'now Listen Children...'

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] Prejudice in the classroom

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‘Now listen children...’
It is through our schools, more than most channels, that we learn the governing ideology of our societies. Teachers couch their beliefs in the language of neutrality and objectivity. Robin Richardson has some suggestions for a different approach.

'NOW' he said ‘do we have any racial discrimination in Brackenhead? Do we? Who can tell me? Jane?’

The scene was a secondary school classroom which I happened to visit recently. I shall recount the episode faithfully, though also — I must admit — selectively. (I have, in a word, a bias). It went as follows:

‘...Jane? Come on Jane, you heard the question, do we have any racial discrimination in Brackenhead?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Have we, Jane? Have we really?’
‘No sir.’
‘You’re quite right, Jane, good, we have no racial discrimination in...'
‘What is it Jane?’
‘Come on Jane, what is it?’
‘Sir, there’s this Pakkie grocer near us, and last Saturday night someone threw a brick through his window.’
‘Oh, I see, well, tell me Jane, er, what sort of a person would do that?’
‘Dunno, Sir.’
‘Jane, would you say that it was a very nasty, mean-minded, prejudiced sort of a person?’
‘Yes Sir.’
‘Good, Jane, yes you’re quite right.’

After the lesson I went with the teacher to the staffroom. ‘We’ve just had,’ he said to a colleague, ‘a really good discussion about race relations.’ I said nothing. There was no way, on the spur of the moment, I could find words which were both true and kind, or not untrue and not hurtfully destructive. This article, however, outlines what I was dimly and dumbly thinking. It is written for three separate reasons: to clarify my own ideas; as a resource for other readers of New Internationalist who are educators and are sometimes at a loss for words; and to invite criticism and denial.

That lesson at Brackenhead contained four main kinds of bias. First, it was promoting an appallingly superficial and inadequate view of race relations. Second, it was assuming a very impoverished and unthinking view of the nature of knowledge and learning. Third, it was implicitly presenting an obnoxious view of the role and authority of teachers. Fourth, it was propagating a false
view about the nature of bias itself In many ways this was the most pernicious bias of all, and it is primarily this fourth kind of bias that I am going to write about here.

The teacher believed himself to be biased in the only way that nice, decent, well-intentioned people such as teachers can be biased. It was his professional duty, he believed, to present his views, since they were the consensus views of all right-thinking people, to his pupils. He was wrong.

Or rather, I think he was wrong. I should like to present my own views on the nature of bias in education, and the role and responsibility of educators in the form of ten commandments.

Never forget there’s a war on
There are objective conflicts of interest between white and black. North and South, ruler and worker, male and female, oppressor and oppressed. You cannot avoid taking sides. Any attempt to be neutral, evenhanded, objective, will promote the interests of the stronger, of the oppressor. This is because there is no such thing as final objectivity, there is only unending struggle. Your commitment should be to justice, not to truth.

Pursue truth as a duty, not as a virtue
Facts should be accurate, not fake or distorted, and you should always be on your guard against fantasy and wishful thinking: the world is not made in your image, and is not made for your sole convenience. However, do not congratulate yourself on making accurate statements as distinct from lies or guesses or hopeful estimates, or on seeing and understanding reality independently of your personal preferences. Accuracy and honesty should be pursued as a matter of course, not as a matter of pride.

Never say or imply that your own view is the only view
The besetting sin of liberals is to assume that all decent people are liberals, and that only extremists have non-liberal views. The assumption and promotion of consensus are always, in themselves, wrong. Sometimes the consensus view is the best view: but always remember that it is the consensus view because it is the best view; it is never the best view because it is the consensus view. In particular you should never forget, as a teacher, that there are always more radical views than your own. For teachers necessarily and inherently have to uphold certain conventions and traditions. You are deceiving your pupils if you permit them to believe that there are no thoughtful, knowledgeable and responsible people more radical than yourself.

Do not caricature or ridicule your opponents
Your opponents are not only wrong but also tiresome and, quite probably, malevolent. Nevertheless you should resist the temptation to dehumanise them — that is, to simplify them for cheap laughs, to change them into symbols, into generalisations, into objects to be tossed around and tossed away. Engage your opponents with due respect. State their views more accurately and more persuasively than they state them themselves. Then argue and demonstrate— do not merely say— that they are wrong.

Protect people from your own powers of persuasion
If and when your people see the world in the same way as you do this must be because they have freely chosen to engage on the same side as you against injustice. It must not be because they are dazzled by your charisma or oratory, or because you have rewards with which to woo them, or punishments with which to coerce them. True, you must be skilful and crafty and artful — as distinct from incompetent, inarticulate, inelegant, but you may not be manipulative, you may not cast spells. Use your skill to prevent your pupils from being taken in by your skilL

Acknowledge your own doubts and your own search
You haven’t always held the views you hold now. You will not always hold them in their present form in the future. You cannot be sure that you are right — even though, certainly, you can be reasonably sure that certain other people are wrong. You must hunger and thirst after more knowledge, and your pupils must see this. Continually you should seek to be criticised and challenged, to be put to the test ‘I cannot praise a cloistered virtue,’ said Milton. You should say the same, and your pupils should hear you.

Link facts to theories
A fact is a fact is a fact: yes of course. But facts as such are profoundly trivial and uninteresting. Facts are significant — they are worth knowing and communicating and researching — only within the context of theories. Theories, unlike facts, are not right or wrong. Rather, they approximate more or less closely to reality and they promote more or less effectively greater social justice. This is what you should help your pupils to see. Insofar as you fail your pupils will end up watching Mastermind on television, and other mindless quiz programmes which similarly obscure and falsify reality, and contain and deaden the struggle for social justice.

Provide space and time
You wish your pupils to see the world more clearly and to pursue justice more vigorously. Amongst other things their learning will therefore involve unlearning — discarding what they already know, or think they know. This is painful. Pointcare had all the information he needed to see the theory of relativity. But he did not dare put it together, his mind could not unlearn the connections it had already made. We had to wait for Einstein — he dared to unlearn. If your pupils are to break up their present world they need space and time — your job as teacher is to provide and to protect that space and time. Hold the ring. guard the door and they will learn, and unleam, all right.

Ask questions
Or rather, make sure that your pupils ask questions. They are to criticise and challenge, they should find all things questionable and problematic. This is not to say they should be the quizmasters on television — questions in themselves are as perniciously pointless as facts in themselves. Rather, they should know that reality is only grasped and only altered — oppression is only combated — when human beings are questioning as distinct from accepting.

Don’t start other people’s revolutions
Real learning is painful and that is bad enough. It leads into conflict and therefore perhaps defeat, and that is worse. You may not as a teacher go around stirring up revolutions — in families, in peer groups, in institutions, in societies — from which you yourself will be absent and in which therefore you yourself will not be hurt. Your pupils are to engage in war and revolution, yes, but not as common-fodder with yourself as armchair strategist. Your job as teacher is quite humble: equip your pupils to identify and to fight battles they can win.

If that teacher at Brackenhead were to heed and obey such commandment, his classroom and his pupils and his work and his life would be very different. If I myself abided by them more faithfully I would surely have found some words for him at that appalling moment when he claimed to have been engaging his pupils in discussion. Still, there is now this article.

What will be the effect if — no, my brothers and sisters, when — that teacher reads this

Robin Richardson is author of a number of development education publications including Learning for Changes in World Society and an adviser for multicultural education with Berkshire Education Authority.

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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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