Thursday, September 27, 2012

Undercover

Social Justice is a popular theme in school curriculum these days. In fact, as a concept it is often listed in state standards and graduate teaching programs as a important part of the underpinnings of all curriculum and teaching. And why not? We are all concerned with justice in this society. Often Social Justice takes the form of egalitarian principles or cultural sensitivity. Again, this is crucial stuff on which to build education in a democratic society.
More particularly, Social Justice means making choices in what and how you teach something. That might involve taking into consideration language capabilities, cultural practices, or long forgotten or deliberately omitted historical events. Teachers who are cognizant of a diverse, unbiased curriculum are aware of the limitations of using textbooks. Aside from the fact that textbooks contain some of the worst writing ever published, even the good ones,(and there are good ones) severely limit what can be covered in class. As a wonderful colleague of mine likes to say, "It's not how much you cover, it's what you uncover." Sometimes the primary sources necessary for social science teachers can be painful. Sometimes they are ugly, racist, hateful, distorted views of human beings and their history. I make the case that they still must be included. Rather than "fetishizing pain" as some have called it, I see it more like teaching tolerance through the objects and artifacts of intolerance. To be sure, these tragic pieces of our past must be used carefully. But their power to transform is powerful. I have seen this time and again over the years I have taught. These "ethnic notions" from any racial and ethnic group function like talismans. They are carefully kept and displayed under the most careful conditions because they are documentary evidence of our past. We are fast approaching the time when events like The Holocaust, or the ravages of human slavery in this country, will come under increased scrutiny and pressure to prove that they really happened. Strange and difficult as that may seem, it is happening already. That's why I was pleased to discover, recently, The Jim Crow museum. (see web site) Not only because these folks get that it is important to use some of these difficult images and objects to teach about the past, but because, as one of many collectors of this stuff, I now know where my modest array of these materials will probably end up one day. After all, you don't put racist, stereotypical books, posters, magazines, or advertising images all over you house. They don't belong on the walls or the coffee table. This area is rich ore to mine, but it must be done carefully. And it's not without controversy. I know many teachers who would never use some of the advertising images or the popular music of the early 20th century in their classrooms.
Fine. I'm not one of them. Funny thing is though, you don't have to go back a hundred years to find questionable imagery. It's still out there in mass media, music, TV and certainly in people's minds. Take a look at some of the stuff that has surfaced since Barak Obama took the White House. Social Justice sometimes is nothing more than having the courage to face your past. Like historians always say, how can you know where you are going until you know where you have been. More to follow...

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