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[…] Politicizing pedagogy: Teaching for liberty and justice at urban schools […]

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Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks provide a prime example as they helpfully lay out much of the case for democratic capitalism in their new book in the AEI Values and Capitalism series, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism. They start by arguing that democratic capitalism is the political-economic system that best corresponds to a human nature that is neither hopelessly flawed nor infinitely perfectible, but rather is a mix of beast and angel. The system allows citizens to pursue their self-interest, rightly understood, in a way that need not be either selfish or selfless, but still contributes to the common good. It also avoids the coercion and corruption present in the more totalitarian alternative regime structures while more satisfactorily helping the poor: “Markets, precisely because they are wealth-generating, also end up being wealth-distributing.”

Publications | Robin DiAngelo, PhD

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I contend that schools must develop student capacity for activism. I advocate for politicizing pedagogies that help students develop tools to enhance liberty and justice for society’s most marginalized communities. I use politicizing because the adjective politicized connotes a social justice orientation that words like civic and democratic do not necessarily engender. Existing scholarship on civic education has articulated ways of encouraging democratic participation. However, it often encourages shallow political engagement that deemphasizes the academic skills necessary to undertake sophisticated political analysis and challenge structural inequities. Alternatively, pedagogies that emphasize critical thinking are often inattentive to political contexts. Effective democratic engagement necessitates that teachers address both of these components of civic pedagogy. Teachers should employ critically conscious controversy and an intentional focus on political thinking skills to adequately ready students for democratic participation.

 

Literacy is traditionally meant as the ability to read and write

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Certainly, creating and teaching such lessons can be challenging — even after 10 years of working on such curriculum, I often struggled to help students develop the kind of critical literacy I aimed to teach. However, the existing literature on student political engagement as well as my classroom experience suggests that well-designed curricula have real potential to prepare students to advocate meaningfully for “liberty and justice for all.”


Though this discussion has been situated in a social studies class for low-income students of color, the concepts apply in a variety of contexts. For example, science teachers might engage students in analyzing controversies having to do with curbing pollution in the inner city or with preventing and treating diseases that disproportionately affect the local community. The emphasis on critical literacy can just as easily serve teachers of math or English, and it can be just as effective in suburban or rural contexts as in urban ones.


Zendoodle Color-by-Number: Spring Awakening

Keeping in mind the importance of critically conscious controversy and political thinking skills, I outline here a lesson that I used to engage high school students in political thinking. The lesson occurs in a unit on the war on drugs, an issue that has provoked decades of spirited debate. At the heart of the issue are tensions between liberty (e.g., the freedom of people to buy and sell items of their choosing as well as the freedom of people to live in communities free from drug-related challenges) and justice (the treatment of perpetrators and victims of drug trafficking). The question guiding the unit was, “How can government policies alleviate drug use and drug-related violence in urban communities?”

Africa Faith and Justice Network

In framing their argument as a defense of capitalism against the alternatives of life pre-Industrial Revolution and life under communism, Wehner and Brooks have made their task too easy. The real question facing developed capitalist countries now is what type of capitalism to have, and what type of wealth distribution. Among the most thoughtful thinkers on these questions, few are strict egalitarians, and so even here Wehner and Brooks have engaged a strawman. One might think current disparities in wealth are unjust, not because material equality is the goal, but because human flourishing is, and too many people lack the requisite material goods for that flourishing. Income and wealth equality isn’t the concern, but having sufficient goods to meet one’s needs and fulfill one’s vocation is. Likewise, one might worry about the disparate political power that comes with gross material inequalities. Wehner and Brooks say nothing about these concerns.

Social Justice Math - Radical Math

Often lost in the conversation about civic education is an emphasis on academic skill. Political engagement and civil discourse necessitate more than a passion for politics and an awareness of structural inequality. Literacies and critical thinking skills are central to meaningful engagement with the complex ideas and abstruse texts that undergird much political discourse. Also, amid a continually shifting political landscape and an abundance of political information accessible via contemporary media, students must be prepared to decode and analyze political content. A teacher is responsible not just for ensuring that students learn but that they learn how to learn. Effective political pedagogies must enhance both literacy and critical thinking.