A Culture of Questioning

For adolescents in urban cultures, the questions raised will invariably involve some of the problems posed by the Social Re-constructionists.

This is the critical juncture where the two threads meet.  Person-centered classrooms are inherently responsive, and therefore, inevitably must confront the variety of perspectives and viewpoints that surround social issues –not only the viewpoints of students and teachers but also those presented in the larger society.  We will need to include the views and insights, for example, of those who some consider to have dominated the discourse, economy, and culture through the perpetuation of the meta-narrative, the idea that one group’s historical and cultural legacy represents us all (C. E. McGee Banks, 1996).

Remaining open to possibilities, we will also need to welcome into our classroom discourse the perspectives of feminists and the various “others” who have chosen to engage in what is often pejoratively labeled “identity politics” or, in the words of Diane Ravitch, a “militant particularism along racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, cultural and linguistic lines” (Ravitch, 1981, p. 198). It is important that an educator respond to a student’s questions by exposing him to the wide diversity of ideas and controversies surrounding the subject of his inquiry as well as the unfair characterizations of the opposing sides that are sometimes proffered in defense of specific viewpoints.  The next step would be to encourage him to discover for himself where he stands on the questions before him.  To do otherwise would make us complicit in misrepresenting reality as mono-dimensional and in quashing the motivation that is necessary to inspire our students to want to know.  More importantly, it would be a lost opportunity for giving them the chance to question reality –an impulse that is natural and not necessarily related to a specific ideology or position.

Whatever content we choose to teach or whatever lead of the child’s we choose to follow, we need to appreciate the “structural conditions in which the thought and language of the [young] people are dialectically framed” (Freire, 1975, p. 34). This means we have to respect the world of the student and where he is in relation to the content we want him to learn.  It also means we have to remain open to learning from the student and to refrain from making assumptions about him.  This inquisitive openness to a student’s process can have important implications beyond the critical questioning of social inequities.  It can be practiced, for example, in the ways in which we guide students toward the acquisition of formal English.

To illustrate, let us examine a hypothetical African American seventh grader who frequently says “I been done that before.”  At first we might conclude that he comes from an “ignorant” or uneducated background.

But, a closer look would likely reveal a pattern of speech that is acceptable and reinforced in the child’s own family and neighborhood.  An even closer analysis would reveal, in this case, that the syntax of the phrase is exactly the same as that found in “I have done that before,” with the notable substitution of the helping verb “have” for the helping verb “been”.  The teaching that will proceed from this realization is inherently responsive because it will be based on a thorough understanding of the student’s linguistic context.  In other words, regardless of the content of our lesson, we can begin with the student and branch out from there.

While a truly person-centered pedagogy takes pains to exclude nothing, there always exists to some degree –in the words of the Social Re-constructionist—a hidden curriculum (Howard, 1996, p 175).  This can take the form of redressing the imbalances of an unjust society by presenting reading material which consistently casts a shade of villainy and oppression on the part of those who hold power.  Or, conversely and more frequently, a hidden curriculum can be recognized in the official curriculum constructed by those who hold power by “the exclusive nature of meta-narratives, their canonized place in formal school curricula and the extent to which they are woven into the societal curriculum” (C. E. McGee Banks, 1996, p. 49).

In my experience, the hidden curriculum exists only to the degree that we are unconscious of our assumptions and motivations, especially if we happen to possess political, economic or cultural capital in any of its forms.  It is important to consider the possibility that the prevalence of hidden and null curricula (what is left out) is not always the result of intentional malice.  Sometimes, it is simply the result of an unexamined pattern of landing on a default position, a position of comfort and familiarity to which human beings generally become attached out of fear of change and disorientation.  (C. E. McGee Banks, 1996)

It is valuable to question ourselves and our practice on a regular basis so that we may reveal to ourselves who and what we may be leaving out in our curriculum and to uncover the assumptions upon which we might be basing our teaching.  This requires a commitment to examine ourselves and to include the full range of our individual humanity with its imperfections, hostilities, assumptions and fears, as well as our more benign potentialities such as the altruistic concern for others.  The implications of including ourselves in the ongoing process of learning and discovery are many, but, as we turn to the problem of education in the broader context of society, we will see that the most serious implication is the precious recognition that regardless of our differences and our political persuasions, we all share a common humanity.  This recognition or lack thereof will have an impact not only on the curriculum we choose to deliver, but also on the quality of our relationships with our students, our colleagues, ourselves –and ultimately our society.

The Question of Universals