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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Teaching Justice

Dennis Fox

September 11, 2003

The U.S. Department of Education is giving the Brookline Public Schools a $726,000 Teaching American History grant so that teachers can learn how to teach about justice more effectively. I wonder: Do I really want George Bush's Education Department -- now shoving the No Child Left Behind injustice down our throats -- influencing how my daughter's teachers assess what's just and what's not?

Under the "Defining Justice" project, two dozen teachers from Brookline and three collaborating districts are already taking seminars organized through Teachers as Scholars Inc., co-founded by former Brookline grants coordinator Henry Bolter. The three-year effort examines "the changing concepts of justice from the Founding Fathers to the present" through the Constitutional Convention, Seneca falls and the Women's Movement, Slavery, and the Progressive Era.

This is a potentially useful project, and I expect participating teachers will gain new insights into how to inspire their pupils. The intellectual challenge sounds like fun. However, several issues come to mind.

First, speaking of justice, why are the feds giving this money to Brookline rather than to districts that need it more? Perhaps the seminars can address that issue.

Second, teaching history will always be controversial if it's done right.

Fortunately, Brookline has already stood up to Massachusetts education officials trying to reshape social studies education. The debate over adjusting English and math teaching to match the state MCAS test will become much nastier when the state requires students to pass a state-designed history test. State insistence on name-and-date trivia so that every student can give the appearance of competence contrasts sharply with approaches that emphasize a deeper critical understanding of causes and consequences with relevance to society today.

The blurbs in the TAB and on the town website don't detail what our teachers will actually learn when they Define Justice. Still, I'm surprised that the historical periods examined end almost a century ago. I know this is supposed to be history, not current events, but you'd think that "changing concepts of justice from the Founding Fathers to the present" would also emphasize the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era, and efforts escalating in the Reagan years to redefine justice as irrelevant to economic equality.

Third, I'd also like more clarity on the phrase "changing concepts of justice" from one era to the next. The wording makes it seem as if there's a national consensus about what justice is. Indeed, many people talk as if that's the case, sometimes to excuse past practices now widely acknowledged to be abhorrent despite their legality at the time.

Slavery is wrong, we all know now, but way back then "everyone" accepted it. We'd never deny women equal rights today, but a century ago "that's just the way things were." Of course workers have rights, but exploiting them was simply routine. Generalizations like these ignore the lack of consensus that existed from the very beginning -- before and during the Constitutional Convention -- when large numbers of people opposed the status quo but had no power to change it.

During my academic work on the interconnections between psychology and law I was particularly interested in competing notions of justice. Reading legal history was eye-opening for its open acknowledgment that law and justice operate in different spheres. Professors weren't joking when they told their students "this is a school of law, not a school of justice."

The Constitutional Convention's flawed output may have represented a consensus of the elite lawyers and businessmen and slaveowners at the negotiating table, but that consensus was not shared by the vast majority of Americans for whom justice was denied. The thrust of American history ever since has been to try to dismantle the Constitution's shackles. Success has been sporadic, and, if the Bush administration has its way, perhaps temporary.

As I see it, if the Defining Justice project succeeds my daughter's teachers will be better able to help her dissect interpretations of history that maintain injustice today. That lesson may not be what federal officials have in mind -- it's not the lesson MCAS will test for -- but I'm confident that Brookline teachers will put their new knowledge to good use.

More on justice and law

More on high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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