A Letter to Elliott: On Education, Philosophy, and Feminism, Or, What Sucks About School and What We Can Do About It

Dear Elliott,

Let me begin by extending my most sincere apology for letting so much time lapse before responding to your message. In the spirit of publicly thinking through philosophical issues, I hope you also accept this very public reply as an acceptable way to engage with the topics you presented, namely this: What possibilities does schooling present for instilling and furthering ethical education and action towards social movements, like feminism, in particular?

Before I address your question about an ethical and socially-oriented approach to education, I want to express how honored and grateful I am that you found my videos and appreciated their intent and content enough to shared them with your classmates. However, I can’t say that your peers’ “interesting response” to Porn with Strangers and The Anal Bomb was misguided. Although it may not have been your aim, I think it’s quite reasonable for them to assume that you were encouraging them to partake in anal sex (or at least consider their so-called “natural” responses to even the idea of it) in order to address their potentially latent homophobia and sexism. After all, in those videos, I’m not-so-subtly hinting at the idea that sexual practices and “personal” preferences can and often do reflect politically-charged cultural values and subject positions (all the puns intended!). Kudos to you for provocatively engaging your peers at an all-boys school on issues of ethics, pornography, and sexism! But I digress…

The real reason you reached out to me was to raise questions about the role of education, how education relates to society at large, and if/how/when/where feminism fits in regarding how we educate future generations.

To do service to your concerns, I’ll briefly summarize what you wrote to me. You wonderfully outlined some tensions by noting that schools “provide the possibility for positive social and ethical education,” yet the majority of modern schools are “generally reflections of capitalistically-minded governments bent on standardizing tests and preparing students for the job distribution.” You also brilliantly pointed out that “we often see societies’ underlying views represented in schools, such as inherent sexism.”

To paraphrase in my own words, I think you’re saying something like this: Isn’t it TOTALLY AWESOME how education provides one of the greatest opportunities to cultivate better people and right our gravest social injustices? But isn’t it TOTALLY MESSED UP how some of the gravest injustices – like class, racial, and gender inequality – have actually hijacked, informed, and become models for how we approach and evaluate our systems of education?!?

Said another way, the values that shape our social practices (such as capitalist values) dramatically influence our education practices. I think we’re on the same page.

In light of these tensions, you ask: What form should education take in order to build a better society? To what degree, if at all, should schools cultivate an ethical sense in students?

Very briefly, I want to affirm the implications in your questions. YES, I agree that education presents some of the most fruitful opportunities for building better, more just societies and that it should be approached as such. While the nuances must be considered more carefully, sometimes that can be accomplished by providing the most disenfranchised individuals with education and thus opportunities to escape poverty and oppression. Other times, it is through cultivating a more democratic, moral sensibility that reflects care, concern, and social responsibility for one’s fellow citizens, especially if one is already in a social position that has power and influence to shape how society operates. Before saying more about how this could be done, let me acknowledge something else…

I appreciate that before posing your questions, Elliott, you started your message by situating yourself within the context of your educational experience – noting how your philosophy classes have enriched the entirety of your education (even though what and how you learn through philosophy is potentially at odds with your standard classes); describing how your philosophy teacher, “by definition, inspires a certain degree of subversiveness in his students, purely by his tendency to question without discrimination;” and explaining how this has led you to ask critical questions about education, one of the most fundamental institutions through which we learn to learn, live, work, and relate to others. You also noted the character of your institution itself – a government-funded, high-performing, “academically-elite” Australian high school for boys that relies on a student’s strong performance on entrance exams for admission, which, as you note, does not necessarily coincide with a strong aptitude for critical thinking.

Although you are finishing up high school in Australia and I’m working at a university in the United States, there are some very interesting similarities between our situations. As such, I’d like to follow your lead and share a bit of the context that informs how I am currently thinking about the role of education as it relates to society at large.

Last January I started working in a University Honors Program (from which I also graduated nearly six years prior, by the way). It’s an undergraduate program for high-ability, academically-successful students that provides “enriched educational experiences,” such as small, discussion-based seminars, along with many other privileges, like access to scholarships, personal contact with advisors, and priority registration for their coursework. Until this year, nearly a third of all Honors students were granted admission based solely on their high school grades and standardized test scores – i.e., regardless of their personal character, commitment to social causes, interest in critical thinking, or even their expressed desire to participate in such a program. Finally, while we do have some of the brightest students at the university in our program, we certainly do not have all of the brightest students. Furthermore, the Honors population at this university (which is probably common among most American Honors programs) reflects a deep lack of diversity; the majority of students identify as white, upper-middle class, and (in contrast to your school) as women.

For the sake of our exchange, situating ourselves in our respective educational environments is important because what’s at stake here are not just issues of education, society, and ethics in general. More specifically, in order to work from where you and I stand, we both must understand and confront these issues with an eye towards privilege, responsibility, and justice regarding education for the “social elite.” In other words, I don’t think we should assume that one method of education will be the best method to apply to all educational environments or for all student populations at hand. We need to appreciate that to work for social justice requires different things from different people in different situations – working within our own communities by using different means for shared ends.

When I found out that I would have the opportunity to design and teach a first-year Honors seminar, I considered my own experience in college, and this particular honors program, and asked, “What would I have wanted to learn about and understand from the outset of my college career?”

Ten years ago when I started college, I was already keenly interested in issues of social justice, but I didn’t yet grasp the significance of my own privilege. As someone who wanted to do good, help people, and be an agent of progressive change in society, I pretty much fit the image of an idealistic young-adult whose heart was in the right place but lacked the critical understanding of where I actually fit into larger social structures of inequality, domination, oppression, and the possibilities for deep social change.

I also wanted to know that I would eventually be able to pay my bills.

For the most part, this is where I see most of my students. They’re intelligent, good people who wouldn’t ever dream of intentionally harming others in direct and explicit ways, but they may not have ever had the opportunity to reflect on the complexities of their own identities and positions within systems of domination. Like so many other people, they come to college wanting to learn, yes, but also wanting the assurance that they will graduate, get a good job, and be successful in life (whatever that means to most eighteen-year-olds). And they may not fully appreciate how they are students who, by virtue of their participation in our Honors Program, acquire more privilege on top of whatever privilege they already have (whether or not they are aware of it).

As a result, I designed my first-year Honors seminar on democratic education in a market economy in light of the real pressures they face as students, the responsibility that I feel as an educator, and the very large challenges that shape the state of education on the whole, most of which are presented by this conflict in capitalist and democratic values.

Although it may seem like I’ve continued to avoid your questions by rambling on about my seminar and my students, I hope you can see that I’ve also been trying to illustrate my answers to your questions. (Also, by no means do I intend this to be an excuse, but part of me is grateful for the two months that have passed since I received your message. You wrote me just one day before our fall term started, so just one day before my students and I started delving into precisely these issues three times a week. So far, I’ve learned a whole lot! If anything, I’ll be better prepared to answer your questions in another month when our term is over.)

But now I will try to be more direct.

These are some snapshots of the discussions we have in my seminar this semester.

Perhaps now more than ever, education is viewed as a means to an economic end, on both the personal and social levels. One goes to school to learn the skills that will be validated by a degree to make one competitively qualified for a job. On a national level, this seems to make sense if we wish to improve the national and global economy, for we need skilled workers who will be able to compete with other nations, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math. On a social level, it might also appear that poverty is perpetuated when there are populations of unskilled, uneducated folks who can’t earn livable wages because they can’t compete for good jobs. The answer, then, would seem to be to increase access to education for everyone, whether that be in the form of technical training, vocational degrees, or four-year degrees at universities.

But…..

Education isn’t merely the life-line for economic growth and well-being. In addition to that, education has the dual-role of shaping the character of our society. In democratic societies, critical thinking and the ability to understand, listen, express, and communicate different points of views are crucial. So is the ability to accept, embrace, and respect differences in culture and values and collaborate in light of these differences without seeking to assimilate or eliminate them. Thus, education is the primary means through which we learn to live as more than just workers, laborers, managers, and employees. We also (should) learn how to be better neighbors, community members, friends, family members, and global citizens (John Dewey is one who has said this quite well).

It’s a difficult task to balance the economic and social purposes of education, but they don’t have to be approached as mutually exclusive issues. For instance, Martha Nussbaum makes the case in her book, Not for Profit, that emphasizing so-called “democratic values” is actually good for increasing “profitable” things like innovation and creative problem-solving, both of which are crucial for economic well-being (but also a healthy democracy, mind you). In a quickly changing world, it might even be better (i.e., profitable) to teach people how to read the world, adjust to it, and create within in it, rather than teaching/training them to meet the specific labor demands of the time.

What form should education take in order to balance the economic and social purposes of education? More and more, and as even the emphasis on what form education should take indicates, I’m convinced that it comes down to pedagogy, which means it comes down to the educators and their ability to skillfully engage with students. We can and should continue to provide students with practical information. They need the know-how. But content is not enough. It matters how students encounter the content, and what else comes with it.

This is how we can actualize the opportunity to educate for social change.

Like so many others, I’m influenced by folks like Paulo Freire in the field of critical pedagogy through his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. bell hooks has been even more of a direct inspiration on me with her feminist and anti-racist approach to critical pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress. Of course, it’s crucially important to appreciate the power of education for empowerment, transformation, and as a practice of freedom. But I don’t think it’s enough. I’m also very much invested in social justice pedagogy, which uses education as a key way to disrupt the perpetuation of domination and oppression among the social elite. I’m grateful to have found this gem, Educating Activist Allies, by Katy Swalwell, which pays attention to the need to work for justice by addressing both ends of the social spectrum.

With the emphasis now squarely on teaching and pedagogy, the need to value and support teachers as agents of change comes clearly into focus. Teachers need to be quality educators, and they have to be trained and treated as such. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon the curriculum, but it does mean that there should be freedom around how the curriculum will be taught. Rather than standardizing methods for delivering content through generic workbooks, tests, computer programs, or online exercises that effectively replace or displace teachers, teachers must be skilled in meeting students where they are and engaging them with the aim of pushing beyond the confines that shape their experiences, whether those are marked by privilege or disadvantage. On either end of the spectrum, an essential piece of this requires that students learn the course content by simultaneously analyzing power relations, systems of oppression that currently provide the foundation from which we learn math, science, engineering, and statistics, as well as business, history, literature, and art. Perhaps doing so would even help students learn the content better by relating to it on deeper levels than memorization ever could provide.

Finally, where does feminism fit? According to how I’ve outlined education above, feminism fits into all of it, everywhere, and then some. I explicitly mentioned feminist pedagogy, but feminism really just provides one lens through which we can understand and approach social inequities. More generally, the goal of feminism is to critically examine and challenge unequal power relations along many different intersecting lines that relate to gender, but also class, race, ability, culture, economics, and histories of imperialism. In this sense, feminism fits in as part of a greater effort for educating for social justice that challenges all forms of oppression and domination.

I know that this has been as lengthy as it is belated response to your questions, but I hope that somewhere in all of that I managed to, at least partially, answer them. Again, I greatly appreciate you reaching out to me, and I hope that you continue to ask such critical questions. Thank you for the opportunity to engage with you and reflect on these issues!

All my best,

Cori

I bring philosophy to life in the classroom and online. Follow me on Twitter @Cori_Wong, “Like” my page on Facebook, and subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’m also exploring what philosophy could look like on Instagram. Right now it looks like a lot of selfies.
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One thought on “A Letter to Elliott: On Education, Philosophy, and Feminism, Or, What Sucks About School and What We Can Do About It

  1. Pingback: A Letter to Elliott [of 11A]: On Education, Philosophy, and Feminism, Or, What Sucks About School and What We Can Do About It | Philosophy @ MHS

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