Claiming That Schools Are Politically Neutral

Claiming That Schools Are Politically Neutral

“Politics has no place in schools.” “It’s not a school’s place to teach values.”

Many people believe that schools are apolitical spaces and that the knowledge taught in them is neutral. However, schools have a very long history of political struggle. Specific debates such as whether creationism and/or evolution should be taught; legal cases such as Brown v. Board of Education that ended legal segregation in schools; and residential schools for Aboriginal children are all examples that demonstrate the political and value-based nature of schooling. There is no neutral space and schools are not now, nor have they ever been, politically neutral.

If we believe in a just and democratic society (as the U.S. Constitution implies and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states), then we must recognize that politics have a central place in school. Citizens must be prepared to foster a healthy democracy, and preparing students for democratic citizenship is a key responsibility of public schools. To do so, schools have to educate students about the nation’s social history; provide a multitude of perspectives; foster critical thinking and perspective taking; enhance students’ stamina for engaging with challenging ideas; and improve students’ ability to engage with research, raise critical questions, evaluate alternative explanations, tolerate ambiguity, and foster collaboration. Without these skills, young people are ill equipped to advance a socially just, democratic nation state.

All change for a more just society has come from great struggle. Enslaved Africans were not freed because White people overall thought it would be good to free them. Emancipation required decades of struggle, sacrifice, and activism including physical violence and a death toll in the


hundreds of thousands. Residential schools weren’t closed, Chinese workers weren’t granted citizenship, and domestic violence against women wasn’t made illegal because the dominant group thought it was a good idea; the dominant group was forced to change due to pressures that took decades to build and sustain.

We can take a basic level of acceptance for granted today because of the hard work and the activism of people before us: feminist, gay and lesbian, civil rights, Indigenous activists, and others. The capacity to recognize the need for and engage in social justice activism is part of what it means to participate in a healthy democracy, and public schools play a fundamental role in fostering this.

Dismissing Social Justice Scholarship as Merely the Radical and Personal Opinions of Individual Left Wing Professors

“Your opinions are so strong.” “These ideas are radical.” “This is all so one-sided. I wish you would include the other side of the conversation.”

The “radical scholars” objection reduces scholarship in critical social justice education to personal values and political correctness. But “radical” must have a referent; what knowledge is it radical in contrast to? When we object that social justice perspectives are radical and subjective, we are also saying that mainstream perspectives are neutral and objective.

When the scholarship that professors are drawing upon is reduced to subjective and biased personal opinions, that scholarship is transformed from a highly complex and informed body of knowledge into the personal opinions of a single professor. The effect of this is that all opinions become equally valid and therefore the scholarship, now reduced to opinion, can simply be dismissed. This strategy effectively positions social justice classrooms as places of ideology, opinion, and subjectivity, while simultaneously positioning other kinds of classrooms—those in which allegedly neutral or “transparent” frameworks are taught—as objective spaces of real and preferred knowledge.

Critical theory challenges the claim that any knowledge is neutral or objective, and outside of humanly constructed meanings and interests. Yet ironically, only forms of knowledge that name their perspective are perceived as biased and open to debate; in other words, only when someone acknowledges their subjectivity are they seen as having subjectivity. Accusations that professors have a liberal bias (“radical” or


“Marxist” or “socialist” or “left wing”) typically emerge in courses that attempt to challenge the idea of neutral knowledge.

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