Background/Context: Within the United States, wealth disparities are growing and upward social mobility is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. These trends call into question the American Dream ideology that anyone can succeed through hard work. This meritocratic ideal has traditionally been one of the unifying ideologies promoted through the public school curriculum. The topic of economic inequality, on the other hand, is largely absent from most social studies curricula. When teachers do address this issue, they tend to omit discussions of causes or potential policy solutions. Students are thus left with few resources with which to develop positions on policies related to inequality that would help them become more informed voters and contributors to public discourse on this issue.
Purposes: Critical pedagogy is an educational approach that aims to develop students’ sociopolitical consciousness of the world and understanding of the underlying causes of contemporary injustices such as rising economic and social inequality. We investigated whether students in classrooms using critical pedagogy might develop understandings of the roots of contemporary inequality.
Setting and Participants: The study took place in two U.S. History classrooms in culturally diverse public high schools in a midsized city in the Southeast. The classrooms were selected because both teachers demonstrated critical pedagogy by helping students question norms and analyze underlying causes of contemporary social and economic inequalities.
Research Design: We used a critical case study design with ethnographic methods to examine students’ understandings of structural causes of inequality in classrooms where they are most likely to encounter this knowledge, namely critical history classrooms. Data included 10 weeks of observations in both classrooms, classroom artifacts, in-depth interviews with 14 students, and two in-depth interviews with each teacher along with daily informal interviews.
Findings/Results: Students critiqued the notion of the American Dream and described ways in which certain social structures such as the judicial and educational systems reproduce social inequalities. Some pointed out how the “rags to riches” ideology precludes tax structures that might reduce economic inequality. However, many also made comments reflecting a belief that the United States is indeed a meritocracy.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We recommend that teachers explicitly teach the structural causes of economic inequality so that students have the language needed to understand their dual consciousness that both meritocratic elements (e.g., hard work) and non-meritocratic elements (e.g., race, family wealth) play a role in social mobility within the United States.