Kevin Kumashiro began his academic career at Swarthmore as a Mellon fellow. He has taught and served as an administrator in colleges and universities around the country and has been active in promoting multicultural and anti-oppressive education and professional development internationally. Kumashiro runs workshops on social justice research and leadership, movement building, and writing outside of the academy.
Elaine Allard '01: My name is Elaine Allard, and I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Educational studies. I'd like to welcome you, students, faculty, and especially our community partners, to the second annual Engaged Scholarship Symposium. It's so great to see all of you here.
This symposium is generously sponsored by the Lang center for civic and social responsibility, and the Department of Educational Studies, and I'd like to thank all of their staff and faculty who have helped to coordinate this week's events. Special thanks go to Ben Berger, executive director of the Lang Center, and Anne Renninger, chair of the Department of Educational Studies.
The Engaged Scholarship Symposium seeks to generate conversation on campus about how the work we do, as faculty members and students, can be both responsive and relevant to local community interests and needs, such as those in the greater Philadelphia area, Chester, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and beyond.
Last year's event explored various definition and examples of what counts as "engaged" in public scholarship. The Lang center describes is broadly as "connecting curriculum, campus, and community." Last year's speaker, Dr. Nelson Flores, discussed the ways in which engaged scholarship goes beyond just bringing information from the academy into other communities, but also learning from communities in ways that transform the way that we understand the issues that we study.
It involves connecting research and practice in order to challenge oppression, and transforming academic knowledge by incorporating the voices of people who normally wouldn't have a voice in academic circles.
This year, our symposium will continue to explore what constitutes engaged scholarship, while also building upon that discussion to think about how we can communicate our scholarship in ways that matter and can be understood outside of the academy.
Dr. Kevin Kumashiro will be our guide. I first met Kevin last year as a participant in his workshop on Social Justice Leadership in Education, and I am thrilled to welcome him to Swarthmore.
Now, I invite Lisa Smulyan to come up, she's associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies, and she will introduce Dr. Kumashiro.
Thank you for coming.
Lisa Smulyan '76: So, I'm really happy to have Kevin here. I met Kevin in 1999 when he came to Swarthmore, I was chair of Department of Education at that point, and we brought him here as a [inaudible 00:02:37] for a year. He, actually I just checked in on this, he taught Nelson Flores. So, if he can keep this going, in another year at the next Engaged Scholarship thing maybe one of you will be presenting, that would be pretty cool.
So the biggest we made was sort of not keeping Kevin here, he was only here for a year, he was really influential while he was here, but I think even if we had tried to keep him here for a while he wouldn't have stayed, because one of the things about Kevin's resume, if you look at it, is that he's moved around a lot.
I see that as a way of kind of both soaking up the different things that he can learn from the different kinds of places and institutions, and also finding different audiences to give back to.
When he left here, he went to Bates for a couple of years and taught there. Had his small Liberal Arts experience and was done with that and moved on. From there, he went and worked in Washington for the National Education Association for a couple of years. So, kind of got that big, institutional, national perspective on education at what was going on there.
From there, moved to the University of Illinois, Chicago where he was for a number of years. That was, I think, your longest stretch, but even while he was there moved around from Educational Policy, Asian Studies, moving in and out of chair positions and institute positions there.
While he was there, he founded the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education, which has run for many years, I think 10 years?
Kevin Kumashiro: 15.
Lisa Smulyan: ... now, running workshops primarily for educators, on doing anti-oppressive education and many of Swarthmore's alums have participated in those workshops, so the connection's kind of continued here.
Kevin left University of Illinois Chicago and became dean and professor of the University of San Francisco, so he kind of moved his way around, trying to figure out, in some ways, how to have the most impact in the world of education. At the same time, he's writing multiple books, he's publishing multiple articles, some of which you have read, and sort of contributing that way in the field. Being a speaker on public radio stations, a variety of radio stations, and participating in media outlets in a way of giving back in that way.
Kevin is now an independent consultant, at least for now, we don't know how long that's going to last, either, but we're really delighted to have him here as under that umbrella.
I could tell you more about all the books he wrote, and things like that, but what I really want to tell you is one of the things that I learned from Kevin back in 1999 when he first came, and that is the importance of learning in a state of, what he called at the time, "crisis."
It's a state that most of us try to avoid, I think I spent most of my life trying to not be in crisis, although in the country these days it's hard not to be. I want to read you a little piece from an article that he wrote, where he describes this, in his own teaching process, and why it was so important.
He says, "As a class discussion ensued, I encouraged my students to enter into discomforting places, and to think of learning as taking place only through crisis. Modeling my own advice, I forced myself to enter a discomforting place, departing from my lesson plan, and teaching the unpredicted. Such a move, I should note, is very difficult for me, as it is for many teachers who desire control over the lesson and over what students learn, yet as my experiences show, we can never control what students learn. It is only when educators acknowledge the impossibilities, unknowabilities, and uncontrollabilities of teaching, and work within stuck places, that change is possible.
Thus, teaching and learning against oppression can not revolved around the desires for affirmation and saneness. Students and teachers alike must be open to entering crisis, and following the discomforting desire for difference."
So, I introduce Kevin to you today with the hopes that he's going to bring us into crisis, so we can therefore learn in it. Thank you. Kevin.
Kevin Kumashiro: Good evening everyone. It's such a treat to be here, and on such a rainy, cold evening, I'm like "Are we going to have more than ten?" But, look at this! We have a full room, so I'm so excited to see all of you. I had the pleasure of meeting a number of you earlier today, and I know that tomorrow the symposium continues, and I hope that all of you will take part on such an important topic of how we do engage scholarship, and what that means, and I'll talk a little bit about how I think about that in a moment, but I just wanted to begin by thanking everyone who's made this symposium possible and made it possible for me to come back to Swarthmore. Elaine, and Lisa, Anne, and Dan, and really everyone at Studies/Lang Center.
I feel like Swarthmore launched my career in higher education and it's hard not to feel very emotional when I think about all that I got, but also all that it pushed me out and pushed me towards. I hope that you also are kind of soaking up, as well as rattling as much as you can while you're here, as you get ready for the next chapter in all of your lives, whether that's as a student, or as a faculty staff, or as someone outside of the college.
I thought I would say a little bit about engaged scholarship, a little bit about the moment that we're in, and then the heart of my talk, which is going to be "five lenses." Then, I'll make certain to end in time for you to make comments or ask questions about my presentation.
So, engaged scholarship. So many ways to define this, right? One of the things that I like to think about is the adjective of "engaged," because it makes me ask, "engaged with what?" I think that's kind of a central question for me as I think about engaged scholarship, is that we should be asking that it is, "scholarship in the service of what?" Scholarship for what, scholarship engaged with what.
Sometimes people use it interchangeably with "public scholarship," and I think in some ways it is about public scholarship, because public scholarship, to me, is about scholarship for the public. It's really about thinking about the audience for your work, and who you're trying to speak, and in what realm you're trying to speak, the public realm.
Sometimes we talk about engaged scholarship when I was at the University of San Francisco, there were some people who were like "I don't really do engaged scholarship, because I don't really do collaborative work."
And I'm like, "I don't think engaged scholarship is the same thing as collaborative research." It can be the same thing as collaborative research where you're working with communities to define the question, or to define the methods, or to do the data analysis, and so on. That's a part of how we think about engaged scholarship, it's not the only way.
So, what is engaged scholarship? I like to think of scholarship as a much broader category than research. I once had a friend who was like ... I was complaining, I was saying "People say that some of what I do isn't research. What is up with that?" Because I don't follow certain kinds of research methods it doesn't count as research.
I'm talking to someone who would face the same kind of criticism, and he's like, "I don't care if people say I don't do research." And I'm like, "What? Let's argue." And he's like, "No, I don't care because if they want to define research narrowly, that's fine. Scholarship is actually a broader category, and I'm okay if people say that what I do is scholarship."
Now, I don't know if I agree quite with what he's saying, but let me talk a little bit about how he goes on to talk about scholarship, because whereas research might be about the production of knowledge using certain kinds of methods, scholarship is about the contesting of knowledge. It's about the production of knowledge, and it's also about the leveraging of knowledge.
So, scholarship can kind of be taking someone else's research project, but working with it in a way that brings that knowledge to new life. Scholarship is not just about narrowly defined research projects, and that's why engagement, then, becomes an interesting adjective to this. Because, to me, engaged scholarship I think of as "Scholarship in the service of something much broader," and we can all define it differently, but I kind of give the Social Justice lens to say that engaged scholarship for me is scholarship in the service of movement building. It's scholarship in the service of the social or public good. It's scholarship in the service of social change.
In other words, it's scholarship that works in solidarity, not only in the communities that are most marginalized, but the communities that are trying to rattle how things are.
So, let's think then, a little bit about if you did this definition of engaged scholarship, what, then, does this mean? What does this look like for education? And I think one of the things that it demands is that we begin by naming the moment, because if we're asking ourselves, "what is scholarship an intervention into? An intervention against?" We actually have to begin by asking, "well then, what's the conflicts in which we want our scholarship to intervene?"
Let me begin by kind of trying to name the moment. Many of you have probably read Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one his central arguments that resonate with me, that I try to remind myself of often, is that we should not dive to quickly into trying to solve our problems, we should not dive too quickly into trying to transform society, until we first understand what's wrong with society.
Naming our reality is the language he uses. Naming the problem. Why is that so important? Because if we don't try to critically understand the problems that we're facing, then that might mean that we're simply buying in to someone else's version, or someone else's telling of what the problem is. If we simply buy in to someone else's version of what the problem is, then our solution might not actually make things any better, it might actually make things worse.
How do we understand this moment that we're in? So many ways, let me name maybe five. Oh yeah, I was talking about this earlier today, usually I think in threes, but I will give you five examples today, of this moment that we're in.
Let's talk globally. America is an empire, and it has kind of this imperialist history. The research on empires tell us that there's no empire in the history of the world that has lasted more than a few generations. When empires are in a state of decline, as they're losing their status as the world superpower, there are certain things that are similar across history of declining empires.
One of those similarities is an attack on anything that offers a counter story, because how do you maintain power as an empire around the world, how do you get all these other people to think that you are superior and you should follow this group? You make them buy in to your version of what is real. You make them buy in to your version of reality. So, anyone who's going to question that is going to be under attack, and, today, who might some of those groups be? They might be the media, they might be artists, they might be scientists and researchers. They might be educators.
In fact, if we think of particular moments of revolution, like during the Civil Rights Movement, who were some of the people most visibly under attack? It was people like teachers in the freedom schools, who were all about trying to raise consciousness of systemic racism.
Another thing, by the way, to side note, that characterizes a moment of an empire in decline is something that characterized a moment of a totalitarian regime in the rise, and that is trying to ... one way that we assert that we are better than everyone else, is that we insist that we are different than everyone else. So, it's not only the symbolic boundaries between us and them, it's also the physical borders between us and them, that have to be reified, that have to be strengthened, and anyone who troubles those borders, anyone who crosses those borders, are going to be under attack. In this nation, in this moment, it's not only immigrants, it's particularly undocumented immigrants, who trouble the difference between "us and them."
That's why I would argue it's no surprise, that in a moment when we not only have a rise of totalitarianism, we also have a declining empire. This is a moment when we're going to violently protect borders, and we're going to demonize those who cross them.
Let me talk about another moment, another aspect of the moment we're in. I have to look at my notes, what else is going on right now? Oh, yeah.
We see a lot of attacks on things , on institutions. We're in a state of constitutional crisis, for example, we're attacking the courts, but we're also attacking institutions that typically could be building a democracy. One of the things that I'm going to end my presentation with, is talking about the role of education in a democracy. What does it mean to create school systems that are educating for democracy, versus educating for other kinds of political systems?
One final thing that I would say, is that we're in a moment when we're also attacking public education. Public education is being dismantled, we're defunding it, we're deregulating it, we're creating all kinds of alternatives to it. I don't think that it's a surprise that we're doing that, but one of the things that I think people would argue is that the dismantling or the failings of public schools is a sign that our educational system is failing. That we're failing our children.
That presumes that we built an educational system to serve all children, and to level the playing field, and to promote democracy, and one of the things I think we need to remind ourselves, many of you have studied history of education, right? Is that we actually never created ... the very beginnings of public schools in this country were not meant for equal educational opportunity, because we didn't create schools for everyone. We created schools for only the most elite. As we were forced to integrate more and more, we just came up with more and more ways to sort and differentiate them. In other words, although the purpose, sometimes, we say is equal educational opportunity, the function has, historically, been to sort.
Is it the case when we look at the achievement gap, the difference in test scores, that some groups are failing, is that a sign that schools are failing? Or is it a sign that they're succeeding and they're accomplishing exactly what they're set up to accomplish.
With this as my very unpleasant, pessimistic background, let's then dive in to "Five Lenses for , Social Justice Education."
What does it mean, in other words, to engage in education that's trying to advance democracy and social justice in this kind of a context? In a context where democracy itself is under attack, not just education. I'm going to offer five lenses, and before I talk about that, let me define "lenses."
What do I mean by "lenses?" I don't know, I like to tell the story of ... I don't know how it was where are of you were growing up, but where I was growing up, sometimes if two people were dating someone, they had "our song." Am I right? A song that had special meaning because maybe it was the first song you danced to, or the first song that you had dinner to, or whatever, and every time you hear that song on the radio, you're both like, "Aaw." Until you break up with that person, and every time ... you don't want to hear that song on the radio, right? But that, to me, is the perfect example are constantly creating unique lenses that we look through to make sense of the world around us.
Lenses that are colored by our childhood upbringing. Our cultural background. Our professional training, our educational experiences. It's why, at two different times in my life, I can respond to the same song differently, it's also why two people can walk into the same movie theater, or even the same lecture, and respond very differently. We are always looking through partial, colored, changing lenses.
Our job isn't to find the perfect lens, because there's no such thing, our job is to examine the partiality of any lens that we are wearing, including the ones we're wearing now, and by the way, including the ones that your professors are teaching you through. All lenses are partial. So, here's my invitation, then. Let's try on five different lenses, and let's see if it invites us to think about democracy and education with a little bit more complexity.
I like to think in alliteration, so all my lenses begin with the letter "p." The problems of common sense, the purposes of education, the paradoxes of teaching, the practices of solidarity, and the promises of movement building.
Let's begin, number one. The problem of common sense. Some of you work with young children. Do we often hear or say to young children, when they're doing something we want them to stop doing. Have you heard people say things like, "Just use your common sense," you know, as if common sense is a good thing.
What I want to argue is that common sense is not always a good thing. I think it was 1996 when I went back to my home state of Hawaii, I was visiting my family. '96 I believe was the year that there was a state referendum, there was a ballot on the election to amend the state constitution giving the legislature the authority to prohibit same sex marriage. And, as you know, Hawaii became the first state to do this.
I bring this up because there was this brilliant ad, a full-page ad in the newspaper, that was in support of the amendment, so it was an anti same sex marriage ad. In very big letters the title said "It's just common sense." The ad goes on to say it's just common sense that marriage is between a man and a woman, why are we even having this debate. I clipped that ad and I brought it to my professors, and I'm like "This is brilliant, isn't it?" Not that I agree at all with the argument, but I loved the brilliance of the framing.
Some of you may have read this article in 1994 called "The Grammar of Schooling." Grammar of Schooling? Oh yes, awesome.
So the Grammar of Schooling looks at school reforms in this country over the past century and what they're trying to understand why the major attempts to reform school fail. Those that failed, why did they fail. That's what this article is trying to understand.What they argued is that major attempts to reform schools failed if and when they bumped up against common sense.
So, if common sense tells you that the school year should run from September to June, and you come along and you say, "Hey, how about we do some year-round schooling?" That's likely to be opposed, and that's what we've seen throughout our history.
Or, if common sense says that you should be teaching and learning 50 minutes of math a day and 50 of reading, and 50 minutes of writing, and someone comes along and says, "Hey, let's do some interdisciplinary block scheduling." Well, that's likely to be heavily opposed, and that's exactly what we've seen. Even though, are these the ways that the schools look around the world? Actually, it's not. Is there any research that says that this is how schools should look? Actually, there isn't. There's no compelling body of research that says that should run the school year from September to June, or from 8:00 to 3:00, or 50 minutes of math and 50 minutes of reading every day.
That has become the common sense of our time in this particular place. Common sense is not universal. Common sense is a social construct; it arises in particular moments, with particular groups, and it changes over time. Let me give an example, let me give two. About 100 years ago it was kind of commonsensical to say that if you are a girl, you should not get too much education. Why did we say this? I'm thinking of the work of people like Christine Battersby, who talks about how there are people who felt that women belonged in the home, and there are people who felt that women would compete with men for jobs. But are many of you aware that around 100 years ago there was a science of the time that was telling us something like this? "The mind is connected to the body, and if you mess up with one, you might mess up the other. So if girls got too much education they might go crazy, they might become physically ill, or they might even become infertile."
I know, but ... it's like "Do your homework and you can't have babies." Who came up with that argument, right? But my point is that about 100 years ago that was kind of just taken for granted, that was kind of the "common sense" of our time. By the way, indeed, 100 years ago girls either weren't going to school, or they went, at most, to fourth or fifth grade.
Now, about 50 years ago, it's kind of commonsensical to say that if you had darker skin, you should not get too much education. Why did we say that? Well, there are some people who believe that there would be competition for jobs, but many of you are aware that about 50 years ago there was a so called science of that time that was telling us something like this, "people of darker skin don't have much intellectual capacity. They're not as smart, they can't learn as much. So why should we waste our time and our resources teaching them?" Now, today, many of us look back and we say "wow, what an incredibly racist to say." But, my point is that for many people 50 years ago, and perhaps even for many people today, that was just taken for granted. It was unquestioned. That was the "common sense" of our time.
I point this out not to make fun of people 50 or 100 years ago, but rather to raise the question, 50 years from now, how might we look back and say "Oh, I can't believe in 2018 it was commonsensical to think this." Like, what is the common sense of our time that we're not even recognizing is getting in the way of us seeing what's really going wrong with education, or what could be better solutions.
What's an example, across the political spectrum, across the political parties, both Republicans and Democrats seem to have bought in to the idea that test scores tell us everything we need to know, so we're going to base student promotion and graduation on test scores. Teacher evaluation on test scores. School turnarounds and closures on test scores, and even funding on test scores. Even though, the test makers and testing experts themselves tell us tests were never designed to, say, evaluate teachers. Tests were never designed, have no validity for evaluating schools, nor are they reliable when we use them for that.
Yeah, questioning common sense. What I would argue is that, education, therefore, should be intentionally about rattling common sense. Education shouldn't be about affirming what we already think, that's not education. Education should be confronting us with something new, it should be rattling what we already think we know. In fact, this is where I like to draw on the arts. Some of you know the late Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks?
Gwendolyn Brooks tells us that art hurts. Art hurts. Why does art hurt? Because art urges voyages, and it's easier to stay at home. Art hurts not merely because it's representational, not merely because it's ... it's not like it's just a mirror or a window in reality, nor is it merely about preparing us to fit in to the world as it is. Art hurts because it can help us to imagine and create the world as it is not yet. The world as it could be. And since we're often invested in the world as it is, that's why art can be so rattling. Same with education. Education shouldn't be about simply teaching us to fit in to the world as it is, education should be about teaching us to imagine the world that does not yet exist. That's partly why we see revolutions across the world, throughout history, starting in places like universities, but it's also why we see those prosecuted in totalitarian regimes are often the educators and the artists.
So let's talk then about why schools? My second lens is the purposes of education. Why do we have schools?
We talked today a lot about equal education opportunity, that seems to be the big mantra around education. We didn't always talk about education that way, though, so what I thought I'd do is give you a quick timeline of throughout history, what are some of the major ways we've talked about the purposes of education?
Before public schools in this country began, we had common schools. Have some of you looked at the curriculum of the common schools? It is fascinating, and the earliest schools then, these common schools, were not really preparing people for jobs. They were not even really primarily about academics. Common schools were primarily about moral education and socialization. About 100 years later with the Cold War, we saw Russia launch Sputnik and we're like "Ah, we're losing the space race, we need to ramp up education." Particularly certain kinds of education.
That should point out that for many people, the purpose of education during the Cold War was not about moral education, and again, it was not so much about only job preparedness, it was linked to, kind of, U.S. dominance. It had links to imperialism. 1970s was one of the most interesting periods, for me, about education. Here I think about the work of Noam Chomsky, some of you are familiar with Noam Chomsky? He also talks about the 1970s as an interesting moment in education when both the political right and the left, the conservatives and the liberals, seemed to agree on one thing. That education was causing too much problems.
1970s was the birth of the conservative revolution. It was following the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and we see the formation of things like the Business Roundtable and the Philanthropy Roundtable that would eventually build an entire movement of think tanks and philanthropies and media organizations and political outreach organizations that are all about how we ... what people saw, was that the Civil Rights Movement, that took place over decades, was able to change not only the hearts and minds of people, they were able to change policies and laws to advance their goals, around diversity, justice, multiculturalism, and so on.
So there are some who looked at that and they're like "Wow, look at this. Maybe we should engage in some long term strategizing to change law and policy to advance our interest, which were interests around the corporate elite. That's why you saw the formation of these roundtables that eventually seeded the formation of this revolution. Look at books like Lisa Duggan and look Twilight of Equality would be one good example of kind of mapping out the emergence of the reich, and simultaneously the neoliberal ideology.
Part of what they were arguing was that we need to be creating different kinds of social institutions that can kind of squash this idea that the masses have the same rights as everyone else. Why would the liberals be on board with that? Well, the liberals in the 1970s were also looking around the world, not only at the U.S., but, the 1960s and 70s was a time of revolutions around the world. You saw it Eastern Europe, you saw it in Latin America, you saw it in the United States. So the trilateral commission, a product of the Cold War, was bringing together nations in Western Europe, Japan, and the United States, and one of the things that they were doing was trying to talk about revolutions around the world. In 1974, they issued a report that was trying to talk about this.
"So, what's going on around the world? Why so much social unrest?" And here's what this report argued, that "there was too much democracy. There are too many people in the masses who believe that they have the same rights as everyone else, therefor they're pushing for change." And what was the culprit of too much democracy? It was education.
So, the liberals were beginning to argue that maybe we need to think differently about stratifying education so that it wouldn't fuel social unrest. Why does Chomsky argue that this is an agenda of the left? It's because a lot of the people who wrote that report from the U.S. ended up going into the Carter administration. They were the Democrats, some of the liberal Democrats of the time. We see in the early 2000s "No Child Left Behind" which is all about college and career readiness, which is all about standards and accountability. What's interesting about the early 2000s, and the way we talked about education, is that we began to be really fixated on thinking about students as future adults.
We're getting them ready for college and career, they're valuable why? Because of the role they'll play in the future. In other words, we were paying less attention to children as valuable as children, and more children valuable as future adults.
Job preparedness became a really big thing as well. In fact, I was at Electra a few years ago where the speaker was saying, it was actually the noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, some of you may know Thomas Friedman. He begins by saying "We all know that the purpose of schools is to prepare people to be competitive in the global workforce." So he then goes on to spend his entire lecture talking about how he believes schools can better prepare people for jobs, and at the end, everyone stood up and gave a standing ovation, and I looked around the room and I felt like saying "Sit down. What are you doing giving this guy a standing ovation? That is not the primary purpose of education. It is one purpose."
So then, let's talk about one final moment in history. It's actually occurred twice, it occurred after the Civil War, and occurred a century later in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In both of these time periods there was another way that people were talking about the purpose of education, and that was using language like "education for liberation, education for freedom, education for revolution, education for emancipation." We have talked about, my point is that throughout history, depending on the social context we find ourselves in, we've talked about education very differently. There isn't just one purpose, and that's a good thing. I think we should be constantly debating what the purpose of education should be.
Let me slightly now contradict myself to say that regardless of how we talk about the purpose, there is even one more important thing to think about and that is the function, because no matter what you say the purpose is, that doesn't mean it is what schools are actually doing. We could be talking about education for liberation, we could be talking about preparing all students to succeed, we could be talking about education for democracy, but the reality is that schools, as I said just a few moments ago, were set up for only the most elite, and historically, what schools have done very well, whether it's through excluding, whether it's through segregating, whether it's through tracking, whether it's through labeling, we've always kind of taught students differently. We've always sorted.
Sometimes people think "Wow, schools were never really set up as institutions for equal educational opportunity, schools are very much reinforcing an inequitable status quo, maybe we should give up on public education, and isn't that what we're hearing a lot? That we should not have this, kind of, very socialist looking enterprise, we should privatize everything, and, what I would argue is, even though schools historically have served to sort ... and, by the way, those of you who study international comparative education, particularly in moments of industrialization, when countries start up mass schooling systems, what is one of the primary purposes of the schooling systems? It's to socialize. It's not just the U.S. that sets up schooling for this, this is what we see throughout the world, throughout history.
What I would argue is, even though that might be the function, schools also historically have served as sites of contestation. Education is a place where we struggle as a society to define who we are and whom we are to become, and that's why we need to be engaging in this battle, to reclaim education, or to remake it to a much more vision.
We need to dive in to that contradiction, in other words, and that gets to my third point. My third lens is about the paradox of teaching. So a paradox is when to contradictory things coexist. Let me talk about, you heard from Professor Smulyan about thinking about learning through crisis. This is one of my favorite theories, it's called "learning through crisis."
I like to illustrate this theory with one of my favorite movies, The Matrix. The Matrix? Everyone seen The Matrix? I know, some of you are like "What?" One time I was giving this lecture, and I was talking about The Matrix, and someone came up to me afterwards and was like "Dude, you got to update your references because that movie is 20 years old." And I'm like, "I know it's 20 years old, but it's a really good movie."
So let me tell you a little bit about The Matrix. How many of you have seen The Matrix? Oh, awesome. I'll describe it to you anyway. For those of you who have not seen it. Late 90s, is this when it was made? Late 90s or so? So, The Matrix is set in the future, it's several decades in the future. Computers, machines have taken over the world. Machines need power to operate, so what are the battery sources for the machines? It's human bodies, so those of you who have seen the movie, remember the scene where there's millions of pods, with human beings are in comas, and kind of are serving as batteries for these machines.
Most of us wouldn't chose to lie in a coma and be a battery for a machine, so, how do the machines get us to be their battery source? They link our minds to a computer simulation program to make us think we're living several decades in the past, in the 1990s. The main character, Keanu Reeves' character Neo ... yeah, some of you are like "that's not the story," but go with me on this, okay. The main character is Neo, do you all remember the "blue pill/red pill" choice? Okay.
So the blue pill/red pill choice is when Neo is given the choice between taking the blue pill, and taking the red pill. You take the blue pill and you go back to sleep. You go back into the coma, you go back into the computer simulation program and you continue to think that the real world is in 1990s. But if you take the red pill, then you wake up and you see what the real world is like. You're all aware, that there's not only a Matrix, there's two sequels to The Matrix, so, clearly he chose the red pill so that he could wake up and join the battle against the machines.
He's learning what the real world is like, he's learning that the machines have taken over the world, most humans are battery sources. The few humans who are not batteries, who have somehow gotten out of the computer simulation program, they're living in hiding, they're constantly being hunted down, they're living underground. It's oppressive, it's dark, it's scary, it's cold. You're eating slop for food. It's just a very oppressive existence.
There's this one scene where he's starting to learn about the real world, and he's getting so upset realizing that he's been so duped and the world is really so harsh, that he ... do you remember this? He kind of stumbles back, falls to the ground, and throws up. When I saw that, I thought, "Ah. That is the image that I'm going to use to talk about learning through crisis."
Let me describe this theory. It's a four part theory. Part one is that learning involves unlearning. Learning involves unlearning. Sometimes we think that teaching is about me giving you something, as if there's nothing going on in your head, but we know that actually that almost never happens. It's almost never the case that a student walks into our class and they have no idea what it is that you're trying to teach them, right?
Researchers call this "sense." As we live in the world we make sense of the world around us. And often, that sense is wrong. The job of education is to try to correct it, but the point is that it's rarely the case that you know nothing about a topic that is being taught. Our job, then, is to get you to first unlearn what you think you know, in order to learn something else. So watch my hands as an example. A common sense kind of tells up that this is addition. When you're really young, those of you who work with children ... when you're really young, this is kind of a concept of addition. So, when we work with really young children, don't some people conclude that two plus two is 22? You actually have to get them to unlearn that, to learn that two plus two is four. Or, if you look across the horizon and it looks like this, why wouldn't you conclude that the world is flat? I have to get you to unlearn that in order to learn that the world is round.
My second point is that unlearning can make us uncomfortable. Unlearning leads to discomfort. I like picking up a book, and saying "Oh, I always thought that was true, and Lisa Smulyan says that right here in this book." What I don't like doing is picking up a book and realizing I was wrong all this time, and maybe I was contributing to the problem. Unlearning can make us uncomfortable, and what's important about this theory is that the more invested I am in my beliefs, the more uncomfortable I can get. So, I'm not that uncomfortable to learn that two plus two is not 22, but let's say I believe that I got to where I am because I am smarter than everyone else, and I tried harder, and I worked harder and I'm better. Then, you're trying to teach me concepts of, say, privilege and entitlement, that might make me really uncomfortable, right?
The third point is that discomfort can make us resist. Discomfort leads to resistance. If you're talking to me, and you're making me uncomfortable, I usually don't think to myself "That's making me uncomfortable, tell me more and make me more uncomfortable." That's not usually my response. My response is usually "Wow, this is making me kind of uncomfortable, I need to stop listening," right? And this is happening all the time. If we also recognize that the more invested I am in my beliefs, the more uncomfortable I will be, you can also imagine that the more invested I am in my beliefs, the more resistant I will be.
One time one of my advisors in grad school was like, "Is it ethical to lead people to a state of crisis, to make them uncomfortable?" And I was like, "I'm not sure that's the right question, because my theory is saying 'we're always doing that. People are always entering places of discomfort.' So, to me, the question is, is it ethical to leave them there, or to help them work through that discomfort."
That, then, leads to the fourth point of this theory, which is that therefore education must address resistance. We often try to shy away from the uncomfortable moments in education. We often don't want to talk about a topic because we know it will generate emotions, we know it will generate questions I don't know how to answer, and so on ... my point is that if we don't think about discomfort and resistance, then, what are we doing? We are sometimes, maybe, trying to jam information into someone's brain without realizing that the more I try to put information in their brain, the more what? The more resistant they might be becoming. I might actually be making the problem worse by not addressing resistance.
The theory of learning through crisis reminds us that the central problem of education is not always a lack of knowledge, this is what we often say about diversity training, "what's the problem with racism? People don't know enough about racism. So, what's my job? I need to tell you more about racism." This theory is telling us, "No, people know a lot about racism, they just don't want to hear what you have to say about racism. The problem isn't always a lack of knowledge, the problem is often a resistance to knowledge, and the ways we teach often make that resistance worse."
How do we address resistance? Actually, that wasn't the question I was going to ask, but that's an important question, you do have to ask how you could address resistance.
What I actually meant to say, was students are not the only ones who can be uncomfortable, because what this theory should suggest to us is that teaching and learning not only involves student discomfort and resistance, but teacher discomfort and resistance as well. There are many ways that we can talk about teacher resistance, but the quick story I will tell on this one is that one of the ways that we feel most confident as a teacher, is when we can predict the outcome, is when we can say "here's where I want students to go, and I'm going to plan a lesson to get them there, and I'm going to assess whether or not they there, and if they did, then I'm a successful teacher. And, the more I can make my classes look like this, the more comfortable I will be."
What, and many scholars, would want to argue is that actually that never happens. It's never the case that you can get students to think exactly the way you want them to think, or that you can even know what they're thinking in their entirety. So, what does it mean to dive into the contradiction of unknowability? Of impossibility?
This lens is called paradox of teaching, why?
Because part of what we need to be thinking about is how we both teach and unteach, how we both learn and unlearn. Learning involves unlearning. Yeah, well, teaching also should involve unteaching, I know there's no such word, but the point I'm trying to make is that when you teach something you should be rattling the very things you teach. You should be exposing the partiality of anything you're teaching. So, here's an example of that.
I was once teaching a lesson to student teachers about multicultural education and I wanted to illustrate it with examples from music, so I was like ... can you all hear the accent in my voice? I grew up in Hawaii, so I was like, "let's learn a song from Hawaii." So, we learn the beginning of this song, and I was like "let's brainstorm, what images come to mind? What stereotypical images come to mind when you think Hawaii, Hawaiian music, Hawaiian culture?" Many of the things the we- actually, this lesson I did here, by the way. That's beside the point, but ... We brainstorm all the images that many of us would brainstorm as well. The volcano, the coconut tree, the coconut bras, the grass skirts, hula dancing. The luaus, the pig in the ground, and even media images like Hawaii 5 0, or I guess there's even a new Hawaii 5 0. All of these are the images.
So I said, "Alright, I want you to picture those images as you hear the beginning of the song, and to ask yourself what meanings and feelings come up when you put side by side those images with this song." I then said, "Let me tell you a second story of Hawaii," and it's a story that many of you here are also familiar with, and that is that Hawaii is the 50th state in this country, it used to be its own monarchy. There are eight major islands in the Hawaiian chain, and that before the beginning of the 1800s, each of them had been ruled by different chiefs, until around the beginning of the 1800s when one of those chiefs united all of these islands into a kingdom.
For about 100 years he and his descendants until the last monarch, the queen. In the late 1800s the queen was forced to abdicate, or give up her throne, and eventually Hawaii became acquired first as a territory, and then a state of the United States.
Many people know of the central role in that overthrow, played by business men and military leaders from the United States. Military leaders because of the strategic location in the middle of the Pacific ocean at a time when the United States was entering one of its wars, the business leaders because of the rich natural resources being exported at the time, like Sandalwood.
Not many people know that there was also a central role played by Christian missionaries and their descendants. The missionaries and their descendants were in the islands since before the kingdom began, and from as early as the second king, began to exert enormous influence, not only over things like politics, governance, and economy, but also over things like culture and the arts.
We know throughout history song and dance is one of the places where we resist outside forces, but it's also a space where those outside forces begin to shape, and permeate. This song is one of the most well known songs in Hawaii, it's taught throughout the elementary schools, its lyrics were written by the last queen. Its title is "Kanaka Wai Wai." Anyone know of Kanaka Wai Wai? Well, you should Google it because it's a beautiful song.
It wasn't until college that I went back to look at the translation of the lyrics, because it's written in Hawaiian. So, I'm looking at the translation, I'm like "Well look at that?" This song is actually a parable from the New Testament. It's a parable where a wealthy man approaches Jesus and says "How do I get into heaven?" And Jesus says, "Give away your possessions."
So, I ask people to picture this story, the translation of the parable, of the song, the history of the monarchy overthrow, colonialism, and to ask yourself whether different meanings and feelings come up when you put side by side the same song but with different images.
Just like I was saying earlier, about when you have "our song" and you're dating someone ... same thing here, right? The song people would say sounds very different, it evokes different emotions. Maybe the first time they're thinking about vacationing and they're feeling relaxed, whereas the second time, almost universally, people would say "I feel much sadder," or "I feel angry," or "I feel guilty," or "I feel frustrated," and that's kind of my point, that different cultural contexts will lead you to learn that song differently.
In fact, the point of the lesson isn't to find the right story, because both stories are accurate, and both stories are partial. The point is to show that, no matter what story you tell, you're going to enable certain kinds of learning, and you're going to close off other kinds of learning.
Our job is to get students to recognize the partiality, therefore, of any learning. I thought that was such a smart lesson, so I was like "What did you all think of that lesson?"
I had anticipated them to say that some of the strengths were some of the weaknesses. This is about a 45 minute lesson, and every time I wanted them to sing, I had them stand up. And, you know how we say get people moving, don't sit in your chair for too long ...
Well, someone was like "That could be a strength, unless you have an injury or disability on your legs that would make it hard to sit and stand, and sit, and stand,"
I'm like, "That's right. The same thing that's a strength could be a weakness."
Many of you are learning to be teachers, right? Do we often say, "Do something memorable. Do something out of the ordinary."
Okay, well, if this is not a music class and I'm making you sing, that's pretty out of the ordinary. But, we also know that some people are so terrified of singing in public, that it would distract them from anything else that you're trying to do in that lesson. The same thing that's a strength, can be a weakness.
Here's why I'm telling you the stories, because there's a weakness I hadn't anticipated. One student said,
"I thought it was interesting the way you had us warm up our voices."
The beginning of this lesson, I had us sing the scale. One, two, three, four ... I had us sing like that, and I'm like "Breathe from your diaphragm," and "open your mouth," like "don't sing like this, sing like this," you know, and I was trying to ...
And he's like "You're implying that's the better way to sing."
And I'm like "Yeah, that's how I learned to sing, so I thought that was the better way to sing."
And he said, "different cultures use the body differently to produce music. There's different ways of singing. You've just reinforced the privilege of that one way of singing."
The irony is that it's the way we sing and the form of music that you're trying to challenge, which is classical music. At the time I thought, "so smart," so I just said, "Yeah, good point." And I moved on with the lesson. I tell this story now, because it's in retrospect that I realize, "wow, that is the moment of learning that we're looking for."
It was, in other words, a moment when he is diving into the gaps in the lesson, because if he was simply buying in to my version of Hawaii, or my way of teaching singing, or anything like that, am I really teaching him to think for himself? And, in fact, isn't this one of the biggest criticisms of multicultural education, that we're simply imposing over one dominant or hegemonic view, another "politically correct" one.
Our job isn't to find, and teach them, and force everyone to think, in the politically correct way. Our job is to get people to be critical, and skeptical, and to question any way of thinking. To see the partialities of any way of teaching, of any way of thinking, including that of the teacher. This is what I mean by "teach" and "unteach." When we recognize that any lesson or story is partial, it doesn't mean we don't teach, it means we teach but then we dive in to the gaps.
The practices of solidarity. I'm always concerned when someone says, "Why do I want to teach? Because I want to help," or "I want to empower," or, worse yet, "I want to save," those children. I like to tell the story of how one of my research projects involved interviewing a father who had adopted a three year old boy, and in this boy's first three years, he had been in eleven different foster homes. Some of you studied child development, and you know what happens in the first, especially two, years of life. We begin to form our sense of self, and it's formed in relation to others. So, if you're bounced around from home to home, and you get the feeling that no one really wants you, how do you think that's going to affect your sense of self, your sense of worth, as well as your ability to interact with other kids, and to interact with other adults.
What this father was finding was that this child was so difficult the preschool didn't know what to do with him. Preschool after preschool was saying "We can't handle this kid, you have to take him somewhere else." And finally, he began to conclude that our systems, our society, believes that some kids are disposable. This is his language. We seem to act like we have disposable kids, "they're not my responsibility, let someone else take care of them." Let the social welfare system, the healthcare system, even the juvenile justice system take care of this kid. "They don't need to be in my classroom, and they're certainly not my responsibility."
He asks, "how did we get to a point where we conclude that some kids aren't our responsibility?" I like to tell that story because I think that part of our challenge is to embrace the idea that all kids are our responsibility, without taking on a savior positioning. Without thinking that I'm better than all of you, but I'm here to save you and make you more like me. This is where solidarity comes in, because solidarity isn't saying "I'm here to help." Solidarity is about saying that "your oppression is intertwined with mine." That "Your children are my children. I'm here to act in solidarity with other communities."
So what does it mean to embrace a vision of education that is about solidarity work? It's not about charity work, it's not about service work. It's about insisting that I can't be liberated unless you are, too.
This reminds me of this comment that one of my mentors once said to a group of us, she was like "Let's be very skeptical when someone says that 'I am a social justice advocate,' or, 'I am a leader,' or even 'I am a public school educator.' Let's be skeptical if they make that claim and at the same time they are not willing to be a champion for those whose differences make them the most uncomfortable." For those whose differences make them the most uncomfortable. What she's trying to push back on is the idea that sometimes people say "I'm an advocate, but I'm an advocate for people like me."
You know, that is important, it is important to advocate for our own community, but it's also important to recognize that those boundaries between the "us" and the "them," that should sound familiar because that's how I opened up my presentation. What we actually need to be doing is expanding who the "we" is that we talk about. And, just by the way, to connect this to some policy considerations, sometimes people violently defend the boundaries around their school assignment zone. "Who can attend my school? I'm going to fight to defend this boundary."
Who drew those boundaries? They're, in some ways, kind of arbitrary, and in some ways we know they're highly racist. So, why are we defending this slightly arbitrary, slightly racist definition of who the "we" is? What we really should be doing is battling to expand the notion of "we."
Let me conclude with the promises of movement building. There is a candidate in California, where I'm living, for the state superintendent, whose campaign is centered around the idea that he wants to be superintendent to push back against the Trump and DeVos agenda. Particularly the agenda of defunding education. You all know Betsy DeVos, right? Secretary of Education? Okay.
I saw that and I thought, "Hmm, that's your agenda? Alright. Let's think a little bit about that one, because ... what is so new about DeVos and Trump in education? What are they saying that is 180 degree shift from where we've come? I would argue there's not much. There's this article that was written in the early part of 2017 by Diane Ravitch, and the title of the article is, "Don't like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats." She's not saying Democrats have ruined education alone, what she's saying is "Democrats better not act like they had nothing to do with where we've come. They've laid the groundwork for where we've come."
You don't like privatization? You don't like marketized school systems? Alright, which administration in the past century has done more to privatize public education than any other ones? It's Obama and Duncan. It's a race to the top, unquestionably.
You don't like high-stakes testing? High-stakes testing accelerated since Clinton's administration, and what did we see on the race to the top? It was a crowing achievement in the standards in testing movement. We began to backtrack, but the point I'm trying to make is that across the administrations of the past few decades, Republicans and Democrats were pushing for that.
In fact, who was a chief sponsor of No Child Left Behind? It may have been signed by George Bush, but the chief sponsor was Ted Kennedy, one of the most liberal members of the party, and who drafted a lot of No Child Left Behind? It wasn't a Bush/Texas policy, this was drafted in the final years of Clinton, and how do I know this for a fact? Because I know some of the people who drafted them, and they were so proud.
I was having dinner with ... I've never told you this story, I don't think, but, I was having dinner with some of these folks, it was a random group of people. I was like, "Oh, you used to work in the Department of Education? We were talking about the unions, and I was trying to say there's a shift in the reputation of the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers. One used to be seen as more radical, one used to be seen as more mainstream, until No Child Left Behind, when they flipped, and the one that used to be more mainstream is now the more radical one, because they were willing to speak openly against No Child Left Behind.
This guy was like, "I don't think that that's a sign that they're more progressive," and he starts to defend No Child Left Behind, and it turns out he actually was working on that legislation. That was an uncomfortable dinner, seriously.
We need to understand history, we need to understand how we've gotten to where we are, but, the reason I bring this up under a conversation of movement building is because there's another thing that I'm concerned about, and that is that we're highlighting Trump and DeVos. Rather than highlighting patterns that have evolved over decades, rather than highlighting the ideologies that drive the policies, we're going to demonize the individual. There's lots to demonize, I'm not going to dispute that at all, but, when it comes to education, simply demonizing the leaders misses the much bigger picture.
This is one of my concerns about a lot of the ... I love all of the mass mobilizations that have happened over the past year, and I think we need a lot more of them, but if they continue to say that the problem is Trump and we need to take down Trump, we're missing something much bigger, because not only is Trump building on decades of other policies and ideologies, Trump is not alone. Trump got elected, in large part, because of different kinds of movements pushing for those kinds of changes.
I'm reminded of when Obama was elected one of my friends said he's concerned, if people are so much buying into this idea that he's bringing us hope, remember the whole "Yes we Can." If we buy in to so much the story that this one person is going to save us, we're not only setting ourselves up for disappointment, we're setting him up for failure.
There was this interesting article that was written around the time of the elections that makes this argument very clear. The article was basically arguing that if we look at the presidents that were in office at times of major social transformation, like Lincoln at the time of abolition, or Franklin Roosevelt at the time of lots of things, the Great Depression, New Deal, World War 2, all of that. Lyndon Johnson at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, major legislation then, and Ronald Reagan, at the time of Conservative Revolution.
Four very different presidents, politically, but what characterizes all of their terms? It was that helping to make these changes, and crucial to these changes, were large social movements. Large, vast, powerful social movements. Has anyone ever compared the first Inauguration Address of Lincoln to his second one? His first Inauguration Address does not sound at all like the second one. He did not campaign as an abolitionist at all. It was the social movements of the time that pushed him to become more in favor of abolition. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms, and part of that is because he sat with several movements. It was both the left populous and a new labor movement that was emerging at the time.
Lyndon Johnson was able to tap in to the Civil Rights Movement, wasn't Lyndon Johnson the one who said to Martin Luther King when he was kind of talking to him, saying "you need to do this, you need to do this," and he finally says, "Yeah, okay. I hear you, now, make me do that." Recognizing that part of what gives him the cover to be able to push for progressive change, is that there is a lot of noise outside. And Reagan, did Reagan build the Conservative Movement? Not at all, Reagan got elected because of the social movement behind the Conservative Movement. So, part of what we need to be thinking is not only how movements can take down presidents, but also how movements are essential for any president to be successful.
Now, what makes for a powerful movement? Let's talk about the Civil Rights Movement, because many people think, when we think about the Civil Rights movement, we think about leaders, Martin Luther King for example, Malcolm X. When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we think about legislation. We think that the major victories are Civil Rights Act, Brown Vs Board of Education, Voting Rights Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act. These were all great Acts, but many of you are probably aware that even in the 1950s and 60s when these things were happening, the activists were saying that these are compromises. That they were steps forward and steps back. They were saying it at the time, so it can't be the case that the Civil Rights Movement was powerful only because of the legislation and the policies.
Movements are powerful because they rattle public consciousness. The Civil Rights Movement was powerful because it changed how we, as a nation, thought and talked about things like race, and rights, and diversity, and democracy. Same with the Occupy movement, what made the Occupy movement so powerful?
There were no major legislative changes in its immediate wake. What made it powerful was that it made household language, terms like "the 1%," "the 99%," do you all remember this language? It shifted how we think, in other words, about the elite and the masses, and who built, by the way, on that movement? Sanders. I'm sorry, yes, there are many people who built on that movement, but he was able to tap in to that movement. Sanders' campaign was all about inequity, economic inequity.
One of my friends likes to say that in this moment, one of the most powerful social movements that is shifting the public debate, is the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. I think in education we need to be thinking like this as well. We need to tackle policies, and we need to tackle problematic leaders, but we also need to think about what is the common sense of our time that's getting in the way of us being able to improve education? One of the biggest learnings that I had when I was in Washington D.C., working at the National Education Association, was seeing that when we tried to bring together the civil rights groups, we were all over the place on education. The groups could not decide, and therefore, we have not been able to build a movement. I would argue it's because where we fixate is debating the policies. What we need to be doing much more of is raising consciousness about the purposes and the promises of education.
We need to rattle the "common sense" of education. We need to think with more complexity about the problems, and where we've gone wrong. One final example, for the last 20 years we've been obsessed with the achievement gap. We want to close the gap, bring the scores of these groups, bring it up to here. Well, not only is it a super big problem to focus on test scores, it's also a problem to say that the major problem in education is that there's a gap, because if all we do is focus on that gap, and test scores, we're missing something much bigger, which is the system. This is a neoliberal argument. The argument that the problem is individual performance is going to mask the much bigger problem of a broken system, and that's what we need to be tackling.
We need to rattle common sense, we need to reframe the debate. So, what's my final argument? Did I already say that? This will for sure be my final argument.
I said this this morning, right? One of my friends likes to argue that we need to ask ourselves, one of the most fundamental questions, in fact, I gave a lecture, he was sitting in the audience. When we broke up into groups I was listening to their conversation, and he's like "That is the question that students in our K-12 schools should be asking themselves every day. Not only 'why schools," but 'schools for what? Education for what? Why are we here?' and 'what does it mean to have education for democracy?'"
He likes to say that if you were to create a school system for a totalitarian state, what would it look like? Some of you already heard me say this, right?
It would look like we're teaching- we want everyone to conform. We want everyone to be obedient. We're going to dumb down the curriculum for the masses because we want to stratify schools. We're going to fund it inequitably. We're going to teach some kids this and other kids this. Those who have are going to get better.
What I just described is what we have. We don't have an education system, he would argue, that prepares us for democracy. We have an education system that's preparing people for a totalitarian state. We have an education system that's preparing people for inequity, and to buy in to the story that that's the right thing. You all have read Carter G. Woodson's "Miseducation of the Negro?" Almost 100 years ago, Carter G. Woodson wrote Miseducation of the Negro, and what's his argument? One of his main arguments is that we shouldn't be giving our black children more education, because the education we're giving them is a problem to begin with. We're teaching them to fit into an inferior position within the racial hierarchy of the United States, why in the world would we give them more of that?
What we actually need to first do, is radically transform education. We need to offer an education for democracy. So, that's my challenge to all of us, and I look forward to seeing the changes that we make happen when we embark on that work.
Thanks so much, everyone.