The rhetoric of conversion in multicultural education, critical pedagogy and social justice education

With the several psychological qualities of conversion now in mind, we can turn to the ways in which the idea of revelatory conversion characterizes the contemporary discussion of transformative education. The influence of this idea pervades the fields of multicultural education, critical pedagogy and social justice education. One of the central sources of this influence is the particular analytical perspective that multicultural educators, critical pedagogues and social justice educators apply to the social world and hope to encourage in their students. Just as the young Karl Marx considered the impoverishment and alienation of the worker to be the central problem and proper starting point of economic theory, so researchers in each of these fields believe the persistence of oppressive social relations to be the necessary point of departure for the theory and practice of contemporary education. Although Marx himself did not discuss the role of education in the struggle to organize the working class in any systematic way, it was famously Paulo Freiré who would work out the educational requirements of Marx’s revolutionary mission. Building upon the insights of the Frankfurt School neo-Marxists, who focused much more attention than Marx on the manifold means by which oppressive social structures manipulate individual psychology, Freire (1993) famously argues that the shifts of analytical perspective necessary to organize social resistance require a thoroughgoing transformation of conscience and consciousness. For Shor and Freire (1987), this transformation is therefore much more than an intellectual exercise.

The question is then, how to develop a kind of critical reading or critical understanding of society, even in the face of resistance by students and by the dominant class. In doing this ‘illumination,’ what we are calling the transformation of the teacher and students, or their conversion, I think it is not just an intellectual game. We don’t convert ourselves just because of some speeches we hear. It is a very complex phenomenon. In many ways, there have to be some levels of practice to make the transformation, moments of experience that make the conversion. Those levels of experience can take different forms, like teaching or being in a dialogic literature class, like working with trade unions, or marching in a protest. These experiences, more than hearing speeches or thinking about transformation, push forward your political development, (pp. 45-46; italics added)

For Shor and Freire, the process of becoming an active defender of social justice requires students to experience a political “conversion.” Students’ understanding of the social world and their role within it will have to be turned upside down: they will have to begin seeing injustice where they had previously seen unquestionable necessity, begin acting in domains of political life where they had previously been passive and begin identifying with people and causes that were once wholly foreign to them.

In Shor and Freire’s account of their pedagogical approach, we can already see several of the psychological characteristics of conversion at work.2 But perhaps this is merely an anomaly in critical pedagogy, explained by Freire’s idiosyncratic Christian background and subsequently abandoned in the more recent discussion. However, this does not seem to be the case. Giroux (1988), for example, argues that the central task of critical educators is to “help students develop a deep and abiding faith in the struggle to overcome economic, political and social injustices” (p. 127). Empowered by this faith, students accompany the teacher in “struggling for a qualitatively better world for all people” (p. 128). Because such a task is self-consciously concerned with rectifying injustice, students will have to confront the difficult realities of racism, sexism, class conflict and cultural prejudice in society and resolve to do something about them. These are “uncomfortable topics for those who have traditionally benefited by their race, gender, and social class, among other differences,” Nieto and Bode (1996, p. 310) point out. Privileged students will have to learn to uncover and jettison internalized ideologies that prevent them from seeing their role in perpetuating oppression, while marginalized students will have to learn to overcome their feelings of inadequacy, shame, powerlessness or resentment that compound the systemic injustice and material disadvantage that they already face. Because these feelings and ideologies are lodged deep within the psyche and are closely tied up with students’ self-understandings, teachers will have to work hard to bring about the shifts in students’ experience necessary for transformative political action. Megan Boler (1999), for example, argues for a “pedagogy of discomfort,” which encourages students to interrogate their “cherished beliefs and assumptions” (p. 176) and especially the emotional reactions that inevitably occur in the process of interrogation (p. 178), a process that includes facing one’s “demons” (pp. 175, 200). A pedagogy of discomfort thus seeks to cultivate in students a “willingness to reconsider and undergo a possible transformation of [their] self-identity in relation to others and to history” (p. 179) so that they can “inhabit a more ambiguous and flexible sense of self” (p. 176). In a word, they will have to effect a thoroughgoing shift in students’ understanding of their place in the social cosmos.

Importantly, this kind of political transformation is not only important for students. Many teachers, too, will have to experience a political conversion if they hope to advance social justice in their classrooms. Sonia Nieto (1999) argues, for example, that multicultural educators will (often) need to undergo a journey of personal “awakening,” as she calls it, in order to create an educational program that truly serves the needs of their diverse students: “beginning with their personal transformation, teachers can move on to create more productive ways of working with others, and from there to challenge the policies and practices of the schools in which they work” (p. xix). Giroux (1988) characterizes the duties of social justice educators with similar language, imploring teachers to lay down the “language of management and efficiency” that saturates teacher education programs and to start “tak[ing] active responsibility for raising serious questions about what they teach, how they are to teach, and what the larger goals arc for which they are striving” (p. 126). Albers and Frederick (2013) argue that while conventional teachers simply adapt to the educational environment in which they are placed, truly “transformative” teachers seek to “extend their own agency and work toward countering and teaching against such structures and hierarchies” (p. 235). In essence, all-too many teachers have been trained to accept unquestioningly the culturally insensitive teaching techniques they learned in their teacher education programs or experienced themselves in their own schooling. They too often passively accept the biased curriculum they are handed on the first day of school and leave their own implicit prejudices regarding children of other ethnicities, races and social class backgrounds unquestioned. In adopting the social justice approach to education, teachers will have to seriously reconsider not only what they hold to be the proper content and method of education, but also who they are and what they stand for. Teachers that work toward realizing such aims employ “transformative pedagogy” (Elenes, 2013; hooks, 1994) and earn the title of “transformative educator” (Albers & Frederick, 2013), “transformative teacher” (Pinto et al., 2013) or “transformative intellectual” (Giroux, 1998). School administrators who “adopt a set of guiding criteria ... to act as benchmarks for the development of socially just education” can also transcend their roles as mere bureaucratic functionaries. Affirming the principles of social justice education enables them to become “transformative educational leaders” (Shields, 2010, 2004; Weiner, 2003).

In these contributions, the language of conversion becomes quite prominent, demonstrating several characteristics of the conversion experience discussed in the previous section. The first to mention is the necessity of destabilizing the habits of mind and patterns of emotional response that are relevant to students’ (and teachers’) political agency. Once transformed, multiculturalists, critical pedagogues and social justice educators aim to unsettle students’ typical ways of navigating the social world. Students are brought to interrogate their conscious and unconscious prejudices and to root out suspect political allegiances—their “demons” in Bolcr’s language. In the process, teachers will have to discuss extremely sensitive issues relating to racism, poverty and other manifestations of oppression both historical and present. These issues are sensitive both because they require students to confront the long history of human brutality and because they reveal the terrible truth that students themselves play a part in its reproduction, a fact often insulated from privileged students. As many have pointed out, this means that education for social justice involves pain, suffering and even trauma (Mintz, 2013). Ann Bcrlak (2004) puts the point clearly: “Becoming a secondhand witness to racism—imagining victims’ trauma in their own bodies—is painful for second-hand witnesses because, as for the victims themselves, it involves shattering frameworks and integrating painful

Transformation as conversion 31 knowledge” (p. 136). This suffering results not only from the empathic identification with the oppressed that can occur in such scenarios, but also from the unsettling of students’ previous ways of thinking, feeling and acting—the “shattering of frameworks” to which Bcrlak refers. In experiencing this painful shift of perspective, students’ suffering can be compounded by a sense of guilt that often arises in the process. Nieto and Bode (1993) observe, for example, that “[a]n initial and quite understandable reaction of European American teachers and students is to feel guilty” about the injustices discussed in the multicultural classroom, which she sees as “probably serving a useful purpose initially” (p. 310). Sheron Todd (2001) suggests that such guilt has “profound ethical significance” (p. 601) in social justice education, in particular the kind “in which students are awakening to the burden placed on them and to the necessity of shouldering that burden responsibly” (p. 609). For Todd, this means recognizing that “education is fundamentally a violent process in its demand that students be moved to the point of such suffering” (Todd, 2003, p. 411).

The idea that students should be brought to suffer and feel guilty as precursors to their political awakening not only clearly demonstrates the destabilizing moment we saw in the conversion experiences above; it also recalls some of the central tropes associated with the Christian worldview. While Todd, Nieto, Berlak and other social justice educators might not want to align themselves with this ethical vision, the comparison is hard not to draw. On one view of the Christian teaching—William James calls it the “morbid-minded” view—the human race is a fallen species and our fallenness has led us to create a world in which evil and cruelty abound. To remove ourselves from the endless cycle of sin, there is only one way out: we need to confront our ingrained corruptions, repent for our wrongful deeds and undergo a profound transformation that redeems us of our past injustices. In doing so, we are drawn into the community of the initiated who await the new age of righteousness. The encouragement of students to confront the ubiquity of social injustice, to recognize and feel profound guilt for their own contributions to it and to experience a transformation of their social conscience as a result follows a remarkably similar logic.

The proper “orientation point” of this brand of transformative education resembles another psychological characteristic of conversions. The process of transformative change that multiculturalists, critical pedagogues and social justice educators attempt to set into motion is oriented to a well-defined goal, one that we might associate with the “realm of fullness” that Taylor introduces as a central feature of conversions. Formerly disengaged or disenfranchised students are transformed into active political agents who are inspired by a new social ideal. This social ideal not only starkly contrasts with, but also directly “challcngejs] the knowledge they have already learned that supports the status quo" (Kumashiro, 2004, p. 30). Students emerge with an agenda—to fight against the oppression of marginalized peoples and to pursue nothing less than the democratic reconstruction of society (Sleetcr & Grant, 2008). As we have seen, this means, for Giroux, to encourage students to adopt an “abiding faith” in social justice and to work doggedly to bring it to fruition. And for Freiré

(1993), joining the oppressed in the pursuit of “liberation” and “humanization” requires a total conversion of identity:

Given the preceding context, another issue of indubitable importance arises: the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. [...] These adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order. [...] Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order. [....] The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation and yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, who he or she continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived. [...] Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were. (pp. 42-43; cf. pp. 72, 112)

According to Freiré, the gravest danger of social justice education is to create a mere “fellow feeling” with marginalized populations that does not simultaneously transform students’ imagination of social possibilities. Such passive identifications not only fail to produce political progress; they inevitably perpetuate the structures of oppression. If privileged students are really to join the cause of social justice, they will need to experience a true “communion” with the victims of oppression, Freiré argues.

This leads to a third resemblance with the psychology of conversion. Because students are considered to be encumbered by deep ideological blockages, political conversion will be illuminating in the double sense discussed in the psychology of conversion above. That is, not only do multicultural, critical or social justice educators aim to reveal that an alternative to the status quo is possible at all—often a quite difficult feat in itself. They also attempt to show that this alternative is embedded within the democratic values and social relations in which students are already immersed. As James Banks (2001b) puts it, students must “acquire the knowledge, values, and skills they need to participate in social change so that victimized and excluded ethnic and racial groups can become full participants in U.S. society and so the nation will move closer to attaining its democratic ideals” (p. 245). Freire (1993), too, maintains that even in dire social conditions, in which the ideals of liberation and humanization are “constantly negated,” these ideals are nonetheless “affirmed by that very negation” (p. 26). This feature of critical transformative education is important because it provides a way out of oppressive social relations even when they so stubbornly perpetuate themselves. Recognizing that, in a sense, the ideal is already there serves to motivate political action. Students’ awakening to the ideal of social justice is thus, like awakenings in conversions, no mere “transportation” into a dreamy future. Rather, the ideal

Transformation as conversion 33 should appear as an imperative built into existing social values to which we have failed to do justice.

Fourth and finally, because this approach sees such a close connection between what teachers do in their classrooms and the achievement (or non-achicvement) of a larger social ideal, it has the tendency to instrumentalize students’ educational experiences to the larger project of social justice. In other words, the experiences of pain, guilt and even trauma caused by this approach is considered justified insofar as they serve this larger purpose. They are seen either as unavoidable “collateral damage” in the march towards social justice (see Mintz, 2013), or even—in a more retributive vein—as justified compensation for the prior maltreatment of oppressed peoples. As we saw above, this instrumentaliza-tion of individual experience is a common feature of conversion when it becomes an educational project. Boler’s (1997) explanation of what she takes to be the core of social justice education captures this instrumentalism clearly: “As an educator I understand my role to be ... to teach a critical thinking that seeks to transform consciousness in such a way that a Holocaust could never happen again” (p. 255). Boler’s “transformation of consciousness” is thus directly linked to and justified by its contribution to the achievement of social justice, or at the very least the avoidance of heinous social injustice. The passage from Shor and Freire (1987) cited at the very beginning of this section also evinces this instrumentalism. The “question” that concerns the two authors is how to advance the “kind of critical reading or critical understanding of society” that is central to the project of social justice, a task to pursue “even in the face of resistance by students” (p. 45).3

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