Other People’s Problems: Student Distancing, Epistemic Responsibility, and Injustice
In classes that examine entrenched injustices like sexism or racism, students sometimes use “distancing strategies” to dissociate themselves from the injustice being studied. Education researchers argue that distancing is a mechanism through which students, especially students of apparent privilege, deny their complicity in systemic injustice. While I am sympathetic to this analysis, I argue that there is much at stake in student distancing that the current literature fails to recognize. On my view, distancing perpetuates socially sanctioned forms of ignorance and unknowing, through which students misrecognize not only their complicity in injustice, but also the ways that injustice shapes the world, their lives, and their knowledge. Thus, distancing is pedagogically problematic because it prevents students from understanding important social facts, and because it prevents them from engaging with perspectives, analyses, and testimonies that might beneficially challenge their settled views and epistemic habits. To substantiate this new analysis, I draw on recent work on epistemologies of ignorance, especially José Medina’s account of “active ignorance.” In order to respond to student distancing, I argue, it is not sufficient for teachers to make students aware of injustice, or of their potential complicity in it. Beyond this, teachers should cultivate epistemic virtue in the classroom and encourage students to take responsibility for better ways of knowing. The article ends by outlining several classroom practices for beginning this work.
KeywordsPedagogy Distancing Epistemology of ignorance Active ignorance Racism Medina
I would like to foremost thank my students at Duke University, Warren Wilson College, and Vanderbilt University for teaching me daily and provoking me to take up this research and writing. I also thank Jennifer Ansley, Nolan Bennett, Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Jeff Edmonds, Seth Farber, Nora Hanagan, Jean Keller, José Medina, and Edward Piñuelas for their very helpful comments, as well as participants at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers 2014 Meeting, the Elon Philosophy Department Pedagogy Lunches, and the Duke Political Theory Workshop.
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