wokeness in education
no. 17_september 2023
Over the last few decades, students in secondary and higher education have become increasingly vocal about expressions of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, colonialism and other mentalities tied to inequalities in power. These forms of concern with social injustice, especially in its creeping, veiled or hidden forms, are often summarized under the heading of ‘wokeness’. Lately, the ‘woke movement’ has been faced with fierce critique and is often cast in the role of a language police, leading others, for fear of saying the wrong things or using the wrong words, to keep their mouths shut. But what if these tensions are not an expression of the closure of an argument, but rather a sign that something is beginning to open up? Do we need to move/work through these tensions in order to foster free debate in educational settings?
The word ‘woke’ which originated with Black resistance movements in the United States, has in the last few years been weaponized by the right, in the same way that ‘political correctness’ has been in the 1980s and 90s. That weaponization has made it impossible to distinguish critical scholarship from dogma, indeed it has conflated the two. If there is censoriousness on the left, it is nothing to compare with the legal power of the authoritarian right.
This censoriousness has to be understood not as something inherent in leftist thought, but as the product of the neoliberal university context from which it emerges.
The discussion of privileges is nothing new within educational science. The term ‘educational privilege’ was already used in the 1960s and 70s to point out how societal elites instrumentalised educational institutions. What is a relatively new phenomenon are the conversations in German-speaking countries about other privileges – such as masculinity, Whiteness and heterosexuality. The term of privilege is being reinterpreted in the context of emancipatory identity politics, and turned into a slogan in political debates. This opens up new possibilities for the pedagogical discourse. The essay does not only try to outline those but to point out the dangers of a conversation about privileges which is dominated by moralisation, and where the much needed social criticism is being pushed into the background.
Education is often presented as the solution to overcome racist structures in our societies. However, there is a lot of abuse of power and racism happening in the education system itself. The more knowledge a person gathers without positioning and reflecting themselves, the bigger the power shift becomes in the frame of institutions such as schools and universities. Author and journalist Mohamed Amjahid shows how racism affects the daily lives of racialized people and underprivileged communities within the education system and how this problem can be tackled.
In recent years, attacks on wokeness have undermined the scope and methods of history education in U.S. American schools and colleges. Current critiques by conservatives that wokeness curtails American freedom ignores the significance of wokeness in the struggle for Black freedom. This article historicizes ‘woke,’ puts the term into context and elucidates its meaning and significance for the fight against inequality and discrimination in the United States. The article does not offer a comprehensive history of ‘woke,’ but follows individual traces of the term’s use, from references in 1930s folk music to the racism of the Southern criminal justice system, to labour movement rhetoric and policies in West Virginia in the 1940s, and Martin Luther King’s speech at Oberlin College at the height of the civil rights movement in 1965.
Woke culture may clash with academic freedom. Controversial statements about e.g. sexuality or gender by academics can either be seen as protected by academic freedom, or conversely as inadmissable attack on lgbt-affiliated co-workers. Using a recent Dutch university case as a model example, this article investigates the relation between freedom of speech and academic freedom, especially as it applies to woke culture. Core issues in the culture wars around woke are identified and discussed in relation to cultural disruption represented by philosophies like that of Derrida and Foucault. It is concluded that although woke philosophy drew crucial inspiration from such philosophies, it ironically drew completely opposite conclusions regarding freedom expressed in and as language.
This article discusses how initiatives to tackle racial inequality in higher education (HE) in the United Kingdom (UK) have been viewed as ‘wokery’, a challenge to academic freedoms and free speech at universities, or a step too far towards ‘political correctness’. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that racial inequality continues to pervade HE. Despite shortcomings in their implementation, equality frameworks and action plans offer universities a supplementary structure to shape and maintain their diversity and inclusion initiatives, without which the sector would be retracting on its commitment to diversify its structures and be more inclusive. Yet, there are concerns that such frameworks are little more than a manoeuvre for indoctrination and censorship, engineering the corporate view of HE. The question this paper considers is: Should efforts to tackle racial inequality in UK HE be viewed as expressions of ‘wokery’, and therefore as signs of excessive sensitivity, or as legitimate attempts to address a real problem?
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