Character Education vs Social Justice Pedagogy

The “Six Pillars of Character” identified as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship (Traub, 2005) are interpreted in a variety of different education programs – some of which also include other “virtues” such as, criticism, creativity, curiosity, concentration, communication, correction and control (The Seven C’s of Thinking Clearly by Integrity Matters). In sum, schools that wish to include moral or human values in education embrace “character education” programs. However, character education programs that service disenfranchised student populations are often adopted as a vehicle to prevent violence, drug abuse, dropouts and other behaviors that have been readily identified as being part of the “achievement gap” problem. Many educators look for programs that will a) keep students in the classroom, (b) teach students how to treat each other and the teacher with respect, (c) improve classroom management and (d) provide a moral or ethical reason behind such behaviors that do not originate from the teacher. Consequently, character education programs are getting much attention when minority students comprise the majority of many public schools today and the high school dropout rate is close to 60% in some districts. Teachers and administrators bellow, “How can I get these kids to stay in school and not kill each other or ME for that matter?” How can I teach them the value of education, cooperation and discipline? Character education programs somehow promise that there is a way to teach children “virtues” that will enable them to produce in the school environment.

All schools are interested in transformation – especially schools that service disenfranchised students historically marginalized in our society. How we approach educating students is particularly critical when we suggest challenging the fundamental inequities that characterize our education system. No one argues that students need to respect themselves, each other and adults. No one argues that if students are not in school then they cannot learn! Student engagement is fundamental to student achievement. However, the growing movement of educators who believe that “teaching is about transforming our students into their true potential, or we must teach these kids the virtues of a good character or citizen” concerns me. Statements like these are dangerously close to the traditional educational paradigm, which suggests that students are empty vessels and teachers are given the task of filling them with worthy knowledge. The alarming drop out rates amongst children of color and from poverty stricken homes, the increase in school violence, the widening of the achievement gap, the growing sense of despair in many “urban,” “minority,” “at-risk,” schools because of discipline issues, uncontrollable and anti-social conduct that prevent students from receiving the “valuable” information teachers are trying to give them – are all factors that make character education programs that promote “conflict resolution” and “democracy” very attractive to educators looking for a values driven fix. However, while teachers are waiting for their unruly students to resolve conflicts peacefully and be able to “walk in another person’s shoes” towards understanding and tolerance; while teachers discuss how “those kids” just don’t value education behind closed doors – I ask: When will teachers begin to look at themselves? Since when has the notion of transforming our schools by transforming our kids into better people become a new and improved concept? Haven’t middle class and mainstream teachers and administrators and politicians always wanted poor children of color to learn middle class and “mainstream” codes of behavior?

Perhaps we ought to be critical of character education proponents that speak of a mutual “yearning to transform kids into their true potential.” An educator that speaks to a child with a yearning to see this kid be something that they are not at the present moment, is not seeing the child for who he or she really is – aside from their choices or behavior. An educator who cannot see the beauty in a child – exactly where he or she is in the present moment – cannot expect to connect with that child in the present moment. That child is, you know, the one who does not take off his hat, who exhibits insurgent behavior, who is angry with an unjust world (that exists), who is bored out of his mind with the tens of thousands of tests that he is required to take, filling in bubble after bubble for yet another standardized exam that will tell him and his school that they are (and will always be) low performing, that child that gets up and says “fuck this shit,” that child that does not play by the rules because rules have never benefited him – you know, THAT child. All of these “other people’s children” are all beautiful children in every sense of the word, right here, right now. They cannot and will not conform, transform to anyone’s set of values. The only way THAT child will consider his or her future potential is if he or she is seen in his or her absolute beauty in the present moment.

Transformational education is not about transforming kids. It is about transforming ourselves, the way we see the world and in this world, these kids, OUR kids are there, waiting, for each and every one of us to look into the mirror first. Ask ourselves, what can this child teach me about me that I do not know, about this world that I can not possibly see by myself, about this space that is ours today? How can I trust that we will give each other a chance long enough to grow together, to explore, to question, to critically challenge the world around US, so that we can work together to make a change for the generation to follow, because as long as one of us is hungry or treated unjustly, or homeless or without love, none of us is safe. None of us is transformed.

The term social justice in education suggests that working for social justice requires a deliberate intervention that challenges fundamental inequities and works towards better educational and economic outcomes for marginalized children (Furman, 2004). An important component of social justice pedagogy is critical literacy — that is that the students themselves are participants in their education as a vehicle to understand more deeply the conditions of their lives and to acquire the academic skills to ultimately be a part of the solution to injustice (Gutstein, 2003). Research literature over the past thirty years characterizes critical literacy as (1) disrupting the commonplace; (2) interrogating multiple viewpoints; (3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and (4) taking action and promoting social justice (Lewison, Seely Flint and Van Sluys (2002). As you consider character and education in today’s world, consider the possibility that your role as an educator must not be about what you can do to change your student’s behavior, but rather, what can you do to change your own. Social justice pedagogy is working with students together to create a safe space where challenging and disrupting the “commonplace” is not feared, but strategically channeled towards creating and implementing proactive solutions that change the conditions of our lives. It is about seeing and accepting alternative modes of behavior, conduct and language towards the ultimate goal of reaching a common ground — grounded in humanity. It is about transformation – not of the child, but of the world we live in. In order to do that, we must first, begin the arduous task of transforming ourselves.

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