Example of Knowledge as Socially Constructed
Let’s examine knowledge construction through a specific example. In what is considered to be a seminal study on social class, Jean Anyon (1981) asked elementary aged students to respond to variations on the simple question, “What is knowledge?” Their answers revealed that their definitions were largely dependent on which social class positions they held (see Figure 2.1).
Children who attended schools that served primarily poor and working-class families most often said that knowledge was “remembering things,” “answering questions,” and “doing pages in our workbooks.” Children who attended affluent schools serving primarily upper-class families said things such as “you think up ideas and then find things wrong with those ideas,” “it’s when you know things really well,” and “figuring out things.”
As can be seen from these responses, how these students conceptualized knowledge was shaped by the intersection between their social class and the institution of schooling. This institution provides students with very different education based on their position in society and the resources they have access to. This is profoundly significant because the kind of knowledge we receive in schools has concrete implications for our later positions in life.
Figure 2.1. Jean Anyon Study
Thinking Critically About Opinions
It is important to distinguish between opinions, which are often based in commonsense understandings, and critical thinking, which is based on expertise through study. Unfortunately, popular culture promotes the idea that all opinions are equal. Although popular culture is not an educational space per se, it does play an important role in normalizing the idea that all opinions are equally valid.
However, critical thinking is not simply having different opinions; critical thinking results in an informed perspective after engaging with new evidence and accounting for multiple layers of complexity. Simply having an opinion is not predicated on any accounting for new information or understanding of complexity; popular opinions tend to be superficial and anecdotal and do not require that we understand an issue at all. For example, although someone might disagree that social injustice exists, to be credible they must root their argument in an understanding of the knowledge that has already been established and demonstrate how their opinion brings new evidence for consideration. From a scholarly perspective, offering anecdotal evidence that social injustice does not exist (e.g., “In today’s society, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, class, or gender”) is equivalent to the claim, “I looked out my window and the Earth doesn’t look round to me.” To argue that there is no longer social injustice and have validity, one must be aware of existing knowledge in the field. From an academic perspective, knowledge claims must stand up to scrutiny by peers who are specialists in the subject. This process is called peer review, and it is the cornerstone of how academic knowledge is evaluated. Claims about social injustice made within the academic community have undergone peer review. Although there are debates within this community, peer scholars have found the arguments to be relevant and worthy of engagement.
In this book, we ask our readers to grapple with the claims we present, rather than strive to maintain the opinions they already hold. We use the term grappling to capture the process of critical thinking: reflecting upon new information, seeking deeper clarity and understanding, and practicing articulating and discussing an issue. Grappling requires engagement with intellectual humility, curiosity, and generosity; grappling is not dependent on agreement. The goal of education is to expand one’s knowledge base and critical thinking skills, rather than protect our preexisting opinions. Of course we have a right to our opinions, but there will be no personal or
intellectual growth for us if we are not willing to think critically about them. We urge our readers to remember this as we proceed to raise some challenging and politically charged issues.