Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Letter to Cambridge Chronicle regarding teaching social justice in Cambridge Public Schools

Writing in Perspective (1/1/09) Peter Wilson asked the question, “What is social justice?” He posits a rhetorical question, wondering why we should teach social justice to our children in our public schools? Mr. Wilson then posits his ideological perspective: “social justice is a left-wing political goal, not a universal goal.” I take great exception to this statement. I would reply that social justice is embedded in our Declaration of Independence, enshrined in our federal and state constitutions, and spelled out in our Bill of Rights. There is hardly a more universal goal in our democratic government. That is precisely what I as a progressive educator taught all my students in all my social studies classes at CRLS for the past 31 years. I am proud to say that (to use Mr. Wilson’s own words) I taught my students to fight injustice to establish a just society. That was one of Thomas Jefferson’s most compelling arguments for using property taxes for public schools.

Mr. Wilson’s op-ed piece presents a weak and flawed perspective for American conservative ideology. He makes gross and inaccurate generalizations about liberal politicians and educators by setting them up as straw horses. He wants to argue against social engineering by state and federal government that he fears requires an expansion of government power that is the anathema to small government. Fair and clear enough. I wholly disagree both with his premise and his conclusions.  

Of course progressive educators must imbue their students with academic rigor. Students cannot intelligently think critically and understand deeply about the history of American democracy and our republic’s long march to equal justice and liberty for all if they are not skilled readers who can parse classic literature and history. Progressive educators would never preclude teaching the fundamentals. Students must learn to correctly compute complex mathematics and compose compelling essays based on rules of evidence. They need to be literate in the humanities and arts. They all need to be literate in geography, the general sciences and to be able to fully grasp the scientific method of inquiry. This all should be part and parcel of any pedagogical practice regardless of ideology: progressive, liberal, or conservative. That may be stating the obvious, but it is hardly sufficient.

Great schools and great educators are those that teach their students how to determine where equality, liberty and justice reside in the historical ironies and social paradoxes of our complex body politic. They must be taught the fundamentals of making good, well-reasoned judgment confronting difficult complex and often contradictory value and goals. Great schools and teachers help students develop the mindfulness, compassion and civility that makes our republic more humane, most especially when confronting the perilous conditions of our present situation. We need students who can both study for the biology AP’s and volunteer for the soup kitchens. It is not an either/or choice. I would submit to think otherwise is precisely the erroneous kind of polemical thought that has so woefully marginalized conservative politics in our recent electoral cycle.

The not so hidden subtext of Mr. Wilson’s piece is a rant against progressive education, which he rightly observes is welcomed practice in much of CPSD programs and policies. He deplores this reality, accusing all progressive pedagogy of foolishly embracing a “nanny state.” Mr. Wilson is ideologically incorrect and historically inaccurate. The ideology and practice of progressive politicians and educators is far more complex and varied than Mr. Wilson’s simplistic depictions.

Administrators and practicioners in both CPSD and in CRLS in particular are currently making great strides in executing this delicate balancing act of teaching rigor and compassion while facing the challenges of fiscal constraints and expanding social and economic needs. We some have “outcomes” that measures this achievement.

When I retired from teaching at CRLS in June of ’07, I helped establish a new private, non-profit foundation “Social Justice Works: The Aaronson Fund” --sjwtheaaronsonfund.org. *(Mr Wilson incorrectly states that SJW is a CRLS program.) SJW’s goal is to recognize and reward CRLS graduates that currently work in the public sector for social justice. We celebrate the fact that hundreds of CRLS alumni have made sustained commitments working in public schools, housing, safety, health, law, etc. and they are doing so across the globe. SJW is currently building an internet network helping connect these graduates, most all whom state their indebtedness to the progressive education they received at CPSD. Yes they can, and Yes, they have! These grads make our city and our schools mighty proud.

For the most recent and inspiring example, I refer Chronicle readers and all Cantabridgians to this week’s (1/1/09) CR article by recent CRLS graduate Stephanie Guirand (CRLS ‘05) “Giving tribute to a friend after he died.” Stephanie is currently an undergraduate student at UConn. Though she carries a demanding academic load, and like so many of her peers is facing financial hardships of mounting college tuition, she took time to organize a committee of CRLS graduates to give witness to the death of their dear friend and CRLS alumni Wolf Jules (’05), himself a prince of peace. He took his own life. Stephanie has organized a city-wide campaign and put on a recent forum at City Hall to address issues of homophobia in the local Caribbean-American community. This organizing effort was accomplished entirely by these young people. They have all courageously stepped up to the plate, brought together elected officials and health care advocates to testified and bear witness to these troubling and complex issues. I submit to your readers that teaching social justice works. It works for us all.

Larry Aaronson
432 Norfolk Street (1H)
Somerville MA. 02143

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