CANADIAN SOCIAL STUDIES
VOLUME 39 NUMBER 1, FALL 2004
www.quasar.ualberta.ca/css
Special Issue: Social Studies Research and Teaching in Elementary Schools

Livy Visano and Lisa Jakubowski. 2002.

Teaching Controversy.

Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing. Pp. 175, $24.95, paper.
ISBN 1-55266-074-5
website: www.fernwoodbooks.ca

Kevin Kee

Faculty of Education
McGill University

Return to Book Reviews

What is the goal of post-secondary education? While politicians and business leaders echo the familiar cant of "marketable skills" appropriate to the "globalized economy," Livy Visano and Lisa Jakubowski offer a different response. In Teaching Controversy, a book that could have carried the subtitle: University Instructors of the World Unite!, Visano and Jakubowski call on educators to teach controversial issues that will motivate students to work towards social justice. The title's double entendre is deliberate. This is not a standard defence of university education, and it is bound to create controversy. The authors would welcome a lively debate on the subject. Visano, an Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies at York University, and Jakubowski, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brescia University College, affiliated with the University of Western Ontario, are troubled by what they view to be the increasing commercialization of post-secondary education. Continuing in this direction, the authors insist, will change "the role of the university from a public to a more private 'for hire' enterprise with a more limited and highly compromised quest for knowledge" (p. 139). Using the ideas of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci as their compass, and of Henry Giroux and Paolo Freire as their guide, Visano and Jakubowski map out a different course for Canada's universities.

Many of Marx's theories are as relevant to twenty-first-century higher education as they were to nineteenth-century industry, the authors imply. Leaving aside Marx's rough outline of violent confrontation between capitalists and workers, Visano and Jakubowski gravitate towards Gramsci's more nuanced portrait of class struggle. Gramsci developed the notion of "hegemony" to describe the manner by which the dominant class in a capitalist society perpetuates its power through persuasion, and the subordinate class perpetuates its subjugation by offering its consent. According to Visano and Jakubowski, hegemony dominates all aspects of twenty-first-century Canadian society, including higher education.

Applying Marxist models to classroom life, they draw on educational theorist Paolo Freire's notion of "banking" — "an act of depositing in which students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor" — to describe what is wrong with contemporary university teaching (p. 31). By indoctrinating students, rather than communicating with them, the dominant class has used schools to elicit the subordinate class's consent. In this way, as Henry Giroux has pointed out, the principles of marketplace capitalism have been passed on from one generation to the next.

Visano and Jakubowski insist the cycle can be broken; what is required are educators willing to take risks in what they teach and how they teach it. Educators must "reach in" (acknowledge their own biases) and "reach out" (recognize their similarities and differences with their students). Rather than standing above and apart from students, an educator should create collaborative partnerships, becoming, in the words of Visano, a "guide on the side, not a sage on the stage" (p. 115). An educator can also challenge the dominant hegemony by teaching controversy — and here the reader arrives at the authors' primary thesis — sensitizing students to inequities, and providing them with opportunities to act on their new-found knowledge by working towards social justice.

What does this kind of teaching look like? Visano and Jakubowski devote their longest chapter to one example: teaching students about the subjugation of Canada's First Nations peoples. In the spirit of a Native sharing "circle", in which each speaker tells her story while others listen, John Elijah of the Oneida Nation, Ursula Elijah of the Cree Nation, and Julie George, an Ojibway Indian from the Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation, testify to the oppression of aboriginal peoples in the past and present. Visano and Jakubowski add their own voices, providing examples of classroom projects that move students beyond listening and towards action that will bring about justice for First Nations peoples.

In this, and many other ways, the authors weave together theory and practice in their defence of teaching controversy. They demonstrate how dialogue can lead to insight by including conversations with each other on difficult issues. References to classroom projects and field trips dot each chapter, even when these events do not turn out as the authors had expected. These examples from the authors' own experience form one of the strengths of the book, and at the same time one of the weaknesses. Visano and Jakubowski have drawn on their research and teaching about the plight of some of our society's most oppressed people to develop a thought-provoking thesis about the goals of post-secondary education. However, teachers of other disciplines may not be able to link content with action in as straightforward a manner.

The issue comes down not to whether their model is valid and admirable but to whether everyone should be expected to follow their example. Certainly there are powerful pragmatic disincentives for those who, unlike the authors, do not have tenure. Allowing course content to evolve according to the expressed needs of students conflicts with almost universal institutional expectations that a defined curriculum be given to students near the start of a course. Furthermore, the "guide on the side" needs to submit grades for each student at the end of the term. And in many cases students arrive to courses hoping to be captivated by "a sage on the stage." In short, following the authors' lead may be a recipe for professional martyrdom: undoubtedly admirable, but understandably unpopular.

The authors, to their credit, recognize this difficulty, yet they insist on the need to resist. Their students, I am sure, would not want it any other way. Visano and Jakubowski appear to thoroughly enjoy creating a debate, and welcome responses of all varieties. One hopes that this is the beginning of a sustained dialogue about the goal of post-secondary education, and that they will provide readers with further insights into how their colleagues can bring controversy into the classroom.


Return to Book Reviews