What would it look like if we totally democratized education?  Religion graduate student Per Faaland and Carl Moore posed this question during the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) conference this spring at Temple University in Philadelphia.  I had the honor and privilege of attending this conference as a representative of the College of the Liberal Arts due to my passion for social justice in and through higher education.  “Essentially social justice relates to the principle that every effort should be made to ensure that individuals and groups all enjoy fair access to rewards” (Furlong and Cartmel 2009:3) and that those rewards can continue to build upon one another.  For example, simply being admitted to college is not an end in itself.  If one is admitted to college the goal is to graduate and continue to develop vocation, and one’s vocation should include concern for social justice and civic engagement in order to nurture a healthy democracy and world.  This will lead to future generations’ fair access to rewards.

Kicking off the conference, Kevin Kumashiro referred to Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres’ three questions for solving problems of social injustice: who are the winners and losers, who made/makes the rules, and how do the winners convince the losers to keep playing?  Think for a few minutes about these questions in the work that you do or plan to do some day.  These questions illuminate historical struggles we may be in power to mitigate rather than continue to participate in their perpetuation.   One can advocate for social justice in any segment of society or sector of an economy because the achievement of social justice in our world depends on several factors, including environmental sustainability, shared resources, equal access, and equal opportunity.  Whether one works in education, business, government, construction, healthcare, or the arts a sophisticated and applied knowledge of social justice has to be part of a necessary skill set attainable for all college graduates as we move further into the 21st century.

To develop a socially just and civic-minded society, educators cannot continue to hold all of the power over knowledge and the means to convey it.  Faaland and Dr. Moore theorize that we can empower students, at any age and the earlier in development the better, if we let them make decisions about what they will learn and how they will learn it.  As an example, academic departments could present to their students the expected outcomes or objectives of a course or curriculum in terms of skills and knowledge to be gained and students could then develop the syllabi.  This sounds radical, and yet I can think of at least one excellent illustration where Penn State is making strides toward the civic engagement of students in the realm of academics: the revision of General Education.

Teaching issues around social justice, like racism, can be difficult when, generally speaking, the current generation of students grew up believing that talking about race is impolite and then witnessed the election of the first black president of the United States.  To these students, racism may not be at issue or increasingly students may not really understand what racism or civil rights means. Imaani El-Burki’s session on teaching post-racial students involved a discussion around media and the use of code words to both convey and disguise racism.  Students must learn how to identify the codes, another aspect of critical thinking, in order to free society and institutions from these outmoded ways of being that trap us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In the College of the Liberal Arts, we are well-positioned to empower and inspire our majors, minors, and any students taking our general education courses to make education more democratic, develop a greater concern for issues around social justice, and identify any injustice even when it is coded.  If we make this commitment, we will graduate students who want to fully participate in the dream toward a socially just world.

Shannon Telenko is an academic adviser in the College of the Liberal Arts and is completing a PhD in cultural anthropology with a concentration in race, gender, and social justice from American University.  She is excited to have her paper on whiteness in education reviewed as part of the Emerging Scholars Symposium during the Education and Civil Rights conference on June 6 at University Park. 

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