Ed School Students Must Become Social Justice Warriors to Gain Licensure

According to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro catalog, the course “ELC 381, The Institution of Education” is “required of students seeking teacher licensure.” Unfortunately, the course often goes far beyond what is politically acceptable for an education course at a public university.

When one looks at the section of ELC 381 taught by Revital Zilonka in the Spring of 2016, it becomes clear that the degree of politicization completely violates the spirit of free inquiry that is supposed to govern our schools. The syllabus for the section in question requires a Personal/Professional Commitment Statement, which reads:  

By the end of the semester, you are required to write your own personal/professional commitment to social justice (7-8 pages), given all the new knowledge(s) that the course participants generated every week. The questions for this assignment are: what challenged you in the ELC-381 course? What stood out? What did you learn about yourself? Given the new understanding you have by now about society and education, what’s your personal/professional commitment to social justice? More instructions and information about this assignment, if needed, will be provided later in the semester.

A public university cannot permit a professor to demand that students “commit” to a specific political perspective. And “social justice,” as it is used in this case, is precisely that, a term that implies a left-wing ideology. Indeed, when Zilonka’s entire syllabus is explored, it becomes clear that, going by the above statement, UNC-G is requiring students to commit themselves to, among other leftist theories, the “critical pedagogy” of the Maoist-inspired Brazilian writer Paolo Freire.    

This is hardly a case of a school or professor exercising his or her academic freedom: the course clearly violates most accepted definitions of academic freedom. The literature of the American Association of University Professors—the professional organization that has essentially defined academic freedom in the United States—is filled with declarations against such indoctrination.

For example, consider these two quotations from the AAUP’s foundational document, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:

He [the professor] should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready made opinions, but to train them to think for themselves.

The teacher should be especially on his guard against taking advantage of the students’ immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity to fairly examine other opinions upon the matters in question.

While certainly the politicization is the worst thing about Zilonka’s course, many of the required readings are also irrelevant to the study of education. One of two required books, Just Mercy – a Story of Justice and Redemption, is described on the author’s website as “a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.” It does not appear to even close to the stated goal of the course: “to participate in challenging discussions of what it means to be an educator.”  

Some other required readings and viewings in Zilonka’s section of ELC 381 include:

  • “Excerpt from pedagogy of the oppressed,” by Paulo Freire.
  • “Education is politics,” by Ira Shor. (Shor is a devotee of Freire.)
  • Four selections from bell hooks (hooks is a radical feminist and race theorist; she, too, cites Freire as an important influence.).
  • Recitatif, by Toni Morrison. (It is a short story that has nothing to do with education but is instead focused on racial privilege.)
  • Gloria Steinem and bell hooks in a conversation.
  • “Raising Penelope, My Transgender Son,” by Jodie Patterson.
  • “White Privilege,” by Peggy McIntosh.
  • “What Matthew Shephard Would Tell Us,” by Doug Risner.

Additionally, students in Zilonka’s class are told to like, among many others, the following Facebook pages:

The degree of politicization is overwhelming. Looking at the syllabus, one wonders whether this is a course on the “institution of education” or the agenda of a gathering of hard left activist organizations. 

And it is not just a matter of a single rogue professor drawing outside the lines of acceptable teaching. The course has been offered for many years, and there are seven sections in the Spring of 2016 semester. An essay about the course on the school website by former ELC 381 teacher Sheryl Lieb says that “[T]his course is grounded in frameworks of social justice and critical pedagogy.” In other words, it was openly intended to push prospective teachers to adopt left-wing ideas.

The major architect of ELC 381 was Svi Shapiro, who is also the primary author of the main textbook used. Shapiro has held a variety of key administrative posts in UNC-Greensboro’s Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations, including the interim chair. On his UNC-G biography or single course section, he lists “critical pedagogy” as first among his interests.

In general, teachers of ELC 381 seem to lean very far to the left. Teaching a section of ELC 381 in the Spring of 2016 is Leila Villaverde. She lists her “Primary Specialization” as: Curriculum Studies, Critical Pedagogy, Feminist Theories and Gender Studies, Aesthetics and Visual Studies, Histories of Education. 

Among her books are:

  • Teaching Joe L. Kincheloe (Kincheloe was the “Canada Research Chair in Critical Pedagogy” at McGill University and founder of The Paulo and Nita Freire International Project).
  • Feminist theories and education: A primer
  • Dismantling White privilege: Pedagogy, politics, and Whiteness 

Here is a list of the courses Villaverde has taught at Greensboro:

Undergraduate Courses:

  • ELC 381 Institution of Education
  • SOE 491 Introduction to Schools, Schooling, and Society
  • WGS 490 Capstone in Women’s and Gender Studies

Graduate Courses: 

  • ELC 615 Foundations of Curriculum
  • ELC 625 Seminar in Teaching Social Foundations
  • ELC 678 Feminist Theories and Education
  • ELC 679 History of Education in U.S.
  • ELC 680 Transnational and Postcolonial Perspectives in Feminism
  • ELC 686 Curriculum Theory
  • ELC 688 Queer Theory, Queer Pedagogy
  • ELC 698 Gender, Art, Politics, and Pedagogy
  • ELC 722 Aesthetics, Visual Studies, and Critical Pedagogy
  • ELC 688 Critical Inquiry, Praxis and Pedagogy
  • ELC 688 Feminist Inquiry and the Sociological Imagination
  • ELC 688 (De)Regulating Bodies: Bricoleur Readings
  • WGS 651 Feminist Research Analysis.

Looking at past syllabi reveals that the course has not strayed far from its radical roots. In the Fall of 2009, teacher Tema Okun assigned the following readings:

  • In a two-week division of the course called “Exploring Education: What are we teaching for?” a text entitled “Social Justice in the Classroom.”
  • In a two-week division of the class entitled “Discovering Columbus, Discovering Normal,” a text entitled “Planting Seeds of Solidarity: Weaving World Justice Issues into the Elementary Classroom.”
  • In a two-week division called “Class Matters,” a text entitled “Decloaking Class: Why Class Identity and Consciousness Count.” 

For a two-week division of the course called “Queering Gender,” Okun wrote that “we’ll be looking at issues related to gender, including sexism and homophobia, and why these issues matter in the classroom.” 

In the Spring of 2013, Cherese Childers-McGee assigned as a final paper an “Advocacy Project,” which had students “describe a vision or a plan of how you as a future or current educator plan to address one or more of the social issues discussed in this class.” The social issues are as they are for most sections of ELC 381 over the years: “Privilege, oppression, and difference,” “Race and Ethnicity,” (including “White privilege,”)  “Ableism,” “Social Class,” “Gender and Identity,” and on and on. And to be sure, the reading selections were from authors who invariably on the far left, particularly those influenced by Paolo Freire. 

One assignment from a section taught in the Fall of 2011 by Kathleen Edwards was described as a “Critical multicultural autobiography”:

This project may be written (5-8 pages) or completed in artistic representation (video, photo essay, dance/performance, poetry, music); it will include sharing with the class. Create a narrative about the nooks and crannies of your life. Delve into the memories and counter-memories that have been most influential on your journey. Particularly examine the ways that race, social class, gender, sexuality, and ability have evolved in your story.

All of these obvious and impermissible attempts to influence future K-12 teachers politically beg the question “is this what a school of education is supposed to be doing?” And, if not—and no, no public school of education should be conducting a campaign of political indoctrination in a course required for teacher licensure—then it must also be asked “how do they get away with it?” The answer of course, is that everybody who should have put a stop to it—from departments heads to administrators to UNC-G’s trustees to the UNC system’s Board of Governors to the legislature—have been looking the other way. 

Maybe it’s time for those people who have some say in our university system to ask one more question: “how do we put an end to this?”