I believe in social justice. I do not believe in privileged attempts to impose speech codes or deem clothing to be cultural appropriated or whatever that has come to be called ‘social justice’ in recent times. If anything, this is a merely symbolic form of social justice, designed to suit certain middle class pretensions and sensibilities. I believe in a more practical form of social justice. I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe in universal health care and a social safety net; a standard of living below which we ensure our fellow citizens must not fall. I am not sure how to achieve all of these things because some efforts backfire, but these are my aims.
I believe that education can play a part, particularly when it comes to equality of opportunity. Can it completely erase disparities of wealth, health and genetic influence? No. As a teacher, I am interested in the limited gains education can bring about and I am interested in our community gaining some control over this.
I really don’t understand those people who say that it is necessary to fix poverty before we can do anything in the education sector. As teachers, we can use our votes at election time, we can campaign, but the idea that we can fix poverty and that we should do this first, before we consider the role of our classrooms, is a counsel of hopelessness.
You have to wonder what people are worried about. If educators succeed in bringing a little more social justice to the world then that has to be a good thing, right? If they fail then nothing has been lost.
This argument usually divides along the traditionalist / progressivist axis and this is perhaps embodied by the recent career of Diane Ravitch. As she has made a significant turn towards progressivism, she has lost confidence in the idea of schools ameliorating the inequities of poverty through a knowledge-rich curriculum – an idea most closely associated with E D Hirsch and an idea she used to subscribe to.
Unfortunately, this important debate is currently fruitless because both sides talk past each other. Nobody seriously thinks that schools can fix poverty entirely. Yet this is the straw man that is often attacked by progressivists when they criticise the idea of the knowledge-rich curriculum.
It is also obviously the case that progressivists themselves must see some role for education in mitigating inequalities of opportunity. The point of Freire’s ‘problem posing’ education was to tackle illiteracy while also raising the consciousness of peasants so that they would be less accepting of their lot. Indeed, what is the wider progressivist philosophy, with its attendant methods, all about if it does not seek to improve students lives in some tangible way?
The debate as it plays out on social media is therefore false. We all want greater social justice and we all think our preferred methods will help in some small way to achieve this, that’s why we prefer them.
The focus should therefore be on who is right and who is wrong.