21st Century Skills for Social Justice: A Lipsitz Primer

This week was George Lipsitz week. If you read my post last week, you know that last week was sort of George Lipsitz week, too. I can explain.

Last week I looked over a few Lipsitz articles in what I can only describe as the wrong state of mind. I was looking for something very particular, but I didn’t know actually know what it was – so everything I looked for, naturally, felt wrong. This week, though, the stars seemed to aligned. I found a Lipsitz article that was perfect, and then another, and then I just decided to immerse myself in Lipsitz and see what happened (I even looked back at an article that I had dismissed as irrelevant last week and found it to be extremely helpful. Whoops.).

It turns out, what happened is good. I walked away feeling like I’ve actually figured out what I’m looking for — what it might look like to teach history for social justice in a 21st century context.

Lipsitz’s primary concern in recent years has been the state of the American Studies field (a topic he’s written about extensively, including in his 2001 book American Studies in a Moment of Danger). At every opportunity, he hammers home the point that the world is changing: 21st century technologies and a political and cultural climate increasingly dominated by neoliberal policies and consumerist values have changed the landscape of our world in manifold ways. For Lipsitz, this is both a cause for great alarm and a call to action, and much of his recent work has been devoted to working through the role of academics in this new world. Academics must rethink not only what and how we research, but also how we work with each other and how we work with outside communities — and we must do this not just for personal gain or for continued relevance, but in order to build a better world. In a 2013 article he co-authored with Barbara Tomlinson, Lipsitz argues that American Studies might do well to move forward through the framework of accompaniment, seeing scholarship as a community endeavor attuned the needs and voices and participation of others. “American studies as accompaniment,” Lipsitz and Tomlinson write, “means American studies as action. Rather than merely producing ever more eloquent descriptions of other people’s suffering, scholars can join with others to address the suffering and to create ways of ending it. Rather than merely giving people something to feel, accompaniment entails our helping them find something to do along with us” (Lipsitz & Tomlinson 2013, p. 13). And we must teach our students to do the same thing.

The overlaps between this body of work and the topics we’ve been discussing in class are endless, but Lipsitz is mainly talking about academics, not students, and about academia in general rather than teaching in particular. Plus, he’s talking about American studies, which is clearly related to history, but not the same thing. So, when I thought about how to transfer these ideas over to the world of history pedagogy, I found myself looking for places where Lipsitz articulated a skill set, a way of viewing the world, or a means of conducting research that would be crucial components of a history course (or any course) that was envisioned as part of a social justice project (or, perhaps, a history course built on Lipsitz’s principles of accompaniment). These, I’m sure, are not only skills Lipsitz would encourage academics to develop, but also capabilities he’d encourage us to foster in our students, as well.

Without further ado, then, here are what I think Lipsitz might put on his list of 21st century skills for social justice:

  • Rethink space and place. American Studies scholarship in particular has been tied to the notion of the nation-state and to the particularities of how culture and history work themselves out in very particular places and moments. However, Lipsitz argues that “the connections between place and culture that have undergirded the cultural and political practices of the industrial era are becoming obsolete” (Lipsitz 1999, p. 58). Place still matters, and the particularities of local communities can’t get lost in the changes. But, Lipsitz argues, we need to envision space “not only as specific geographic and physical sites, but also as circuits and networks of communication, physical movement, and commodity circulation” (59). And that might mean casting a broader — or perhaps just a more flexible — net for our scholarship.
  • Envision scholarship and citizenship as “quintessentially social” endeavors. To fight back against a society that values the individual above all, Lipsitz argues we must learn to see ourselves as “part of a broader social field of action.” Scholarship must not be an isolated activity undertaken in the pursuit of individual gain. Rather, scholarship should “focus on making connections with others, identifying with them, and helping them” (Lipsitz 2013, p. 10).
  • Rethink what kind of knowledge — and whose knowledge — has value. Lipsitz argues that universities and colleges function inside systems that “systematically exclude the thoughts, ideas, histories, archives, and imaginaries of aggrieved people almost as relentlessly and effectively as they exclude the people themselves” (Lipsitz 2013, p. 11). In the face of such a universe, Lipsitz argues that we should look to the work of scholars such as Américo Paredes, whose work “draws on the situated knowledge of individuals and communities” (Lipsitz 2012, 122). Paredes “considered the collective memory of his community to be a scholarly resource,” and understood the knowledge of aggrieved communities to be uniquely valuable (117). Moreover, to seek out these voices and knowledges, we must be willing to look outside the traditional archive, to study collective memory, local practices, popular culture, music, and folklore. These sources must be treated as “historical sources to be studied rather than as epiphenomena providing secondary reflections of public events” (Lipsitz 1992, 1397).
  • Learn to listen to and for complexity, multiple perspectives, and a multiplicity of experiences. Like Paredes, we must learn to see the “composite nature of a single community” and the “full complexity that characterizes the dynamics of social groups,” and to hear “multiple voices inside a single person’s speech of song” (Lipsitz 2012, 116-117). This also requires, of course, shutting ourselves up long enough to really hear what else is out there.
  • Cultivate konesans and balans. Lipsitz borrows both of these terms from the work of Haitian studies scholar Claudine Michel, calling them “important ways of knowing and being.” Konesans requires an understanding of knowledge as “more than a matter of mastering empirical facts and abstract theories.” Knowledge is wisdom, experience, an awareness of the interplay between past and present, and it is carried not only in data and in textbooks and individual brains, but in communities and communal histories. Balans, on the other hand, involves a comfort with the worlds contradictions, competing claims, and areas of gray. “Balans holds that everyone has a part of the truth,” Lipsitz writes, “that people’s weaknesses come from many of the same sources as their strengths, that the truth and the lie — or the right and the wrong thing — are not mutually incommensurable opposites but instead different poles of a dialogically and dialectically connected unity (Lipsitz 2013, p. 14).

This, surely, is a set of skills I’d like to see up there next to “learn to read a primary source from multiple perspectives” and “develop competence with multiple technologies.” The question, of course, is what this actually looks like — what does it mean to produce scholarship with these skills in mind, let alone to teach in this way? What would it look like to design a classroom built around these values, or to design curriculum that would encourage students to practice these skills? What does activist pedagogy look like, particularly in a history context? What shape does history curriculum take when it is built around community engagement and social justice? And how does all this overlap with new technologies, gamifying the classroom, and participatory pedagogies? These questions, I hope, will lead me to my research for next week. In the meantime, happy Lipsitz week, everyone.

Works Cited:

  • Lipsitz, George. “The Politics and Pedagogy of Popular Culture in Contemporary Textbooks.” The Journal of American History 78.4 (March 1992).
  • Lipsitz, George. “No Shining City on A Hill: American Studies and the Problem of Place.” American Studies 40.2 (Summer 1999), pp. 53-69.
  • Lipsitz, George and Russell Rodriguez. “Turning Hegemony On Its Head: The Insurgent Knowledge of Américo Paredes.” Journal of American Folklore 125.495 (Winter 2012).
  • Lipsitz, George and Barbara Tomlinson. “American Studies as Accompaniment.” American Quarterly 65.1 (March 2013).
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