I was a little discomfited by Daniel Lattier’s derision of social justice in his account of an elementary school in Minnesota which has made some noble attempts at teaching children about historical truth, such as the idea of “white privilege.” I believe this position shows a lack of insight into the way America works, will shortchange children of all races, and will perpetuate the status quo. It’s not terribly surprising, though. Consider: “Once you follow a path of nonviolence and social justice, it won’t take you long before you come into conflict with the culture, with the society” Not All Parents Want Their Children to be Social Justice Warriors:wrote in
“There are many Americans who simply do not share the same worldview being promoted by Highlands Elementary, nor the specific understandings of equality and justice that result from it. There are many parents who send their children to public schools such as Highlands whose worldviews and intellectual positions would not lead them to agree with the tactics of a group like Black Lives Matter, or to believe that “white privilege” is a valid concept that should be inculcated in their children, or to think that focusing on race is the best way for their children to avoid becoming racists.”
I can picture him instead saying “Don’t teach my children to be better people! That’s not what public school is for! Parent’s rights!” The nature of conservatism’s dark side is to perpetuate the status quo. When actual facts of history are ignored, glossed over, or obfuscated, it is called – no pun intended – whitewashing. By perpetuate I mean to further it, to propagate it, to honor it. By status quo I mean the social, political, racial, class, educational, and social justice “ways that things are designed, implemented, and maintained.” It is simply a matter of historical truth that America began in a grossly immoral fashion, and has only improved about half-way in 240 years.
Conservatism is, in principle, about preserving what is best, but where the rubber meets the road, it often turns out to be defending a system that is capricious, cruel, and concrete. Look at a picture of white children being cruel to black children in 1955. Or think of a border town in Mexico right across the river from a border town in Texas; now, Texas is no progressive paradise – it can be rough as hell growing up there. However, it is a world apart from Mexico. We have our problems that’s for sure, but Mexico has deeper and more intransigent ones. The lives these people lead are pure accidents of birth. This is pretty much the opposite of social justice.
Let me not fail to note: Mr. Lattier, those children with the dark complexions or the accents or the religious garb are us. It is not true to say, though some Western European Americans believe this on some level, that “America is white” and “those foreigners just live here.” Uh-uh – America does not have a hierarchy of citizens with the WASPiest ones at the top. It’s a melting pot – or a salad bowl, at the least. You could just as easily have been the American from the Ivory Coast, Somalia, or Mexico, and then you would probably feel differently about the discussion of (or exclusion of) matters of social justice.
Teaching about social justice and good values and universally-accepted virtues is not only useful for kids, it’s sorely needed! Wouldn’t it cut down on bullying, racism, classism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, and anti-gay impulses to teach children about character? I’ve explored this topic and would say absolutely, yes. Consider listening to any of these recorded interviews on values and ethics I did with experts in their fields: Education for the Whole Child, Humane Education, and Improving the Character and Ethics of Children, Shows 1 and 2. “As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, ‘Character is the main object of education.’ The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is ‘organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle’” Character education is more than memorizing rules and performing rote acts; it is, according to Aristotle, about creating positive habits and developing almost a muscle memory for doing the right thing in the real world. Practice makes perfect, as it were. This is the process of character creation. As Aristotle wrote, ‘It makes no small difference…whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather ALL the difference.’
Would Mr. Lattier be comfortable knowing that his child was being taught real history? I get that we don’t want indoctrination, but history, virtue ethics, and civics are fairly objective disciplines. Maybe not objective like physics, but certainly a teacher needn’t go out on a limb to suggest that truth is a virtue, that America has or has not done certain things in the past, and that citizenship involves caring for the other like you would want to be cared about. Some of this is pretty elementary religious and didactic stuff; it’s not like a teacher is trying to teach Scientology or UFO-ology in the classroom! Hell, teaching that history involves truth and that compassion and empathy are paramount goals for our society is more valid than teaching about holistic medicine or supply-side economics. This is fundamental stuff, not fluff; “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience”In every milieu, evolving minds are dissecting the structures on which we’ve built our culture, re-pairing parts we have torn asunder, and calling attention to tears in the fabric we have wrapped ourselves in as American citizens”
When I write “real history,” I mean, literally, true facts. Authentic, evidence-based, rationally-grounded education. From the astonishingly-well-received book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Teacher Got Wrong, James Loewen persuades that:
[T]extbooks seldom use the past to illuminate the present. They portray the past as a simple-minded morality play. ‘Be a good citizen’ is the message that textbooks extract from the past. ‘You have a proud heritage. Be all that you can be. After all, look at what the United States has accomplished.’ While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it can become something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success. The optimistic approach prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim. No wonder children of color are alienated. Even for male children from affluent white families, bland optimism gets pretty boring after 800 pages.
Case in point: not everyone knows that we went to war with Mexico pretty much simply because we wanted their land. Couple that with dropping two A-bombs on Japan, utilizing Chinese laborers, the sex trade, lynchings, Jim Crow, forced desegregation, and the Tuskegee Experiments, and you have what amounts to one spotty national history. Is it any more salient than the cotton gin, or capitalism, or free K-12 public education? Is it truer than putting astronauts on the moon, inventing the airplane, and pioneering the Internet? No, but it is true history. There are hundreds or thousands of other significant historical facts that many persons (and Lattier may be one) don’t really want to think about, were never taught, and would prefer their kids not learn about (or question them about). America was founded on classism, racism, and capitalism, and we are far from reaching our potential 240 years later. America embarrasses me quite often, in fact. I don’t think schoolchildren should be treated to a spectacle of muckraking five days a week, but I don’t think America is in the position that it authentically can be proud of where it is now, so why try to conserve that? Why perpetuate ignorance of true facts? I would invite the interested reader to listen to interviews I conducted with Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove on this topic, on this page and this one. Go ahead and try Superpatriotism and Other Absurdities on this page. A good look at the Stanford Prison Study and it should be clear to any true-blue American patriot that we have much that we clearly prioritize over values such as integrity, respect, tolerance, and wisdom. If a virtue were made of the way we treat each other and the truth we tell, our future would be brighter than our past.
I’m primarily a political liberal, and I’m not ashamed of that. I don’t want to go as far afield as to say that liberalism is substantially about “identity politics,” but I do think that progressives not only fight and vote for positive social change, they are open to the very idea. It makes some white progressives feel bad in a way to be a member of the race that has run roughshod over others for basically all of our history (though it has been less institutionalized and more toned down as of late), but liberals think: it is what it is. Might as well make ourselves comfortable with it. I don’t know if reparations for slavery makes sense, or affirmative action, or significantly increasing the social welfare of American Indians (instead of or apart from casinos), but certainly talking openly about it does. Our silence would otherwise condemn us. Ask Germany; they are quite clear about their role in the Holocaust (and that differs from Japan’s stance toward World War II). A view of justice dictates that we are embedded and encumbered, and we can’t hide behind individualism, libertarian notions of consent, or the modern era. We should instead own up to our past wrongs, and face our current inequities, unfair social forces, and race/class relations. Yes, that means white privilege, and it means questioning capitalism. Not all will agree, and not all will like it; a flag-bearer of the conservative movement is Friedrich von Hayek; here he puts it plainly: “Social justice rests on the hate towards those that enjoy a comfortable position, namely, upon envy.” If I had to judge that assessment, I would say it is 4/5ths subterfuge, 1/5th true.
Consider philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s notion in his superb book Justice, where he notes that we are indeed responsible for things we didn’t necessarily do ourselves: “One way of deciding between the voluntarist and narrative [what I called encumbered and embedded conceptions of the self – that we are part of groups and groups have history] conceptions of the person is to ask if you think there is a third category of obligations – call them obligations of solidarity, or membership – that can’t be explained in [mere] contractarian terms. Unlike natural duties, obligations of solidarity are particular, not universal; they involve moral responsibilities we owe…to those with whom we share a certain history.” He is asking: “Are we bound by some moral ties we haven’t chosen and that can’t be traced to a social contract?” He is saying it perhaps more clearly in this passage: “From the standpoint of the narrative conception of the person, the liberal [meaning pretty much “libertarian;” as represented by John Rawls and Immanuel Kant, most notably] account of obligation [to others in society, such as kids of different colors, social classes, religions, etc.] is too thin. It fails to account for the special responsibilities we have to one another as fellow citizens.”
Thus, kids who are white, wealthy, Christian, good-looking, intelligent, athletic, sociable, popular, tall, tanned, and from healthy/intact families cannot necessarily justify having a harsh, self-centered, uber-libertarian stance in relation to their classmates; it’s an affront to social justice to conduct our social institutions such that it’s “every child for himself.” At least, that’s not the kind of society I want to live in – or would want my children raised in. Kids get counseled, taught, disciplined, corrected, managed, and coerced on a daily basis; why should they not also have to accept historical, social, and personal facts as well, true? If white people live longer, they live longer; if you’re more likely to end up in jail as a black male, then it is so; if men make more money than women, it is true; if upper middle class and wealthy children have higher IQs and complete college at a higher rate, then let’s call that spade a spade. If liberals can’t bring a consciousness of values and share their hard-won victories for social justice in America’s past, then we’re going to be stuck under the thumb of a Donald Trump (or similar reactionary demagogue) unendingly.
Let’s think Robert F. Kennedy, Robert Reich, Henry Wallace, and the post-presidency Jimmy Carter, not the centrist, money-grubbing “liberals” we’ve been dealing with since Truman. Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, Emma Goldman, Harvey Milk were superb exponents of positive social values combined with social action. True thought leaders and hard-working heroes. We whitewash and obfuscate their message and struggle at our peril. We should simply refuse to accept the dominant cultural narrative being perpetuated when truth and progressivism are called for.
I wrote in the beginning that to deny these facts and historical truths will shortchange children of all races; I do believe that of course, yes, minorities of all kinds will benefit from these often-unspoken truths being voiced aloud, but also white people. I can’t quite justify that, or substantiate it, but I feel it to be correct. I guess I’m just a believer in truth almost above all other competing values. So, to Mr. Lattier, if I had children, I’m not sure I would want them to be “social justice warriors,” but to be class-conscious? Yes. Aware of their white privilege? Indeed. Into social justice versus status quo? Sure. Aware of true historical facts? Mm-hmm. Somewhat ashamed of their past? I suppose, yes. Appreciative of abundance and marked by a sense of gratitude? I would say so. Supporters of values such as truth, justice, fairness, progressivism, and equality? Beyond a doubt. Whatever is true is true. Alcoholics, child molesters, government officials, narcissists, and sociopaths fail to get that, but so do the rest of us to varying degrees at various times: “Critical thinking begins with the assumption that our beliefs could be in error, and if they are, that we will revise them accordingly. This is what it means to be humble. Contributing to a culture where humility is the norm begins with us. We can’t expect people to become critical thinkers until we admit our own beliefs or reasoning processes are sometimes wrong…” ~ Peter Boghossian.
Though I think I might generally err on the side of the objectivity of truth, an interesting perspective on a post-racial America (though, perhaps eschewing social justice in the process) is heralded by Robert L. Lloyd about open-mindedness and perspective-taking. At best, it is high-minded and respectful; the downside is that truth potentially loses its strength and “every kid gets a trophy just for trying.” See what you think: “Black and white, right and wrong, divides. Being open to all avenues of truth unites. We all are right and we all are wrong in all of our beliefs, to some degree. Be open to that; admit it to yourself and watch the world open up to you; you’ll feel like a racehorse that just had his blinders taken off, set free to run in an open green field after a lifetime of only looking straight ahead on a dirt track. You suddenly you realize that you have this amazing peripheral vision that you can use to see the world – and others.” That’s a spectacular way to describe what a lot of children from homes and backgrounds that are not particularly prized in this culture greatly desire: to be seen. Social justice might mean sacrifice of some societal good, and you can see by the rise of the radical right and Trump how scary that can be to some white people. Well, now you know how everyone else has felt for centuries. Sorry, that is just historical truth.
Consider the following quotations on social justice I think bolster my points:
Grandfather, look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the ones who are divided, and we are the ones who must come back together to walk in the Sacred Way. Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other.
The pretense of objectivity conceals the fact that all history, while recalling the past, serves some present interest.
If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a concern for the whole, a dedication to the common good. It can’t be indifferent to the attitudes and dispositions, the “habits of the heart,” that citizens bring to public life. It must find a way to lean against purely privatized notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virtue.
Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.
May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true. May you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you. May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong. May you stay forever young.
In the videotape of his killing, Eric Garner is heard explaining that he did nothing wrong and that he was tired of the daily harassment and abuse to which he was subjected. We cannot allow his sadly prophetic next words, ‘It stops today,’ to refer only to his life. We owe it to him and to ourselves as a nation of laws to make sure that the day of his death is also the beginning of the end of the unlawful and discriminatory use of force by police all over the county.
The dramatic struggles of working people in North America, extending over the better part of three centuries, are absent from most of our history texts, as are the armed revolts of farmers, slaves, and Native Americans. Dominant history has little to say about the pitched battles between workers and the militia, the factory takeovers, and the gunning down of strikers by company thugs, police, and army. ~ Michael Parenti
If education cannot help separate truth from falsehood, beauty from vulgarity, right from wrong, then what can it teach us?
The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love, and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.
Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
My approach to studying wisdom is basically “What does it mean to be wise?” And I think that wise persons would favor broad-mindedness over narrow-mindedness; believe that paying a share of our resources is necessary to help others who are unlucky or even foolish; and that they favor progress socially rather than attempting to ensure that certain people and certain ideas stay locked up and restricted.
Respect is carried not in great, bold proclamations, but in small moments of surprising intimacy and empathy.
…societies like ours, in rapid states of transformation, sometimes need to retrieve lost or vanishing wisdom from their pasts, or borrow it from other peoples whose experience of development has been difficult.
A strong community will include people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and interests. Community, communication, and communion all come from the same word, meaning “together” and “next to.” Embedded in the world is the concept of shared place.
We get considerable comfort from the feeling that we understand [that we have a correct and accurate worldview]. When, however, something conflicts with our worldview – when we are presented with new information about the way things are, or we are asked to interpret old data in a new way – discomfort often arises. This clash between our experience and our assumptions about truth is a form of cognitive dissonance. The level of that discomfort and our way of dealing with it depends largely upon how attached we have become to our present worldview – how tightly we cling to it.
I have been an activist for social justice throughout my professional career. I learned the hard way that material success is more important for most people than justice – at least when the former is perceived to be in conflict with the latter. It is all too easy to have the most worthy aims distorted by economic and social pressures into measures of success that can be deposited in the bank.
To those who struggled against formidable odds with the fear and courage of ordinary humans, whose names we shall never know, whose blood and tears we shall never see, whose cries of pain and hope we shall never hear, we are linked by a past that is never dead nor ever really past. ~ Michael Parenti
With compassion, we see benevolently our own human condition and the condition of our fellow beings. We drop prejudice. We withhold judgment.
It’s one thing to look at the history of America’s political parties and argue over which has the most embarrassing history of racial insensitivity, if not downright bigotry. It’s more depressing to realize there are still incidents that reflect poorly on where we are in America in the twenty-first century.
As public gestures, official apologies can help bind up the wounds of the past and provide a basis for moral and political reconciliation. Reparations and other forms of financial restitution can be justified on similar grounds, as tangible expressions of apology and atonement. They can also help alleviate the effects of the injustice on the victims or their heirs.
…a growing number of Americans are so intent on transmitting their own personal value system that they spurn the public schools altogether, preferring religious or homeschooling. These customized forms of education may include a direct rejection of the community’s notions of truth.
Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?
We should be thankful to be Americans. If you were born at this time in history especially, you’re lucky, we all are – we won the World History Powerball Lottery. But a little modesty might keep the heat off of us. I can’t take these people who are like, “We built this country!” You built nothing! I think the railroads were pretty much up by 1980!
The more you know, the more you have truth on your side. It is a sublime power.
History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.
For me, it’s empathy. We struggle with ourselves, which means we should be able to connect with other people’s struggles. You need the facts, the analysis to figure out what to do, but empathy is the first ingredient.
Progressives offer a vision that draws on the deep history and powerful stories of people working together to make this country strong, to protect ourselves and one another, to care about the health and safety of all Americans.
It is no good to try to stop knowledge from going forward. Ignorance is never better than knowledge.
We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the results.
The end of all education should surely be service to others. We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about the progress and prosperity of our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others for their sake and for our own.
I welcome you to look up more quotes on social justice (and allied topics) by clicking here.