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Teacher & scholar Wayne Au is Beloit College's 2023 Weissberg Chair in Human Rights & Social Justice

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Author, scholar, & professor Wayne Au.

Wayne Au is this year’s Weissberg Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice at Beloit College. He’s an author and a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell. His work ranges from standardized testing to rethinking ethnic studies. The title of his Beloit residency is “Teaching for Social Justice: Intersectionality and K-12 Education." On March 30th, WNIJ’s Peter Medlin will host a live conversation with Au at Beloit College. They sat down to preview the event.

WNIJ education reporter Peter Medlin (PM): “To you, what does it really mean in America in 2023 to actively teach for social justice?”

Professor Wayne Au (WA): “Where I always start is: what is the reality of our students lives? What issues are their communities facing? Those issues are always economic, cultural, they’re political. Kids are dealing with houselessness, with racism, issues around class oppression like their parents don't get paid enough at work, and housing is too expensive, medicines too expensive.

So, if we're teaching for social justice, we're trying to attend to all these issues in ways that can literally make healthy kids. I've put it that way because I think people think of teaching for social justice as some super radical thing. I would argue it's not. I want healthy children in the world. I want them to be taken care of. I want their parents to be taken care of. And teaching for social justice is just one step as part of a broader project of making sure everyone can live well in this country.

PM: “Intersectionality is big part of the title [of the Beloit College residency]: ‘Intersectionality and K-12 education.’ The visit is also part of this year-long focus Beloit College is having on intersectionality. This is happening while the very idea of intersectionality is being attacked in states like Florida. So, going into this residency at this specific moment, how are you feeling?”

WA: “Yeah, I think, to some degree, there's always some amount of nervousness, right? I know this is a very, very, very hot topic in probably the worst way possible. I've come under threat – not any physical attacks, thankfully -- but certainly plenty of hateful emails and mailings and that kind of stuff. So, I get that going to have this kind of discussion around intersectionality always carries some risk. That's something that folks who work for justice always face. It's just I think right now it's kind of heightened.

But I also feel like as long as people are open to the discussion, I think a lot of folks don't get that intersectionality is not some huge sort of boogeyman that it gets painted to be. It's just basically recognizing the complexity of our identities and who we are as human beings. That we experienced the world differently based on who we are right. I'm a cis, heterosexual male. That impacts how I move through the world and how people perceive and interact with me. But I'm also Chinese-American and that also puts a different bit of spin on that.”

PM: “To kind of keep going on that, I know your work talks a lot about the long history of the struggle over content in school curriculum. One of the things that struck me, and this is in your ‘A Marxist Education’ book is about how it all comes back to a seemingly simple question: what knowledge should children learn? And not just what counts as important knowledge, but who gets to decide that?”

WA: “And really, it's a sort of simple question, but it also implies so much, right? Like, what knowledge should our children learn? If you ask 200 parents, you’re probably going to get at least 99 different answers. Like, I want my kid to get a job or some parents [want] like prep for college. And some folks like me are like, ‘well, I want my kid to understand themselves and learn about the world.’

What makes it more complicated than even that is that we're actually talking about American identity -- and I’m using American very specifically as the United States of America. That's why it becomes so contested and that's why you see, like, what's happening in Florida and in other states where folks feel like what we teach in public schools is a reflection of how we define America. And it's also going to help shape these kids understanding of their own identities as ‘Americans.’ So, I think there's a larger question that folks should ask that I think they'd be scared to.

I mean, so many people's common sense just presumes that teachers are all powerful and what kids learn in school determines who they are almost as if it's like in stone. Honestly, if you look at research, I mean, yes, schools are important. What we learned at school does shape them. But students spend most of their time outside of schools, No. 1. And No. 2, especially when you get to high school, they spend a lot of their time rejecting the adults in their lives and that includes their teachers. So, all these fears around indoctrination and that kind of stuff are often misplaced. Kids are actually a lot smarter and a lot sharper critical thinkers than we give them credit for.”

PM: “I've got one more question. What is an important education story that you think we're not talking nearly enough about?”

WA: “Everything we know about education points to the fact that success in schooling almost always depends on factors that are in our communities. Even if we're going to look at test scores, we know that somewhere around 70% or more of any test score is statistically based on non-school factors. Whether they have access to food, if they have access to housing, if they have access to medical care? It also the education level of their parents.

There are all these factors that actually impact what shows up in schools, way more than almost anything in schools. Public schools do all sorts of things. Schools do all sorts of things around knowledge and culture, socialization, learning happens there, obviously, it's central to the enterprise of it. That's all happening, it's just not really measured in the same kind of ways on tests. And, frankly, I don't want to be measured on tests. That's all to say that, to me, the story that that no one talks about is the fact that we can fix education if we actually decided to fix these bigger issues in society.”

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.