By: Gaby Guzman
For those of us who received an education, by whatever means, on the systems of oppression that exist in our world, once the veil dropped from our eyes, we could no longer live in neutrality and blissful ignorance. We are moved to act, to influence change…no matter how lofty our goals may seem. It is for this reason many of us decided to become teachers.
Education can be a powerful agent of change, not an equalizer of opportunity, but a tool for liberation. We all had our moment, or series of moments, where we experienced just how liberating an education can be. For me it began in a course called Knowledge and Power: Issues in Women’s Leadership. I took this course as a sophomore in college. The process of liberation did not occur instantly, but was rather a process, a journey, of unlearning all the “lies my teacher told me.” Through my courses at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, my experiences as a student in K-12 public education system, and my experiences as a student teacher, it became evident how schools are teaching students to become mere spectator citizens with values and beliefs that reinforce racism, sexism, classism and American exceptionalism. Teachers like myself, who support social justice and dream of a better world, are not in education to reinforce hegemonic discourse but instead to encourage open dialogue and critical thinking.
Students of color and students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds are not unaware of the disparities between their own communities and surrounding affluent communities. Students notice these disparities, but without knowledge and consciousness of the institutionalized systems of oppression they resort to self-blame to explain why those disparities exist. As a future social studies educator of color, I don’t view social justice education as optional. I don’t want my students to blame themselves or their families for situations in their lives that they are in no way at fault for.
Social justice education has two aspects, truth and empowerment. I strive to always teach truth, no matter how brutal or controversial it may be, and to empower students. The world can be a dark place. There are so many injustices that it can make students and teachers feel hopeless, particularly those who come from historically marginalized backgrounds. The world is not without hope, though. Wherever injustice exists, there are always those fighting for change.
Teachers are faced with decisions about what they are going to teach and how they are going to teach every day. Deciding to teach social justice is not an easy decision to make. A few weeks ago a New Jersey teacher was suspended with pay for allowing her students to send letters to journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal. An ethnic studies program in in Tucson, Arizona was shut down for “promoting to overthrow the government.” In reality, the teachers were teaching their students about self-love, acceptance and their history. At the school where I student taught, the teachers in the social studies department were singled out for including a Thomas Nast reconstruction-era political cartoon. The social studies teachers were told not to include controversial material in their teaching. Teaching about racism was equated to teaching racism. There are other cases of teachers receiving disciplinary action for encouraging discussions about the Iraq War, where the students expressed anti-war sentiments, and for discussions where students questioned the Patriot Act (Westheimer 2011).
These teachers are not dismayed. They have gained support from their communities, from educators across the nation and continue to stand up for what they believe is right. For me, that’s what social justice education is about–standing up for what I believe is right, choosing to stand on the side of the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. I would still be making a choice about where I stand even if I said I choose neither. I’ll end with this quote by Paulo Freire, “Education neither functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Westheimer, J. (2011). Politics and Patriotism in Education. In Critical Civic Literacy: A Reader (pp. 81-92). New York, NY: Peter Lang.
About the Author
Gaby is a current graduate student at Rutgers Graduate School of Education graduating in this May. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Studies education with an endorsement in Special Education. She is also an Urban Teaching Fellow at her school.