Education, Policy and Social Justice: Searching the Borderlands between Subjective Science and Experimental Art

By Gitlin, Andrew | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Education, Policy and Social Justice: Searching the Borderlands between Subjective Science and Experimental Art


Gitlin, Andrew, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


As the global economic crisis worsens, it is timely to think through the role that education will play and should play within this unprecedented milieu. Historically, public schooling in the United States has been a follower. Whether Spitnik (Brzezinski, 2008), so called lack of discipline (Cantor & Cantor, 2001), back to basics (Gehring, 2008), or falling standardized test scores (Kaplan, 2008), public schooling has reacted to policy directives as opposed to being at the forefront of these directives. This reactive role has strengthened the conservative nature of this institution by interpreting policy coming into the schools through established dominant traditions and discourses (Gitlin & McConaughy,2008). This embrace of these dominant traditions and discourses diverts schooling from its potential role in forging policy. And not just any policy, but policies that can redefine and challenge one of the effects of the current global economic crisis--the growing gap between the "haves" and "have nots".

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development ((OECD, 2008) speak to this effect, in their report titled "Growing Unequal", and suggest that the upsurge in economic inequality will create increased divisiveness (my emphasis) between the rich and poor. (p.5). We can begin to see this divisiveness between the haves and have nots in the U.S. with the emerging tensions between "wall street" and "main street". And so far, without question, wall street (the haves) is getting the vast majority of money as part of the economic bail out programs. Given the probability that the gap between rich and poor will increase as will vilence and dissent between have an have nots, it is urgent that schools do not respond to this economic crisis by reacting to new policy initiatives that are likely to try to maintain the privilege and advantages of the haves . What is needed is not only an assertion of the importance of social justice (a form of justice loosely defined as making group relations more equitable) as an ambition for schooling, but the development of knowledge producing epistemology's within schools that are not totally seduced by their conservative traditions and discourses.

The possibility of this role ,while difficult indeed, is surely something that has been conceptually articulated and tried in a number of school settings (Shor & Freire, 1987; Caro-Bruce et. al, 2007). The work of Paulo Freire, who understood that literacy requires learning to read and write, at the same time that it requires whose who have been marginalized, Brazilian peasants in his case, to "name the world" (Freire, 1993), is an exemplar of putting social justice into practice. What Freire's work suggests, is that schooling can teach literacy and at the same time teach social justice by allowing marginalized voices to name the world. By doing so, those in positions of dominance do not solely determine what counts as literacy and legitimate knowledge (Apple, 2004). This move to challenge the sole construction of literacy on the terms of those in positions of dominance also challenges the push/pull process of policy implementation where the literacy policy provides opportunities for marginalized groups while at the same time these policies reinforce the dominant groups rights and legitimacy to define fundamental process such as literacy in their own interests. Redefining literacy from the position of those who have been silenced, at the same time one is teaching literacy is a way for schools to further social justice, be pro-active in policy making and challenge the gap between haves and have nots. Yet, developing these alternative knowledge producing epistemology's will be no easy task. A look at two examples from the current political scene in the U.S. might be instructive.

The headline in the New York Times (Dillon, December 4, 2008) discussing potential candidates for Secretary of Education states that it is "a cabinet choice that will signal a new schools policy" (p. …

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