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Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader

By Dottin, Erskine S. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader


Dottin, Erskine S., The Journal of Negro Education


Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader, edited by William Ayers, Jean Ann Hunt, and Therese Quinn. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 422 pp. $18.95, paper.

Reviewed by Erskine S. Dottin, Florida International University

Education, of course, lives an excruciating paradox precisely because of its association with and location in schools. Education is about opening doors, opening minds, opening possibilities. School is too often about sorting and punishing, grading and ranking and certifying. Education is unconditional-it asks nothing in return. School routinely demands obedience and conformity as a precondition to attendance. (p. xxiii)

The above quote from Teaching for Social Justice, indeed the whole book, brings to mind Postman's (1966) call to view democracy in America as an open-ended experiment, and thus see the education of American children as opportunities to engender further questions about that story. The basic message in this book is that "teaching for social justice is at the heart of a democratic education" (p. xiii); subsequently, "to teach is to change a life not just disseminate information" (p. xiii). The framework for this book rests on the idea that stories inspire us to work toward change. Consequently, readers can learn how to teach for justice through portraits of teachers and community leaders. They can get practical advice on the tasks involved in teaching for justice by exploring the possibilities of schools and programs that support it. Last, they can be challenged by the comments of educators teaching for social justice through what Ayers et al. call "activists' forums."

The editors of this book convey very clearly throughout the work that teaching is an invitation to act on the part of the learner. Therefore, teaching for social justice "is teaching for the sake of arousing the kinds of vivid, reflective, experiential responses that might move students to come together in serious efforts to understand what social justice actually means and what it might demand" (p. xxix-xxx). The underlying philosophical message is that present social conditions impair justice for all and warrant change. To teach, then, is to identify the obstacles to justice and to help learners act to change this unjust world and create a better life-that is, to work toward a better society. Teaching for social justice and teaching for social change are thus construed as being synonymous. Active learning that engenders critical analysis, civic participation, and action is seen as the pedagogical mantra.

The aim of education, according to this work, is therefore to reconstruct society. Furthermore, the manner of education to be used to achieve such an aim must combine the needs and interests of the learner with his or her participation in social reform efforts. The 21 stories of teaching in the book exemplify this theme, presenting lessons to be learned from: (a) the stories of abuse and exploitation of workers by corporations in the name of profits; (b) adult women enhancing their intellectual development in academic learning communities with other women; (c) literacy initiatives; (d) teaching about racial attitudes; and (e) learning experiences that are grounded in the realities of the learners.

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