William Ayers has received considerable attention recently, due to his association with presidential candidate Barack Obama. Ayers’ past as a member of the violent radical Weatherman faction in the 1960s is well-known. He does not repudiate his bomb-building escapades in the 1960s—he continues to refer to himself as “a radical, Leftist, small ‘c’ communist,” (as he did in 1995). Yet somehow, despite that past, and despite the occasional nose-thumbing incident, such as stomping on the American flag in 2001, he has achieved a level of respectability as a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
While some, like the New York Times’ Frank Rich, might describe him as somebody involved “in education reform,” the facts are that he has merely traded in his bombs for books. Quite possibly he is doing far more damage with the latter than he ever did with the former.
Ayers is an ardent and leading proponent of the American version of the “Social Justice” (or critical pedagogy) movement in education. While this philosophy might sound benevolent, it is in fact a thinly veiled mechanism intended to bring about world-wide socialism. Not only has Ayers gained entry into the educational mainstream, but the concept of Teaching for Social Justice, (the title of a popular 1998 book of essays edited by Ayers) is rapidly gaining acceptance throughout the education school establishment.
The sacred scroll of the social-justice-in-education movement is the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by Paolo Freire in 1968. Freire was a Brazilian educator who developed his theories as a teacher in the impoverished hinterlands of northeast Brazil. His work has been closely linked with the liberation theology movement, which blends elements of Marxism with Catholicism. Liberation theology began in Brazil in the 1950s, spread throughout Latin America, and has been soundly condemned by the last two Popes.
Freire’s book begins with a philosophical exposition on the nature of social justice. It takes some doing to cut through his dense prose, but it is necessary to understand both the movement and the pedagogy. His writing on social justice, as can be seen below, leaves no doubt that his book is a call for subversion and revolution. He then describes the foundation for his new “pedagogy.” This Clarion Call article provides a concise explanation of his theory’s main points, followed by some greater detail and concrete examples of the pedagogy gleaned from Ayers’ Teaching for Social Justice.” These later examples will reveal just how dangerous this movement is, and just how unhinged many of its proponents are.
There are four states of human existence in Freire’s world. He divides the world into two primary types: oppressors and oppressed—mirroring the communist division into opposing classes of bourgeois and proletariat. There are also former oppressors who have chosen to identify with the oppressed—we are all familiar with the well-heeled revolutionaries who claim to be for the “people” (such as Ayers). Such radicals cannot, according to Freire, attempt to improve the lot of the oppressed by acting as an elite leadership seeking followers. They must instead strive for solidarity with the oppressed by sharing their existence and by learning to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed by a process of “dialogue.” Only by doing so can they earn the right to share their own knowledge and experiences to enlighten the oppressed.
The ultimate goal of the oppressed is to achieve the final state, that of “humanity,” (a heightened state of consciousness in which the concept of justice is the primary concern). To achieve humanity, the oppressed must raise their consciousness through dialogue with the world, then throw off their oppressors by their own efforts. Gradual reform by a benevolent government born of oppression does not help–Freire insists that it is based on a “false charity” intended to maintain the power of the oppressors. Freire regarded traditional education as an important means by which the oppressors retain authority—he wanted instead to create a pedagogy to subvert and take control away from them.
Following from the idea that there can be no gradual reform by an oppressive regime, there can only be oppression or the process of revolution. Freire did not specify that a takeover must be violent, but violence is considered acceptable—he stated that the existence of oppressors is the result of violence, therefore any violence done in return is justified: “With the establishment of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.”
And the uprising is absolved of excesses conducted in the founding of the new regime: “[T]he restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that they cannot reassume their former position, does not constitute oppression.”
Social justice, as defined by Freire, is a permanent process, not a final destination. For the oppressed cannot, upon achieving their liberation, develop the same sort of domineering bureaucracy and regulations as their former oppressors, or they will become oppressors themselves. They must instead continue the process of social justice, striving for further humanity and throwing off oppression wherever it exists.
This bears an eerie resemblance to the Maoist concept of “permanent revolution,” possibly the worst form of governance ever created. In its most complete implementation, it cut the population of Cambodia literally in half in just a few years through genocide, forced labor, economic decline, and the voluntary exile of anybody who could escape. Maosim was popular among leftist Latin American intellectuals when Freire wrote his book—around the same time, a Peruvian professor founded the ultra-violent Maoist revolutionary group Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) which continues to this day.
Traditional education was described by Freire as a “banking model,” in which teachers “deposit” selected information “into” passive students. “Knowledge [in an oppressive society] is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing,” he said of this model. “Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others [is a] characteristic of the ideology of oppression…”
The central element of teaching for social justice is intended to address the supposed tyranny of the banking model–teachers must learn from their students, much as well-heeled revolutionaries must learn from the oppressed people they wish to liberate. “Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student and student-teachers” who are “jointly responsible for a process in which both grow,” Freire explained.
He described the mechanics of this joint process: “The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier considerations as the students express their own.”
A classroom run according to such consensus-building is likely to descend into chaos. This seemed not to worry Freire—he was more concerned that a disciplined approach to teaching could be part of the oppressors’ supposed plot to control the masses.
Some other important principle of Freire’s pedagogy are that teaching must be relevant to the lives of students, and that students and teachers alike must act upon their new sensibilities to achieve “humanity.” He suggested that “students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world,” will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge.”
Yet, with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, or perhaps intentional disguise, he provided his readers with few examples to which they can relate—he never gave us a clear impression exactly who the oppressors are. It may be that, in rural 1960s Brazil, the gap between rich and poor was so stark that there was no cause to explain. But it is far more difficult for a resident of a prosperous modern welfare-state with a high degree of social mobility like the United States to derive meaning from “Pedagogy for the Oppressed” without concrete examples.
That missing context and clarity is provided by Freire’s American followers. Maxine Greene, Ayers’ former teacher at Columbia who introduced him to Freire’s theories, very clearly stated who is responsible for the world’s inhumanity in Teaching for Social Justice, for which she wrote an introduction. The oppressors are “ordinarily the white, the privileged, the male.”
Race (specifically, the inhumanity of whites) is one of the dominant themes of Teaching for Social Justice. America’s “oppressed” largely come from the inner-city minority underclass. Rachel Koch, another contributor to the book wrote, “[M]ost white people have been indoctrinated into identification with the upper-class white elites who oppress them too. As bell hooks has pointed out, in our society all whites are bonded together through white supremacy.”
Race is not the only criterion for oppression, however. Greene also described oppression as what many might feel is the best of America: “the drumbeat of the free market, of individual responsibility, of the uses of efficiency, of character education and training in the ‘virtues.’”
Greene nearly indicates that almost anything can be defined as oppression, as long as the person defining it is sympathetic to the cause of social justice. She offered some concrete examples that range from the out-of-date to the silly. Real past injustices, such as Frederick Douglass’ experiences with slavery in the early 19th century, are equated to an American woman poet in 1994 claiming to suffer an “imposed passivity” and “media indoctrination” and feelings of being controlled by the “airwaves and classrooms.”
This blurring of emotions and facts is common in the social justice movement, and extends to the classroom as well. Several contributors to Teaching for Social Justice” described their use of the “storyline method,” in which all the children in their class communally create a narrative on a topic relevant to their lives, and “academic skills such as writing, computation and research are woven throughout this integrated approach.” That topic chosen was homelessness—the children all created homeless characters for themselves.
These stories and personal experiences are regarded as a form of knowledge—a “constructed reality.” In Greene’s ideal school, teachers “reject the old objectivist approach with their assumption of an objective domain of values….they encourage perspectival knowing, situated approaches to learning…”
Such a subjective approach to knowledge can be easily manipulated by teachers seeking to indoctrinate. In one essay, the author asks his students to describe a soccer ball after reading the Bertold Brecht poem, “Questions From a Worker Who Reads.” He drew their attention to the fact that ball was “Made in Pakistan,” then guided them into writing stories and poems about how the ball was made in an oppressive sweatshop by a child laborer, and launched into various lessons about the “global sweatshop.”
Only the exploitative aspects of global capitalism were presented by the teacher in this exercise—he fails to mention that there has been a steady rise in the worldwide standard of living, driven by international trade. It is just as possible, or more so, that the ball was made by a man or woman happy to have the job because it paid much better than his or her alternatives.
Two more principles of social justice that are somewhat linked: multiculturalism, and the idea that teachers are expected to teach and grade according to a child’s specific socio-economic background, rather than to expect children to conform to the same standards. “Equitable or fair treatment…does not mean equal treatment—certainly when that means treating people with widely disparate needs the same way,” Greene wrote. “Those who once identified equality with sameness overlook the damage done to children by poverty or discrimination or disruption of a family.”
The idea that education should be child-centered rather than teacher-centered is not new—it has been around at least since the early 20th century, when it was championed by John Dewey. Students should control the pace of learning, according to Rick Ayers, Bill’s brother (an elementary school teacher and contributor to the book). He also wrote “it is the teacher’s job to create conditions in which students have wonderful ideas.” He suggested that children have great intellectual ideas daily, but that these ideas are stifled by the continual drilling required to teach skills.
Other elements discussed in Teaching for Social Justice that are likely to appear in an American version of Freire’s pedagogy include using schoolchildren to apply political pressure through activism (the main objective of social justice is, after all, to effect political change), and an Orwellian idea to use them as “area reporters,” in which students keep their teachers informed about what is occurring in their neighborhoods. The latter echoes the former Soviet Union, where children were encouraged to inform on their neighbors and parents.
The Soviet Union might be where social justice proponents intend to take us. The second paragraph of Greene’s introduction begins with the exhortation “[T]hink of Karl Marx…” It is apparent that she, and many of the book’s thirty-plus contributors, follow that advice frequently. Marxist theorists are mentioned or cited throughout the book: Antonio Gramsci, C.L.R. James, C. Wright Mills, and Friere. Another contributor began her tale of teaching at a private high school: “[M]y orientation was a thinly-veiled Marxism and my agenda was to open some privileged eyes to the workings and costs of that privilege.”
That is what teaching for social justice is about—it is not intended to provide useful skills, or open young eyes to appreciate culture or the mysteries of the physical universe. It is to convert and to prepare a new generation for the coming takeover, violent or otherwise, by the radical left. For thirty-odd years, the theories of Freire and their various embellishments have been spreading quietly throughout the educational establishment, as Sol Stern reveals here . Ayers has not changed his goals since his Weatherman days—he just found a better weapon, one that is not only more effective, but also allows him to live well without much personal risk.
It is remarked that tyrants often state their plans simply and directly long before they assume power, as Hitler did in Mein Kampf. So it is with the theorists and practitioners of social justice. The large majority of Americans who support the United States (and the nation itself) can be defined as “oppressors” under its precepts—even their charity and good will is condemned as a means to maintain tyranny. According to Freire, such oppressors are inhuman, and can only have their humanity restored by the cleansing retribution of the oppressed. Coming soon, to a public school near you.