College Quarterly
Winter 2010 - Volume 13 Number 1
Reviews Critical Literacy and Resistance: Teaching Social Justice across the Secondary Curriculum.
Laraine Wallowitz, ed.
New York: Peter Lang, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

It is not the habit of The College Quarterly to feature articles or book reviews that are mainly concerned with secondary schooling. There are, however, exceptions that are accepted when the content is of both high quality and direct relevance to college educators. This is one such inclusion.

Over the years I have listened to countless teachers as they celebrate personal successes or lament individual failures in the classroom. Promising students who are somehow inspired to see the world or themselves more clearly frequently provide touching stories of individual accomplishment. In the alternative, equally promising young women and men who somehow are allowed or allow themselves to miss a legitimate opportunity for personal growth are often the source of regret and even guilt on the part of conscientious teachers who tried their very best, but missed the connection.

Both sorts of stories have something in common: it is that the opportunity to give a gift of insight or to be a catalyst for some worthwhile transformation in the lives of students almost always starts and ends with those students at propitious moments in their lives. Teachers may properly feel blessed when they are privileged to be in the right place at the right time; but, teachers who troll for converts among the needy are hereby advised to move swiftly to a movie-rental facility, take home a copy of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” and watch it at least three times in succession. It is job of teachers to alert and enlighten, not to win naïve converts to some ideological orthodoxy or, perhaps worse, to promote a cult of personality with the themselves at the centre.

That said, it is also not the teacher’s job to impose conventional morality, received political opinion or the dogmas of existing cultural hegemony. Understanding that there is no such thing as “objectivity” in serious classroom discussions, it is required of teachers to instill in students a critical and sceptical approach to all doctrines, including the teacher’s own.

To some, the encouragement of doubt and uncertainty is akin to subversion. It is apt to foster dissent, resistance and rebellion against prevailing social values and authorities. It can lead to fundamental questioning of existing beliefs and the rules of accepted public discourse. People who worry that education can be threatening to social stability are right to be anxious. Teaching can be, in the words of the title of a fine book by Neil Postman, “a subversive activity”; it can also be, in the similar title of an equally fine book by the same author, “a conserving activity.” Much depends on the quality of the society and the social attitudes and actions which good teachers help good students to question and occasionally cross-examine, using all the skills of a good prosecutor with a dubious belief of behaviour in the witness box.

In Critical Literacy as Resistance, Laraine Wallowitz has brought together twelve excellent essays by fifteen talented teachers. They survey topics that are familiar enough: critical thinking in science and mathematics as well as in language learning; approaches to controversial issues such as gender and race; and the enduring debate about what is truly meant by the phrase “critical thinking,” which has become a cliché among educators many of whom have plainly failed to think deeply about criticism.

Readers need not worry at all about the level at which the contributions are written, nor about the question of whether they have relevance to college teaching. Apart from any comments and concerns about the preparedness and maturity of contemporary college students, the writers in this anthology speak about issues that are truly common to secondary, college and university students; and, they do so in a way that no one should consider either inchoate on the one hand or patronizing on the other.

Throughout, Wallowitz and her associates deal with real life practices in classrooms inhabited by young people who are understandably divided among the confused, the unruly, the timid and the prematurely sensible and wise. Connecting the methods of critical theory and interrogation to young people’s experience, the essays examine bromides such as “tolerance” to discern its discomforting subtext. They speak encouragingly about creative “problem-posing” and not reactive “problem-solving.” They reveal the still common positivistic ideologies of science—which no serious science teacher, at least since Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has defended, but which still describe a great deal of “official” scientific education. Art and literature, history and contemporary popular culture alsol come in for description, explanation and criticism as subject areas and as places from which a broader questioning of domestic and global relations can begin.

Teachers should read this book if they are among the educators who have only vaguely yearned to connect their courses to the real lives and futures of their students, to social justice concerns and to the global alarms about everything from war and peace to systemic ecological degradation. Teachers who already do their best to bring education under scrutiny should also take it to heart. And those entrusted with the training of new and inexperienced teachers who are just now learning their craft should take advantage of it for any programs designed to make new members of the profession into the kind of teachers we all wish we had learned from, and now hope to become.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca

Reviews

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