Teaching as a Politcal Act


I do not care for this post-modern, reductionist attack on objectivity that is quite fashionable these days. It is my view that teachers should value objectivity. This is the only way to understand the world as it is. Part of the problem is that objectivity has been mistaken for neutrality, or non-controversy. In the interest of this false concept of objectivity, we often water down our content to avoid controversy or stirring emotions. It’s history, if people aren’t rubbed the wrong way from time to time, ‘you ain’t doing it right’. We should want our students at times to feel confused, emotional, angry, curious, helpless at the state of the world because there are lessons waiting at the other end, when they come to terms with those feelings. Above all, we want to inspire and empower them to change the conditions and challenge the oppressive legacy that history has left them. . If we want to change our current society we must realize the historically oppressive roles played by every American institution (economic, education, health care, social service, housing etc.) and view them today as a culmination of that history, not something separate from the history that produced them. We cannot teach them that our institutions are neutral when they are apart of a legacy of race and class oppression.

Once students gain an objective analysis of history, they can then find their subjective place in challenging it. We must do away with teaching history as some feel good, slow and constant struggle for progress, culminating into this great, equal, pluralistic democracy, one big happy family with all our problems left ‘back in the old days’. We must help them to draw a line between oppressor and oppressed and know where they stand, then and now. It is harmful to teach about the ‘founding fathers’ as collective heroes of the nation, this is a falsification of history and psychologically damaging to youth of African, Indigenous and even European backgrounds.

The struggles against white supremacy, patriarchy, capital, between oppressor and oppressed are not stale events in history that happened a long time ago and must not be taught as such. It has to be framed as an ongoing, protracted, struggle, a struggle that they themselves are engaged in on one side or another and to an extent to identify with one is to abandon the other. School culture with its police, administration, teachers represent one side of the struggle. It represents a continuation of European, capitalist domination just as all establishment institutions. They are the institutions of the ruling class and thus their purpose is to promote and protect their interests. The collusion of black, brown and poor people with these institutions does not change this fact; it only complicates it.

Our students are behind enemy lines and so are we if we engage in true education for liberation. The goal of succeeding in those institutions without any critical analysis places one on the side of this historically oppressive establishment. The students themselves and their oppressed communities are a legacy of the historically oppressive nature of American capitalism. The goal of the school system is in part for the children to accept as normal the ideology and program of a system predicated on their marginalization. This is the gap that has to be bridged, so of course students of oppressed nationalities often do not perform well, many recognize a schism between their communities and the school system (and justice system, which are currently merging) but cannot articulate it. We must help them find their voice that this system is constantly trying to bury that finds expression in “misbehavior”.

School and instruction are not neutral. Teaching social studies is a political act. The instructor can perpetuate the status quo, thus supporting the continued oppression of students or actively engage students in challenging what they have been taught by modeling through questioning and dialogue the fundamental paradigms and assumptions undergirding American society, culture, economy. We do not want to promote the swallowing whole of a basically colonial style education.

A History class should encourage students to view their world in a historical context, instead of viewing the present as separate and divorced from the past that produces it. The student of oppressed nationality should be equipped to view their relationship with present day institutions such as the criminal justice system, school system, economic systems, etc. in the context of a history of oppression that has ebbed and flowed over hundreds of years to culminate into the present conditions. After sitting in a history class and being taught the brutal history that produced them, they still often identify with the same oppressive institutions. This is a cruel miracle of the educational system to be able to teach history and still alienate students from their own history and simultaneously bind them to the same historical institutions that have so damaged them.

Black and Brown students often refer to ruling class, White America’s exploits in the past as what “we” did. “Our country expanded westward” or “We conquered Mexico” , “Our Constitution…” etc. represents a psychological disconnect from history and identification with one’s oppressors, a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. History, if taught critically places the oppressed in opposition to the traditions and exploits of the oppressing culture. They should be challenged recognize their place in history and be able to say, “No, the imperialist, white supremacist, America conquered westward. This is not my legacy. My legacy is in opposition to racism and imperialism and this relationship remains so today”. The schools have created and maintained an unhealthy psychological identification, among oppressed students, with their own oppression. There must be a separation from the actions of the dominant culture by the oppressed, the latter, who were actually victimized by these phenomena. The effect of not doing so, teaches the oppressed to view history and themselves through the eyes of their oppressors, which teaches them to view themselves as deficient.

Critical pedagogy should also place students of the dominant culture, White Europeans in a historical trajectory as well. This psychological separation from history allows White students to separate themselves from history and not see themselves and their privileges as part of a historical process, thus encouraging a disengagement from the world today and their responsibility in either dismantling or maintaining this position. They should be challenged to either continue and support the traditions of white supremacy, reaction and oppression or join in another tradition of freedom fighting and standing with the oppressed; they can be aligned with the traditions of John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman and the like. White people are probably more alienated from their own history than those who have been oppressed by it. They take no responsibility because “I wasn’t there”. White students, in order to combat their relative alienation from people of color should be encouraged to see history through the eyes of the oppressed as well as oppressor. It is imperative that they be put in a position to “choose sides”. It is important for all students but perhaps even more important for white students. Their lack of identification with their history is also a psychological sickness perpetrated by school system.

The propagation of the idea of America as this meritocracy, or land of opportunity can be potentially crushing to youth of oppressed nationalities, particularly African Americans. It perpetuates the idea of black inferiority, as if it is deficiencies in their own devastated communities that made them poor and lacking, when it is the working of American capitalism that has caused such deprivation. Whatever dysfunction that exists among the oppressed flows from their oppression which shapes their experience, culture and values. The assumption that “everyone can make it in America” grows from the experience of middle class, Euro Americans and is thus the default point of view in America, and by extension, the educational system. It takes a level of critical struggle to deconstruct this myth, to actually look at the operations of this system and its effects on poor and oppressed people. To repeat this line and encourage students to blindly accept it is to promote a sort of psychological warfare, where some people view success as separation of oneself from their community, from their roots, instead of standing with them in opposition to oppression. This cannot be done if they don’t know they are oppressed.

We teach and learn America’s economic history, and history in general as divorced from the realities of today. Students should be able to link “deindustrialization” to decrepit conditions in inner cities. Students should learn about how drugs come into their communities, or the effects of job discrimination up to the present day. These things are directly tied up with their everyday realities. American oppression is not something that used to exist and it should not be taught that way. This is done to maintain an asymmetrical balance of power and ruling class domination.

Historical traditions and ideologies have present day manifestations. Somehow, the way history has been taught has separated the present from the past giving students the impression that everything wrong with the world “back then” has been all fixed somehow. We have not equipped them to recognize how the problems of society did not go away, but have simply morphed with the times. They are not unrecognizable to the student who has been taught critically. Today’s students have to recognize that institutions and practices can be traced back to earlier times. They are not new.


Police and Probation Officers in School

  One afternoon, working at a high school, I opened my classroom door at lunch to get some air. Near my classroom, there was a line of disgruntled students standing outside of the on campus probation office, checking in with the probation officer, a mandatory chore that must be done before students can take their lunch break. Dozens of students walk in and out of this room every day. I do not know how long public schools have been equipped with their own probation officer, but I thought it was a strange sight. After some investigation, I learned that even some middle schools in this area now have them as well.

This little experience began to open my eyes to how much the educational system and correctional system are beginning to merge. I saw the huge black gate that surrounds the school before, but now see it in a different context. There is an armed sheriff that stands in the middle of the lunch quad everyday; I hardly noticed him before. There was one at my high school 19 years ago, so I always thought it was normal to be policed at school. Now he seems so menacing and intimidating. Why do we need a guy walking around with a weapon in plain view, if not for intimidation? Is this the way we want to coerce our students into behaving?

The oppressive containment policies used to criminalize youth on the street are being extended onto the school campus with all the accompanying dehumanization, racial profiling and even physical violence and threats of violence. The presence of cops and probation officers changes the character of school culture as it pertains to student disciplinary policy into one of containment and control. Students are naturally seen as potential criminals in such an environment, especially minorities, and African Americans in particular. The historical view of African Americans in particular as dangerous and unruly plays a part in this phenomenon as well. They are viewed as less innocent, less capable and treated that way as well. They are punished more severely than white youth for the same infractions, suspended and expelled at higher rates, starting in pre-school.

This not to deny the real threat of student violence and poor behavior threatening the learning experience of other students. The problem is that just like in the larger society, our social problems are dealt with punitively instead of proactively and the traditionally marginalized students, poor, African American, Latino and Native Americans get it the worst.  Many of our students come into school with issues that the school system is not equipped to deal with. Using cops, threats of probation and criminal records to contain our students is easier than actually dealing with the problems our students bring into the classroom.

Perhaps more staff trained in mental health and behavioral dysfunction, such as counselors and psychologists would be more helpful to the students than law enforcement. Conflict resolution skills and mediation implemented widely starting at a young age are better tools to ensure appropriate behavior than busting them for fighting or truancy in secondary school and placing them on probation. Why should school misbehavior set students up with a record setting them on the road to juvenile detention or jail before they are old enough to know what’s coming down on them?

There have been times in the past few years that these matters have been discussed in the classroom It is obvious that this punitive school culture goes beyond the cops and influences other security staff as well. I have heard stories from students about being berated by administrators and threatened to be sent to the sheriff for not stopping to pledge allegiance to the flag during morning announcements in the front office. Students are searched without consent. A youth was reprimanded for an altercation with another student on the third day of school, the first thing he was asked is if he were a ‘blood’. This same student reported being forced by security to stand still or he will be slammed. One white student reported how he wanders the campus during class time with out a pass carefree and notices how African American students are harassed and made to dig their passes out of their pockets.

Students of all ethnic groups and backgrounds agree that students are racially profiled and some students are treated with more regard than others. There were also comments made like, “I’m an athlete so I ain’t gotta worry about all that”. Apparently all students are not subject to the same rules and regulations, some are more prone to be reprimanded in a harsh manner.

I’ve known students that don’t know how to fit into the box they are expected to for some reason or another. Some have real problems at home and act out. Very little is done to address the root problems of the students besides piecemeal step programs meant to be more of a paper trail than an actual intervention.

They are simply penalized for their failure to conform until they are expelled or end up in court. This is the school to prison pipeline in action. I have had numerous students doing relatively well, showing up regularly or semi regularly, trying to keep in line with the dictates of their probation and getting violations and sent to court and sentenced for smoking cigarettes in the bathroom or defending themselves. One can even get busted for carrying a lighter on probation as a minor.

The general criminalization of oppressed youth in society has parallels in the educational system. Police patrol the schools with the same biases that they carry in the streets, leading to a massive school to prison pipeline. The most vulnerable of our young men and women are being caught in a system that leads from the classroom to juvenile detention. Minor infractions that would once land a student in the principals’ office such as fighting, truancy or minor vandalism can now land students on probation, in juvenile hall and with criminal records.

They end up with a record for misbehavior at school. The school to prison pipeline is part of the system of mass incarceration. Youth are already being accustomed to being treated like criminals before they are adults. Presumably, most adults in the penal system spent time in juvenile institutions as adolescents, there is no mystery as to where this pipeline will lead for many of the students that get in trouble in school.

This has to be viewed in the context of the history of injustice in the education system, unfair police targeting and social oppression of minorities in America. It is a continuation of an old policy in a new form, not some new thing that just popped up because of student misbehavior. Students must be able to connect these realities to the history of this country and oppose it the same way they did other forms of oppression in the past, as an injustice and part of a system that is as hostile to them as it ever was.