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What's Political and What's Relevant?
NAME Members Debate Listserv Etiquette
Between June 5th and June 10th, the usually heated exchanges of the
National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) listserv took
on a greater intensity as members experienced heightened awareness
of the transitory nature of the line separating education from political
activism. It started when one listserv member posted the text of a
June 4th article from The Guardian in which United States
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was quoted as saying that
the reason America went to war in Iraq but not in North Korea is that
Iraq "swims on a sea of oil." The Guardian story, by George Wright,
as well as similar stories in German newspapers Der Tagesspiegel
and Die Welt, suggested that Wolfowitz's comments lended further
proof to the increasingly prevalent notion that "weapons of mass
destruction" were a convenient excuse for what was actually a bold
move by the Bush administration to take control of Iraqi oil fields.
Another NAME listserv member quickly posted The Guardian's correction
to the story, from June 5th, which presented Wolfowitz's complete
statement and concluded that "the sense was clearly that the U.S.
had no economic options by means of which to achieve its objectives,
not that the economic value of the oil motivated the war." The Guardian's
correction also involved removing the original story from its Web site.
But many NAME members were much more concerned about whether a listserv
for discussions of multicultural education was the right place to even
bring up such a controversial and political issue.
"This is not an appropriate article to be sent on our membership," was
the first response on the NAME listserv.
"I agree about the article on Wolfowitz not being appropriate," said
the next posting. "This listserv is about multicultural education, not
about political beliefs. The purpose of the listserv and the discussions
here are to bring about equity and equality in education; to guide educators
on how to make their classroms and instruction appropriate for all people.
Personally, I'm very tired of all the political statements, articles, etc.
I don't push my beliefs on anyone and I don't like anyone pushing their
beliefs off on me. I've been considering unsubscribing because of all the
But another listserv member disagreed. "I am interested in any and all topics
that affect and/or hamper our ability to establish educational equity and social
justice," was the argument. "Our tax dollars are not going to meet the educational,
health, housing and employment needs of our students and their families. Instead
they are going to war efforts. As a multicultural educator I need to know this
information and a lot more."
Ands yet another subscriber said, "Thank you. If we cannot make the connections
between the assumptions and beliefs that underlie our current foreign policy,
and the inequities and injustice in our educational system, then we REALLY
need this type of information and discussion about its relevance on the listserv."
From that point on, the overwhelming majority of comments on the NAME listserv
vigorously defended the original poster's sharing of the Wolfowitz article
and argued for the relevance of such information to multicultural educators.
"An element of multicultural education involves relationships with others,"
wrote one member. "As the government leaders represent role-models for our
children, it's important to consider how our children are affected by their
actions, whether the situation involves personal judgment about gender relations
or military decisions based on economic motives." This individual also put forward
a request for further discussion on "instruments measuring opinions for a
values or character education curriculum for grades K-4."
Another NAME listserv member said, "It bothers me that many who teach desire to
opt out of the debates that drive the decisions that shape national and global
politics, policies and events...Students coming out of programs that deal effectively
with multiculturalism should be able to see the link that exists between the politics
of the war with Iraq and multicultural issues."
"I think we need to think about the political history of multiculturalism," added
one subscriber. "We need to remember the fight it took to get the movement going.
It wasn't welcomed with open arms--many on the right and even the educational
establishment resisted it due to political ideology and personal investments
in privilege. This fight goes on today...How should students with different identities,
which denote different levels of power and privilge, be 'educated' to deal with
a world that is structurally unjust?"
One more listserv member tried to put the discussion into greater perspective by
using James Banks's three types of multiculturalism: conservative, liberal and
critical. "I assume that many on this listserv are critical multiculturalists,"
said this subscriber. "However, there may be conservative types who appreciate
and tolerate diversity but may not question the foundational assumptions of
Eurocentricity and there are the liberals who are willing to extend the canon
and include 'the other' and still not question the same assumptions. Should
we make room for all types of multiculturalists on this listserv and
perhaps by doing so promote true dialogue and empathy? I am a critical multiculturalist
myself, but in my dialogues with those who do not take the same positions as I do
I want to be able to listen to them and hope they would listen to me, too."
Another member expanded on these comments by referring to the ideas of the late
Paolo Freire, former Minister of Education in Brazil. "Freire's writings and work
on critical literacy and voice help guide us here," this NAME listserv subscriber
said. "The most basic definition of politics is the relationship between and
among people. So education, like the rest of life, is political. Dialogue and
discussion are the cornerstones of a free society."
On about the fourth day of these exchanges, there was a longer posting from
one of the subscribers who originally had suggested the Wolfowitz
article was not appropriate for the NAME listserv.
"Articles about political views or events can be read in many other
sources," this individual stated. "However, isn't this listserv specifically
about multicultural EDUCATION? That certainly doesn't mean we operate in a vacuum
or shouldn't read, discuss or talk 'politics' or [about] how they shape the
world. I imagine each of us has limited time to spend reading this listserv
as we all read other news sources. Limited this listserv to a more narrow
focus helps us manage the time it takes to review and respond to the articles,
opinions and other pertinent information available through this membership."
Another listserv member agreed, to a certain extent. "You are right to imply
that articles about political views or events are difficult to interpret in a
way that translates into a practical application in a classroom...when these
articles are presented or sent up to the listserv, maybe it would be useful
if the sender could offer their thoughts of why they are sharing the article
on the list and what practical application it might have." The subscriber
added, "This has been a very interesting strand, not very different from the
dialogue I hear in my classes about the political nature of education."
On the whole, NAME listserv members strongly endorsed the inclusion of
political subject matter in listserv discussions. "I believe that if multicultural
education is about social justice, advocacy and activism, human rights and
civil rights, global and domestic, then I must agree that education is political,"
this member wrote. "And, while the listserv participants may have varying
political perspectives, the multiple perspectives on global world events
offered through this listserv are a part of the political and, yes, multicultural
dialogue we in the field must engage in...It creates dialogue, promotes
alternative perspectives and, given the current political situation, it
is our multicultural responsibility to know." These last comments were
from Theresa Montano, President-elect of the National Association for
Perhaps a fitting quote to close this outline of the recent NAME
listserv exchange regarding the interwoven nature of politics and
education comes from Cesar E. Chavez, recently honored with a
special issue stamp from the United States Postal Service. Here
is what Chavez said, years ago:
"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You
cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress
people who are not afraid anymore."
The spirited discussion on the NAME listserv demonstrates that
the social vision of progressive educators and workers, from
John Dewey to Cesar Chavez, is still alive and well.
Report by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS
2003 ESL MiniConference Online