The politics of justice

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Christine Sleeter, Professor Emerita, California State University, Monterey Bay, interviewed by Arvind Mishra, Assistant Professor, Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


We find that the character of the classroom is becoming more and more multicultural everywhere. In such situation what should the curriculum aim at?

First, the curriculum should allow everyone in the classroom to see his or her own reality. Emily Style conceptualized curriculum as offering students both a window and a mirror. I find this to be a useful metaphor. Style explained: ‘If the student is understood as occupying a dwelling of self, education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected.’ Students from dominant groups usually experience curriculum as a mirror as they go through school. Even as it teaches them concepts and skills they don’t already know, it is still anchored in a worldview that they have grown up with, and peopled with figures that are roughly like them.

The opposite is usually true of students from non-dominant groups who experience curriculum mainly as a window into the dominant society’s world. What I see happen repeatedly is that after a while, students simply disengage. For example, a Mexican American college student told me how he became disinterested in school the longer he was there, because he couldn’t relate to the curriculum. He felt like he was in somebody else’s house, so eventually he left. What drew him back was finding a Mexican American studies programme in which the curriculum was clearly relevant to him and the life he had grown up with. He also explained that, as he experienced a curriculum that was relevant to him, he then wanted to know more about not just his own world, but also a broader world. In other words, he needed a mirror, but he also wanted windows.

This leads to my second recommendation, which is that curriculum should help students gain insight about how relationships among groups in society might be made more equitable and just. Young people are usually keenly aware of fairness and unfairness, and very often are interested in figuring out how to resolve unfairness. For young children, fairness and unfairness usually revolve around personal problems of family and friends. But as they get older, young people become interested in relationships among various societal groups, often asking how society can be made to work better for everyone. I believe that curriculum needs to move beyond teaching about diverse groups, to grappling with questions of fairness and justice among segments of society, in order to equip young people conceptually to make the world work better for all of its diverse inhabitants.


Many people say that multiculturalism is a pragmatic way to handle the diversity in the society rather than a radical shift in thinking about the world and people. What is your position on this issue?

This depends on whether one conceptualizes multiculturalism as based primarily on a politics of recognition, or primarily on a politics of justice. By a politics of recognition, I mean incorporating diverse people into society much as it is, but with a few adjustments. In school, this commonly takes the form of making sure that textbooks have pictures of diverse people, holidays of diverse communities are recognized, and the like. By a politics of justice, I mean not just recognizing diverse peoples, but also critically analyzing and seeking to change inequitable relationships among them.

In the U.S., multicultural education grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as African Americans, then other subordinated communities, struggled to change laws and institutionalized processes that had kept them subordinate. In schooling, some of those institutionalized processes included racially segregated schooling in which non-White children were sent to schools with far fewer resources than White children, high rates of designation of non-White children as mentally retarded, punishment of Mexican American and Native American children for speaking their home languages, and so forth. Communities organized at the grassroots level to press for changes. While changes in policies and practices were important, equally important was the ability of subordinate communities to define key concerns, learn to organize action strategies, and alter the balance of power. In the U.S., the term ‘multicultural’ grew from marginalized ethnic communities refuting the idea that they were ‘culturally deprived’.

Over time, however, many educators have picked up on the idea of ‘culture’ and interpreted it through a politics of recognition, without recognizing struggles for equity and justice. In the U.S., this often happens when White teachers add in lessons about famous minority people, or lessons about cultural differences that assume culture to be a fixed set of practices from the past. To me, the terminology for discussing diversity and equity isn’t as important as the politics underlying what one means. Whether one calls it multi-culturalism, intercultural education, human rights education, or anti-oppressive education, we need to be clear about what we are advocating for, and whose voices are driving that vision.


In today’s world a few rich countries are controlling not only the economy but also the knowledge of the rest of the world. In this kind of situation how can multicultural education help students from underserved communities?

Let me tell you a story that shows how complicated this can be. Several years ago, I was invited to South Africa to do some workshops in multicultural education. I didn’t realize until I arrived that the premise on which I was invited was that the U.S. had worked out what multicultural education is, and South Africa can ‘fast forward’ its work by adopting the best conceptions from the U.S. I also didn’t realize until I arrived that this view was taken primarily by White South Africans who wanted to figure out how to build a new South Africa, but were used to being in control. As I saw it, however, the problem was that economically well-off White South Africans needed to learn to stop controlling the conversation, and to listen to those they had spent decades repressing. Importing knowledge from the U.S. would substitute for dialogue.

I remember talking with some Zulu educators who saw useful tools in some of the U.S. work in multicultural education, particularly that by Black educators. But which tools they saw as most useful, and how they wanted to use them, was quite different from what I was hearing from White South Africans. Control over knowledge has always served as an arm of the colonization process. Today, rich countries are as actively involved in colonization as ever, although generally this happens indirectly through economic relationships. I worry when I see U.S. companies and organizations set up schools, curriculum packages, and testing programmes, wholesale, in underserved communities. I believe that underserved communities need to be selective about what knowledge to use from elsewhere, and how to use it.


There is one reservation while promoting the native knowledge of any community – that there are many unjust and exploitative practices prevalent and sustained by some aspects of communities’ knowledge system. How will multicultural education handle this problem?

Very true. That’s why I argue for a politics of justice more than a politics of recognition. A huge issue in many communities, for example, is the subordination of women. When promoting the native knowledge of the community means promoting subordination of women, that’s a problem. Multicultural education, by itself, can’t provide a particular solution; it’s up to people within a given community to figure out a solution. In this example, I am particularly interested in how women view practices that are central to their subordination, and what they would change. Usually these are things that need to be argued out. Multicultural education can help young people develop conceptual tools, knowledge background, and communication skills to take on justice issues. That is where I see it as helpful.


When we talk of maintaining standards in education, there is a need to have some kind of agreement over the criteria used in deciding about it. In a practical situation where people from different communities become rigid and ethnocentric, how can we handle the issue of standards in the process of evolving a multicultural curriculum?

Figuring out criteria that work for diverse communities requires negotiation and flexibility. Rigidity and ethnocentrism make negotiation pretty much impossible. When I am teaching a class, a process I use to try to address this is to assign students to take the point of view of community different from their own in a debate or problem-solving group, then negotiate so that any solution reflects the interests and perspectives of the group to which they were assigned. Sometimes doing that helps to dislodge the tendency to advocate only for one’s own community, and to take into account other people’s needs and concerns. By the way, you may notice from my responses that I view multicultural education not as a set of answers, but as a process of learning to work with, dialogue across, and negotiate multiple social worlds.


Please pardon me for asking questions from the Indian context. Nowadays people from historically marginalized communities argue that it is access to formal education that has helped the privileged section of the society to maintain dominance over the unprivileged ones. Any argument about ‘standards’ or ‘merit’ is seen as a strategy on the part of dominant section to maintain the status quo. How far can this argument be accommodated in multicultural education?

We have similar arguments in the U.S., so I’ll reply from that context. There is some truth that arguments about raising standards are often used to justify exclusion of marginalized communities. Policy in the US tends to alternate between a focus on equity and a focus on what gets called ‘excellence.’ Those arguing to raise standards usually maintain that students are failing to learn the skills and knowledge needed for economic competition. The most recent ‘excellence’ reform began in the 1980s, following and, in many ways, undermining the equity movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The standards reforms that we have in place right now tend to deflect attention from multicultural education, and often reverse gains that marginalized communities had fought for earlier.

But the problem is more complicated. Marginalized communities have routinely had access only to poor quality education. Schools in marginalized communities often lack resources that schools in wealthier communities have; they often have the least experienced teachers, inadequate curriculum materials, and fewer classes aimed at preparation for university. In the US, many of the school leaders who support raising standards are African American and Latino leaders, who see standards as a tool for insisting that teachers expect more of students, and that schools are better funded and equipped. Usually such leaders are keenly aware that arguments about standards or merit are used to benefit already advantaged communities, but don’t see that they also help to suggest that marginalized communities don’t believe in standards, or aren’t capable of excellence. At the same time, when curriculum and pedagogy build on the knowledge students have from their home communities, and when the teachers are open to that knowledge and believe in the intellectual capacity of the students, they can learn to perform academic learning at very high levels. I recently reviewed research on the impact of ethnic studies on students, for example, and found that to be the case.

Lisa Delpit in the U.S. has written about the importance of both gaining access to the culture of power as well as critiquing that culture. She points out that marginalized communities typically are not taught the culture of power very well in school. In addition, knowledge that reflects the culture of power is taught as unproblematic truth. Students from marginalized communities need full access to the culture of power, but also need to be able to critique it for its vested interests, uses, and limitations. For example, an elementary teacher I have worked with teaches students who are mainly immigrants from poor communities. When teaching science, she teaches it as a cultural construct. Students learn ‘traditional science’ concepts, as well as how one or two non-dominant cultural communities have approached the same concepts; she helps students contrast mainstream science with indigenous science. Knowing mainstream science, an aspect of the culture of power, will open doors, but it is not the only way of knowing. When standards, access and merit are talked about, these considerations are often ignored, and they are very important.


In a large country like India if one has to develop a curriculum based on transformative intellectual knowledge, how should one go about it?

First, a definition. The term transformative intellectual knowledge captures , as James Banks put it, the ‘concepts, paradigms and themes’ that emerged through burgeoning critical traditions of scholarship in such areas as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and disability studies.’ The term contains several key ideas. (i) It serves as an umbrella term for bodies of knowledge that have been historically marginalized or subjugated in a given society. (ii) It draws attention to understandings that challenge many mainstream assumptions, and that re-envision the world in ways that would benefit historically oppressed communities and support justice. (iii) It highlights the work of intellectuals, such as historians, philosophers, or literary theorists, who have training in basing conclusions on evidence and in judging evidence on which knowledge claims rest.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend developing a single detailed curriculum for the country in India or in the U.S. You might not be suggesting one curriculum for the whole country, but since many countries do have a national curriculum, I need to say something about why I think that is a problem. Attempts to create textbooks that will be used nationally, and that includes the multiple groups in the country, creates problems. Every-one wants to be included, and ferocious debates about how to do that without offending anyone rage. The result is textbooks that are so uncontroversial that they are dull, so general that many students don’t relate to them, and devoid of depth and multiple points of view.

An alternative is to establish some general guide posts at the national or state level, to give people at the local level some direction, and then encourage curriculum development to take place at local levels. Curricula will not look the same from one place to the next because local cultural contexts differ. In order to develop and work with curricula based on transformative intellectual knowledge, teachers need background that has some depth in the knowledge of one or more marginalized communities. When I work with teachers, I require them to select a concept they could teach (I encourage them to draw from general guideposts for curriculum at their grade level), then read deeply from the scholarly literature of at least one non-dominant group.

For example, a literature teacher who had very little background in Mexican American literature developed a curriculum unit she could teach after reading some Mexican American literature and analyzes literature written by Mexican American literary theorists. This gave her reasonably good background to begin to work with the ideas in Mexican American literature that she had been unfamiliar with. I also require the teachers to investigate community-based knowledge where they are teaching. There is a lot of knowledge within communities, including poor communities in which people may not have a strong formal education, that can be linked to the various academic subject areas. Making these local connections not only builds on what students already know, but also becomes a way of connecting the school with adults in the community, and fostering dialogue between teachers and local adults.

If you learn to understand one or two other communities that are different from your own, in some depth, and learn to negotiate differences in experiences, points of view, and ways of knowing, then you have a basis for engaging in a diverse society.