Recently, political science professor J. Martin Rochester penned a critical response to a front-page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled “St. Louis Teachers Turn Their Classrooms Into Hubs of Social Justice.”
Unfortunately, his response reveals that he may have forgotten to actually read past the headline of the article.
This did not stop him from writing a response that is nearly entirely devoid of facts. His piece contributes to the misdirection, avoidance, and myth propagation that has characterized opponents of contemporary social justice and equity efforts.
In the end, he leaves readers with a meritocracy-laden quip about penalizing students who do not complete their homework. He writes:
I would argue that, if you want to teach social justice, it should be taught not only through reading about poverty in America but also by modeling it firsthand—say, penalizing students who do not complete their homework. Aside from teaching individual responsibility, this gets classmates to understand the concept of fairness, treating all students with the same expectations rather than privileging some by cutting them slack.
Mr. Rochester has evidently found the panacea for quality social justice teaching, as he advocates for a policy already basic to most schools throughout the country.
Aside from deeply misunderstanding the concept of equity that is central to social justice education, Mr. Rochester puts forth a series of red-herring arguments that ignore the complex societal realities known to cause the privileged so much discomfort.
Let’s examine Rochester’s three potential problems with social justice education.
First, schools should mainly stick to what they are uniquely entrusted to do—teaching math, physics, English, and other subject matter and, beyond that, a love of learning. Schools should not aspire to be churches or social work agencies. In an already overcrowded school day in which our schools struggle to find the time to get students to become proficient in “the three R’s,” social justice training can be a huge distraction.
Opponents of equity and social justice education often hide behind the claim that there is simply “not time” to cover anything other than the most basic knowledge and skills.
It is notable that he mentions “a love of learning” at the end of his list of subjects worthy of teaching, given that authentic exploration and honest dialogue about actual lived experience is most likely to help students reach that goal. Transmitting knowledge and skills in a vacuum is not authentic, nor is it effective. Robust, challenging curriculum that helps students understand their place in the world leads to real learning.
And yes, that learning necessarily includes the outmoded and politically-conceived focus on the “three R’s.” It also includes 21st-century skills like collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and global communication.
Where this is a will, there is always time. Including social justice in the curriculum is not a distraction—it is an imperative.
Second, more importantly, it is sheer hubris for teachers to bring their own personal political agenda into the classroom. What happened to free inquiry? In my own teaching, I try to keep my ideological dispositions to myself rather than using my lectern as a bully pulpit, if only to promote critical thinking as opposed to indoctrination.
Actually, it is sheer hubris for a teacher not to acknowledge that the very act of teaching and schooling is a political act. The decision to remain silent on social justice issues is, in itself, a political act and statement.
Every decision a teacher or administrator makes, from their seating chart to their gradebook to their discipline policies, is rooted in ideology and implicit biases that must be acknowledged. Students are not stupid. Despite our best intentions, they can and do decipher our political leanings and more.
Nobody is arguing that teachers should be using a “bully pulpit” or “indoctrinating” our youth. That is a deliberate mischaracterization of the work of those St. Louis educators and of the larger social justice movement.
It is in fact commendable that the author indicates that he exposes students to a variety of texts when exploring complex issues, being careful not to pass judgment. It seems apparent that the writer didn’t make it to the part of the St. Louis article where the teacher asked, “Where do you see people talking across their differences? You don’t see that in the American public.” Adding, “Schools are a really great place where we might actually be able to teach young people that there’s a value in hearing other people disagree with you.”
Rochester offers no evidence for his claim that these St. Louis educators, who call themselves Educators for Social Justice, seem to promote only a politically correct, left-leaning perspective. Meanwhile, he betrays his own bias in boldly declaring that students should be shown that systemic police brutality is a false narrative.
In fact, the best social justice educators do expose their students to multiple perspectives, and do so without providing students with the “correct” conclusion. It is unclear what evidence Rochester draws upon when he states that Educators for Social Justice are disingenuous in posing as facilitators of student-centered learning.
I wonder how many social justice classrooms he has observed. Has he viewed the curriculum? Has he curated the reading lists? I’m sure that if he had he would have offered evidence beyond mere speculation and unsupported accusations.
Third, although Educators for Social Justice express “solidarity,” not only are facts often contested but also values themselves.…It is fine to have students view events through the eyes of marginalized people, but how about also familiarizing students with the empirical, scientific research reported by both liberal and conservative think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution and Heritage Foundation, that if a young person would do four relatively simple things in sequence—get a high school diploma, get a job, get married, and only then have kids—he or she has a more than 90 percent chance of escaping poverty?
Here, Rochester exposes himself for what he is—a privileged, white male espousing deficit ideology in an effort to justify systemic inequity.
First, it is true that facts and values may be contested. That does not preclude them from being discussed, analyzed, and wrestled with. That is the entire essence of social justice curricula. Wide societal disagreement about what constitutes justice necessitates skilled and passionate educators who are willing to guide this worthy discussion. It is unclear what outcome the author fears will emerge from students’ critically engaging with these important questions.
If the author is genuinely concerned about “usurping parents’ prerogatives” or “grossly distorting reality,” a more worthy place to start would be limiting students’ exposure to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
Rochester’s clinching statement is troubling and dangerous. Aside from enforcing his own philosophical ideology on others (something he openly decried), he ignores the fact that those living in poverty cannot merely wave a magic wand and “get a high school diploma, get a job, get married, and only then have kids.”
Lack of access to quality healthcare and contraception, vast inequalities in educational opportunity, the difficulty of obtaining stable and affordable housing due to generations of discriminatory practices, a vast and growing wealth inequality, and a lack of access to enough living wage jobs in America are only some of the many reasons why.
These are not excuses. They are institutional and structural barriers that actively create the opportunity gap in this country.
The popularity of this simplistic and insidious narrative, that those living in poverty could escape “if only they…” is a primary reason that social justice education is necessary in the first place.
Mr. Rochester, perhaps you should pull up a chair.
Sharif El-Mekki wrote this for Philly’s 7th Ward.