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Reflections of an Activist Teacher


by Charles Derber - February 14, 2005

The place of values and objectivity in college teaching is a vital and increasingly polarized national issue. The “positivist” tradition suggests teachers must be objective and are morally obliged not to become preachers, ideologues, or political activists in the classroom. The “normative” tradition suggests teaching is inevitably value-laden, and that in an increasingly unjust and violent world, teachers have an obligation to help students connect knowledge with action. I have long been in the second camp, but I depart radically from the view that professors should preach or indoctrinate. The best way to practice normative teaching is to recognize that students are most likely to act with enduring commitment in the world when they decide for themselves whether and how to translate critical thought into activism.

The place of values and objectivity in college teaching is a vital and increasingly polarized national issue. The “positivist” tradition suggests teachers must be objective and are morally obliged not to become preachers, ideologues, or political activists in the classroom. The “normative” tradition suggests teaching is inevitably value-laden, and that in an increasingly unjust and violent world, teachers have an obligation to help students connect knowledge with action. I have long been in the second camp, but I depart radically from the view that professors should preach or indoctrinate. The best way to practice normative teaching is to recognize that students are most likely to act with enduring commitment in the world when they decide for themselves whether and how to translate critical thought into activism.


I am a sociologist who teaches and writes about political economy, corporate power, globalization, militarism, and peace. They are inevitably highly charged political and moral subjects, and I increasingly practice teaching that turns the classroom into a type of town hall forum on the major issues of our time. This begins to blur the line between formal education and democratic citizenship, combining the process of learning with the practice of democracy. My classroom lends itself to a normative model that helps students think about knowledge as something organically connected with democracy and action.


Because of my subject material, I find it impossible to separate the content of my teaching from politics. I encourage this because I see higher education as a critical component of creating a citizenry and social movements capable of sustaining democracy and ending injustice. I dearly hope that the critical thinking and content of my courses, as well as the participative format, will lead students to integrate social responsibility and activism into their daily lives. This is not incidental to my view of teaching; it is why I choose to teach.


My commitment to normative teaching is based on the view that all knowledge is inevitably value-structured and that values cannot be separated from action. Moreover, learning is a form of knowledge-in-action. Students learn by acting both in the classroom and outside of it. And, at least in the social sciences and humanities, the learning that goes on in the classroom is most powerful when it is connected with the life that students are leading beyond the campus.


The importance of normative teaching is heightened by the urgency of the current crises in the world. We stand at a historical juncture in which democracy is in peril and the fate of millions of impoverished and endangered people hangs in the balance. In sociology and kindred social fields the failure to inspire action would be a betrayal of the moral argument for higher education and the larger human commitment we all share to a better world.


Yet the restraints encouraged by the positivist tradition play a large role in guiding a responsible and effective normative teacher. When normative pedagogy becomes conflated with dogma and indoctrination, the normative tradition sabotages itself. Normative teachers have a special responsibility to encourage critical thought, a measure of detachment and objectivity, and respect for one’s students own values and choices about action in the world. As a passionate activist teacher, I have learned the benefits of certain “positivist” restraints.


Let me give you just one example. In a course on War and Peace, the curriculum this week (as I write) focuses on the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. I ask students to read some background primers on the crisis and a book that is highly critical of US foreign policy, as well as reading that presents clearly the Israeli as well as the Palestinian positions. After offering some historical analysis of the regional crisis, I ask students to divide into four groups: one Israeli, one Palestinian, one “red state” Americans, and one “blue state” Americans. I ask the Israelis and Palestinians to express their feelings, desires, and political aspirations and encourage “red” and “blue” Americans to ask questions of both Israelis and Palestinians. I guide them into a discussion of what changes in US foreign policy are required and what specific actions individuals in all four groups, including US citizens should take.


The students become deeply engaged, but part of the exercise is to assume different roles so that they can experience personally the position of each group of actors in the crisis. And I am careful to encourage nuanced expressions of both Israeli and Palestinian positions, pro-American and anti-American positions, and activist or non-engagement postures by all involved. I do not advocate for my own position on the issues. If the discussion moves toward a “politically correct” position, I will intervene to encourage debate and possible rejection of that position, even if I embrace it personally. At the end of such classes, we frequently engage in conversations about “what I can do.” Students become so personally involved that it becomes impossible not to address issues of activism. I do not dictate a course of action, but I encourage students to consider all the alternatives, from non-involvement to radical forms of engagement. A student who has been in Palestine as an activist in the International Solidarity Movement to witness Israeli violation of Palestinian rights may talk about his experience. A student who has joined the US military may talk about why he supports US military aid to Israel and is willing to fight in US wars there. I raise all kinds of questions about each kind of activist choice, but I refrain from telling students what they should do.


Having practiced this kind of normative teaching for many years, I have learned a few lessons. First, it is very important to be up-front about one’s own values and political perspective. Students learn much about my own views, but I make clear that they cannot get a good grade by spouting back my own positions. I am clear about my deep aversion to political correctness, which I view as undermining the whole purpose of education. I highlight my expectation that they understand different perspectives on US foreign policy and that what I value most is not the position they take but their ability to practice critical thinking about all theoretical and political perspectives. I also make clear that I am an activist, but they must decide for themselves whether this is the right choice for them.


Second, it is important to offer books and articles that convey both sides of politically polarized subjects. I use a lot of Chomsky’s books, but I also use books by prominent neo-conservatives. I have found that balancing the reading in this way has helped my students to think critically and to trust me. They see that my purpose is not to indoctrinate them but to encourage their own critical thinking and to help them find their own path to action (or inaction).


Third, it is very important, in practice as well as action, to respect the views of students with positions wildly different from one’s own. I encourage students from ROTC to enter my class on War and Peace, and I try hard to bring out their views, ensure respect from other students who hate the military, and give their perspectives due weight in the discussion and choice of readings. This allows me to attract students with diverse political views.


Fourth, I express my own political views on issues discussed in the classroom with great caution. While students know my general political perspective, they often do not know how I think about specific issues. I tell them when they ask, but I always make clear that my position is just one of many. And whether to act – and how – is something about which I make much space for discussion. Throughout I remain very careful not to impose my own views.


The goals of normative teaching and activist dialogue in the classroom have never been more urgent. But the very urgency of our global political and moral crises requires that the activist teacher take special care that students are empowered to think critically and make their own choices.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11751, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:16:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Charles Derber
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    CHARLES DERBER thinks of himself as a writer who studies the "big picture" of American culture and global capitalism. His recent books focus on globalization, terrorism and the power of multinational corporations. He has also written extensively on the crisis of individualism that defines American life, showing how our problems of community are organically tied to economic and political forces. His latest book, People Before Profit, is a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which multinational corporations are shifting power from elected governments to unelected business executives, aided by the US political and military establishment but challenged by a growing peace and global justice movement.
 
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