How Teachers Learn to be Radicals

They look to MPS's Robert Peterson and his social justice political agenda.

By Sol Stern

Sol Stern is author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice. He is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.

Imagine you are a parent with a child in fifth grade in an inner-city public school. One day your child comes home and reports that the teacher taught a lesson in class about the evils of U.S. military intervention in Latin America.

You also learn that after school the teacher took the children to a rally protesting U.S. military aid to the Contras, who were then opposing the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The children made placards with slogans such as:

"Let them run their land!" "Help Central America, dont kill them." "Give the Nicaraguans their freedom."

Your child reports that the teacher encouraged the students to write about their day of protest in the class magazine and had high praise for the child who wrote the following description of the rally:

"On a rainy Tuesday in April some of the students from our class went to protest against the contras. The people in Central America are poor and bombed on their heads."

A fantasy? An invention of some conspiracy-minded right-wing organization? Not at all. It happened exactly as described at a bilingual Milwaukee public school called La Escuela Fratney. The teacher who took the fifth-graders to the protest rally and indoctrinated them in international leftist politics is Robert Peterson.

Unfortunately there was no parental protest about this blatant use of their children's classroom for political indoctrination. In fact, Peterson's teaching philosophy and the class trip he arranged are hardly considered aberrant by the city's education officials. Peterson has taught in Milwaukee Public Schools for almost three decades, was named Wisconsin Elementary Teacher of the Year for 1995-96, and is on the executive board of the Milwaukee teachers union.

Peterson is also a moving force and one of the lead editors of Rethinking Schools, a small Milwaukee publishing conglomerate that turns out books, pamphlets and a quarterly journal, all urging teachers in the nations public schools to use their classrooms for" social justice" instruction.

What social justice instruction means is more or less what Peterson did with his Milwaukee fifth-graders.

Let's give Peterson his due. There is no subterfuge in his teaching program or its intended political purpose. In an essay in The Critical Pedagogy Reader, an anthology that's one of the handbooks of the social justice movement, Peterson declares that he takes his inspiration as a classroom teacher from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian Marxist educator Paolo Freire.

Freire's opus never refers to any of the great education thinkers of the past; not Rousseau, not Piaget, not John Dewey, not Horace Mann, not Maria Montessori. He takes his inspiration and his scholarly citations solely from a different set of historic figures: Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, as well as the radical intellectuals Frantz Fanon, Rgis Debray, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Georg Lukcs.

To Freire (and Peterson) there is no such thing as neutral education in a capitalist society. And no wonder, since Freire's main idea is that the central contradiction of every capitalist economic system is between the "oppressors" and the "oppressed" and that revolution should resolve their conflict.

The "oppressed" are, moreover, destined to develop a pedagogy that will lead to their liberation. And that pedagogy, in Freire's words, "proclaims its own political character."

It is thus the sacred mission of socially conscientious teachers like Peterson to partner with their co-equals, the students, in what Freire calls a "dialogic" and "problem-solving" process until the roles of teacher and student merge into "teacher-students" and "student-teachers."

At that point teachers and students work together to undermine the "false consciousness" of the dominant ideology, eventually overthrowing the capitalist system and establishing the socialist alternative.

Peterson writes that from the time he started teaching in the Milwaukee public schools in the 1980s he "worked on applying Freire's ideas in my fourth and fifth grade bilingual inner-city classrooms. My approach contrasted sharply with the numerous educational reforms being tried elsewhere."

Instead, Peterson says, he followed the Freirian pedagogical approach of "teachers themselves modeling social responsibility and critical engagement in community and global issues," including supporting the Nicaraguan revolutionaries.

By applying the Freirian dialogic method in the classroom, he writes, the students will "interrogate their own realities, see them in a different light, and act on their developing convictions to change their own social reality."

All this might seem abstruse and theoretical to the average parent or taxpayer. But make no mistake about it: The teaching for social justice movement that Peterson so perfectly represents is spreading its tentacles to urban school districts all over the country.

The movement is already well entrenched in many of the nations education schools, where the overwhelming majority of our future public school teachers get their training and state certification.

Education researchers David Steiner and Susan Rozen published a study five years ago on the syllabi of the basic "foundations of education" and "methods" courses in 16 of the nations most prestigious ed schools. The mainstays of the foundations courses were works by Freire, Henry Giroux (a leading critical pedagogy theorist), and the radical education writer Jonathan Kozol, a supporter of social justice teaching.

For the methods courses, ex-Weatherman William Ayers' To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher tops the bestseller list. Neither list included advocates of a knowledge-based and politically neutral curriculum, such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. or Diane Ravitch. Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed has sold over a million copies since its publication 30 years ago. When I checked Amazon in October, Freire's Pedagogy was listed as the number-one bestseller among education books. Almost all those sales are for teacher-training courses.

It cannot be repeated often enough: Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. The Freirian theories that have led to the spread of social justice teaching are incapable of liberating the children of Americas so-called oppressed.

As E.D. Hirsch has exhaustively shown, the scientific evidence about which classroom methods produce the best results for poor children points conclusively to the very methods that the critical pedagogy and social justice theorists denounce as oppressive and racist. By contrast, not one shred of hard evidence suggests that the pedagogy behind teaching for social justice works to lift the academic achievement of poor and minority students.

Social justice teaching is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, grievously harmful to poor children who already start out with a disadvantage. School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes.

The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action.

Academic freedom should not protect Robert Peterson and his social justice colleagues when they insist on bringing their leftist version of the good society into public school classrooms and take advantage of vulnerable children.

Legislators should ask their state education boards to write a new set of guidelines that forbid teachers from indoctrinating students with their own politics, whether left or right. This ought to be the teachers new Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.