Imagine this scenario:
‘Good Morning class – today we are going to learn about the very important topic of how to be unjust. We will look at examples of this, such as people being treated unfairly and hurtfully, and then we can write our own scripts and act them out! Then, in other ways, we will practice some of our own skills in being hurtful and unfair with each other, so by the end of this topic we should all be very good at it!’
Teachers do inadvertently model injustice, but I think it fair to say that, apart from a few rogues, teachers are in the business of loving their students as they seek to educate them. Loving students means, in part, that teachers want the best for them, they want them to learn how to be human beings who are good, kind, fair, knowledgeable, self-assured, encouraging of others, and willing to use their practical capabilities to help others; In other words, they want to develop students who are just in their thinking and actions.
As Christian teachers we want our students to recognise and experience for themselves, the love of God, and to live in ways that reflect the inherent goodness of God in their world. Essentially this means they will reflect God’s characteristics; and God is just. Justice is inextricably linked to love. In loving us God treats us justly. In loving our students, we seek to treat them justly, to engage them in understanding justice, and to assist them to their own actions of justice for one another.
As Christian teachers there seems to exist an extra, moral and spiritual, layer of responsibility underpinning our teaching practice (James 3:1-2). Justice is a key aspect of the transformational purposes and biblically-based processes of evangelical Christian schooling (Edlin, 1998; Knight, 1998; Wolterstorff, 2006). And if Parker Palmer’s (2007, p.2) words, ‘We teach who we are’ are true, then in terms of justice, who we are must be just. Wolterstorff (2006) also reminds us that teaching about justice requires us to teach justly; so how we teach will reflect justice if who we are is essentially just.
Okay – so ‘insert elephant here’!
No being, other than the Trinitarian God, is wholly just; A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he (Deuteronomy 32:4b). Humans since time began have pondered definitions and characteristics of justice and have attempted with varying success to ‘do’ justice; to apply justice, and to rely on justice in all aspects of human endeavour. But two of my oft used phrases when teaching Ethics apply here - ‘Just because we can does not mean we should’ and ‘Just because we cannot does not mean we should not’. Justice, in part, is about picking up the mantle of ethical human responsibility and so applying spiritual and moral discernment to the complexity of the juxtaposition between our human understandings and capabilities, and God’s requirement of loving God and our neighbour. And so, we are required to think about justice.
So, as Christian teachers wanting to develop our ability to teach justly, and therefore our own ability to be just, from where and how can we learn?
Myriad avenues of learning are available, but this article suggests the following as a useful process:
- Inquire ‘Who is God’; what are the Divine characteristics of a Just God, in whose image we are made
- Identify what is already known and agreed on about Justice
- Develop a contextual working definition for our self and our role as a teacher
- Understand and critique key approaches to justice
- Reflectively analyse how this relates to our self, to our beliefs and teaching practices; and
- Synthesise our learning by developing existing, and utilising new, methodologies to engage students in this same endeavour
Let’s unpack this a little:
Inquire ‘Who is God’; what are the Divine characteristics of a Just God, in whose image we are made
All those years ago Aristotle promoted the need for thinking well to live well, to flourish; ‘living rationally or intelligently [as] the natural end or function of a human being [that leads to a state of] eudaimonia [which means] human flourishing’ (Gray in Arthur & Lovat, 2013, p.212). Aquinas later championed Aristotle’s ideas about ethics and justice but from a theological worldview due to ‘his belief in a personal God’ (Vardy & Grosch, 1999, p.41). Christian teachers today may appreciate Aquinas’ idea that the ‘right-minded’, the good, the just person is the one who derives their virtues from God’s goodness (Price, 2018, Unpublished Thesis). So, investigation into God’s characteristics and their link to justice is a great place to begin thinking well to live well (justly).
Identify what is already known and agreed on about Justice
‘Justice is traditionally concerned with notions of ‘duty, [moral] character, relationships…rights [and] consequences…’ (Traer & Stelmach, 2008, p. vii), and related considerations such as equity, fairness or equality, distribution of resources, human needs, desires and responsibilities, what it means to be good, to be happy, to be free, to get what is deserved’ (Price, 2018, Unpublished Thesis). But what do those notions, e.g. equity, actually mean in your own words, in your own life?
Identify what is already known and agreed on about Justice.
Develop a contextual working definition for our self and our role as a teacher
There is no one neat or simple definition of justice. As social critic H.L. Mencken observed, ‘For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong’. Perhaps acknowledging that there is not an understanding, but multiple understandings, of justice is key to finding a useful working knowledge and understanding for oneself, and within individual belief worldview and workplace.
Understand and critique key approaches to justice
Broadly speaking, key ideas about how humans are to live justly, in the sense of practicality and morality, have revolved around Consequentialist, Deontological or Virtue Ethics approaches (Hill in Arthur & Lovat 2013). In other words, they ask questions about the importance of consequences for actions, of human duty, motives and means, and about the development of character traits to become moral. It is important to consider how these approaches align within a biblicallybased Christian worldview.
Reflectively analyse how this relates to our self, our beliefs and teaching practices
Reflecting on what we most consistently do reveals some things about what we actually believe and value. What do our actions say about what we believe justice is? To what extent are we motivated by fear or control of consequences, by a sense of duty or the ‘right thing’, and to what extent does our character inform how we live and how we teach?
Synthesise our learning by developing existing, and utilising new, methodologies to engage students in this same endeavour
‘Education is needed to ensure that the intellect rules our will to seek that which is good’ (Vardy & Grosch, 1999, p.38). Here is where we give a brief nod to critical pedagogy (as the title of this piece promises!) Leaving aside the original philosophy that brought Critical Pedagogy about (that’s a textbook’s worth of discussion!), the critical approach to learning, and the critical thinking tools that Critical Pedagogy offers, link directly to the justice aims of Christian education, and the methodology uses of teachers who seek to teach justly. These include:
- Guided inquiry and other critical thinking methods that facilitate student broad-based and in-depth thinking skills which encourage life-long learning, and authentic learning engagement in aspects of faith and truth.
- Promotion of realistic and comprehensive understandings of justice and equity that assist positive personal and societal spiritual, moral and practical transformation.
- Empowering of the next generation in knowledge and skills, but primarily in attitudes and character qualities that will bring good values, meaningfulness, purpose and hope to their lives and their society.
So, we teach who we are. In loving God, we love justice and seek to do justice. As we are just so we may teach justly. In loving our students, we teach justly. Teaching justly requires teacher use of critical thinking skills to develop understandings of justice. As teachers critically understand and engage with justice so they can employ critical methodologies to enable students’ thoughtful and deep understandings about justice. In understanding justice, we better understand who God is and why justice matters. In better understanding and loving justice, we develop our understanding of and love for God.
The purposes and tools of Critical Pedagogy theory offer one way to teach justly for justice. The process outlined above is, in fact, an example of a Critical Pedagogy learning process; involving critical thinking skills of inquiry, identification, definition, critique, reflective analysis, and synthesis.
Meanwhile, be encouraged that God loves us justly, and as Christian teachers we too can love our students by teaching justly.