Can academics be activists? Should they be? This age old question continues to arise. When confronted with these issues, I ask myself, “What is the purpose of education?” What is the purpose of gaining knowledge? I am always a little perplexed when colleagues propose that academics are not activists. I think it stems back to the notion that knowledge is neutral; that education is (or should be) unbiased; that science and the pursuit of truth should be unbiased. But is it?
In graduate school I studied sociology and learned about the debates between Marxists and followers of Weber, about the concepts of activism and value-free education, and about the goal of verstehen or education as understanding. In addition, new found feminist theories challenged my notions of unbiased or neutral theories once again in the critique of western based patriarchal theories; of family, of economics and freedom, of sexuality, for example. Black feminist thought and critical race theories taught me about the whiteness of Eurocentric thought. Queer theories taught me the dangers of binary dichotomous thinking. Post-modernism and post-colonial theory challenged notions about grand narratives, imperialism and domination. All of these theories reinforced basic lessons about the improbability of neutral theories or unbiased knowledge, and about the multiplicity of perspective. What we believe to be true is always situated knowledge. Another question is whether knowing compels us to act. I think about my own interest areas in the sociology of stratification. If I understand social stratification am I compelled to change it? According to the notion of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989:139), which is an “analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power,” we are called not only to think critically but to question and challenge; to include.
Seeking knowledge then is always multiplicative. I have to ask whose knowledge; from where did it come; in what context is it situated? What purpose did it serve? And therein lays the rub. Knowledge can support the status quo and it can challenge social systems. And thus, to paraphrase Foucault (1978), knowledge is power. If you have the power to control knowledge, you control the world. Power (domination) also creates its resistance. Knowledge seeking can then be liberatory. It can be empowering and thus give you power to control your own beliefs. Knowledge can change the world. It is activist.
This stance, however, does not suggest that we cannot do research that is rigorous, reliable, and valid. Of course the best social science researchers use the shared tenets of inquiry to guide their research questions. The best social scientists also claim their biases upfront so that readers can evaluate for themselves how those biases may have influenced the research. It also reminds us as researchers to know who we are and from where we come. In this way, research is transparent rather than “value-free.”
If we apply this to education, and the academy, we as teachers must claim our biases, or put another way, our values. Not to indoctrinate or inculcate those values to our students, but to demonstrate how we clarify our values in order to make decisions. The best teachers model a values clarification approach, which according to Sutrop (2015), promotes critical thinking, moral reasoning, autonomy, equity, and creativity. What better values describe a liberal arts education?
Perhaps we must ask, what is a liberal arts education? Is it brainwashing students to think like their disproportionately “liberal” teachers? I think not. If you follow my argument, a values clarification approach to education is the presentation of multiple ways of thinking and asking students to see the consequences of various positions, decisions, and ideologies. Students are given a choice to reflexively decide who they want to be and what kind of world they want to live in. They are given knowledge and agency ... and that folks, makes them active participants in their world. I, for one, hope that action is toward greater equity and justice for all.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books, Print.
Sutrop, Margit. 2015. “Can Values be Taught? The Myth of Value-Free Education.” TRAMES, 19(69/64), 2, 189–202.