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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 political statements."

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 Multicultural Education.

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