The language teacher, more than anyone, ought to understand that teaching for social justice does not mean only supplying students with the tools, the doctrines, and the canon that will grant them access to elite education, employment opportunity, and exit from their communities and oft-pathologized cultures. This is because the language teacher leads students to examine an object–language– whose very lifeblood is the ingresses and egresses of populist energies, the dynamics and vicissitudes of changing standards and expectations, and the particular potency of symbolic subversion, even as language also simultaneously asserts stability, routinization, and rigidity. Language is that most democratic of things, signifiers shifting all the time at the hands of creatively appropriating humans, and kids teach us language (even the stodgy teacher who scorns and mocks it cannot long sideline its intelligibility and therefore communicative effectiveness) all the time, and we cannot resist its powers. Bakhtin said it best in a metaphor that has proven memorable and durable to me: there is a centrifugal and centripetal pull, simultaneously, with language, that makes it push outward towards diversity and what he called heteroglossia, and at the same time a centering pull toward unity, uniformity, and authority. Both operate at all times in language. We sense it in every novel we read, in the playfulness or ponderousness of poetry, in the ways we and students perform, try on/take off, and otherwise make a practice of language.
Therefore, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children granted, it is not enough to give students the tools of the culture of power. We must also unmask the culture of power and give them the tools of its revision and subversion, particularly the symbolic tools, the ones that eventually lead to material consequences. Yes, students must learn how to compose academic essays. But they must also do so to craft deft arguments that challenge the notion that the non-essayist is blinder, stupider, less articulate. And moreover, must illuminate for the rest of us darkened minds the greatness of those considered the least.
This is not a romanticization of the poor or “illiterate.” This is a recognition that in our profoundly divided and hierarchical society, where wealth inequality continues its steep increase, as Freire reminds us, our humanization depends on the moral clarity and force of “students” to transform the voice of the “teachers,” the oppressed to teach oppressors, the poor to intercede for the rotten rich. Or, put another way, those who teach in “underperforming” or “low” schools had better be prepared to learn a thing or two from their students, even while they responsibly teach them. Together, we synthesize what’s new, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, whether we like it or not. Understanding how that synthesis is configured is where our work is done.