Columbia, Social Justice, and the Importance of Dissent

October 17, 2006

Last week, FIRE highlighted Teachers College’s social justice criterion, evoking responses from both critics and supporters of the school’s ideological stance. Yesterday Greg explained that the reform that FIRE seeks is not a wholesale rejection of Teachers College’s organizing principles of social justice and critical pedagogy. Rather, FIRE objects to the requirement that students adopt a myopic vision of the best way to teach.

Teachers College’s “Conceptual Framework” explains the school’s distinct ideology. Pages 26-27 aver that “Social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility.” Teachers College therefore advocates a transformative vision of social justice in the classroom:

To change the system and make schools and societies more equitable, educators must recognize ways in which taken-for-granted notions regarding the legitimacy of the social order are flawed, see change agency as a moral imperative, and have skills to act as agents of change (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). [Emphasis added]

So must all students really come to these same conclusions? What about all the criticisms of this approach to teaching? Will students be penalized for not adopting this theoretical and political posture?

FIRE is concerned that contrasting viewpoints will be punished and true discussion stifled because it has happened before at other schools. Let’s not forget that Washington State University threatened an education student with expulsion for stating disbelief in white privilege and male privilege, and Le Moyne College dismissed an education student for writing a paper advocating strong discipline in the classroom.

Even progressive opinions have come under fire when the campus climate is so focused on a certain ideology. At the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS), for example, psychology professor Leland van den Daele was characterized as a racist and investigated for assigning his class an article that he wrote in 1970 entitled “Preschool Intervention Through Social Learning for Disadvantaged Children.” The article, published in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education, incurred mass indignation because it referred to African-Americans as “negroes,” a term that was en vogue even among progressives in 1970. CIIS shut down all consideration of any insights the article may have contained in its zeal to decry institutional racism.

Most students probably enroll at Teachers College because they want to be educated in its distinct vein, and Teachers College has the institutional freedom to advance its mission, just as Brigham Young University (BYU) has the right to promote its vision of the Mormon faith. But I assume Teachers College thinks of itself as different from BYU, and in addition to advocating its educational philosophy, wants to encourage independent thought and innovative ideas.

The suggestion that Teachers College be open to other ideas does not represent disrespect for its institutional mission or an attempt by the oppressors to reassert cultural hegemony over the would-be agents of change. FIRE simply asks that Teachers College, as the foremost institution in the country for training teachers, clarify its students’ right to entertain differing points of view, and not allow its philosophy to become dogma.

Schools:  Columbia University