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Rethinking Knowledge within Higher Education: Adorno and Social Justice
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
It is common to hear concern about the commodification of higher education. Administrators’ reliance on business models built on the logic of the marketplace -- emphasizing the bottom-line, rational management strategies, and consumer-focused marketing -- is often at the center of any conversation about the future of higher education. Although Jan McArthur’s book does not address these issues directly, it does, in fact, make an important contribution to the discussion by forcefully challenging the instrumental economic basis for the university or college educational experience. Moreover, she rejects the “traditional liberal ideas of education as a good in itself” (19). For McArthur, higher education’s primary purpose is to contribute to the building of a more just and equitable social order.
McArthur’s monograph is a revised version of her PhD thesis, written under the supervision of Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University (UK). She divides her book into three major parts. Chapters one and two lay the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the book, offering an overview of her understanding of the relationship between knowledge and social justice. She draws on the work of Theodor Adorno to develop her own approach to critical pedagogy, especially emphasizing his ideas of negative dialectics and non-identity. This, in turn, leads to her commitment to a higher education that can be a “home for complex and contested forms of knowledge, engaged with in risky and uncertain ways, where there is safety from normalizing forces” (32).
The next four chapters make up the second part of the book and each addresses a different aspect of knowledge in higher education. In chapter three MacArthur argues that what should be distinctive about knowledge within higher education is that it be “not easily known.” That is to say, the difficulty encountered with such knowledge mirrors the complexity of the social and natural worlds, thus making it useful. In the fourth chapter, MacArthur critiques the current emphasis on the standardization of knowledge, arguing that knowledge within higher education should allow students to develop “their capacity to step outside of the mainstream, to question and challenge the status quo; to live in their own right in the intellectual world” and should not be grounded in a predetermined set of acceptable ideas that denies students their “true autonomy” (98). MacArthur’s fifth chapter introduces three metaphors she sees as especially useful for informing the educational experience of students and critical academics: exile, sanctuary, and diaspora. These metaphors speak to the ways that knowledge can be both a cause of separation from, but also a means of linking to, society. In the sixth chapter, MacArthur argues that the dichotomy between theory and practice is a false one. All knowledge should be “understood in an holistic way, as both theory and practice, philosophical and useful, social and economic” (147). Finally, in chapter seven, she summarizes her argument and suggests several avenues for additional work and reflection.
This necessarily brief overview of the book cannot adequately convey the significance of MacArthur’s refreshing and well-written work. Her argument for placing social justice at the very core of higher education is both forceful and convincing and relevant for those teaching in religious studies or theology departments. For faculty struggling with questions regarding the future of higher education and who are looking for something beyond a business-model approach, MacArthur’s book offers a worthy conversation partner. She concludes her work with a challenge to those who would choose to follow her lead: “We should cease to feel the need to apologize for academic work that shows its passionate motivations and committed values. . . . Free and curious human beings can never be mainstream, predictable, or standardized” (160).
Muslim Women, Transnational Feminism and the Ethics of Pedagogy: Contested Imaginaries in Post-9/11 Cultural Practice
Date Reviewed: February 12, 2015
Speaking about her identity as a Muslim woman, spoken-word poet Sofia Baig said, “At a certain point, you have to raise your voice and fight to take it back” (275). In that spirit, this volume unites reflection and action for transformational pedagogy. By teaching readers to recognize negative stereotypes about Muslim women and exposing complicity with imperialism in some uncritical forms of multiculturalism, these essays make a significant contribution to social justice education. Collectively these authors model the transnational feminist praxis they propose. The volume offers a treasury of references to Muslim women artists as well as caution about the ways that some authentic voices have been commodified and co-opted. Interviews with artists expand and enrich the scholarly examination of pedagogical questions regarding authority, agency, representation, and identity.
Contributors present an impressive array of arguments that problematize pervasive errors in “liberal” or “Western” feminism because it has contributed to simplistic and oppressive images of Muslim women in ways that feed the justification for violence, war, and imperialism. For example, Megan MacDonald effectively demonstrates how glib ideals of the “universality of global sisterhood” can be co-opted to justify “the occupation’s military industrial agenda” if Muslim women are reduced to oppressed victims in need of rescue (39). Similarly, Catherine Burwell warns about exploitive trends in marketing and uncritical reading of fiction featured by North American women’s book clubs that sometimes perpetuate those negative images. Over and over, these writers examine the dangers of depoliticizing and disconnecting women’s voices from historical context. At the same time, these scholars call for art and critical education in both public and academic settings that broadens and deepens antiracist, anticolonial, transnational feminist cultural production. For instance, the creation of the “Hijabi Monologues,” by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah actively counters the “conflation of Middle East and Arab and Muslim” (286). Readers get a glimpse of what Mehre Gomez Fonseca calls “pedagogical means to unlearn Arabphobia and Islamaphobia” (198).
These artists, scholars, and educators warn readers against unethical use of some literature written by Muslim women that is quite well known. At the same time, they introduce readers to new artists whose work may be less familiar. Full transcripts of interviews with Muslim women artists include: conversations with novelist Mohja Kahf, documentary filmmaker and writer Zarqa Nawaz, curator and writer Rasha Salti, editor and publisher Tayyibah Taylor, spoken-word poet Sofia Baig, theater director and writer Sahar Ullah, and visual artist Jamelie Hassan.
Social justice educators committed to antiracism, anticolonialism, and transnational feminism will appreciate this corrective to mistakes that many of us have unwittingly made. Readers find suggestions for anticolonial praxis such as “ethical practices for reading across difference” examining privilege and power, and opening up “space of dialogue, debate, and dissent” (195). The book will be of particular interest to those who teach religious studies, feminist studies, and multicultural literature.
Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the World: Justice in Jesuit Higher Education
Date Reviewed: February 6, 2015
In 2000, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, delivered a landmark address entitled “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education.” In it, he raises the question, what is the “whole person” that Jesuit institutions seek to educate? His answer: “Tomorrow’s ‘whole person’ cannot be whole without an educated awareness of society and culture with which to contribute socially, generously, in the real world… [Students] should learn to perceive, think, judge, and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed” (11). Spurred on by the sentiments expressed by Fr. Kolvenbach and others, faculty and administrators at Jesuit universities across the nation have developed a remarkable array of responses to the call for justice in education. The task of Mary Beth Combs and Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt’s edited volume was to gather many of those who have been responsible for the progress in justice education made in Jesuit institutions in the last decade and a half, highlight their work, and give them a platform from which to share what they have learned in the process about effectively educating for justice. They have succeeded admirably.
The first two sections feature ways in which faculty evoke in their students the kind of solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized from which the work of justice springs. Readers of this journal will find particularly evocative and potentially useful Carol Kelly and Christopher Pramuk’s use of the arts, particularly music, to open students’ minds to appreciating how the world looks from the perspective of the poor and neglected among us. Many of the essays focus on various kinds of “academic immersion.” These range from something as simple as incorporating a strategic service learning component into a class, to summer courses abroad where advanced students work to help a population in need, to a full semester living and learning among some of the world’s poorest inhabitants. Another theme addressed in several essays is curricular change at the department or college level. This is perhaps a more daunting task, as it requires the cooperation of faculty and administrators. But there is also an opportunity here for departments of religion, in our often secularizing institutions, to perhaps discover a new means of making the content of our discipline more relevant to the practical concerns of our students and the world outside our classroom. The third section contains a number of reflections on establishing more justice-centered institutional modi operandi. These will interest faculty concerned with shaping campus culture outside their own classroom.
On occasion, the authors press their conclusions about what “works” beyond the warrant of their limited experiences. Nevertheless, this book remains an excellent source of inspiration and ideas for bringing students into contact with “the gritty reality of this world” (11), so that they not only learn the content of their discipline, but also begin to discover possibilities for its meaningful application in the service of justice. I highly recommend it as a starting place for thinking about how to make any course or program in religion a more transformative, justice-centered endeavor.
The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2015
There is a whole industry of administrative agents and auxiliary student service providers inhabiting the world of higher education bordering the classroom. Whether it is in the areas of residence life, student affairs, or service learning, practitioners provide social justice education (SJE). Inside the classroom, universities and colleges engage faculty to provide discrete courses, or enable interdisciplinary multicultural experiential learning for their students under the rubric of social justice education. Indeed, as this collection testifies, even student peer instruction can be key to unlocking conversations and attaining social justice learning outcomes.
The book’s multiple authors were brought together under the aegis of the ACPA-College Student Educators International Commission for Social Justice Educators. Faculty, administrators, development support staff, and students themselves contribute a variety of chapters focusing on the task of facilitation. As the title suggests, each gives a thick description of their context to flesh out the claim that facilitation is an art rather than an exact science. This is not a simple how-to manual.
The book is organized into four sections: Frameworks from Theory to Practice; Understanding Identities and Facilitation; Facilitation Design and Techniques; and Supporting Student Social Action. One might ask, “Why should teachers of Theology and Religion care?” One attractive answer is that SJE aims at transformation and action in relation to social structures of dominance and oppression. There are underdeveloped suggestions in the text that dominant religious assumptions need examining on campus and in wider society. Certainly the investment of religious studies and theology disciplines in the questions of race and whiteness, gender, sexuality, and broadly, identity -- however controverted -- means that awareness of the theoretical and practical bases of campus work for students is important.
To my mind, the most interesting chapters are those framed largely as dialogues between two authors. Where facilitating conversation, awareness, disclosure, negotiating triggers, and gaining empowerment is the topic, this mode of writing is immediately attractive for demonstrating what is being written discussed in a way that cannot otherwise be done.
The authors are wonderfully humane in addressing their own growth in awareness of the importance of social justice education, and their faltering steps to facilitate that growth along with their students or peers. Social justice education is about relationships and fostering learning that is transformative. Not all will agree with the account of justice that is drawn on in the book: Justice as inclusive individual identity rights procedurally secured over against hegemony is the framework. Certainly different ways of living religious traditions, with their thick accounts of the good framing what counts as just, will dispute some assumptions here. Nevertheless, or rather, precisely so, they are invited into the conversation that is facilitated. Teachers of theology and religion might take much of the wisdom accrued here into their class discussions, seminars, and workshops. Further, everyday teaching will be more attuned to the strivings toward justice in the wider higher education community.
I would have liked more discussion about ableism and people with disabilities. At times the thick description felt thin, given the constraints of what is communicable on a page: the experiential stories almost needed longer narration to draw in a reader who does not always inhabit the SJE discourse. What is in one sense a distraction for one jumping into the field -- numerous references to authoritative tomes unknown -- is at the same time a boon to the reader wanting to explore further: the chapter bibliographies are extensive and rich.
Teaching for a Culturally Diverse and Racially Just World
Date Reviewed: June 15, 2017
Eleazar S. Fernandez’s edited volume, Teaching for a Culturally Diverse and Racially Just World, brings together important voices in the study of religion and theology to explore issues surrounding racial-ethnic minority scholars. Fernandez writes that “‘marked’ identities” present challenges in all aspects of a scholarly career, from the classroom and research and publication to administration and institutional policy-making (2) and that even as racial-ethic minority scholars make great strides, the “racist system is cunning enough to do countermoves” (3). Willie James Jennings summarizes the crucial issue: “These teachers are measured against simulacrums, images of white male teachers, images of what women teachers ought to be, images of what minority teachers ought to be, and assumptions about which ideas and concepts should matter to women and minorities and which ideas and concepts are the proper domains of white men” (119), as David Maldonado, Jr. shows us the constraints and possibilities faced by racial-ethnic minorities across the institutional spectrum, including those in leadership positions. The purpose of this volume is not to complain, however, but to be constructive: it asks how institutions can re-form themselves, set “benchmarks” (4) to support racial-ethnic diversity, and, thereby, flourish.
Two strategies characterize the volume. First, it deploys metaphors to help the reader to understand, even to experience, the positionality of the racial-ethnic scholar. For example, Jennings presents modern theological education as “the master’s house built exclusively for his sons” (109), while Loida I. Martell-Otero and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier use spatial metaphors to talk about “teacher space” and where our teaching takes place, respectively. With these metaphors, the volume asks what it means to work and to learn as “foreign bodies” in such places: what does it mean to be both at war and yet in love with our disciplines? The volume does not forget students; Peter Cha uses the metaphor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community” to think through the experience of racial-ethnic students in theological education. The volume asks us to think metaphorically in our assessment as well; it uses, for example, the vocational cycle as a way of thinking through justice work.
A second strategy that characterizes the volume is the inclusion of the voices of allies. Paul O. Myhre and Nancy Ramsay offer valuable strategies and insights as two Euro-American colleagues who have accepted, as Ramsay puts it, “the pervasive influence of white supremacy and the recognition of the self-interested imperative for allies to leverage our privilege on behalf of institutional formation” (251). Using the metaphor of vision, Myhre asks us to expand our vision to see racism not as a singularity for racial-ethnic scholars but in its contexts, and to use the power of discernment to decide how to address the problem justly.
This very important volume includes contributions from many stellar teachers. Though it focuses on theological education primarily, it is valuable for religious studies. Its range − from the location of the scholar, to students, to administration, to issues of assessment − is wide, but deftly handled. It is both theoretical and practical, making it a work one can mine for different kinds of insights. The volume asks for alliances that generate small but significant steps. As Fernandez puts it: “Small beginnings should not intimidate us. We must remember that we are not called to everything, but we are called to do something” (20).