I am not interested in politics or controversy, and I derive no pleasure in creating difficulties for the UW out of personal resentment. But whenever family and friends ask me about graduate school, I have to explain that rather than an academic program centered around pedagogy and public policy, STEP is a 12-month immersion in doctrinaire social justice activism. This program is a bizarre political experiment, light on academic rigor, in which the faculty quite consciously whips up emotions in order to punch home its ideological message. As a consequence, the key components of teaching as a vocation—pedagogy and how best to disseminate knowledge—are fundamentally neglected. With little practical training or preparation, graduates of the program begin their teaching careers woefully unprepared. Even for the most ardent social justice activist, STEP’s lack of practical content is a serious shortcoming. I found the program so troubling that I have decided to write this first-hand account with specific examples of the daily experience to illustrate how social justice activism in the academy has a high opportunity cost.
To put this in context, STEP’s approach to education deserves some explanation. Public schools haven’t done a great job of bridging ugly chasms in American life, such as the racial academic achievement gap between black and white populations, which has hardly narrowed since the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination based on gender and sexuality remain impediments to equality of opportunity and the way children are currently treated in public schools is clearly a part of that. The statistics on these matters are appalling, and slow progress is no excuse for complacency. Additionally, teachers should work to cultivate catholic tastes, and in light of demographic changes, white Americans shouldn’t expect the literature and old-fashioned narrative history of Europe and the United States to be considered the normal curriculum, with a few token “diverse” authors alongside Shakespeare and Hemingway. Nonetheless, while these challenges exist, and although public education is a vital mechanism in the struggle to resolve inequality and to further the development of an open cosmopolitan culture, the program’s attempts to address these issues are deeply disturbing.
Organized according to the standard tenets of social justice theory, anyone in the graduate school class who does not identify as a straight white male is encouraged from the outset to present themselves as a victim of oppression in the social hierarchy of the United States. And so a culture emerges rapidly in the 60-student cohort in which words and phrases fall under constant scrutiny, and ideas thought to be inimical to social justice are pounced on as oppressive. Moreover, instead of imparting knowledge about the rudiments of pedagogy or how to develop curriculum content and plan for high school classes, the faculty and leadership declare that their essential mission is to combat the colonialism, misogyny and homophobia that is endemic in American society. The logic here is that if teachers are immersed in social justice ideology they will then impart these ideas to young people at all levels of K-12 and post-secondary education. This lofty aim explains why the program focuses so heavily on training students in the discourse of far-left identity politics and why it demands total intellectual acquiescence. When you consider that STEP’s ostensible purpose is to prepare graduates to become novice high school teachers, this approach in a public university is difficult to justify.
The first three of STEP’s four quarters address social constructivism, postmodernism, and identity politics through flimsy and subjective content. With a few notable exceptions, the content one might expect to study at graduate school is absent. Although the classes have names like “Teaching for Learning,” “Creating Classrooms for All,” “Teaching in Schools,” and “Adolescent Psychology,” the vast majority of their content is essentially political. These classes are difficult to distinguish from one another, each experienced as a variation on the theme of imploring students to interpret every organization and social structure through the paradigms of power and oppression via gender, race, and sexuality. Students are expected to demonstrate that the attributes of their personal identity (always reduced to race, sexuality and gender, and sometimes disability status) will shape their assumptions when they work as classroom teachers. Practically speaking, the purpose is to have teachers acknowledge and embrace a broad variety of behavioral norms and activities in the classroom and to explore a wider range of academic content than has traditionally been the case in American public schools. Above all, the program emphasizes that diversity and inclusion are the most important considerations in education, and that equity—equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity—ought to be the primary goal of public policy.