The new Dean of Education at the University of Western Ontario believes that "teacher education programs have the potential to nurture and develop a commitment to social justice in their students and ensure these students acquire the knowledge and skills they need to promote equality." So we were informed by Western News, the university administration's official newspaper, in its issue of March 3, 2011.
Western News quotes the Dean as saying: "Educational scholarship and research strongly situated within an ethic of social justice can exert important societal influences and point us in the direction of those strategies and actions that will result in equality for all children. Universities, and in particular teacher education programs, are critical to the success of this transformation."
Conspicuously absent from this politically correct rhetoric is any indication of respect either for intellectual diversity orfor the academic freedom of instructors and students in an education faculty. Also troubling is the fact that nobody can be sure precisely what the rhetoric means. Is "social justice" a code term for some sort of socialism, or at least for an expansion of the existing welfare state? Is it a code term for racial preferences -- perhaps even quotas, or "targets" that can be met only through something amounting to quotas?
As for "equality for all children," does that mean promotion from grade to grade regardlessof academic performance? How can "equality" be reconciled with maintenance of academic standards, except on the unrealistic assumption that all individualsare equally intelligent and equally motivated? Should all members of a class receive the same mark, determined by the average of individuals' marks? That would be absurd, but if "equality" for all is the goal, the advantages naturally enjoyed by the most intelligent and most highly motivated must somehow be taken from them and redistributed to others -- a project impossible to attempt without subordinating individuals to the group.
One point does seem obvious -- the fact the new Dean is not interested primarily in making sure that future teachers have the "knowledge and skills they need" to teach mathematics, science, French or whatever, or even to explain clearly the principles of English grammar and sentence structure. She appears more interested indisseminating among teachers the dogma of egalitarianism, and in preparing them to indoctrinate their pupils with the values of "equality" and "social justice" (though evidently not individual liberty). Such a priority potentially opens the door to ideological screening of those who apply for admission to an education school, and possibly even to pressure for ideological conformity as a condition of graduation.
Schemes to impose a political "litmus test" on future teachers have already been attempted in the United States, but fortunately they have encountered effective resistance. In its publication "FIRE Media Impact, 2009," the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org) reproduced four articles about a proposal at the University of Minnesota that read like a bizarre attempt by campus leftists to satirize themselves. It would have required all faculty members who were training teachers to "comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently frame their teaching and course foci accordingly." (So much for academic freedom, as well as what many might regard as the irrelevance of race, class, culture and gender to mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.) As for those being trained to teach, they were to be screened before admission to weed out applicants with unacceptable beliefs, though remedial indoctrination was to be permitted in borderline cases. It was expected that successful candidates for the teaching profession would be "able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression." Teachers were also to work for "social justice," display an understanding of American history that embraced the "myth of meritocracy," and recognize classrooms as "critical sites for social and cultural transformation."
FIRE intervened to warn the university -- a public institution -- that requiring students to pass any ideological test would be unconstitutional, meaning that students who got into trouble for clinging to "incorrect" views could find protection in federal court. FIRE also publicized the situation. Eventually the university's general counsel promised FIRE that the institution would never "mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with 'wrong beliefs' . . ."
All public universities in the United States have to reckon with the risk of being sued if they violate a student's right to free expression under the Constitution'sFirst Amendment -- an amendment that originally restricted only the federal power, but which later constitutional change led the Supreme Court to apply to states and their agencies (including universities) as well. Though many public universities still have repressive "speech codes," they can be enforced only against students ignorant of their rights or unwilling to take legal action. To impose ideological screening and indoctrination on any would-be teacher would be to invite a lawsuit. Whether or not for that reason -- to quote the Chronicle of Higher Education (December 2, 2009) -- "the governing board of the National Council for Accreditation ofTeacher Educationvoted in 2007 to stop suggesting that teacher-preparation programs take their students' views on 'social justice' into account."
Lacking the high level of legal protection enjoyed by Americans underjudicial interpretationsof the First Amendment, Canadians have to rely more on the other major technique that FIRE has found useful in U.S. cases -- publicity aimed at shaming or embarrassing university administrators into some degree of at least outward respect for individuals' rights to political and intellectual liberty. We must hope that if would-be teachers -- at Western or elsewhere -- find themselves subjected to ideological discrimination or coercive indoctrination, they will have the strength of character to resist by all the lawful means at their disposal, and that they will receive effective support from SAFS, civil-liberties organizations, the media and public opinion.