Reading the World Through a Privileged Gaze

Growing up, I enjoyed school. Quite a bit. I got decent grades. I received positive comments from teachers on report cards. Moreover, all this feedback contributed to a sense of positive self-esteem. I could take a quiet pride in my schoolwork, my success. My pride was quiet, non-boastful, non-competitive. Still, it contributed to positive self-image. What I perhaps didn’t realize then, though, were the circumstances that primed my school-aged self for this modest success.

Let’s follow the chain, link by link: I came from a white middle-class family. And while my parents are intelligent and hard working, they were statistically more likely to be able to pay for university from the get-go, partly because of socio-economic advantages, stemming from the fact they came from white, middle class families. Their education, in turn, sparked and honed in them a love for reading, which in turn encouraged them to impart that love in me: their love of reading encouraged them to read to me often as a child, lamp-lit acts of love for which I am eternally grateful. This love of reading, imbued in me by my parents, eventually led me to pursue studies in literature. This was particularly formative. My studies in literature introduced me to multiple, racially-diverse perspectives, which humbled and encouraged me to attempt reading the world from different points of view. All well and good. Upon reflection, though, I can note the chain of privilege that brought me from my cherubic, fairly ignorant student-self to an educated, slightly less ingorant self. In short, any nuanced worldviews to which I lay claim cannot be attributed to any sense of inherent morality or good character: they were largely created, by my purely circumstantial good-fortune.

Growing up, my pure-chance socio-economic good-fortune from birth helped me “read the world” as somewhere where I could accomplish something, achieve success, and garner feelings of self-worth. Challenges were definitely fewer than some, and my confidence was allowed to grow unobstructed. Boosting my confidence even further: books, most of which were tailored for my specific demographic. Most chapter books I read, and most of the movies I watched, had male, white protagonists. Oh how I used to emulate these characters in make-believe-games, saving the world with style and skill (lightsaber prowess, creative wizarding, dazzling swordsmanship). I could insert myself into these stories with ease, relating to the heroes. The singular narrative present in the media and literature I was consuming: I can be GREAT, heroic, just like the characters on the page, on the screen. The reality, though, is that not everyone is a white male from a financially secure background. Students possess multiple narratives, come from diverse backgrounds… And the way that school is traditionally structured may not align with students’ pre-existing narratives. Nor is it a guarantee that the narratives these students are exposed to, in school or in broader entertainment contexts, will provide relatable stories and characters, allowing students to align their own narratives to the awe-inspiring and formative narratives of the content. As teachers, we need to be conscious that there exist countless identities and person narratives in a classroom, and we need to be aware that our teaching and teaching material might run the risk of catering to dominant demographics. We can start by questioning our biases, our own narratives, our own privilege, and how the constructed world either catered to or did not cater to our biases/narratives/privilige. While this might be difficult to do (I recognize I don’t have a perfect handle on my own privilege), listening to other perspectives might be the key to this endeavour. Listen to people speak from different backgrounds from you. Read books written by people from different backgrounds. Search. Listen. Stay open. Reflect.

On Citizenship Education and The Littlest Hobo

I figure I am not alone in stating that the citizenship education I received in grade school skewed heavily towards the personally responsible citizen, as outlined by Joel Westheimer: Volunteerism was class-mandated in high school, factoring heavily into our grades, and food and clothing drives were promoted via intercom, a regular occurrence in both elementary and high school. In many ways, we were trained to be a hoard of Littlest Hobos, only without the non-comformist roving: we were encouraged to enact individual and isolated acts of kindness when opportunities for good character presented themselves in the social fabric. Any opportunities for participatory citizenship necessitated extra curricular interest, mainly interest in Student Leadership Council, in which students were granted the privilege of organizing said food drives. In student leadership, however, student members’ power to enact change was heavily limited by structures already set in place. Teachers knew which fundraisers worked. Teachers knew where the money should go. And so, the student council (non-elected appointees, I might add) were in many ways the sweater-vested political puppets of the benevolent oligarchy that was staff and admin. Like a good soldier, though, I stayed in line and enjoyed the perks of office, mainly the fickle but heady power of using the intercom every now and again. Key to opportunities for citizenship in school (in the classroom and extra curricular) was time-honoured structure. Never once did it occur to me, though, that I could reshape that structure.

In reflecting upon the kinds of citizenship education I received in school, my mind keeps returning to Westheimer’s assertion that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” but rather “a participant sport.” I keep coming back to this point, I think, not because my schooling discouraged engagement in democracy, but because my schooling experience in many ways limited the ways we could participate in democracy. What my schooling neglected to teach me were the skills to critique the structures that guide my participation in democracy. Take, for example, Social Studies 30 unit four: “Governance,” a unit that, by its very nature, should be devoted to promoting active citizenship. But while the unit does a good job informing students of idealized facets of Canadian political institutions, it actively deflects critique away from such institutions by presenting them as lofty and infallible: “Canadians have a good society, because our political culture and discourse has demanded a constitutionalism that is moral and ethical,” states curriculum (403). Such a generalization, the assumption that Canadian society is inherently “good,” discounts the historically rooted socio-economic issues facing marginalized groups. Also troubling is the curriculum’s effort to define Canadian structures of governance as inevitable: “[T]he Constitutional Act (1897) had no choice but to establish Canada as a constitutional monarchy, because the political culture would accept no other approach” (403). To state that a nation’s political make-up is inevitable uncomfortably echoes the fallacious authority of manifest destiny. In mythologizing Canadian political culture and institutions in such a way, the curriculum disempowers (and disincentives) students from challenging Canada’s political institutions, discouraging structural adjustment towards the present-day necessities of social justice and inclusion.

Ultimately, what was lacking in my grade school education was the promotion of social justice citizenship. While I was taught to participate as a socially responsible individual within the sanctioned traditions and structures of school life and curriculum, my critical gaze was deflected away from the very structures that guided my every day affairs. The greatest tragedy of Littlest Hobo, in my mind, is that despite all his selfless acts of kindness, he never once, to my knowledge, influenced structural political policy. While his good character is undeniable, his social participation was limited to atomistic acts of kindness. I wonder if it was his frustration with this political culture, one that limits meaningful democratic participation, that pushed him to the fringes of society. You have clearly chosen The Road, Littlest Hobo, but why? I ask: Was Littlest Hobo always a hobo? Or was this title thrust upon him by a non-inclusive political culture? I demand a reboot of the TV show, with a pilot episode where Littlest Hobo reforms the electoral system through grass-roots activism. Justice for Littlest Hobo. Littlest Hobo for president. Return from your exile, friend.

Math in Relation to Place

Thinking back on my experience in high school, I can’t remember an occasion where I felt that math was particularly oppressive. That’s probably because I was born into a western culture where the mathematical ways of knowing taught in schools were normalized for me. As an immersion student, I do remember some initial discomfort about learning math in French, quibbling over the possibility that learning PEDMAS instead of BEDMAS might thwart my understanding of English math, essential to conducting myself in an English-dominant culture, and thus drastically limit my career options in the not-so-distant future. In the end, the linguistic differences, say, between “division” and the inscrutably French “divisionwere not as insurmountable as I thought. I persevered.

Obviously, my learning math in French was not that big a deal. English or French, it was still being taught the same way, favouring the same western-focused tradition that I had grown up absorbing. Numbers were numbers, after all. At least that’s what I thought. What I have only recently considered, thanks to Louise Poirier’s article, “Teaching Mathematics and the Inuit Community” and a recent enlightening class visit from Dr. Gale Russell, is that mathematical ways of knowing are hardly universal. To demonstrate this point, Poirier (and Dr. Russell, in drawing upon Poirier’s article), focuses on Inuit people’s mathematical ways of knowing, demonstrating that math is as culturally specific a concept as language (and the two are inseparably intertwined). Some general points and themes I found interesting from Poirier’s article:

  • On measurement of time: Inuit people measure their months of the year based on natural phenomena. As Poirier explains, “the name of each month comes from animal activities or from nature,” for example “the coldest of all months,” “when baby seals are born,” “when birds lay their eggs,” or “when the seal elephants rest on land.” While the western calendar similarly emphasizes natural phenomena (rotations around the sun), our calendar units of measurement (weeks, months) are based largely on numeric balance as opposed to the natural phenomena that actually transpires in those months (I think?). Inuit mathematics appears to foreground the environment in its ways of knowing as opposed to seek to impose onto it (often) arbitrary quantities and divisions.
  • On measurements of length: Inuit measurements of length emphasize parts of the body (the finger, foot, etc.). Whereas western math imposes units of measurement onto the physical, bodily world (a person might be 1.7 m tall, weigh 64kg), Inuit measurements foreground the body in space as central to understanding.
  • On “the adopted line”: The Inuit terming a straight line “the adopted line” seems to highlight its foreignness to their ways of knowing. As Poirier explains, “there are very few straight lines but many curves” in the Inuit environment. The expression, for me, seems to highlight the Inuit’s recognition of the natural environment as fluid and contingent as opposed to fixed and linear.

Ultimately, the Inuit people’s understanding of math, as presented in Poirier’s article, seems to be irrevocably tied to the body, a unique and changing environment, and the relationship between body and that environment. This is because the ability to navigate the fluctuating Northern landscape (for food, for example) is integral to the Inuit way of life. Their mathematics thus reflect a way of life irrevocably tied to their relationship with place. This approach is quite the departure from a “western” tradition of mathematics, where math is presented as a means of objectively quantifying and empirically knowing one’s environment, regardless of the intricacies of culture or place. The way of math that I’m familiar with doesn’t seem to affirm the presence of our bodies in space so much as diminish the body and the environment to universally quantifiable and knowable objects.


On Shared Stories

Let’s start this blog post by getting anecdotal. (If it’s possible to hear an eye roll, I swear I heard yours, across the Digital Void. Or across the classroom, maybe, depending on when you read this [I see you glancing over your shoulder: I’m watching].) In the interest of time, though, I’ll just give you the Cole’s Notes of my self-indulgent tale. It begins like so: one cold November, young (dimple-cheeked?) grade 10 Brenner travels from Prince Albert to Ottawa to attend Forum for Young Canadians, a non-profit program that hosts high school students from across Canada in the nation’s capital to teach them about citizenship, parliamentary institutions, etcetera, etcetera. I remember the experience vaguely: it was a fun time; I met a lot of people… What I remember most vividly, though, was a presentation from an indigenous leader about residential schools. I remember it best because of its emotional impact: the speaker, justifiably, spoke with some anger, and I remember feeling the weight of that anger acutely. I also remember my kneejerk reaction to rationalize: should I feel responsible for residential schools? I was just a kid, I thought. I rationalized further: surely my fairly humble family history (featuring an orphan train or two) was far removed from the political decision makers who implemented and continued residential school policy. My rationalizing was a direct symptom of wanting to distance myself from the story of residential schools, so I did not have to feel an inconvenient unpleasantness: of guilt, of complicity in perpetrated pain. This story was made proximate to me by a survivor, in a government boardroom on unceded Algonquin territory, and I resisted its gravity.

Something that resonated with me in Cynthia Chambers’ article, assigned to us last week, was its focus on stories. Stories can be hugely socially impactful, Chambers suggests, in that they harness the immense power of the imagination: “While all that glitters may not be gold, it could be,” she suggests. “That is the power of the imagination and of what we learn to believe” (32). Stories are often how people learn, and they are therefore ripe with potential: the power to preserve knowledge rooted in affective experience, the power to educate. However, Chambers also posits a problem with stories: they are so often incomplete, partial: “no story tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; each is a bargain between what can be told and what cannot, or will not be spoken” (33). Perhaps such a problem speaks to the unwillingness of many people to face the full impact of residential schools. People have trouble seeing themselves as implicated in stories of perpetrated harm, because they have constructed their own stories that are incongruous with this cruelty. The story of Chamber’s grandmother, for instance, was one of personal freedom and new beginnings, quite incongruous with the injustices of colonialism. Or let’s return to the Ottawa boardroom: I felt then that the story of residential schools was incongruous with the narrative I had constructed of my own life: I viewed the story of myself and my family as one mainly of love, and this story was backed up by all the stored sentiment that my felt experiences with a loving family had imbued me with. I had a hard time reconciling this with a narrative of shared complicity in injustice and harm.

Given the competing nature of entangled stories, I think one starting path towards reconciliation becomes finding common stories, as treaty people. Chambers does an inspiring job in her text of opening narrative windows for settlers, allowing us to see ourselves in a shared narrative with indigenous peoples. The treaties are “our” story, too, she suggests: a story “about the commons, what we shared and lost” (29). Being treaty people, Chambers suggests, is an acknowledgement that settlers and indigenous peoples now occupy a common land, and we therefore share the common narrative of survival: “What we have in common […] is our need to make a livelihood that does no harm,” state the Ulukhaktokmiut Elders (33). The shared narrative of survival, moreover, is indelibly linked to responsible care for shared land. Our shared story, perhaps, in being one of survival, is also necessarily one of environmental responsibility and care for one another. I think this is what Chambers is getting at, anyways.

Stories, in my understanding, are vessels for felt memory: they store energizing sentiment, and that sentiment can be used. It’s okay to recognize that stories are partial and complicatedly entangled. But in taking opportunities to listen to and acknowledge stories, and accept our role in them instead of turning our backs, perhaps we can learn to channel the sentiment that they store, sublimating it into effective change, collectively “making a livelihood that does no harm.” Embracing indigenous stories of people who know how to care for the land becomes key to this endeavour. Maybe this, in part, is the spirit of Treaty Ed.

Constructing Knowledge Builds Relationships: Who Gets To Do the Building (On Education and Place)

Excuse the rambling post. I found myself stumbling through my thoughts on this one like Chris Farley rolling down a hill.

Throughout my years in post-secondary education, I’ve come to know university as a bit of a mixed bag. I love to read, to write, to learn. These endeavours are both socially important and personally gratifying, but they occasionally seemed stifling and insular. You have ideas, you write papers based off of these ideas for professors, and these professors read these papers, mark them up, hand them back… and that can be the end of the cycle. What a merry-go-round. Maybe you become inspired by a professor’s feedback. Maybe you inspire some thoughts in your professor, who will incorporate vestiges of your ideas into their own publications. Maybe these ideas will be read by still more professors and perhaps cited by yet more students in their own papers. But how closed is this academic community, really? Knowledge is produced, but to what end? And, maybe the most troubling thought for me: does the sharing of this knowledge simply serve to build inaccessible discourses and strengthen relationships solely between those privileged enough to afford a higher education?

Sure, this is a pessimistic vision, and I don’t know if I fully believe half of what I described. Nevertheless, I was heartened by what I read in the “Learning from Place” article. Here was an occasion where knowledge was produced, but rather than being produced to coldly promote academic discourse (consolidating relationships in academic circles in the process), it was instead produced by non-academics in order to foster social relations in a community outside of academia. In the research project described in the aforementioned article, interviews are conducted in Fort Albany First Nation not by academics, but by community indigenous youth, who ask questions of their elders. “The interviews were not “data” but ways of bringing together community […] and generat[e] spaces for socializing conceptualizations of the territory from a Mushkegowuk perspective,” states the article. What’s worth noting in this approach, I think, is the importance of letting distinct groups of people construct their own knowledge in relation to their share experience in a place. Constructing knowledge is a communal process that strengthens relationships between members of the community and community members’ relationship with the place they live. Academia can become problematic, I think, when information is dispassionately mined from place by academics removed from lived experience in the community they study, describe or observe. The knowledge produced by this approach is then shared in academic circles through publications and through teaching, and the discussion that results around this produced knowledge serves to consolidate a community of academics and students that is inaccessible to the community that was mined of its knowledge in the first place.

As education students, I think so much of what we’re learning in this degree is useful and beneficial to building a better world, and I thank many terrific professors for this. But I think we should also note that, as students, we are privileged to be learning what we are in the first place. I also think we should be wary of wielding this knowledge (e.g. appropriate language and views surrounding social justice) as a cultural currency, to bolster our own sense of pride as decent and progressive-minded individuals. The construction of knowledge in place (i.e. this university) contributes to building relationships, and in being privileged to these discourses, we are building relationships with each other. That’s fantastic, but it’s worth asking: who is excluded from these discourses by virtue of not being afforded this education? In learning progressive academic discourses, we are acquiring a certain amount of cultural capital that helps us navigate the current world in which we live. How we use this capital is important. Perhaps we can use it not to impose our acquired knowledge, but to create spaces for others who aren’t afforded the communalizing experience of university, to foster relationships with and within their own communities, and to preserve and create their own knowledge.

Curriculum is Political: Where does that Leave Teachers?

TBH: before this education degree, I hardly ever spared a thought as to how school curricula was developed. If I ever did, what probably came to mind was a boardroom full of specialists, most looking something either like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Margaret Thatcher, all bowties and pants-suits, with maybe the odd presence of an elbow-padded, mustachioed grade school administrator, à la Principle Prickly of Disney’s Recess fame. As to how they came up with the document: maybe something like an adult version of Think Pair Share.

In any event, the fact that I have to imagine how I thought school curricula was cooked up is quite the testament to how little I thought about it to begin with. Upon entering this program, however, the notion that curriculum is a political document has been driven home in a number of courses. I was therefore already ideologically primed for Ben Levin’s article “The Curriculum Policy of What Should Be Learned in Schools.” What I found notable about Levin’s article was not the assertion that curriculum is political, but rather his meticulous outlining of just how political it really is (spoiler: completely, with countless parties competing for influence). The following quotation really sums it up. Keep in mind, while reading, that curriculum is in essence a government document:

As soon as a government is elected, various groups try to influence its agenda in accord with their own. This is in many ways the essence of the political process. It means that politicians are constantly bombarded with requests or demands to do things, stop doing things, increase funding, decrease funding, pass legislation, repeal other legislation, and so on. As populations have become better educated and better organized, the number and intensity of the pres- sures on politicians has risen. (Levin, p. 11)

(^Shout out to my limited publishing skills: can’t figure out how to indent the above quote.)

If curriculum is truly a government document, though (Levin takes great care to demonstrate that it is), what I am conflicted with is the role that teachers have in implementing this document in the classroom. Teachers, after all, are not elected officials. Nevertheless, Levin suggests that teachers’ “habits” and “working day to day practices” will limit the chances that drastic curriculum changes will come into effect. To what extent should teachers (as specialists, but nonelected specialists) have the right to bend curriculum to suit their classroom needs?