What Does Abolitionist Teaching Have to Do With Me?

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

January 18th is Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, a federal holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Only since 2000 have all 50 states honored the date. Schools often have speakers to remind students what MLK stood for. When we heard about the opportunity to have Dr. Bettina Love, the author of We Want to do More than Survive, give a virtual lecture at Luther on MLK Day, we were very excited. We have heard her speak on panels and TED talks, and have taught her texts. Dr. King would agree with her premise to pursue educational freedom through abolitionist teaching. But what is abolitionist teaching? And what does it have to do with three white identified instructors? How is abolitionist teaching applicable to a primarily white institution of higher education? What does it have to do with you? And me?

Abolitionist teaching is teaching for freedom. Before we go any farther, it’s important to know that it is freedom for all, not just freedom for Black folk; but that is where it starts. Abolitionist teaching shows that we need to reframe education for all, so that Black and Brown kids feel welcome, are able to learn and grow and discover, and can be seen in their full humanity.

To us, this reframing of education means changing the way we teach. Beyond teaching, it means creating a new way of life. We have been in too many workshops and seminars and listened to speakers where the message is understood as “add an inclusive teaching statement on your syllabus,” or “add an author of color.” And some faculty believe that such workshops or messages are not for me, not my expertise or area. Abolitionist teaching is not about a tweak or adjustment to your teaching, nor is it just for peoples of color or for professors of color, and/or white liberals. Abolitionist teaching is about all of us, about the whole system of education, and all educators. It’s about all the students in our classrooms. It’s about the whole institution. It’s about you, and it's about me.

Dr. Love will challenge us all to be co-conspirators in struggle and activists for change, for that is the only way that meaningful change will actually happen. Transformation of the system is going to take all of us being willing to stop oppressing others, to stop participating in systemic racism, to stop participating in white supremacy in all its forms, and to take a stand that Black lives matter.

Abolitionist teaching, then, operates at a number of levels:

  1. It requires us to think about what we can do now within an educational system of which Luther College is a part that was and is created, reproduced, and sustained by racist policies and white supremacy ideology (a system, by the way, that we work in, get paid by, receive accolades from).
  2. As mentioned above, it insists that we (white people) confront our own racism and privilege; it insists that we decenter whiteness even, and perhaps most explicitly, in classrooms that are made up of all white students taught by those who identify as white.
  3. Though it may take years (as Love says), it obliges us to tear down the system as a whole--to abolish it--and to reconceive education/learning differently, replacing it with another model (perhaps one based on what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “pop up” universities).
  4. It compels us to create learning environments wherein students are not only heard, but also learn how to resist, protest, and struggle against injustice, against white supremacy; that is, it compels us to offer a real civics education, one that does not only teach “here are the three branches of government.”
  5. It engenders joy--joy in the struggle; joy in and with communities that struggle.

Practically, for the three of us, abolitionist teaching means seeing every student in the room, to know them as best we can. It causes us to value where every student in each classroom is coming from, to see the assets that each of them brings, to nurture and expand their knowledge. It means accepting that I do not know everything, that I will make mistakes, that one size does not fit all. It means being open and curious about everything and everyone. It means being willing to challenge my role as a white identified person and a white teacher in a radically unjust educational system. It means loving my students, all of my students, not just loving my job to teach them. And it means challenging that system that denies some of our students, and some of our colleagues, their full humanity and in doing so diminishes the humanity of all of us.


Professor Char Kunkel with her copy of the book, "We Want to do More Than Survive."

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