Pitts&Jovanovicby Lewis Pitts & Spoma Jovanovic

The latest attack from Jay Schalin of the Pope Center on the UNC system is terrifying in its ramifications.

Schalin contends that a UNCG course required for teacher licensure in North Carolina “goes far beyond what is politically acceptable for education at a public university” and is “indoctrination.” He argues we should be outraged about the course, “The Institution of Education,” because it requires students to read about “racial privilege,” a critique of our criminal justice system, “critical pedagogy,” and “gender, including sexism and homophobia.” At least six UNCG professors are criticized, and Schalin asks, “How do they get away with it?” He says the legislature, UNCG Trustees and UNC Board of Governors “have been looking the other way” and ends with the impassioned plea: “How do we put an end to this?” 

We could not disagree more with the Pope Center’s misguided attack. We applaud teachers who uphold our nation’s founding principles of justice, equality and fairness. That, in fact, is the ethical mission of US higher education! We congratulate the professors who inspire students to care about the world enough to question, intervene and work for and on behalf of others to confront the systemic practices that disadvantaged groups face.

Our self-governing constitutional democracy is based on the recognition of the awe-inspiring value inherent in each person. Ours is a government of, by and for the people — all the people, not just the wealthy, powerful or white. Surely, UNC professors have the right, and even duty, to teach their discipline-specific content while also inspiring teachers-to-be to question rather than blindly obey the status quo, and to consider the possibilities of collective action to correct injustices where they persist.[pullquote]Bravo to the teachers who take on this daunting task to help students learn about and from others to develop an awareness and sensitivity to the human condition.[/pullquote]

Education has the potential to generate the ground from which students learn to be thoughtful, aware and deliberate in choosing how to engage with others. Education should encourage students to be respectful, trust others, work with integrity, and practice discernment for the goodwill of all. In that pursuit, teachers must provide the context and background for the area of study. They also must introduce the structural conditions that promote or limit access to the promise of democracy. In doing so, teachers need to expose students to the institutional practices and policies that ensure or deny equality and justice for all.

Candid discussions, informed by readings, reflection and experiences in the community, equip students with the tools, skills and capacities to contribute not only to robust classroom discussions, but also to community conversations and action. Preparation for engaged citizenship requires no less.

Our teachers-in-training must have a commitment to our nation’s egalitarian principles that ask how it is that so many children and their families lack the economic, social, political and cultural capital necessary to achieve the American Dream. Yet there are strong forces, most often tied to big corporate money like the Pope Center and the Koch brothers, that want to deter discussion and dialogue that expose how poorly our nation is doing with regard to these ideals. Instead, they insist having a curriculum based on “American exceptionalism,” as if the United States could do no wrong and those not making it in our society are lazy misfits. They would rather teachers and students ignore the glaring deficits in our nation surrounding healthcare, student debt, gender pay equity, race relations, women’s rights, immigration policies and so many other indices of human rights.

At UNCG, the course Schalin condemns requires students to write a personal/professional commitment to social justice based on the new knowledge generated throughout the semester in discussions and debates with peers. Each student is asked to wrestle with what social justice means to them on a personal level, not as prescribed by a book or even the professor, but as an expression of understanding about education for our diverse society. Bravo to the teachers who take on this daunting task to help students learn about and from others to develop an awareness and sensitivity to the human condition.

What Schalin wants to discredit as “left-wing ideology” is in fact a compassionate, moral commitment to education designed to help teachers-in-training pass on to the next generation the skills of civic engagement to achieve liberty and justice for all.

When folks begin to argue that classroom teaching and discussion about social justice and equality should be banned, we must grasp that our nation’s democratic values are being subverted. We should all unite to vigorously defend academic freedom and our public university.

Lewis Pitts lives in Greensboro and is a retired civil rights lawyer. Spoma Jovanovic is a communication studies professor at UNCG.

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