Department of Philosophy
Valdosta State University
Valdosta GA 31698
Studies in Philosophy of Education Vol. 19 no. 4 (July 2000)
This paper is a discussion of the application of democratic educational principles in a college setting. More specifically, the paper explores the implications of such principles for the work of anti-racism and, conversely, how knowledge of anti-racism forces one to reexamine one‟s pedagogy. After giving a brief description of the conditions encountered in an economically and intellectually impoverished region of the country, the paper outlines an application of Deweyan educational theory to college instruction. Then, after an account of what racism is, the paper reapplies John Dewey‟s model to the teaching of anti-racism, and with the help of
Paulo Freire‟s theory of educational praxis, readapts Deweyan principles to
the task of building an equitable and just community.
Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously in relation to his students—even 1himself.
[T]he oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this 2struggle.
Parents generally know more than their children, but typically can‟t articulate that knowledge very well; hence, the need for authority. To the extent that this authority is exercised without articulation and reason, education is missing. Paternalism, the idea that authorities are in a position of superiority much (if not exactly) like parents, is not only antithetical to education insofar as it is authoritarian; it is also incapable of providing the care one finds in parenthood.
Anti-racism, as practiced by many white educators, suffers from the paternalistic impulse and thereby fails to produce its intended results. The problem is that there‟s a built-in assumption,
often unnoticed and rarely acknowledged by those preaching anti-racism, that those who suffer evil are to be protected and cared for as if they were children. They are perceived as inferior, epistemically, organizationally, and even morally, to their would-be saviors. And the anti-racists have an internalized sense of superiority, which is only strengthened by every person and institution that legitimizes their power.
Teaching also suffers inherently from the paternalistic impulse and is ineffective to the extent that this impulse remains unchecked. Teaching anti-racism, therefore, is doubly prone to failure because the internalized superiority of the teacher as “all-knowing teacher” is most often
coupled with that of “well meaning white person.” The purpose of this paper is to suggest
strategies for overcoming the paternalistic impulse in both teachers and in anti-racists, and most importantly, in the teachers of anti-racism.
31. Initial Seizure: Teaching in South Georgia
When I came to my first teaching position in South Georgia, fresh out of grad school and 5 years of teaching assistantships, I found a population of students who were--by most academicians standards--two notches below those I had been teaching as a grad student. I found myself quite comfortable at first using the "lecture and discussion" method that many see as „progressive.” My
students liked me, they did well on their quizzes and tests and everybody seemed happy. The only
4problem was that I wasn't educating them.
The reason they had done fairly well, even with some of the more difficult stuff, is because they had been conditioned to "listen" to what the teacher said and repeat what has been said on the exam. I remember commenting to a friend that my students did about as well as those that we had taught together in grad school because even though they were "less bright" they were also less cynical, more willing to listen to what I had to say. I was pleased with this, but came to see this willingness as artificial. It's not that they were willing to listen so much as willing to be told
what to do and think. In short, I came to realize that I wasn't getting through to them. They—
and we--are the product of a society that is thoroughly authoritarian. Although this is certainly true of the United States generally, it is particularly true in the Deep South. Campus dynamics are no different. From the top we have a President dictating to administrators, who in turn dictate to the faculty, who then dictate to the students. And the President of the institution is also trapped in this hierarchy, having to answer to his superiors in the State System. All the while, few people are really listening and even fewer know what time it is.
2. From Recognition to Perception: Educational Theory
It wasn't long before I knew that something had to change, but it took me a few years to figure out that all my idealizations about the need for teaching through application had been conceived a
priori. John Dewey‟s educational theory, which I had studied but had little opportunity to apply as a teaching assistant, could not be fully appreciated except in the context of practice. It was actually a colleague whose ideas were wrought on in the context of work here in Georgia, who, though he hadn‟t read Dewey, got me to revisit my idealizations and work out an educational
5praxis for my campus and its unique population of students.
Returning to educational theory in the light of my experiences, I found some crucial concepts in pragmatic education. I outline them as follows:
61) the pragmatic model of thinking and inquiry in John Dewey‟s How We Think;
2) the educational psychology arising from (1);
3) the institutional theory of self developed by George Herbert Mead in Mind, Self and
84) the social philosophy in Dewey‟s Democracy and Education, which makes the
democratization of our institutions a primary end-in-view of modern education. The first two concepts, the pragmatic model of thinking and educational psychology, basically tell us that thinking begins in the context of activity, specifically when a problem of some sort is
910perceived. Call it Peirce's irritations of doubt, or Mead's problematic, but however you put it,
there is no (reflective) thinking--and hence educating--until a problem is perceived. And there are no problems without activity. Hence "learning" outside of the context of ongoing activity and related struggles is thoughtless thinking at best. An educator, accordingly, is one who finds
where the student is, what he or she is doing, and introduces new material in a context of problems and projects alive in the minds of the students.
Item (3), the institutional theory of self, is one that is often ignored but is extremely important—especially as we start discussing issues such as racism and sexism. Basically, the relevance of the institutional theory of self is that selves are built, not found, that the building process is ongoing, not beginning or ending upon the completion of some degree program, and that this building process takes place through social interaction and not merely from the placing of bits of information in the mind-receptacles we sometimes call students. We are who we are by virtue of our institutional roles and our institutions are what they are by virtue of how we carry out those roles. What this means is that unless otherwise checked, the values embedded in our institutions, be they Christian love or white supremacy, will become internalized by us and shape us into executors of those inherited values. And it makes no difference if those values remain unstated; what matters is what we routinely live out in practice.
The latter point about social interaction and the construction of the self points to social philosophy--item (4) on our list. It is only in the democratization of those institutions that we can have fully developed selves (i.e., that we take on our roles as our own). It is only through
democratic interactions that selves can be reconstructed into persons who behave with a greater
degree of democratic accountability. And if we don't have democratic processes underlying higher education, where can we expect to find them? Education, higher or otherwise, can never be one way. Nor, however, is it simply a two-way relation, and certainly not forty two way relations between one teacher and forty students, each of them having nothing in common beyond the common element, teacher.
What this idea of education entails is radical democracy; but I am not proposing a system
where there is to be no guidance, nor one in which students can arbitrarily choose their course of
11study. I propose a setting in which students not only participate and interact, but that they do so with each other as well as with the instructor. This is a setting in which they must be allowed to, coaxed into, or even forced (not literally) into taking initiative in their studies and apply those studies to their interactions with the institutions which make them who they are. 3. Consummation? Reconstructing Practice
All these things considered, the last several years have been ones of reconstruction of the content of classes I teach--from Fundamentals of Philosophy, to a variety of Applied Ethics courses, to finally, courses in Anti-Racism.
Before discussing Anti-Racism, I‟d like to share two examples from an off campus course
in "Business Ethics.” I begin here because successes there helped me to rethink my success on
the main campus and reconstruct my teaching. The students off campus are typically working professionals who are taking classes in order to improve themselves (usually, that means 'get more money', but not always); they are not business majors and that makes them more teachable (i.e., they haven't been exposed to an onslaught of implicit claims as to the moral preeminence of profit maximization masquerading as objective economic analysis). Anyway, many students in the class—usually half--choose as term projects something that has direct bearing on their professional life.
One such student, who worked for a local power company, did her project on the recent policy of downsizing in her company. Using the Deweyan model of reflective problem-solving (i.e., his normative extension of the descriptive model of thinking expressed in How We Think) I
asked her to first describe the case in question (start with the concrete!), explicate what is at the
root of the problem, describe the values present and those thwarted by the current policy, consider alternates, evaluate them by virtue of what problems they'd solve and which they'd create, and then suggest a course of action and defend it against possible criticisms.
Another student worked on the cause of morale problems in her workplace. I asked her to take a look at the institutional structure and the levels of accountability and discretionary responsibility. She had identified a particular manager as the source of the problem but I challenged her to see that under an organization properly structured, such an individual would either reform or get kicked out of the system. She then mentioned to me that come to think of it, the same sorts of problems had existed with previous managers, only in this case the problem was more acute because of greater advantage this individual had taken of the structure which makes for no accountability in this given managerial position. As with the other student, the goal of her paper is to propose a solution to the existing problem(s). In her case, she made a restructuring proposal, based on a review of various management theories that were created to increase accountability and workplace democracy.
The reason I mention these cases is that they express to me the success in (a) using Dewey's model of reflective problem solving, (b) applying Dewey's discussion of interest and
12discipline, and (c) in getting the student to see the usefulness of philosophical reflection. Beginning with an activity they can call their own, having a realizable end-in-view and learning material by using it, is the very best any teacher can hope for.
Of course not all cases are success stories (even when they are, the students pull it off with varying degrees), and this particular population of students is unique. Most of the students on the main campus, by contrast, are young ones just out of high school without the lived experience that
gives older students the motivation to do something. The young ones, for me—at least initially—
were the ones who gave me the greatest challenge.
The challenge was basically this: Deweyan education requires that there is already activity; yet our educational institutions remove instruction from most activity, save those abstract exercises which are so removed from everyday courses of events that the theory practice rift is almost indelibly stamped on our consciousness by the time we leave elementary school. They study starvation in other countries but are sheltered from the abject poverty across town. They write letters to the President of the United States, but never to the editor of the local newspaper. Every social problem considered and civic duty performed tends to separate students from, rather than connect them to, their communities. So enter college freshmen: typically, they've done very little and have been discouraged from doing so. They can't wait to get out of school so they can
do something, but they have no idea what that something would be (except of course that magical carrot we call „more money‟). There are many nodes of cynicism in the minds of young college students, and the one which (perhaps) blocks us from getting through to all the others is the idea that education has nothing to do with the real world.
So what can we do to best serve the traditional student? In addition to the changes in content outlined above, I came to see that there must also be a change in form. Pedagogically, I found it necessary to change the basic structure of my courses. The emphasis on application
mentioned above means very little unless students engage each other, hold each other accountable, and take personal responsibility for their work, especially inasmuch as that work has an effect on their class mates. And when we come to issues such as racism responsibility and accountability taken on even more significance. In fact it has been the subject matter of racism that has
impressed on me why it is that that structures must change. Racism, in short, speaks to why form and content must change at once.
4. More Seizures: Racism and Anti-Racism
The subject matter—content--of racism and anti-racist organizing is a subject that has made it most apparent to me that format—structure—must be addressed before the content can be dealt
with. For this realization and the analysis to follow I am indebted to an antiracist organization
13called the People‟s Institute. Here are four key components of anti-racism from the People‟s
Institute model that I have tried to implement in my teaching:
1) defining and undoing racism: overcoming the trap of inevitability through analysis
and recognition of historicity;
2) teaching the history of racism: historical stages of racism and the recognition of race
as a social construct;
3) leadership development: overcoming the structure of domination by cultivating
leadership and independence;
4) accountability: overcoming domination by multidirectional accountability.
The first component, which involves tools of definition and social analysis as a means of undoing racial injustice, challenges the common perception that racism has always been with us and thereby checks the persistent sense of inevitability among both "whites" and “people of color.” This analysis points out that collectively we have failed to remember that racism, as an idea and a practice, has evolved and continues to do so. There‟s a tendency for us to conceptualize racism in terms of what it was—overt bigotry and physically violent behavior—and hence, in the absence of
such practice, we see no racial problems. Although violence and bigotry are still very real, a closer look shows us that racism is not limited to these things. Like sexism, racism involves more than conscious feelings of superiority on the part of some individual; racism exists as systems of
domination and oppression that continue to perpetuate themselves even after individuals cease to
be conscious of the harm they do. The violence becomes part of regular practice, is justified, and then slips into invisibility. The working definition of racism, according to this analysis is “Race
14Prejudice plus Power,” where „race‟ is understood as a social construct rather than a natural kind, and „power‟ is understood to be socially legitimated (i.e., institutional). Examples of this embedded racism range from racial tracking in the public schools to the numerous Black, Native American, and Latino men who have died at the hands of police men following “proper procedures” in recent years.
The teaching of the history of racism—the second component identified above—speaks to
the need to overcome inevitability by showing the historicity of racism. It also helps to unveil the form and structure of racism and its relation to the foundations of this society. Racism endures to the extent that it is seen as enduring, to the extent that its construction is veiled, and until we begin to see that and how it was constructed in stages, it will always be seen as permanent. But once we unveil the construct of racism, we can begin to see that it can be deconstructed, or,
dismantled. Once we see that since it was done, that it can be undone, we can begin to consider
how we can undertake the task of undoing racism. And once we understand this history, we will be able to see how we continue to live it out in our lives, from our schools, to our churches, to our anti-racist organizations. We will be able to see that only in the deconstruction of our own enterprises that racism will be undone. Keeping that in mind, I will briefly digress here and provide a reading of the history of the race construct. What will become apparent, I hope, is that each of the stages identified will suggest a plan (or plans) of action that we must follow in any effort to dismantle racial supremacy.
A first stage in the creation of racism, which might be called “pre-racism,” was the
promotion of cultural (and later, racial) superiority and the subsequent belief in natural hierarchies,