The Question, NOT The Answer

In my prior posting (The Question and The Answer), I was delighted to share my reaction to Christopher Emdin’s incredibly helpful book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (Beacon Press, 2016). Emdin’s explanation of Reality Pedagogy is enriched by his mastery of language, his genuine commitment to making positive change, and, most importantly, by his many examples of what teachers can actually do in their classrooms to create the change he seeks. This is a teacher-friendly, exciting and uplifting book.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know by Gary R. Howard (Teachers College Press, 2016). This is the third edition of Howard’s book, which I believe was originally published around 1993. To illustrate the problem, after I had finished reading page 88, I wrote the following note in the margin: “If you are White and want to get a serious headache, read the first four chapters of this book.” Of course, I wrote that thinking the remainder of the book would be less pain inducing. I was wrong.

I found it almost laughable that Dr. Howard writes the following on page 117, “We must learn to use the language of discovery and exploration, rather than the rhetoric of shame and blame.” The reality is that it is hard to find a single page in this publication that does anything other than shame and blame White folks. Some of his most adamant attacks are saved for the Christian church. “It is essential that we look at the shadow-side of Christian politics, including the predilection for single-dimensional truth and the proclivity for imposing spiritual hegemony over people of many different races and cultures.” (p. 64) Dr. Howard demonizes those with whom he has differences of opinion and characterizes other non-believers as ignorant and uncaring. “This luxury of ignorance reinforces and perpetuates White isolation.” (P. 18)

What Dr. Howard states on page 69 is the essence of his belief. “That our privileged dominance often threatens the physical and cultural well-being of other groups is a reality that Whites, for the most part, have chosen to ignore.” Okay. There is surely truth to that statement and it is worthy of attention and action by those of us who recognize it and are seeking positive change. However, the author hammers that message home, over and over and over and, yes, over! Page to page, chapter to chapter he bludgeons the reader with the same message stated in as many different ways as possible. In my reading of dozens of books dealing with racism and education I have not felt as needlessly beat up as I did with this one! Did someone say something about “shame and blame”?

Good news! The book does have one saving grace. That is the excellent Reflection and Discussion Guide by Victoria E. Romero and Rachel Powers, which accompanies the text. Here you will find well-developed leading questions, connections to outside resources, and sample charts/graphic organizers for classroom use. You might want to get it for that reason alone.



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Mark Rosenbaum

Mark Rosenbaum is a retired teacher, teacher union president, principal, Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, and University Instructor on Long Island, NY.