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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 138-148
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Teaching Radical History
Using History to Inform Political Participation in a California History Course
Gerald Shenk and David Takacs
Our primary goal as educators is to help students become ethical, effective, historically informed, self-aware members of their chosen communities. Inspired by the teachings of Paolo Freire, we have been developing a "praxis pedagogy." 1 We believe that when students take action in their communities—action guided by ethical self-reflection and a careful study of history—they become more aware of their connections to others and of their roles and responsibilities as historical actors. As a result, we believe they become more committed to social justice and environmental stewardship.
In praxis pedagogy, the scholar facilitates a process that results in a radical expansion of knowledge. When we see students as knowledge generators, we help them transgress the boundaries of their known worlds. As bell hooks describes it, "Freire's work affirmed that educators can only be liberatory when everyone claims knowledge as a field in which we all labor." 2 All students bring to our classrooms what hooks calls the "authority of experience" (89). Each student has lived under a particular set of circumstances; all have experienced the world in a unique way and are uniquely poised to generate new observations and make new connections. In this assets model, teaching is then designed to help new knowledge blossom, knowledge that seeps into the "real world" in ways we may never know.
This assets model fits our seven-year-old campus, California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Rising from the ruins of Fort Ord, a decommissioned military base just east of Monterey, our educational program is explicit about its commitments [End Page 138] to multiculturalism and social justice. The mission of the university is "to build a multicultural learning community founded on academic excellence from which all partners in the educational process emerge prepared to contribute productively, responsibly, and ethically to California and the global community." Our vision statement commits us to "be distinctive in serving the diverse people of California, especially the working class and historically undereducated and low-income populations." About a third of CSUMB's students are Latino/Latina; many of our students are first-generation college students. Our students are, in general, talented, motivated, and a joy to work with.
We coteach a course in the social and environmental history of California that spans five hundred years. We ask our students to analyze how the relationships between groups of people and between people and the earth have developed over this period. By looking at these relationships, we hope that students learn about their own relationships with each other and with the earth. We share a conviction that many of the injustices in our society are rooted in the history of how Europeans and white Americans have exploited and distributed the resources of the earth. In other words, we believe that social problems are always at some level also environmental problems. Conversely, we hope that our students come to understand that work on environmental issues inherently demands attention to social issues. History, we believe, is not relegated to the past. In our teaching, we see historical understanding as a foundation that helps students become more effective actors in their communities. When they've named an issue of personal political concern—the threats that pesticides pose to community well-being, say, or the dangers that tampons pose to women's health and the environment—students may use history to help them understand how they come to find themselves in this situation, and what they might do to change their communities.
In our class, students have campaigned for an Urban Growth Boundary in a neighboring city; helped organic farmers market their products on campus; educated their soccer team about presidential candidates' positions; organized the campus Dia de los Muertos celebration; published an art and politics 'zine; and participated in dozens of other projects in their neighborhood, academic, ecological, spiritual, familial, and collegiate communities. They did this...