The classroom is political

Classroom is Political Blogpost
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The apolitical classroom does not exist. The following narrative is a popular one in a lot of educational institutes: one must leave the ‘political’[1] out of the classroom, one must strive to educate in an objective manner. “Teaching should be neutral”, or so they say. It is as if the classroom is this white cubicle space of objectivity. The classroom is supposedly void of the political. I disagree. Teaching is as much a political act as any other act. Moreover, I believe claiming to be void of the political, claiming to be neutral, claiming to be apolitical, is in itself a political claim. Claiming that the classroom should be apolitical is political.

Let us start with the supposed premise of teaching at our university: the creation and dissemination of knowledge.[1] Although we are witnessing a slight change, the majority of the knowledge that is being taught, and is being transmitted, is a ‘white heterosexual male knowledge’.[2] Postcolonial theory, decolonial feminism, black feminism and Afro-pessimism have all pointed to how Social Science and Humanities have ultimately served to maintain Western structures of power; how categories within the academy are tied to, and originate in, colonization and ongoing processes of neoliberal capitalism; and how the fundamental (academic) assumption of humanness is wrapped up in the historical denial of humanity to black people (Parker, Smith, Dennison, 2017). This Western European canon dominates the majority of (scientific) disciplines and by sticking to that canon, one is inadvertently reproducing the unequal transmission of knowledge.

Using Donna Haraway’s[3] notions of situated knowledge and positionality, it becomes clear that this body of academic knowledge is contingent upon contested norms and antagonistic perspectives and rooted in a specific positionality. Having such a one-sided canonical body of literature being used in the act of knowledge dissemination will not help in developing a richer historical understanding. Instead, this positionality imagines itself to be the site of a neutral and unbiased knowledge (re)production (Haraway, 1988). This positionality of imagining to be neutral and unbiased is ultimately very much political.

Not merely the literature (and with it the theories, concepts and ideologies) is political. The very make up of a class is political. The very idea that once one enters the classroom one leaves their norms, ideas and beliefs behind is impossible, simply because one cannot detach themselves from their positionality. Neither students, nor lecturers have an on/off switch which can be switched on and/or off whenever one pleases. You bring your positionality with you when you enter the classroom. Your study is entrenched in a positionality and multiple positionalities.

If the teaching materials are political, and the make-up of the class is political, then surely it is not a stretch to claim that the classroom in and of itself is political. To further this argument, one need not to look beyond the classroom, one can look at the architecture of the classroom. The classroom is designed in a such a specific manner where the lecturer is at the front, standing, and the students are seated in front of the lecturer (although, we are seeing different kinds of pedagogies that are tackling this issue of the ‘traditional prophetic figure’). The lecturer towers over the students in a hierarchical way, this accepted hierarchy is a political one, where the lecturer is given power over the students. And where there is power, there is the political. Parker, Smith and Dennison (2017) argue that there is a rich body of literature on the classroom as a space of exclusion and pedagogy as a site for transformation.[4] The classroom is entrenched in power and in multiple positionalities interacting with each other. The classroom is a political space.

Claiming that a classroom is and/or should be apolitical, is claiming that the current status quo is fine. Invoking the apolitical is, and comes from, a privileged position, a position that is tied up and tied to that which is regarded as ‘objective’, ‘neutral’ and/or as the ‘norm’. This claim is a political act. Claiming/invoking the apolitical is political. The ‘white cubicle space of objectivity’ does not exist, however, the white cubicle space that uses objectivity as an instrument of reproduction does exist. The fact that both class, as in the stratified hierarchical grouping of people in society, and the class, as in the group in which one studies, share a similar label is not mere irony. Both are political and both are a form of study. The class(room) is political.

References

  • Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies14(3), 575-599.
  • Parker, P., Holland, D., Dennison, J., Smith, S. H., & Jackson, M. (2017). Decolonizing the academy: Lessons from the graduate certificate in participatory research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Qualitative Inquiry, 1077800417729846.
  • Sartori, G. (1969). From the sociology of politics to political sociology. Government and Opposition4(2), 195-214.

[1] “The creation and dissemination of knowledge are at the heart of the University’s activities.” Mission and vision statement, Strategic report University Library 2015-2018.

[2] See Arondekar (2015), Chakrabarty (2008), Said (1970), Spivak (1999), Lugones (2016), Simpson (2007), Spillers (2003), Weheliye (2014) and Wynter (2003).

[3] See Haraway (1988)

[4] See Dowler (2002), Freire (1996), hooks (2014), Toyosaki (2013).

[1] Note that when I speak of the political, I am referring to the Marxist notion of politics, in which politics is ultimately seen as a struggle between classes pursuing their class interests (Sartori, 2014).

Author

Zouhair Hammana is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Media and Communication. His PhD research focusses on the engagement of teachers and students with cultural diversity.