his contention that the Social Justice agenda is rampant in our history classrooms. Like I said before, I could care less what outsiders think about the state of the profession, but Chris is a full-time teacher and should be able to substantiate his claims if they have any credibility.

  • Chris Jun 17, 2010

    Kevin, Let me put it like this. I would know that if my 16 year old son (talk about scary, he is driving for the first time today to work) was in your classroom he would learn about American history properly. I may not agree with some of the things you might emphasize, some of the materials, I don’t know. But I do know that he would be in a good solid learning environment. By comparison, a history teacher, teaching for social justice, I would pull my son from that class. I have made several posts on my site that refer to the practices of social justice history teachers. I have shown how they are not about open classrooms that foster critical thinking and objectivity.

    If anyone cares, blog4history.com and social justice category.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 17, 2010

      Chris,

      I would be just as appalled if I found out that my child was being taught to adopt certain political views or encouraged to take part in certain movements outlined by a social justice agenda. I’ve read your posts on the subject and linked to a number of them in my own posts, but nowhere do you demonstrate that this agenda is present in our classrooms. Once again, that is all I am trying to point out to you. If I’ve missed this on your site please provide me links that include actual evidence of how teachers are currently utilizing this approach in their classrooms. I hope that is clear and good luck getting through the rest of the day with your son on the road.

  • Sherree Jun 18, 2010

    Hi Kevin,

    Glad to see that you and Chris are talking. That’s good.

    I am not an educator, but I have had experiences with people who held widely divergent political views, and I am truly at a point now where I have little faith in the ability of politicians to solve the enormous problems we are facing as a nation, and globally as well, so teaching children to think for themselves could not be more important. We are going to need leaders–real leaders–in the future, not ideologues, either conservative or liberal.

    I hope that you and your readers will think about us down here, and perhaps pray, if you believe in prayer, or keep us in your good thoughts, if you don’t . (Writing your Congressman, and helping out is helpful, too, of course)

    This oil spill is horrific, and I fear it is almost beyond our capacity to contain.

    I am really hoping that all of the political posturing stops, and that everyone gets behind the efforts to clean this up and to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

    As we used to say in the environmental group I worked for years ago –”We all live upstream”.

    Again, please write your Congressman, or help save some of the hundreds of pelicans and dolphins that are literally drowning in thick oil or suffocating from lack of oxygen, and if you hear someone call Obama a Marxist, please ask that person not to (believe me, Obama isn’t a Marxist–I met some bona fide Marxists in the environmental group and their disinterest in the men and women who were dying of horrible cancers equaled the disinterest of the executives in the chemical companies that were producing the agents that caused the cancers–not painting with a broad brush, just relating my experiences–after a while I couldn’t tell the difference between the Marxists and the executives because of their callousness and disregard ) and if you hear someone call tea party activists racists, please ask that person not to, unless he or she has proof.

    Well, I’ll stop here, Kevin, I just wanted to say hello and share some thoughts. This oil spill is bordering on an ecological disaster, for certain. We need broad based political coalitions to take care of it, and if ever there was a time when we needed, as a nation, to step outside of our rigid political stances for the sake of the country; that time is now. (I do understand the irony of saying this to a group of Civil War experts. There have been other times, as well, when the future of the nation was at stake. Potentially choking off our supply of oxygen, though? That is a relatively modern development that exceeds even the boundaries of the concept–and of the reality–of “nationhood“. There are many Indigenous Elders working on the “healing of the waters“ , from a spiritual perspective. From this perspective, there are no nations; only one earth that we all inhabit. Actually, this is more than a spiritual perspective; it is fact. We do all inhabit one planet and we do all live upstream, so these are not romantic notions, but hard realties that we must face)

    Keep up the good work, Kevin, and please do teach the children to think! The future does, indeed, depend upon the ability of our educators to do just that, in so many ways.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2010

      Hi Sherree,

      Nice to hear from you. I lived on the Gulf Coast for two years so I understand what those natural resources mean to the people of the region.

      • Sherree Jun 18, 2010

        Thanks, Kevin. Nice to speak with you again as well.

        Yes, the natural resources of the Gulf region could not be more important to the people of the area. President Obama was right when he said that an entire way of life is in danger of disappearing if we don’t act on this in an appropriate manner.

        (That saying we used to have in the environmental group was “we all live downstream”, not upstream–the idea being, of course, that what one person or company does concerning the environment, affects everyone.)

        Have a good day. I have enjoyed reading your posts.

  • Michael Loret Jun 18, 2010

    Kevin-
    It seems to me that Wehner’s thoughts should be contextualized historically. There’s nothing novel about his cries from what appears to be the political right (the source for most of the cries about America’s “failing” schools), nor is there anything novel about curricula intended to promote social justice or some other “leftist” end. This debate is over 100 years old and in my mind hinges on the question of what we should teach as history teachers…interpretive history, enlightened civic engagement, OR heritage, and social efficiency. (See “The Social Studies Wars” by Ron Evans, 2006.) Of course, the categories I’m using are misleading because they are not simple left/right concerns, but rather issues that shape who we are as individual teachers and define what our mission should be as professionals. Let me also suggest that educators (much less politicians) who rail on the flaws of the public school system need more of a leg to stand on, as the research on teaching and learning in public schools is relatively new, vastly complex and illustrates something more than “America’s schools are failing” for x or y reason. Whatever happens in schools or history classrooms more specifically is hugely complicated. To suggest that one path or another is the key to effective schooling is nothing more than following into the 100-year-old trap of faddishness.

    • TF Smith Jun 18, 2010

      Except that by defintiion, being a social studies teacher implies at least a passing aquaintence with social science, and the basics of the scientific method, not the least of which is evidence-based argument…

      So let us examine Mr. Wehner’s conclusions, as exemplified by this statement:

      “Let’s go on, let’s take California;” implying that the public school curricula in the Golden State is focused on “socisl justice” however it may be defined.

      Mr. Wehner’s evidence is a link to a website that is updated, apparently, four times a year – here:
      “http://www.tcla.gseis.ucla.edu/reportcard/features/5-6/curriculum.html”

      which, as I read it, amounts to one op-ed piece by a single teacher at a single grade school in a single school district in a single county in a state with (IIRC) the second-largest school-age population in the country.

      And, of course, it is an op-ed published in an on-line journal that has no official connection with the university that is mentioned, much less the school, district, county office of education, or state superintendent of schools.

      FYI, I’ve read the California state social studies standards; I’ve written about the California state social studies standards; I have used the California state social studies standards in the classroom, and seen them used by others; I have four children in California public schools, from elementary to high school, and I have reviewed the work, curriculum, textbooks, and talked with their teachers.

      Guess what? “Social justice” does not show up at all, anywhere. Period.

      Here is the link to the state social studies standards:

      http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/histsocscistnd.pdf

      With all due respect to Mr. Wehner, hysteria is not history.

      Nil Sine Numine

  • TF Smith Jun 18, 2010

    And not to belabor the point, but when one actually clicks through to the website of the organization Mr. Wehner is so concerned about and checks their event program’s list of workshops, guess what? Searches for “social sciences” and “social studies” find….

    zip. nada. nothing.

    “History” comes up a few times, but nothing to do with teachers or teaching, from what I can find; there is one workshop for “radical educators” but given that it is sponsored by the Experimental College of Extension or something equally luminary, I think America can sleep safely tonight…

  • Chris Jun 18, 2010

    TF or whoever you are…. are you kidding???? You did a search on these sites I listed….. WOW, you must have missed typed or something…….

    Educators Social Justice Plan book
    http://www.justiceplanbook.com/

    Educators’ Network for Social Justice – they claimed 10K
    http://www.ensj.org/Conferences/2010Program

    Or how about Teachers for Social Justice:
    http://www.teachersforjustice.org/

    Education for Liberation Network
    http://www.edliber.ation.org/

    This is what I am talking about.

    Also, It’s not in the curriculum, duh! it is about teachers teaching the curriculum within the social justice framework. Also, when did you write about social justice, where, and can I see it somewhere in print or Internet?
    Thanks
    Chris

  • Chris Jun 19, 2010

    TF – once again you misrepresent me. I never said anything about “Social Studies” STANDARDS in in relation to California.

    All you have done is try to insult me, which you have failed as I couldn’t care less about you.

    You have provided NO FACTS TO DISPUTE MY CLAIMS of a movement in this country that is called “social justice” and that it is impacting education. I have provided data on California on my site: http://www.blog4history.com

    So, please, as I asked on my site where you are commenting. Answer my question about when you wrote about/researched Social Justice (as you claimed) and where I can read it. And second, please share some data that challenges the existence of social justice instruction in California

    Just one such link on my site concerning social justice instruction IN CALIFORNIA is here:

    http://www.blog4history.com/2010/05/an-example-of-social-justice-instruction/

    FROM THE SCHOOL’S MISSION STATEMENT

    “School of Public Service & Social Justice

    Mission
    We are committed to developing socially conscious members of society who positively contribute to their community. We work to provide students multiple career pathways by offering sufficient information, experiences and support to make informed post secondary decisions as well as prepare students to graduate from Santee Education Complex with certificates and/or Associate degrees in hand. ”

    link:
    http://www.santeefalcons.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=46518&type=d&termREC_ID=&pREC_ID=59286

    • Marc Ferguson Jun 19, 2010

      “Mission
      We are committed to developing socially conscious members of society who positively contribute to their community. We work to provide students multiple career pathways by offering sufficient information, experiences and support to make informed post secondary decisions as well as prepare students to graduate from Santee Education Complex with certificates and/or Associate degrees in hand. ”

      I’m convinced, this is truly outrageous! Developing socially conscious members of society, what an outrageous and ridiculous idea. I can understand why Chris Wehner feels threatened, as who would want socially conscious citizens?

      [Please note my saracasm]

  • chris Jun 19, 2010

    I have posted a followup to Kevin Levin and others here:
    http://www.blog4history.com/2010/06/teachers-for-social-justice-and-the-us-social-forum/

    Thank you.

    Chris

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2010

      Chris,

      I think you still have the same problem. You’ve linked to a number of interesting sites that are in one way or the other framed around the concept of “social justice.” As far as i can tell that means something different depending on the site. You are right in noting that some of them reflect a “radical” agenda. Let me be clear that the two of us are not in disagreement over this. What you don’t seem to be able to show, however, is that history education is under siege or in the process of being influenced by this idea.

      My colleague, Michale Loret, noted that these organizations are nothing new. I’m sure there is a long history of politically motivated groups working to influence education. It seems to me that we can take this one step further. Are we even sure that these organizations are on the rise? Your posts and claims seem to indicate this, but have you done the research to prove it? I doubt it. It seems to me that you are utilizing the capacity of a search engine without following up with any kind of analysis. I don’t mean to lecture anyone, but you are the one making the claims.

      I appreciate the comments and the follow-up post. You’ve introduced me to a number of interesting sites.

  • Matt Jun 24, 2010

    A couple of points here.

    I’ll admit that I haven’t taken the time to look at any of these websites or “do my homework,” so to speak, so perhaps I should keep my mouth shut, but I find myself wondering: what’s so wrong with social justice? As a teacher, I would certainly never want to indoctrinate my students or stifle classroom debate, but is that necessarily what social justice means? This whole back-and-forth seems to me to be missing a key point in this regard. If you think about it, I think we–as Americans–hail justice, not just in the legal sense, but in a very broad sense. As in, “with liberty and JUSTICE for all.” With this in mind, I suppose you could ask, “What’s more American than social justice?” After all, many people–on the right and left–would like to see students PLEDGE themselves to liberty and justice for all in the classroom every day.

    My second point goes back to your more recent post regarding SCV summer camp. This seems to me to be the perfect counter-example to the “social justice movement.” I would surmise that for every radical teacher indoctrinating his students in the principles of “social justice,” there is an equally reactionary teacher advocating that we roll back the clock. Perhaps we could call this Newton’s Third Law of History Education. It’s probably always been this way, and it probably always will. But you take the good with the bad, and I would also surmise that for every two radical/reactionary teachers, there are ten who are trying to foster intellectual curiosity and promote legitimate discourse in the classroom.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 24, 2010

      Hi Matt,

      Nice to hear from you. You make some excellent points. One of the problems that I found in surveying the sites is that there are clearly multiple meanings of “social justice” at work. A few of them have a clear political agenda, but many of them are exploring interesting ways of getting kids and adults involved in various issues. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this. My overall goal as a teacher is to encourage my students to explore their ideas and get involved in the community. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was Richard Williams who was responsible for the post. He’s an outsider looking in and has no clue as to what is going on in the classroom. On the other hand, Chris Wehner should know better. He made some ridiculous claims without any attempt to follow up with a serious survey of the sites referenced.

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