Researching and Teaching Social Issues
reviewed by Stephen J Thornton - May 05, 2014
Title: Researching and Teaching Social Issues
Author(s): Samuel Totten & Jon E. Pedersen
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617357464, Pages: 288, Year: 2012
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This collection of essays brings together professional autobiographies by 13 experienced professors of education. The unifying feature is that each of the writers adheres to a social orientation to education. This orientation may be refreshing given that we live in a time dominated by instrumental cognitive approaches to education. The volume would appear to be most aimed at an audience of professors of education and their graduate students who may be interested in the motivation for and conduct of professional lives.
Each of the essays is based on its authors responses to the same set of questions posed by volume editors, Samuel Totten and Jon Pedersen. The questions concern why, when, and how they became interested in a social-issues orientation toward education. All of the authors except one (Fred Newmann, who answers each individual question separately) presents a narrative of his or her professional life. The narratives are organized chronologically and trace careers from college (or earlier) through graduate school and into lengthy periods in the professoriate. The form this chronological organization takes varies a bit from essay to essay and thus there is no standard structure to the essays. Roger Bybee, for instance, follows an event-by-event sequence while others such as Michael Apple are more thematic. Similarly, there is variation in when an author, early in the career or later, adopted a social-issues stance. For example, Alex Molnar seems to have arrived in graduate school already predisposed to a quest for social justice whereas Robert Yager came to it later through professional circumstances.
Taken as a group, these essays are informative about how curriculum trends played out over the last generation or two and, in particular, how these trends interacted with the lives of these professors of education. Although all of the authors are committed to teaching about and researching social issues, these essays also show how resistance to this perspective is entrenched. Thus, for all their enthusiasm for a social-issues stance, a number of these essays such as Yagers could also be read as studies in disappointment.
Readers reactions to these essays will likely be shaped as well by the perspectives and interests they bring to them. The readers subject specialty may act as a strong predictor of interest in a particular chapter. The subject specialists represented include, unsurprisingly, social studies educators (six of thirteen chapters) but also include science educators (four chapters), English educators, educational generalists, interdisciplinary theorists and practitioners, and critical theorists. Some of the authors fit in more than one of these specialties, of course. Which educators are included in the anthology, Totten and Pedersen concede, partly depended on who accepted their invitation to contribute to the volume.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the volume is the range of views on what it means to engage with social issues in curriculum work, university teaching, and research. For instance, Apple underscores the structural inequalities of this society, a situation in which he insists the citizen and teacher cannot and should not be neutral (p. 25). Given the state of social injustice, Apple calls for a comprehensive reconstruction of educational arrangements. Bybee, on the other hand, also believes social issues should hold a significant place in school curriculum, but he holds out hope that a combination of educational neutrality and a curriculum in which fundamental ideas that every citizen should understand may be possible (p. 42).
Given the prominence gender issues have achieved in the time period covered in this volume, readers may find it surprising that the social seldom extends to sustained attention to gender in these essays. Carole Hahns essay, in which social issues are clearly tempered by gender questions, is a significant exception.
Another theme that arises in several of these essays is that recent education reformers have paid little or no heed to what can be learned from earlier change efforts. Yager, for instance, laments that 1960s science education programs stressed cognitive growth but failed to relate this scientific thinking sufficiently to real world concerns. In the 2000s, he sees the same mistake being repeated (p. 251).
A troubling feature of this volume is that internal evidence in a number of essays (e.g., Bybee, Totten, Yager) indicates that these essays were written around a decade ago. I found no explanation in this volume with a 2012 copyright as to why this is the case. So readers should be forewarned that they are evidently presented with writing completed quite some time ago.
In sum, this anthology provides some engaging perspectives on social issues and education in the United States. Although it was not their intention, it may have been even more interesting if the editors had attempted analysis of themes that cut across the individual essays.