Alternative classrooms may not be as inclusive as they claim to be
Kathryn Blaze Carlson Jan 27, 2012 – 10:47 PM ET
Last Updated: Jan 27, 2012 10:57 PM ET
C.J. Gunther for National Post
Rachel Adelman, seen in her office at Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., says her Israeli son was robbed of his sense of self through anti-Zionist materials distributed by a pro-Palestinian club at Toronto’s Student School.
She learned soon enough, though, that those promises of open-mindedness and equality “sounded nice,” but that the reality in the hallways would nearly cost her son his sense of self.
Eitan, then 17 years old and described by his mother as shy, came home from his first day at Toronto’s Student School in a “state of dismay,” his mother said.
“He said, ‘Ima [Hebrew for mother], the walls of the school are plastered with posters saying Israel: Apartheid State,’ ” said Professor Adelman, who now teaches at the Harvard Divinity School, referring to flyers mounted by a pro-Palestinian student club.
At the first all-school assembly, the students were shown Occupation 101, a controversial film that has been accused of portraying Israel as equivalent to Apartheid-era South Africa. Prof. Adelman said the school’s administrator defended the showing, saying the school had a policy of allowing students to voice their ideological bents. Two months later, Eitan switched schools.
But The Student School is just one of several Canadian schools that have moved “social justice” education onto the timetable. In launching nine alternative academies last week, one of this country’s boldest education directors touted “social justice” education as a way for children to gain social status and self-esteem. Proponents also say the approach teaches tolerance and respect for diversity — that it grooms socially conscious students prepared to fight against injustices they see in their communities.
‘What social justice really means is trying to create some sort of egalitarian system. That’s a political standpoint — it’s basically socialist’Unlike lessons about long division or photosynthesis, however, there are competing versions of what “social justice” actually looks like — and about which vision of it should end up on school curricula. That has left some parents and education advocates increasingly uncomfortable with the trend of trying to teach a subject that, virtually by definition, aims to challenge dominant cultural values. It can often, then, end up crossing into the kind of ethical and ideological instruction that has traditionally belonged at home.
— Frank Furedi
“I worry about confusing the idea of teaching children about a just society with teaching a political viewpoint,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a parents’ advocacy group focusing on the public school system.
Yet school officials have not exactly shied away from putting a distinctly progressive stamp on their social justice programming. In one of its teaching guides, the B.C. Department of Education says social justice “extends beyond the protection of rights” and aims for a “just and equitable society.” Teaching equality in society, it explains, includes teaching ways we can all “attain the same achievements.”
In its 2010 Social Justice Action Plan, the Toronto District School Board defines social justice as a “specific habit of justice that is based on the concepts of human rights, equity, fairness and economic egalitarianism.” One prominent education magazine in the U.S., meantime, characterized social justice education as “teaching kids to question whoever happens to hold the reins of power at a particular moment.”
But certain education experts also question whether grade schools are even prepared to confront the challenges inevitably associated with social justice education. In New Brunswick, one Grade 4 teacher drew ire for trying to impart moral values by asking students to decide in 10 minutes or less who they would save if the Earth were about to explode — an Acadian francophone, a Chinese person, a black African, an English person or an aboriginal. The director of the district’s school board said at the time he believed the teacher aimed to send a message on racial tolerance.
In Ontario, one school sent Grade 1 students home with day-planners that highlighted an “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” and “International Day of Zero-Tolerance on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.” A school board superintendent said the aim was to “promote conversation between our students” but admitted it should have happened in a more “sensitive and age-appropriate manner.”
Last year, another Ontario school sent Grade 7 students to a protest hosted by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a notoriously confrontational activist group that advocates militantly for economic equality. Several years ago, the head of the coalition was arrested after a bloody protest at the provincial legislature, where demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails and bricks at police and demanded more action on social housing.
In Quebec, one eco-friendly elementary school excluded a six-year-old boy from a teddy-bear contest because his lunch box contained a plastic bag rather than a reusable container.
“That’s an illegitimate use of the school’s authority,” said British sociologist Frank Furedi. “It’s not up to the schools to determine the behaviour and values of the family. A child’s education should not be confused with politicization, nor is it about internalizing the values of their teachers.”
The debate over the boundaries of a public school education is not new, with policy-makers and parents holding myriad views on how far teachers should tread into the realm of character education, ethics, justice and civic engagement. But it flares up particularly, and most vividly, whenever a particular parent accuses a particular teacher of directly contradicting the values the family teaches at home.
“We’re almost trying to do too many things at school,” said Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, a Waterloo, Ont.-based non-profit working to improve education in Canada. “School becomes the social manipulator rather than the place that says, ‘Let’s make sure kids learn the fundamentals when they’re in primary school so they can go on to learn and think for themselves.’ Sometimes schools force-feed a perspective. As a parent, it feels like that sometimes.”
However, Charles Ungerleider, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and former B.C. deputy minister of education, thinks it’s important that schools get into teaching ethics and values because that is “one of the strengths of schooling in a democratic society.”
“Parents are the primary educators of their kids and the primary communicators of values,” he said. “But the reason that we send children to public school is, in fact, to develop and inculcate the values we all share and to overcome any limitations a parent may have in exposing kids to alternative points of view.”
But while the idea of human rights may be a prevailing Canadian value, there is a gulf of difference between how some of us interpret it: whether or not the Israelis are denying Palestinians their human rights; whether or not Ottawa is denying First Nations theirs. Equality sounds inoffensive enough, until it raises more divisive questions about affirmative action or if it starts meaning equality of outcomes, instead of just equal opportunities.
“What social justice really means is trying to create some sort of egalitarian system,” Mr. Furedi said. “That’s a political standpoint — it’s basically socialist. If you want to sign up for it then that’s fine, but it’s not something that children should automatically be exposed to. Their parents never asked that their children be indoctrinated with that kind of ideology.”
What The Student School saw as “diversity” — tolerating even views hostile to Zionism — Ms. Adelman said seemed more like anti-Semitism.
“I was upset that the principal didn’t see that [the portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict] needs to be more balanced, and that he and the school had clearly taken a side on the issue,” she said of the principal, who was eventually investigated by the school board and is no longer listed as staff on the school’s website.
Ms. Kidder said teachers hold personal views just like anyone else, making it inevitable that their own biases will influence their lessons. “Maybe not when you’re teaching two plus two equals four,” she said. “But nearly everything after that may have some kind of value-based context or spin.”
Danielle McLaughlin, a director at the Canadian Liberties Association and Education Trust, a non-profit research and educational organization, said sinister headline-grabbing stories on social justice gone awry have actually had a “chilling effect” on some teachers who fear angering parents. She said many Ontario teachers are surprised to learn, too, that the province’s Education Act explicitly says it is a teacher’s duty to instill in children a respect for “the principles of Judeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues.”
While Catholic schools have long taught their version of social justice in the classroom — service to others, for example — public schools across the country have launched courses such as Social Justice 12, which was introduced as an elective in B.C. in 2008 and broached issues of homophobia and gender identity. When 90 students signed up for the class at W. J. Mouat Secondary school in Abbotsford, it was cancelled three weeks before it was to begin, reportedly over complaints from parents in the conservative community. A year later, it was brought back with the condition that students needed parental consent to attend.
Last week, a Prince Edward Island public school district was the subject of controversy for handing out Bibles to Grade 5 students unless their parents opt out of the practice. One father told the local CBC that he should be held responsible for his child’s belief system, not the school.
“There are certain values we all respect — the sort of Golden Rule ‘do unto others’ type thing,” Ms. Wilson said. “But ultimately, I believe parents should have the decision-making power over what values their children learn.”