Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What does it mean to teach "social justice" and "diversity"? University of British Columbia deepens its project of academic tyranny

Before we turn to today's news in the Vancouver Sun, let us ask ourselves, what could it possibly mean to teach, in the context of a teachers' college, "social justice" and "diversity"? What could it mean to be a professor, at the centre of a room of students, telling them that when they become teachers they too must instill in students a respect for "social justice" and "diversity"?

Is the form of a lecture, or mere seminar leader - i.e. telling people what is just and diverse - consistent with raising people to be just and diverse in their habits? Or does our submission to the lecturer's authority mitigate against our acquiring the appropriate habits? And what happens when the lecturer/class leader is aware of such a possibility and avows, in response, that she will do all she can to insure she only speaks in the name of empowering those who are somehow oppressed by our inherited norms and habits, as they pertain to teaching?

I think first asking such questions will help us divine what we are being told by this news report:
Social justice and diversity issues would get unprecedented attention in every course offered by the University of B.C.’s education faculty if a major program overhaul that began several years ago is approved.

“It’s safe to say that every aspect of our program is going to be changed,” associate education dean Rita Irwin said in an interview. “We want to be as responsive as possible to what’s happening in schools. Right now, we’re doing our best to do that, but we think there’s a need to reconfigure.”

It won’t simply be a matter of the university following the lead of B.C. high schools and offering an optional course similar to Social Justice 12. Rather, social justice and diversity are expected to become dominant themes in all education courses, Irwin said.

“If only one class deals with it, then teacher candidates can kind of set it aside. What we’re trying to say now is that you can’t set it aside. You have to understand that it infuses everything you’re doing.”
You have to understand... that I have authority because I speak for those you would forget, if you could...
For example, she said students taking a mathematics course might also end up discussing class, gender or race.
But what could this mean? That in trying to learn the intricacies of algebra, students will be distracted and lectured on the problematic nature of a discipline in which boys have historically done better than girls? in which Asian students tend to better than others? that algebra is somehow testament to the brilliance of Islam or the Arabs in learning how to link together the disparate bits and pieces of their own culture? But how could any such questions be negotiated while actually learning algebra? And perhaps more important, how can any classroom difference be negotiated by ordinary students supposedly interested in "justice" and "diversity", if they have to defer to a central authority? and is a deferral to central authority not inevitable when we define the problem as a greatly scandalous one of "class, gender, or race", when it's no longer a matter of inter-personal differences but an invidious difference of world historical signficance?
Irwin stressed that the redesign has not yet been approved by the university senate. “We’re pretty confident it will go through, but theoretically, it’s not quite through yet,” she said, adding she doesn’t expect changes will take effect before 2012.

The proposals are so far-reaching that Irwin described the process as the “re-imagining” of the UBC education degree. Part of that includes an expectation that education graduates would be “teacher inquirers” with an understanding of a wide range of education issues. As an example, Irwin said they would comprehend the arguments for and against the categorization of special-needs students.

“We want them not to think of teaching in a technocratic, instrumental way but ... [as something] that’s constantly evolving. They need to be attentive to the society around them, they need to be lifelong, life-wide learners, they have to take into consideration what new research in education is saying.

“We really want them to be questioners [and] people who are going to be engaged.”
And what if our questioning leads us to a realization that teaching "social justice" and "diversity" is the epitome of technocratic instrumentalism and as such the great enemy of individual questioning? What if those in authority who are telling us to question authority do so because this is a devious way of asserting their lingering authority in an age that likes to think it has learned the lessons of how dictatorships work. I mean, "Class! Can you tell me of one twentieth-century dictatorship anywhere in the world that didn't justify its authority in the name of saving the people from their oppressors, be these Jews, Freemasons, kulaks, bourgeois, the educated, the technocratic, Americans, white colonialists, etc. etc.? Does a dictatorship ever exercise power in the name of personal responsibility, unless it is pointing to a failure of someone's personal responsibility because said person is allegedly serving the cause of some oppressive group?

And even when you are aware that so much authority justifies itself by declaring the previous holders of authority to have been just so reliant on scapegoating and oppressing, can you yourself escape the cycle of scapegoating and oppressing if you propose to teach "social justice" and "diversity" instead of, say, individual responsibility in the context of maximally free political and economic markets?
The faculty also hopes to encourage specific areas of interest, such as UBC’s social-emotional learning experiment that began this year as the first in North America and possibly the world, Irwin said. (Social and emotional learning is a process for helping students develop the knowledge, understandings and skills that support learning, positive behaviour, and constructive social relationships.)
Nope, no one can accuse them of promoting technocratic authority...

Speaking for myself, I think we would have a lot more justice, and genuine diversity in our society if we made teaching a profession that anyone could enter on their own merits, regardless of whether they had passed through perhaps the most PC institution in our society and perhaps the universities' least intellectually serious faculty - the teachers' colleges. I think we would have a lot more justice and diversity if instead of worshiping professors we respected, in our own individual and barely public ways, people like Laura Wood, The Thinking Housewife.

In the linked article, Wood argues that schools are becoming dominated by feminine values that, on the one hand, marginalize boys and their needs, and on the other set up girls to expect the world but in a way that is to insure at some point in the future a great personal fall and disappointment when the girls learn the world is not what they have been led to believe, that they cannot have everything.

Class! Can there be any doubt that what the University of B.C.'s education faculty proposes is to further assert feminine classroom authority, an unquestionable maternal authority, in the name of "social justice" and "diversity"? Again, I ask you how can these values be asserted without asserting a centralized authority without which all that we are taught to be totally scandalous - the invidious distinctions we ascribe to "class, race, and gender" - cannot be mediated. I mean, once we believe "social justice" and "diversity" MUST be a part of everything we do, are we left to do anything without deferring to whomever has the power to make the necessarily arbitrary dictates on what is and isn't a scandal to "equality" and "justice" in the "diverse" classroom? Can individual students who don't aspire to serve in the ranks of a victim-naming priesthood really be empowered by such a curriculum? How can I discuss my difference with you if what divides us is all the hidden power of the "class, race, gender" system? Must I not defer to the authoritative diagnosis of the alleged evils before we can start to talk? and would not such a deferral mean we won't really talk, but rather you will lecture me on my "privilege" and I must either go along with that or get out?

Can real differences and diversity emerge under such a regime, or can we only ritualize and freeze in place some set of authoritative social distinctions that only slowly changes according to the politics in the backrooms of the teachers' colleges? Does "social justice" and "diversity" mean anything other than that we must become more, not less, dependent on the University of British Columbia Faculty of Education?

I think those who truly wish students to be able to make a difference have to focus on the individual person. But alas, that is an idea firmly rooted in Western, Judeo-Christian traditions. And that is the great scandal of our times...

In the meantime, practical students will be pressured more and more to ask only "what are the hoops we have to jump through" to please the technocratic authority that disguises itself in the names of "social justice" and "diversity" and anti-technocratic authority? And the real teachers and good people who make their way in the world despite all the evils of academic officialdom will be stuck with the task of asking how to turn the "what are the hoops?" question into a genuine moment for learning.


Howard said...

really good work, John. This type of analysis on our education system is long overdue.

Howard R.

truepeers said...

thanks Howard!

skyhook8 said...

Very interesting article as my young nephew is considering attending UBC. A free thinker cannot grow in the controlled environment being constructed but as an assembly line for replicants ...

Canada continues to rot from the inside.

truepeers said...


If your nephew is an intellectual type, just tell him that the point of university is to have four years to spend reading and thinking for yourself, while spending some time to accommodate the professors. And of course some faculties/departments are better than others.

Viking said...

No wonder I was turned down for a teaching post at UBC - I've never spend a minute in a diversity seminar!

Minicapt said...

You might be amused with these:
1. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,579846,00.html
2. http://blog.lib.umn.edu/cehd/teri/
3. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2404019/posts

UBC is not alone.


truepeers said...


Well I guess when you are programmed not to accept differences in academic performance, as measured by ascriptive groupings, then when these differences pop up you have to spin all kinds of ridiculous ideologies to avoid the real issues. The problem is, you don't usually help underperforming kids by telling them they are victims; but you also don't usually help them by telling them their culture is crap, even if it is not a culture suited to modern demands. But instead of trying to figure out how to navigate this dilemma, by building up individuals and not ideologies, many teacher schools are taking the cowardly way out and trying to make weak students feel better by telling them they are victims of an alien system, as if this will help them through or help them in real post-school life.