As the calendar year flipped from 2020 to 2021, many of us yearned for respite; here in the United States, with Trump’s presidency coming to a close and a COVID-19 vaccine rolling out, there was a sense that maybe—just maybe—things would get better.
But if there’s anything we’ve learned during this past year’s dumpster fire, I hope, it was that 2020 didn’t start it. The racism and xenophobia that Trump exploited to get elected in 2016 were already there, the nerve waiting to be struck. The financial fallout of COVID that plunged so many people into immediate hunger or homelessness and an undeserving set of billionaires into exponential portfolio growth was a grotesque demonstration of the false promise (or “lie,” depending on your mood) of trickle-down economics; Pacific Islanders, Latino, Black and Indigenous Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more that of whites. All of this is to suggest that while Trump and COVID are two viruses that have ravaged America in 2020, the core physiology of our country has long been fertile ground for the fermenting of a deadly national inequity.
And so it happened to be that the date I had set aside to write this foreword was Jan. 6, 2021. As I watched the confederate flag forcefully pushed into the U.S. Capitol and saw one angry white man obliviously wave it in front of the portrait of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist who was beaten on the floor of the senate in 1856 by a pro-slavery congressional colleague, I wondered if now was the time to talk about pedagogy. People, sure. Politics, of course. But pedagogy?
One of the core refrains that has echoed since the Capitol siege, and through the last year (especially each time another unarmed Black person was shot dead by a police officer) has been “This is not who we are.” Other variations on a theme: “This is not America.” “This is not my America.” But how do we know who we are? How do we know what America—or any country—is, what it stands for? One possibility is: We learn it.
What you believe the confederate flag stands for has to do with what you learned: at home from the people who raised you, at school from the people who wrote your textbooks and taught you History, and all around you as you consume media (critically, subconsciously, whatever) and interact with your environment. What is learning? Does it require teaching? If so, is teaching always only done by teachers? Is it always only done by people? Is learning political? What about teaching?
In the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol, some have again suggested that “The Humanities” are what’s needed to combat the deeply intertwined forces of disinformation and white supremacy. Learning history helps us avoid repeating our most shameful past national chapters; studying the ethics that encode our perspectives and engaging in conversation about how our narratives reflect our best and worst human impulses can help us understand the proliferate imaginary that shapes our material world. But others have pointed out that many people at the center of the American white nationalist movement and the fake-news machine have undergraduate and even graduate degrees in the Humanities. Perhaps it’s not enough to “know history” in order to assure that history is not repeated. Perhaps “media literacy” is not enough to assure that media is used in ways that don’t further encode violence, surveillance, and discrimination into our culture. Perhaps what we need to examine is not just what content we teach (in the Humanities disciplines or anywhere else), but how we teach it. This collection stands, in some ways, at the intersection of where the Humanities meets humanity, where we expand outward from the content that delineates our disciplines to the approaches we take to share knowledge and ideas in the hopes of building a world that is more supportive of our collective humanity.
If humanity is (at) the heart of this collection, so too are “politics.” Today, on the day Americans watched—many in pride but most in horror—as the symbolic home of our national government was invaded and desecrated, and the process of a free and fair election was literally disrupted, the word seems both frail and complicated. The U.S. Capitol was designed in 1793 by William Thornton, whose wealth came from his family’s ownership of a West Indian sugar plantation and who bought slaves even well into his later life as a documented abolitionist. The confederate flag carried into Statuary Hall January 6 was surely meant as a threat against the momentum of Black Lives Matter, but that momentum is integrated deeply with the fabric not only of the Union that defeated the confederacy, but also with the racism that deeply permeates even the righteous symbols of democracy and decency—like the Capitol building itself—that we fantasize run counter to the brutality of the treasonous mobs (2021 Capitol invaders or 1861 southern secessionists). What meaning does a Black Lives Matter sign carry when it is planted in the manicured front yard of a suburban white family who owns a home in a neighborhood where Black people have been systematically redlined out of property ownership? “Politics” is not so much where two opposing poles irreconcilably collide in an epic battle of good vs. evil, but a complex web of interrelated power dynamics that constantly threatens to obscure privilege and culpability.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is any ambiguity about the ethics of certain kinds of oppressive ideologies or events, nor that there aren’t real benefits to authentically extended acts of allyship. But I do mean to suggest that it’s not enough to know what happened, and not enough to stand for truth, for justice, for the “American way.” We also have to radically recenter our collective humanity as we seek to understand or find these things. And one way to do that is to focus on pedagogy.
People (productively) quibble about the differences between pedagogy and andragogy (and heutagogy, my personal favorite), but each of these words is fundamentally about, to quote Joshua Eyler, “how humans learn.” Generally, “education” suggests that humans learn well when they are taught, but the question of what teaching is or should be, and who should do it and how, is certainly an open one. I don’t want to pretend I have precise answers here, or even know how to ask exactly the right questions. What I think, though, is that there is learning to do. That this learning can’t just be about things, can’t just be an absorption of facts or even an illumination of truth. It has to be a journey towards humanity, infusing criticality and creativity and collaboration with a deeper commitment to our common human flourishing. Those who want to facilitate that learning—for ourselves and for others—are the pedagogues. And it is for them—for us—that this collection has been created. I think of this collection as a tool: less an assessment of how things are or should be, and more of an invitation into the messy, ongoing, collective question of how education can/does/should shape who we are and who we will be.