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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Pedagogy of the Privileged

By Sofia Pirri



Illustration by Jacqueline Subkhanberdina


A blown-up image of Sofonisba Anguissola’s self-portrait illuminates the dark classroom. I squint up at the screen, ignoring the slight glare caused by a beam of light peeking from below the pulled blinds. “What do you observe about this work?” asks my Art Humanities professor. She waits. We stare wordlessly into Sofonisba’s large, round eyes. 


It is a silence most of us know well. A professor breaks up their lecture by posing the class a broad question designed to keep us engaged. Sometimes, the usual eager suspects contribute their answers, and the rest of us are mercifully saved. Often, the awkward pause grows until it settles into a damp blanket of quiet from which it is difficult to emerge. 


What made my experience in Art Humanities feel particularly discouraging was that even when students mustered the strength to share their observations, every answer was met with the same vaguely affirming remark. Every so often, a student’s guess at the meaning of a motif—a wheel of cheese in a vanitas painting, for example—would differ dramatically from the analysis provided by the required reading—a symbol of prosperity brought by the flourishing Dutch trade—but the professor treated it as a viable interpretation rather than correcting the inaccuracy. 


I soon found myself questioning the effectiveness of discussion-based classes in general. I walked into Art Humanities having taken AP Art History in high school and having admired 17th-century art during childhood trips to the Norton Simon Museum. Many of my peers did not. Students at Columbia, particularly in core classes, come to the classroom from vastly different backgrounds. Professors should not assume that everyone has the experience or vocabulary to feel comfortable participating in such an open discussion. I may remember enough about Rachel Ruysch to contribute to a conversation about the vanitas genre, but some students may hear that contribution and slink back, fearing not only that they have nothing to say but that they would not know how to say it if they did. 


My intellectual preparation for seminars like these began early at a progressive college preparatory high school in West Los Angeles. There were frequent school-wide assemblies in our small but pristine gymnasium about “fostering an inclusive community” and “ensuring that everybody’s voices are heard.” This fuzzy atmosphere of social justice extended to pedagogy as well—as an elected student-faculty liaison, I learned that faculty were inundated with meetings and professional development workshops aimed at making the classroom a more nurturing, equitable space. 


The emphasis on inclusivity was not inherently misguided, but it was distorted among my peers—–the vast majority of whom were white and staggeringly wealthy. Efforts to make the classroom accessible for students of diverse backgrounds translated into cultivating an environment in which student comfort, as determined by the largely privileged students themselves, was the unquestionable priority. In practice, this meant minimal penalization for late work, never-ending extensions on assignments, and constant acquiescence to students’ furious contestations of their grades. (The situation was only reinforced by the school’s obsession with increasing enrollment and endowment). Students railed against teachers for asking them to complete homework on time, then complained that they weren’t learning anything in class and paid thousands of dollars for outside tutoring. Having come from a huge public school—and a completely different tax bracket—this behavior was baffling.


Social justice became a progressive buzzword, with the true concept co-opted to facilitate a comfortable environment for privileged students. In the 1960s and ’70s, active learning methods rose in popularity as “activists in the civil rights, Black liberation, antiwar, and women’s movements understood education as a key battleground for transforming an unjust society,” argues SUNY professor Danica Savonick. In his foundational text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian decolonization theorist Paulo Freire argues that the traditional model of education—–in which teachers recite facts and ideas while students passively memorize—is a tool of the oppressed. Instead, he favors a model in which students and teachers engage in equitable dialogue, resulting in both better learning and the dismantling of systems of oppression. 


This radical methodology resurfaces in contemporary discourse on education. It has recently been repackaged by educators Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis in their 2022 book The New College Classroom. Advocating for strategies like “think-pair-share,” when students share ideas with a partner before sharing with the class, and co-creating a syllabus with students, the book has become a popular manual for professors trying to navigate post-pandemic education. Studies consistently prove that an active learning approach both increases general student performance as well as narrows student achievement gaps. One study from CBE found that active learning interventions “worked disproportionately well for Black students—halving the Blackwhite achievement gap—and first-generation students—closing the achievement gap with continuing-generation students.” 


For some time now, active learning has been popularized as a solution to widening educational disparities as well as growing student malaise. But some scholars have begun to question its implications—and not just conservatives bemoaning the supposed influence of identity politics in education. This past January, English professor and Marxist cultural critic Anna Kornbluh published Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism. 


For Kornbluh, the rise of student-centered learning both perpetuates and is symptomatic of the broader societal problem of “immediacy”: an aesthetic of realness, transparency, and instantaneity demanded by twenty-first-century globalized capitalism. She connects the boom of literary auto-emissions (memoir, auto-fiction, self-published work) with MFA workshops and freshman year writing seminars, which, according to her, privilege voice-centered and reflective writing. She believes that keeping students engaged by making course material immediately and personally relevant is done at the expense of learning the actual subject matter. The “egalitarian register” of the student-centered learning approach feels, in some respects, like a marketing technique. Is the ubiquitous call for centering student experience and ideas just an attempt to sell education rather than provide students with effective instruction?


Criticism of student-centered learning comes from other sources as well. Recently, bitter debates over literacy education in elementary schools have turned public opinion against the once-popular progressive curriculum called balanced literacy. Columbia Teachers College professor Dr. Lucy Calkins has become the figurehead of the movement, and her group, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), designed a balanced literacy curriculum adopted by public schools nationwide. Their philosophy models itself on university-level writing workshops, teaching various strategies for learning to read and emphasizing critical engagement with books from an early age. TCRWP seeks to cultivate not just literacy, but a love of and deep engagement with reading.


This fall, after 36 years of curriculum development and teacher training, TCRWP was dissolved. The change comes after years of vitriolic pushback on her program, with parents and education researchers claiming that her curriculum does not incorporate enough phonics, the literacy strategy that teaches children to read by associating letters with their sounds. Criticisms of Calkins’ methods abound in The New York Times, Slate, and Forbes. A particularly scathing New Yorker article denounces the balanced literacy movement as “vibes-based literacy.” In May 2023, New York City schools dropped TCRWP’s curriculum, and several other districts have done the same. 


As an elementary school teacher, reading coach, and literacy specialist, my mother has spent years working with TCRWP’s program. She agrees that the curriculum’s biggest weakness is its limited phonics component, particularly before it was revised in 2016, but claims that it has otherwise been incredibly effective in her classroom. The key not only to engagement but to learning, my mother explains to me over the phone, is giving students multiple access points. Not every student will  get a concept from the same strategy, so you have to value different ways of learning. Balanced literacy’s strength lies in its ability to provide students these multiple access points–via phonics as well as other reading strategies. 


Critics of balanced literacy cite its supposed utter absence of phonics in favor of “guessing” strategies: Via “picture power,” children learn to deduce an unfamiliar word from an accompanying image, while via “snap word power,” children learn to recall frequently used words on sight. The author of the New Yorker article was horrified to find her kindergarten-age daughter using these strategies to make sense of the word “butterfly” instead of sounding it out phonetically: “bih-uh-tih.” What many parents do not realize, however, is that phonics is more complicated than matching letters to corresponding sounds. Letters change sounds depending on the other letters around them, and young readers familiar with the basics of phonics will still rarely be able to grasp words solely by sounding them out. Non-phonetic strategies like “picture power” give students other means of identifying a word when phonics inevitably fails. 


When The New York Times published a front-page feature in 2022 about the national shift away from Calkins’ balanced literacy program, many educators wrote letters contesting the depiction of TCRWP. One former teacher, principal, and superintendent in the New York City school system criticized the binary approach that has characterized the so-called “reading wars.” “Well-meaning parents and uninformed policymakers must not jump to an either/or curriculum,” she wrote. “Both a phonics program and a balanced literacy program are crucial for reading and writing success.” 


Including strong phonics education is particularly important when it comes to narrowing the achievement gap. The most justifiable criticism of balanced literacy is that it works better for students from high-literacy homes than from low-literacy homes. In my mother’s classroom, the children who need additional phonics instruction are unsurprisingly those who did not go to preschool. She is able to supplement her lessons with more phonics for those who need it, but this kind of differentiation is difficult to implement for our nation’s overextended public educators. A predominant curriculum should thus include a greater emphasis on phonics in the first place, and this was TCRWP’s critical issue. But the curriculum has its merits too, and its weakness regarding phonics is not cause to abandon balanced literacy entirely.  


Similarly, in higher level education, balance is key. Just as rigorous phonics instruction provides a crucial foundation for balanced literacy’s more engaging methods, basic instruction in the university classroom is necessary to ensure the efficacy and equitability of student-centered practices. The achievement gap does not disappear miraculously in college. Conducting a seminar under the assumption that every student can participate equally in discussion does a disservice both to students who feel their lack of experience or knowledge prohibits them from participating and to those who miss out on the opportunity to hear from their classmates. Professors can add structure to active learning methods by including the nitty-gritty of course material—–be it critical theory, mundane historical fact, or literal vocabulary— –and by more actively facilitating student engagement (yes, sometimes students are wrong, and that is okay). This structure gives every student a jumping-off point for participation, not just those who come to the class with prior content knowledge. 


Last semester, I took a senior seminar that incorporated the active-learning tactic of a flipped syllabus—–students chose the reading for each week and led a discussion on their selected texts. The result was mildly disastrous. Nobody ever did the reading, and each week’s discussion leader had to contend with discouraging and unrelenting silence. Outside of class, we would comment on how ridiculous it was to put on the farce of participation. In one seminar toward the end of term, my professor led an impromptu lesson, leading us to connect the ideological threads of past discussions. He waxed poetic about Marx’s critique of ideology, the forms of the real, and Deleuze’s portrait of Foucault, even drawing his own version on the whiteboard, glasses and all. Students’ eyes began to light up. Heads nodded vigorously. Discussion afterward grew infinitely more rich—–we now had a framework to analyze the texts that had previously left us stumped. 


I resist Kornbluh’s cynical take on the rise of student-centered pedagogy. Instead of attacking the pedagogy itself, we should criticize how it has been co-opted to create a false sense of equity in the classroom while alienating those whom it supposedly benefits. We must be more patient than we were with Lucy Calkins. Before denouncing active learning on the whole, let us make sure it is implemented correctly. If not, educators run the risk of corrupting a liberatory methodology, leaving it vulnerable to demonization by the very oppressive and hierarchical institutions it is designed to dismantle. 


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Steele Nickle
Steele Nickle
6 days ago

The result was mildly disastrous drift boss

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