Why are schools brainwashing our children?

Protesting oil pipelines, celebrating polygamy: is the new ’social justice’ agenda in class pushing politics at the expense of learning?
Cynthia Reynolds
Michael Peake/TORONTO SUN

To those who don’t keep up with education trends, certain recent events might appear to be unrelated. In May, a Grade 3 class in Toronto took to the streets with signs and an oversized papier mâché oil pipeline to protest the laying of an actual pipeline in western Canada. Last year, in Toronto, first-graders brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. In Ste-Marie-de-Kent, N.B., in 2009, Grade 4 students were given 10 minutes to decide which three people from this group should be saved from an imminent planetary explosion: a black African, a Chinese person, an Aboriginal, an Acadian francophone and an anglophone.

These are just a handful of examples of the more peculiar by-products of a vision gaining ground among many education architects: an elementary school education rooted in social-justice principles. Increasingly, faculties of education in Canada and much of the Western world are preparing their student teachers to weave social justice throughout the primary school curriculum—in math and science, language arts and social studies, drama and even gym—as well as into a range of cross-curricular activities, events and projects. The idea is to encourage kids to become critical analysts of contemporary issues, empathetic defenders of human rights and gatekeepers of the beleaguered Earth.

But social justice—which encompasses diversity, sustainability, global affairs and issues of race and class—is a broad term with varying interpretations. It can manifest in wildly different ways. In the hands of one teacher, social justice might entail teaching kids to care for the Earth by having them plant trees in the schoolyard. Another might have the same children write letters to the government about the environmental effects of mining, urging it to reform how mining claims are processed—part of an actual Grade 4 lesson plan created at the University of Ottawa.

When it comes to the question of what’s appropriate to broach with young children, conflicts abound. Last month, Toronto parents were incensed to learn that the Toronto District School Board web page promoting health education included a link to an organization that suggested kids explore their sexuality by experimenting with sex toys and vegetables. The board has since removed the link. Sometimes the social-justice push can just come off as old-fashioned political correctness: the Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars. But because there are no clear guidelines, things can also really go awry. In March, a U.K. school banned “best friends” because that made other kids feel left out. In May, a six-year-old boy in Denver was suspended for singing the pop anthem I’m Sexy and I Know It to a female classmate, violating the school’s sexual-harassment policy.

Between the mounting examples of how social-justice education can go wrong, and the passionate defences from those responsible for training teachers, who believe their vision has never been more important, the fight is growing over what’s going on in primary school classrooms. It’s just the newest battle over an age-old question: who gets to decide the best way to educate our young?

What is not debatable is the growing commitment to social justice within our education faculties. Social justice in education is a trend that has come and gone over the past century, but nowadays one can specialize in it at teachers’ college, and there are courses and textbooks instructing teachers on how to approach the subject in the classroom. Its proponents argue that today’s students are especially in need of it: a growing mandate to integrate special-education students into mainstream classrooms requires better understanding from children; a new awareness of the effects of bullying puts the onus on teachers to inculcate empathy in students; and increased diversity in the classroom can fuel intolerance from all sides.

“The classroom has completely changed,” says Rita Irwin, associate dean of teacher education at the University of British Columbia. “We need to prepare teachers to deal with that.” To that end, the UBC faculty of education has implemented its revamped curriculum, which builds a social-justice component into every teacher-education course, so that would-be teachers can follow the same approach in their classrooms. By repeating the themes of tolerance and empathy throughout the curriculum, teachers have a better shot of reaching their students, Irwin argues.

Some advocates make more ambitious appeals for the importance of a moral education. Last spring, James Banks, professor of diversity studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, spoke to an audience of teachers at a symposium in Toronto called “Activism in Education: Pushing Limits in Increasingly Conservative Times.” He reminded them that even well-educated people can be persuaded to do terrible things. He spoke of the horrors of Nazi Germany, and how despite their high levels of literacy and numeracy, so many citizens succumbed to its evil. “There’s more to education than teaching literacy and numeracy,” Banks said. Against the last century’s backdrop of human-rights abuses, war atrocities and environmental devastation, today’s education architects argue, we have a duty to provide a moral, socially conscious education.

The University of Ottawa faculty of education prepares its teachers-in-training to tackle some of those controversial topics head-on. Several lesson plans written by its students are made available for teachers on its Developing a Global Perspective for Educators website. For instance, in a Grade 1 science lesson, students contemplate what will happen to the Earth if pollution continues. In a cross-curricular lesson plan about the effects of mining coltan (a precious metal) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Grade 4s watch a video that includes explicit shots of dead gorillas. They then create statements for their local news about how mining hurts the animals. In Grade 5, they learn how their Playstations and iPods may contain coltan and how mining it contributes to the creation of child soldiers. A social-studies lesson requires Grade 6 students to analyze the unfairness of global trade, and evaluate the roles of the World Trade Organization and NAFTA.

That may all sound like a lot to throw at grade schoolers, and the organization’s acting director, associate professor Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, acknowledges the potential for controversy but argues that real-world contention helps engage kids in the classroom—they’re intrigued, they listen, they participate.

Indigo Esmonde, assistant professor at OISE, University of Toronto’s education faculty, raises a common criticism of the approach. “We hear that we’re brainwashing kids,” says Esmonde, who specializes in math education. Esmonde counters that from the time kids are young, they’re inundated with information, with numbers and statistics that can be easily manipulated to push a certain world view. For Esmonde, a grounding in social-justice math, for instance, helps kids learn to question numbers—whatever their conclusions might be. She cites a Toronto school that conducts an annual math-based garbage audit to test whether its school is truly succeeding with its litter-free lunch policy. Sometimes a political motive behind some lessons is obvious, however. For instance, OISE’s website features a Grade 5 math lesson on government budgets that culminates in students writing letters to MPPs advocating changes in spending priorities. Though not explicitly partisan, it juxtaposes the money spent on the war in Afghanistan with the money spent on poverty—and that does suggest a certain point of view.

It raises an important question: in engaging in controversial topics, are children being taught a mix of perspectives? “Social justice” generally entails a strongly progressive bent, and the idea of political manipulation creates fiercely negative reactions among parents. Andy Shapiera, a father of two in Toronto, was frustrated after learning that his son’s Grade 1 teacher had a poster for PETA hanging in the classroom. “What if you’re a family in agriculture and suddenly you have to explain why you kill cows for a living? The schools have no business discussing hot-button topics with kids that age. That’s the parents’ call.” It’s the same reaction some parents had to the TDSB’s Love Has No Gender poster in schools that included, alongside heterosexual and same-sex couples, pictures of relationships comprising two men and a woman, as well as two women and a man. Love apparently has no number either, the message seemed to be.

Not surprisingly, the new educational approach in the classroom and school hallways is starting to cause a small firestorm. Politicians are beginning to weigh in. Earlier this year, Tory MPP Rob Milligan spoke out against the Grade 3 Toronto class protesting the oil pipeline, calling it “brainwashing” and “an abuse of power.”

Middle-school teacher David Stocker has heard those arguments. He is the author of the textbook Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9, which ups the political ante with math problems related to such issues as workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia. He’s also no stranger to controversy—he and his wife made international headlines last year after announcing they intended to raise their third child, Storm, genderless. Stocker is frank about his political stance. “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

The issue that critics have, even those who share the political perspective, is about the age group concerned. “Once they hit high school,” says Shapiera, “students are mature enough to have their own opinions without the influence of the school. For me, it’s not so much whether a political issue needs to be discussed, but when.” And when it’s up to individual teachers to make that call, the results can be risky. Jeanne Williams of Edmonton has seen this in action. As a parent of two boys, Williams was mostly pleased with the school-based social-justice initiatives her sons participated in. But as a child psychologist, Williams has also witnessed how it can backfire. She’s treated several kids for anxiety that she says is directly connected to what they learned at the school, particularly related to the idea that environmental destruction will ultimately end the world. “Kids need to feel safe. It’s an important part of the brain growing normally,” she says. “If children feel safe, they’re more likely to grow up to be stronger and self-confident.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World, adds that getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as cannon fodder for your cause,” says Grille. “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?” That question particularly comes into play in the context of the classroom, where they’re being graded. Grille argues that kids need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

There’s another criticism of the approach, articulated by a conservative commentator in Surrey, B.C., on his Just Right blog. “Schools are failing at their primary job, which is to educate,” he notes in a post about social-justice education. That’s a point that crosses political lines: does too much time devoted to social justice divert attention from academic achievement and ironically promote a gross social injustice: students ill-prepared to contend with a complicated and competitive world? After all, an education that teaches kids to think for themselves should surely allow them to apply critical thinking to everything around them, including global issues, social inequalities and the like.

Teachers, too, can struggle with the mandate. With little on-the-ground guidance about how to actually implement a social-justice lesson that won’t incite parents or frighten kids, they can make well-intentioned choices with terrible consequences. Last year, in Georgia, a teacher resigned after families complained about Grade 4 math homework that had kids calculating how many beatings a slave received in a week. The lesson was part of the teacher’s mandate to reinforce a history unit on slavery in America.

For teachers uncomfortable with coming up with their own social-justice lesson plans, a safer option may be using one designed for them, but that’s no guarantee of success, either. For instance, in partnership with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Springtide Resources, a Toronto-based organization that works to prevent abuse against women and children, has created a package of lesson plans. While few would argue with the organization’s mandate, some of its lessons might disturb parents: in one, Grade 4s read Uncle Willy’s Tickles to initiate a class-wide conversation about abuse; the package also includes a personal safety plan that children fill out, in case they’re ever abused.

Elementary school teacher Rhonda Philpott, who also lectures part-time at Simon Fraser University’s faculty of education, is a social-justice veteran. She’s incorporated that angle into her teaching for more than 25 years, and sees how tricky this territory can be to traverse, especially for new teachers. While some teachers, she says, shy away from the more provocative discussions for fear of antagonizing parents or disconcerting administrators, others jump in without thinking. “Those who insert activities randomly might find that those activities can literally backfire—and both students and teachers may be unprepared for any emotional reactions or resistance,” Philpott says. “You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.”

Indeed, negotiating the new mandate demands care and sensitivity. “Teachers will have to weigh the potential for conflict against the importance of the topic,” says U of Ottawa professor Ng-A-Fook. “Ultimately, you have to know your students, and teachers may need to collaborate with parents, because you don’t want to offend families or traumatize kids.”