Kumashiro, Kevin K. (2004). Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice. NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Pp. ix + 121
ISBN 0-415-94857-6

Reviewed by Regina Trudy Praetorius
Louisiana State University

December 24, 2004

Anti-oppressive education is “against common sense.” This is the premise for Kevin Kumashiro’s book, Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice which concerns itself primarily with how to teach teachers to be anti-oppressive educators. Additionally, the book gives pertinent examples and illustrations that are useful for teachers practicing in the field.

At first glance, this statement that anti-oppressive education, or teaching toward social justice, is against common sense may itself seem “against common sense.” However, Kumashiro gives a thorough treatment supporting this premise. He begins by eloquently sharing a very intimate account of his first teaching experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Not only is this an intimate account, but one that leaves him rather vulnerable to the reader. His vulnerability comes from his description of his many faux pas during his tenure in Nepal as a result of his American worldview or lens which he used to view the educational system in Nepal. Being an idealistic new teacher, he approached education in Nepal with American ideas and strove for innovation. He met with resistance and he does an estimable job of explaining the disconnect between his American understanding of education and the Nepali culture of education.

This willingness to be vulnerable and expose his experiences using, unknowingly, oppressive techniques in the classroom is part of what entreats the reader to continue past the introduction. This is partly because his disclosures of his own errors as a teacher immediately comfort the reader. It is a clear message that the book will not be a chance for Kumashiro to lecture and preach on his own prowess in the subject of anti-oppressive education. In fact, Kumashiro approaches the subject very humbly and throughout the book, reflects on ways he can improve in his own teaching.

In the introduction, Kumashiro sets the stage for the book’s subject: anti-oppressive education. After defining his own experience in Nepal and the realization that his educational practices were oppressive to his Nepali students, he defines the “common sense” that the title alludes to that is found in the schools in the US. He then goes on to introduce anti-oppressive education and the four main approaches traditionally taken in producing anti-oppressive educational techniques. In this piece, Kumashiro relies heavily on his experiences in the US educational system, his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher, and his experiences as a teacher educator on the university level. Throughout the book, he uses these experiences as vivid examples for bringing the reader into his conception and understanding of oppressive and anti-oppressive education. As Kumashiro (2004) states:

The question for educational reformers is not whether schools should be addressing issues of oppression. Schools are always and already addressing oppression, often by reinforcing it or at least allowing it to continue playing out unchallenged, and often without realizing that they are doing so. The question needs to be how schools should be differently addressing issues of oppression. And therein lies the reason for re-centering education on issues of social justice, that is, on a social movement against oppression (p. xxiv-xxv).

In defining this how, Kumashiro begins by describing ways that teachers are deemed “good” in US educational systems: the learned practitioner, researcher, and professional. He uses this as his foundation for the remainder of the book in describing ways that current teaching methods are oppressive and in beginning to address how to move from oppressive teaching toward anti-oppressive teaching.

In the second chapter, Kumashiro introduces the concept that learning and teaching should result in a crisis state for the learner and the teacher. This may seem odd since in our understanding, education should result in growth and increased knowledge, not crisis. However, it is important to look to a different understanding of crisis here. In thinking of crisis, anxiety may be the first thought; contrastingly, what usually accompanies crisis, and is often overlooked, is opportunity (James & Gilliland, 2001). Kumashiro (2004) defines crisis in this case as “a state of emotional discomfort and disorientation that calls on students to make some change. When in crisis, students feel that they have learned something that requires some response” (p. 28). In this particular crisis that Kumashiro recommends teachers create for their students and themselves, the opportunity is for growth and deeper critical thinking on the given subject through the obligatory response.

Kumashiro posits that it is impossible to ever be completely anti-oppressive as educators. So one might ask, what is the purpose of the book then? Kumashiro is meticulous in providing examples across disciplines of how oppression, like crisis, is self-defined. To expand upon oppression as self-defined, what may be oppressive for one student given his/her set of cultural identities (e.g. ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, family structure) may not be oppressive for another student. It is impossible for a teacher, as much as he/she knows the students and their backgrounds, to know every aspect of what may or may not be oppressive to each of the student. This impossibility is rooted in the truth that we are all so unique in our experiences and world views.

The answer to this conundrum is to create crisis by exposing all sides and views of a subject when teaching. Creating crisis in the learner, by pointing to contrasting views of a subject, lead the student to think critically on the topic and to begin to develop and embrace his or her own truths. While the obvious example here might be a history or social studies lesson, Kumashiro shows that this type of crisis can be created across disciplines. In fact, in part two of the book, he dedicates separate chapters with extensive examples of these crises in social studies, English literature, music, foreign languages, natural sciences, and mathematics.

After discussing the concept of crisis as integral to teaching anti-oppressively, Kumashiro also focuses on the ways that students may learn lessons unintentionally, how students are hindered in their learning when teachers do not tend to their emotions, and how teaching and learning are related to activism. He explains that sometimes, in choosing content, what is overly focused upon or what is not included at all, teaches lessons on a subconscious or hidden level that was unintended by the teacher. Kumashiro uses the illustrative example of how gender differences are infused in both the lessons of the classroom (which is intended in the curriculum) and unintentionally through school culture (e.g. using gender as a means of grouping for various activities, perpetuating stereotypes through things like only boys are asked to help with moving furniture and the focus on males in literature and history books). He points out that not only are the unintentional messages often harmful but also, the intentional ones (e.g. Women’s History Month, focus on women writers) are much more scarce and sporadic.

Not only are teachers to be concerned with the intentional and unintentional lessons that are below the surface of the daily goings-on of a school but they should also tend to the emotions of the students. In the chapter on Healing, Kumashiro uses a touching example from his career of student reactions to one of their classmates being murdered. During this time of grief for the students, many of Kumashiro’s colleagues had tried to leave the students emotions at the door of the classroom and move on with the curriculum as if nothing had happened. Kumashiro relies on a Buddhist philosopher, Thich Nhat Hanh, for a framework that is useful in conceptualizing how learning can be used to relieve human suffering. Kumashiro’s own conceptualization of how Nhat Hanh’s teachings can be applied to teacher education offer a unique vision:

I can imagine, for example, courses that center on addressing social problems in the here and now, rather than on abstracted orderings of what someone has already defined to be the things future teachers need to learn. I can imagine programs that strive to prepare teachers who relate to the world and to knowledge in very troubled, paradoxical ways, rather than in ways that value the accumulation of what someone has already defined to be valuable. I can imagine teacher educators who care about teachers and students working to reduce suffering, rather than conforming to commonsensical ideals of who they are supposed to be and become. And I imagine that such aspects of teacher education can help us address our students who are suffering from tragedies or from just living in this world (p. 42).

Inherent in this vision of Kumashiro’s, is a goal toward social reform. However, in understanding Kumashiro’s particular view of social reform, it is necessary to realize that when one approaches social reform, there is an inherent trap. This trap is a society’s or group’s understanding of normalcy or what should be epitomized as the common goal. Kumashiro (2004) is very careful in noting that normalcy, like crisis and anti-oppressive education, must be self-defined. He devotes a chapter to this in terms of “A Reflection on Things Queer” (p. 43) where he explores the common definitions of normalcy and an alternative understanding, provided by the “queer” culture.

As was mentioned earlier, in part two, Kumashiro devotes time to chapters focusing on examples of crises in a variety of disciplines. For example, in the chapter on music, he uses a well-known piece of Christian music and a song from Hawaii to illustrate how the whole story is not always told. He used these two pieces with some of his students in a teacher education class. He asked them first to share their feelings and images when hearing the Christian piece and then do the same when hearing the Hawaiian piece. He later explained to them the history of how Hawaii was once ruled by a monarchy and the US played a part in the monarchy falling out of power. He also explained that the song, though using Hawaiian musical style, used the Hawaiian language to convert the native Hawaiians to Christianity and was composed by missionaries. He went on to expose the suffering of the Hawaiian people that we “mainlanders” never think of because we view Hawaii is a domestic vacation land where everyone, especially its residents, are in paradise. This is a compelling example of how education can be unknowingly oppressive.

Kumashiro provides similar innovative examples in the other disciplines but one worth mentioning is the chapter on natural science which includes discourse on teaching reproduction and how the words used can subtly be oppressive. In particular, the way we describe the process of conception can be laden with sexist preconceptions.

The language or images we use often reflect commonsensical, sexist assumptions about gender and gender relations: Maleness is active (penetrates, changes), femaleness is passive (is there to be penetrated, is what results if no changes are made). Maleness is more developed or somehow beyond femaleness, which is where both males and females “start,” or which is easier to construct in terms of appearance and function. By thinking within this framework, we are already assuming that males are not just different but better than females (Kumashiro, 2004, p. 91).

As is evidenced by the content of this and other examples Kumashiro gives of ways educational methods are oppressive, he does an admirable job of bringing the reader into his/her own crisis. This crisis leads the reader to think beyond the surface of teaching and see the hidden messages in all that we do as educators. Kumashiro’s style is also a gift here. As stated previously, he is honest about his own mishaps with teaching which endears the reader to him rather than putting the consumer on the defensive. While Kumashiro notes that there is no easy or correct answer to approaching anti-oppressive education, he provides the reader with illustrative examples and reflections. These feed the reader and lead to growth and reflection so as to consider our own solutions to teaching anti-oppressively. In closing, Kumashiro (2004) states:

Becoming anti-oppressive teachers requires not that we first reach a certain point, or that we first revamp everything about our teaching, or that we step outside of practical and political barriers. Anti-oppressive teaching happens only when we are trying to address the partial nature of our own teaching. As illustrated throughout this book, it happens when we focus on one unit, or one lesson, or one moment of our teaching, and rethink the possibilities for change within the particular social, historical, political, and pedagogical context in which it arose (106-107).

Reference

James, R. K., & Gilliland, B. E. (2001). Crisis intervention strategies. Brooks/Cole: Blemont, CA.

About the Reviewer

Regina Trudy Praetorius, MSSW, LCSW is an instructor and co- program director for Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Academic Programs Abroad. She teaches a course in the School of Social Work using service-learning in a course on healthcare service delivery. The course takes place in Belize, Central America. She is also pursuing a PhD in Adult Education from the LSU School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development. Email: rpraet1@lsu.edu

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