The following revision of an earlier post can also be found at The Wall:
Every year for a month or two at least, we commemorate the struggles for freedom, social justice, and peace that were embodied in the short, remarkable life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who have fought to realize the ideals of equality on which the political philosophy of the Republic was founded. They are the politics expressed by Dr. King, himself, when he said “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They are the same politics celebrated recently by those attending the memorial service for Dr. King’s late widow who, as Rev. Lowery reminded us, “opposed discrimination based on race—she frowned on homophobia and gender bias.” They are the same politics urged by President Clinton, when he made this challenge to all of us: “You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her behavior.”
They are the same politics that, unfortunately, are now scrutinized and savaged by the representatives of a radical minority of educational and social fundamentalists, who would turn back the clock on social progress by making a commitment to social justice irrelevant to good teaching. These conservative critics, including Geoge Will and Fred Hess and the Fordham Institute, would have us believe that racism and injustice are no longer concerns for the classroom, and that all attention should be placed on education as economic preparedness. They would, indeed, turn a commitment to social justice into a partisan value, something that liberals do, and thus something that should be avoided like any form of indoctrination in the classroom.
These critics have gone on the attack recently against the professional preparation programs for teachers that make dispositions toward caring and social justice and equity central components in assessing the preparedness of their teacher candidates to teach in the classrooms of America. These radical rightists see no place in the university classroom for preparing teachers who share the values of Dr. King, or any of those Republicans and Democrats who rose at Coretta Scott King’s memorial to remind us of the Kings’ unfinished legacy of non-violent resistance to bigotry and oppression.
The political logic of the new critics reflects some very old sentiments that most of us, fortunately, have chosen to leave behind. In sacrificing the goal of social justice in favor of a feigned political neutrality, it no longer matters if Johnny’s teacher embraces the values of skinheads or Klansmen, just as long as she is able to get Johnny a passing grade on his proficiency exam or his AP test. Nor does it matter, in this twisted logic that makes the promotion of democracy a partisan issue, if Johnny’s teacher rejects the values expressed in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence, just as long as he gets Johnny interested in contributing to an economic future that includes the studied oversupply of engineers, scientists, and technicians.
While fitting these blinders onto teacher educators, teachers, and American children may serve those who wish to conflate political freedom, moral freedom, aesthetic freedom, religious freedom, cultural freedom, and intellectual freedom into a selective and self-serving version of economic freedom, such a plan will never work to engender a free and responsible citizenry capable of sustaining the continuing struggle for a true democratic republic, one that places human rights and civil rights at the forefront of all societal decision-making.
Although I would argue that every human is born with a preference for autonomy and liberty rather than for repression and enslavement, that preference only becomes a living ethical value through modeled teaching, plenty of questioning and practice, and commited professional guidance in that practice. The intellectual chain gangs for the poor or the socially-inert IB or AP classrooms for the middle and upper classes, however, remain the models that for those neo-traditionalists who would try to convince us that a commitment to freedom and democracy are partisan values that are unimimportant to teaching in American schools.
What the social antiquarians and the new wave of school room scientizers disingenuously argue is that we, as a nation, must choose between a narrow intellectual competence for economic competitiveness, or a broad social consciousness for cultural understanding and critical awareness. I believe that most Americans view this either-or proposition as the divisive and false choice that it is, and if given the chance to decide, there is still a good chance that they will choose to re-invigorate their public schools toward all of these important purposes for all of our people, not just the ones who can afford to remain neutral.