Justifying Social Justice in the Classroom
In the Sunday Papers session at TAM 2014, Michelle L. Knaier presented a short talk about teaching social justice through science education. She began by defining social justice as “treating all people with fairness, respect, dignity, and generosity” and later gave some specific examples of racist, sexist, and homophobic stereotypes that are both damaging and demonstrably untrue.
The very first question she was asked involved the comment “when people come to science with an angle of having a particular political axe to grind, that can have a danger of biasing science […]” He was implying that social justice was her political axe to grind on her students.
I’ve encountered this sentiment before, and often. Social justice is framed as a political ideology that is pushed onto students by liberal teachers, and many in the Skeptic movement have parroted this. I am going to argue that it is not.
Skepticism tends to focus on testable claims about reality, and value systems are often outside of that. Values get lumped in with opinions, where everyone is entitled to their own and everyone should make up their own minds. However, like opinions, some values are testable. In economics, for example, many people have very strong opinions about economic systems based on their personal values, but we actually have lots of evidence about whether those systems work well or not. As skeptics, our values shouldn’t get a free pass just because we like them. Some are better supported than others and we should, as a movement, reflect those values. (I’m writing another post about this very point so I won’t get into it further here.)
While teachers should not be pushing their own ideologies onto their students, part of teaching involves teaching values. The values we are meant to teach are those that are shared by our society at large and should help students succeed in life and become good citizens. For example, we, as teachers in a democracy, should reflect a value of democracy itself. By placing a value on the whole voting process, we are creating a population to actively participate in the democracy that our society depends upon. It would be irresponsible of a teacher to discourage students from voting or devalue the democratic system we have.
It is not just society that is meant to benefit from the values we teach our students. A great professor of mine talked about dealing with students (and parents) who had homophobic beliefs. One of her many reasons to actively and explicitly be anti-homophobic in class was that allowing students to hold those beliefs can seriously hinder their chances to succeed in the future. Many societies are moving towards acceptance of people who are LGB, and letting students maintain beliefs that are opposite to the rest of society can hold them back.
Think of it this way: how many US companies would hire someone who is an active and outspoken racist? Would it benefit our students to hold racist beliefs? Do you really think homophobia isn’t becoming analogous to racism in American society?
It’s a bit like teaching creationism instead of evolution in the science classroom. Once those students get to college, they can be seriously hampered by their misunderstandings of biology. Not only would they lack the actual prior knowledge they need to succeed in a biology class, they would also have a whole body of misinformed knowledge and strong beliefs to deny what they are supposed to learn.
If society is moving to be more progressive (which it is, generally speaking in the English speaking world at least), teaching, encouraging, or even allowing students to be sexist, racist, etc. goes against what we are meant to be doing as teachers. There is a social justice component in teaching, but it has nothing to do with grinding a political axe or pushing our own* ideologies onto our students. It is entirely about helping our students to succeed in this world, and that, dear reader, is our duty.
*(Edit-2016/2/17: A discussion in the comments brought up a point I should have clarified here. I am advocating for teaching with generally progressive values, but not just because those are my own values. There are a number of positions I hold that are definitely not progressive and yet I would teach the more progressives ones despite my own beliefs. This is because that is where society is apparently heading and, as I’ve argued, we should be preparing our students as best we can for the actual future they will encounter. Also, my next post addresses what I mean by teaching values. I’m not talking about explicitly telling students what to think. “Values” in education involve another concept that warrants a post of its own.)