Bias Isn't Bias If It's Ours

Peter Wood

        The latest issue of Teacher College Record, “The Voice of Scholarship in Education,” has an astonishing article, that asks—and answers—the question, “Is Teaching for Social Justice a ‘Liberal Bias’?”

                Barbara Applebaum, the author, says no. She freely admits that teaching “for” social justice is an exercise in ideology, but…but…but “under conditions of systemic injustice,” promoting Leftist dogma in the curriculum is only fair. Moreover, Leftist dogma “promotes rather than arrests criticality.” 

                I assume that TCR has not suddenly developed a fondness for Swiftian satire.   But it is not entirely clear from TCR’s introductory material:

Background/Context: A charge heard repeatedly, especially in contemporary media by neo-conservatives such as David Horowitz and George Will, maintains that there is a “liberal bias” in North American academe. The primary grievance is that students in higher education are being indoctrinated into a left-wing ideology that discriminates against conservatives and that some professors are using their classrooms as a political podium at the expense of intellectual diversity.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this project is to analytically assess the charge of “liberal bias” as it is specifically leveled at those who make social justice education a requirement of higher education, and especially teacher education.

Research Design: Using conceptual analysis, this project highlights two aspects of the charge: the charge of “bias” and the charge of “ideology/imposition.” It is argued that the charge of bias is grounded in an assumption about teacher neutrality. The concept of teacher neutrality is examined and shown to be primarily concerned with evenhandedness. It is concluded that under conditions of systemic injustice, social justice education is evenhanded. The charge of ideology/imposition is then explored, and it is argued that the underlying concern revolves around the development of critical reflection. Four different readings of “ideology” are delineated. It is argued that social justice education, although ideological in some sense, does not in principle involve imposition because it promotes rather than arrests criticality. The type of criticality that social justice education promotes is then elucidated. 

Conclusions/Recommendations: Making social justice education a requirement of higher education is both evenhanded and, although a type of ideology, it promotes rather than impedes criticality. Educational researchers are exhorted to be less concerned about bias and ideology in regard to social justice education and to turn their attention to how privileged students can be educated without recentering their privilege in ways that sacrifice the education of the marginalized.

                Barbara Applebaum, as it happens, is a real person. She is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Education, where she teaches “cultural foundations of education” and “inclusive elementary and special education.” Her Syracuse profile adds that her:

                Scholarly interests are currently focused on the point where ethics, education, and commitments to diversity converge. Her research is heavily informed by feminist ethics, feminist philosophy, and critical race theory. Applebaum's published papers have appeared in such journals as Educational Theory, Philosophy of Education, Educational Foundations, and the Journal of Moral Education. Applebaum is currently examining the theories of self and agency that are necessary to ground and sustain educational initiatives committed to social justice.

                Teachers College Record, “The Voice of Scholarship in Education,” is available by subscription only, but I made the sacrifice. I can attest that Applebaum isn’t tossing off a trifling jest. She has pondered her topic for over 13,000 words, and propped it up with 107 footnotes. She has dipped into the writings of those who complain about leftist bias (including scholars such as NAS board member Stanley Rothman), and returned with an infantry of what might be called “neutrality deniers.” These are the folks who have taken the lesson of twentieth century philosophy to be that ‘scholarly objectivity is impossible, so why bother? It is much more honest to give full vent to your biases.’ Or something like that. Applebaum’s bibliography is chock-a-block with titles such as “Unveiling the Myth of Neutrality;” “Neutrality and the Schools” (by the wonderfully named I. A. Snook); “Hegemonic Heterosexual Masculinity;” “Shifting Out of ‘Neutral;’” along with the usual collection of references to Engels, Foucault, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser, and the like.

                So it would also be wrong to take Applebaum’s bizarre rationalization for brainwashing students in ed schools as a first-time try out for the notion that, given an oppressive society, the ordinary rules of intellectual fairness don’t apply.   Her essay is really a special application of an oft-employed Marxist tactic—perhaps more familiar among violent revolutionaries and terrorists than among education professors. Oops. I almost forgot that one of the leading education theorists in the United States is Bill Ayers, who was a violent revolutionary and terrorist.   

                I should be explicit: Applebaum says nothing in favor of violence. She is simply advocating the appropriation of schools of education to the revolutionary project of force-feeding Leftist propaganda to future teachers. But she has delicate sensibilities about this force-feeding, and wants to assure readers that “social justice education” is really voluntary. It is “advocacy without imposition.” It has worthy goals, such as “to help white students understand how racism is systemic” and to show that “white people can be complicit in sustaining the system unintentionally.” What is so voluntary about this effort to make people believe vigorously disputed hypotheses? “What social justice educators require of all their students is engagement but not necessarily agreement.” 

                Of course, we have plenty of experience in seeing how “social justice educators” really work, and the distinction between “engagement” and “agreement” doesn’t appear very prominent in practice. Glenn Ricketts has reminded us recently of what happened to an education student at Washington State University who attempted to dissent from social justice folderol.

                Applebaum’s article is so rich in rhetorical sleights-of-hand that it is like watching a professional magician at work. Noting that critics of Leftist indoctrination complain that an “ideology” is being imposed, Applebaum says the word is “an empty slur against any political position that is opposed to one’s own.” No, an ideology is a system of ideas that short circuits questions and countervailing evidence by ruling in advance that the questions are illegitimate and the evidence irrelevant. 

                But Applebaum allows that “ideology” isn’t always an “empty slur.” Sometimes it is meant to point to “falling short of the standards of rationality.” But this can be dismissed too, because the people who say such things assume they have “privileged access to the truth.” Applebaum isn’t denying that “social justice” is an “ideology.” She just thinks it is a good ideology. 

                My inclination to laugh at this self-serving circularity is dampened somewhat by the thought that Applebaum and people like her are in fact in positions of profound influence. Does any student who has been subjected to “social justice education” come away without damage to his capacity to think clearly about race relations, free institutions, dispassionate intellectual inquiry, republican government, education, or even social justice itself?   Our schools of education have become stagnant ponds, where weird forms of radical anti-intellectualism breed and students are sent onward to careers in teaching enfeebled by their exposure to such doctrines. That this corrupt curriculum exists is bad enough; that it presents itself as a form of “critical thinking” rises to a form of mental cruelty.

                Professor Applebaum, 13,000 words—no, not even 13 million words—would be enough to turn credulousness into “criticality,” or make arrant misuse of the classroom a form of social virtue. Many of us who look on American society doubt that it is best described as suffering under “conditions of systemic injustice.”  In that sense the entire premise of your article is a matter of grave dispute and nothing that follows from that premise can be taken for granted. A true spirit of fairness in education requires that conflicting views be taken seriously and not brushed aside because of some supervening, untested, and unproven assumption. You speak of critical thinking but your article illustrates its utter absence in your own thought. If we wish to prepare teachers to deal with the real injustices in life, we can do a lot better than clouding their minds with prejudice and doctrines that foreclose the search for the truth.

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