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Human Education Should Be Humanistic

A Progressive Philosophy of Teaching

Dan Brook

Revised July 2002

Education should be meaningful and alive.

I teach a variety of courses and while I of course tailor material to each particular course, I also have themes and methodologies within a teaching philosophy that cut across courses. My social stratification course, for example, focuses on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; yet it also made important connections throughout to other social categories, such as age, appearance, and ability, and how all of these forms of stratification and inequality are deeply affected by state policies, corporate dominance, religious dogmas, the mass media, and individual attitudes. My political sociology course focuses on the theme of democracy, including the history of and struggles for democracy, the relations between capitalism and democracy, social movements and civil/human rights, corporate citizenship and behavior, community control and local decision-making, the influence of the mass media, and the roles of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and other axes of power. Similar issues arise in my other courses in welfare, work, education, social problems, global sociology, urban sociology, social movements, social change, community organizing, the environment, occupations, work and technology, organizations, and corporations.

Education should be personal as well as political.

In my internship sections, as in my courses in the sociology of work, we apply core political and sociological theories and concepts to the students’ work experiences. We discuss and apply Marxist alienation and cooperation, Weberian bureaucracy and causal pluralism, Durkheimian solidarity and division of labor, Simmelian social ties, Foucaultian social control, functionalism, social constructionism, conflict theory, race and gender analyses, along with issues of ownership, managerial control, decision-making, worker participation, organizational mimicry, power, skills, culture, compensation and incentives, sexual harassment, cross-cultural interaction and communication, shareholder and stakeholder rights, and other issues relating to the phenomenon of work. Each of these shed light on the vital connections between theory and practice, further helping to develop students’ sociological imagination, involving the many complex and crucial connections between histories (i.e., the stories of society) and biographies (i.e., the stories of individuals), as well as political consciousness. In this regard, I try to take C. Wright Mills and Paolo Freire seriously.

Education should be fresh and integrative.

Depending on the subject matter at hand, my classes cover and analyze such topics as power, democracy, environmentalism, development, governmental policy, collective behavior, complex organizations, class, race, ethnicity, gender, social change, and alternative models of organization and development, to name a few, from as many perspectives as possible and in as many combinations as possible. For example, we may want to assess and critically analyze corporate, social movement, or governmental behavior by way of social, cultural, historical, political, economic, feminist, or environmental viewpoints; yet, we may also want to evaluate and compare those same institutional processes from political economic, environmental sociological, and cultural historical perspectives.

Education should be worldly and holistic.

I have always wanted to teach and have done so in various settings. Besides teaching preschool in San Francisco and English in New York City and Bangkok, I have also been an instructor and teaching assistant for many courses in sociology, political science, and history. In these courses, we discuss, debate, critically analyze (i.e., an evaluation that breaks down ideas into smaller constituent parts), thoughtfully synthesize (i.e., a method that combines disparate ideas into a whole entity), compare and contrast theories and practices of power and control, community and citizenship, civil society and political systems, democracy and decentralization, rights and responsibilities, opportunities and constraints, structure and agency, social movements and social change, individual action and societal alternatives, among others.
It is key that students realize that “another world is possible”, a better world, even if they cannot yet conceive of what that world would be like. To this end, students in my classes are always encouraged (and often required) to participate in organizations and actions that help solve, not just study, our social problems. Though their projects are often modest, I ask my students to change the world. Having lived in New York City, Massachusetts, Bangkok, and now San Francisco and having taught almost exclusively in public schools, I have lived and worked with students, colleagues, and neighbors from every populated continent, literally dozens of ethnicities, and of various ages, abilities, appearances, and sexualities. This type of “everyday democracy” has deeply informed who I am and I try to convey this inclusive spirit to my students.

Education should be democratic and progressive.

I don’t (usually) use tests in my classes, in an effort to avoid the hierarchical, punitive, and anti-social aspects of those devices that are more clearly suited to surveillance and social control than to learning and social development. Instead, I require the more “democratized” assignment of journals of critical social analysis, which require students to write weekly summaries and analyses of the course readings, making connections to their service learning/action projects in addition to our class discussions, films, and flyers, as well as material from other relevant classes and events. I believe that keeping a journal helps students to read more closely and carefully, to comprehend more fully and holistically, to retain concepts longer, to organize their thoughts, to think more clearly and critically, to articulate their ideas more efficiently and effectively, and to combine theory and practice more coherently, as well as to keep a record of their intellectual development.
Both in class and in their journals, I suggest that students should at least occasionally be willing to make arguments that they are not willing to defend to the death, counseling them that it’s OK to “take chances” and to “go out on a limb” (where the fruit is!), either as an academic exercise, a thought experiment, for political practice, for intellectual speculation, as a literary endeavor, or just for fun. I try to make the classroom as safe a place for doing so as possible, partly by treating students with respect as students and as adult human beings. To these ends, I try to build capacity in my students by increasing their self-awareness, their self-esteem, and their dignity. I try to empower them to become the best of themselves, to be active students, to be teachers and leaders, to be what they want and need to be. Students need to be able to hope and dream, and to be able to act on behalf of those hopes and dreams in order to realize them: besides being mine, it’s their class, their thoughts, their education, their society, and their future.

Education should be active and dialectical.

It is important that both students and teachers be active participants in and out of the classroom, rather than being passive learners, academic bystanders, and political spectators. I always encourage my students to put what they learn into practice and, in turn, to bring what they and others practice back into the classroom for analysis. Theory and practice mutually support and reinforce each other. Breaking the dialectic between theory and practice always results in the degradation of both. Thought without action can be little more than trivia. Indeed, Karl Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, declaring that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, constantly rings in my academic ears, reminding me not to construct, and indeed to oppose, ivory tower bastilles and arm chair restraints. Yet, I am also cognizant of the fact that action without a conscious and philosophical grounding is often ineffective, ephemeral, and usually results in little more than chaos and perhaps catharsis. With dialectical thinking, we examine and analyze social connections, relationships, interactions, and their implications. With service learning, we experience the practical applications of our analyses. Following Mark Twain, I try not to “let school get in the way of [their or my] education”.

Education should be dialogic and relational.

I also strongly encourage students to share relevant news clippings, event announcements, web sites, and other items and stories from current events and popular culture, as well as from their personal histories and political struggles, as other ways to connect phenomena in the world with knowledge in the classroom. To these ends, the internet can be a powerful resource. It is an invaluable tool for research, news, and ideas from around the world, in addition to facilitating communication. Indeed, I create “parallel classrooms” by moderating an e-mail listserv for each of my courses, in which all of my students participate, so as to give additional opportunities for dissemination and discussion of course materials, current events, sociological miscellanea, political alerts, and other pertinent issues.

Education should be empowering.

There is a strong emphasis in my classes on discussion and interactivity. Intimately linked to my belief in multidisciplinarity is my belief in multivocality. This is a key path to a critical, public, moral, and humanistic social science. The dialogues, indeed multilogues, between teacher and students, and amongst the students themselves, are essential for the full functioning of the “mini-society” of the classroom in which we actively participate as teacher-students and student-teachers. Spirited, but friendly, debate is absolutely crucial for critical analysis, intellectual development, human creativity, political pluralism, and civic participation in a democratic society; likewise with the inclusion and participation of people with different ideas, perspectives, backgrounds, and abilities. I always try to turn liabilities into assets, no less so with my own visual disability. I therefore encourage my students to turn their liabilities into assets, as well, as no one goes through life unscathed. Indeed, the choice is ultimately one between being left with scars or beauty marks, despite the larger social forces which exert so much pressure on us.

Education should be educational.

I recommend that my students use the many methods of “legitimate cheating”, which include, but are not limited to, working and studying together, consulting with the writing center and reference librarians, searching the web (especially the many sociology, social science, writing, service learning, community organizing, and activist sites), and brainstorming and discussing ideas, projects, and possibilities with other students, teachers, experts, workers, organizers, and activists both on and off campus.

Education should be critical and conspiratorial.

Todd Gitlin argues that we begin to learn exactly at that point where we enter “that difficult, rugged, sometimes impassable territory where arguments are made, points weighed, counters considered, contradictions faced, and where honest disputants have to consider the possibility of learning something that might change their minds”. I seek to make my classroom that territory. I believe that, at its best, the university should be a “collaboratory” and education should be a conspiracy, where people work, play, plan, and plot together in a variety of active and cooperative ways. I try to facilitate bringing out the best and most progressive sides of my students, while letting them develop organically their own capacities to critique and transform oppressive structures and social relations.

Education should be provocative and enjoyable.

My aim in all of my classes is not necessarily to obtain any “answers”, but rather to formulate better questions. I try to get my students to think: to think about their lives, their society, a better world, levels of analysis, to think about the latent, the hidden, the obscured, the overarching, the patterns, the anomalies, indeed to think about thinking itself. Recalling that Emma Goldman warned that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”, I remind students, if nothing else, to have fun with their education. I not only try to teach much of this explicitly, I also try to model these beliefs and behaviors as well.