“How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
When considering agents of influence in society, education rises to the top. We are all reared on the knee of an educational system chosen for us, a curriculum created in the scope of what will and will not be asked on standardized test, taught by people with their own opinions and influences. This idea that we are all by and large products of our environments is referred to as the nexus of practice. It is similar to the popular concept floating around that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. The nexus of practice “describes how mutual or shared ways of knowing, doing, and being become intricately bound to the ways in which we mediate, (re)negotiate, and engage in imagined and real spaces locally and globally” (Dunkerly‐Bean, Bean, Sunday, & Summers, 2017). Boil that down and it basically explains that the way in which people experience and perceive the world is directly influenced by the external forces surrounding them at all times. Apply nexus of practice to children in an educational setting and think about all the potential influencers: teachers, classroom, materials, curriculum etc. All these environmental influencers hold the potential to encourage and facilitate free thought, or significantly diminish it.
An immeasurable effort is placed into preparing children for the world and workforce and yet preparing them to be socially responsible citizens seems to have fallen to the wayside. There seems to be a discord in defining what educational systems are and are not responsible for. On one side there is math, science, english, or any subject traditionally associated with primary education. On the other side there is subject areas related to social justice, poverty, power structures, the social context into which more traditional subject knowledge lives within. There is a “long history of monocultural stratification embedded in the culture of public education” and the curriculum seems to have “fallen short in preparing participants to meet the demands of democracy and pluralism” (Suleiman, 2014). Educational systems need to address the role they play in shaping identities as well as teaching basic skills, that knowledge does not exist in a vacuum, and that social responsibility is not innate, but taught.
As part of the educational system and an agent of democracy, libraries share a responsibility in engaging citizens in a critical conversation regarding diversity, equity, and power structures. When disseminating ideas of social justice and equity, children’s literature can be a powerful democratic tool. Reading is an avenue of exploration and literature bridges a gap between the theoretical and the personal, meaning that children can explore difficult topics at a comfortable distance (Shelton & Mcdermott, 2010). Public libraries have placed themselves at center of early childhood development and literacy and must address their own power and influence as educational entities. When considering the transformative power of children’s literature, the ability to personalize learning, library professionals should seize the opportunity to address social issues. Social justice, race, class, gender are all topics that warrant as much educational and civic value as more traditional forms of informational literacy. Children’s literature that deals with themes of social justice has the potential to reduce children’s bias regarding differences (Kim, 2013). Library professionals are not neutral agents. As institutions of democracy, libraries should use their power to promote democratic ideals. Literacy goals should not be exclusive to literacy skills, but also incorporate the “value and meaning of the human experience in our pluralistic society” (Kim, 2013). The power of literature as well as the power of the librarian controlling access to literature, needs to be wielded in the name of social justice, meaning a new professional standard for educators that illuminates ignorance as a democratic right.
Thirty-five picture books for young activists:
Bittner, R., Ingrey, J., & Stamper, C. (2016). Queer and trans-themed books for young readers: A critical review. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(6), 948-964. doi:10.1080/01596306.2016.1195106
Dunkerly‐Bean, J., Bean, T. W., Sunday, K., & Summers, R. (2017). Poverty is two coins: Young children explore social justice through reading and art. Reading Teacher, 70(6), 679-688. doi:10.1002/trtr.1566
Kim, S. J. (2013). The democratic vision of teaching literature: Preschool bilingual children’s reading of literature with social justice (Ph.D.). Available from ProQuest Central, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, Social Science Premium Collection. (1466668897). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/1466668897?accountid=14608
Shelton, N. R., & Mcdermott, M. (2010). Using literature and drama to understand social justice. Teacher Development, 14(1), 123-135. doi:10.1080/13664531003696683
Suleiman, M. (2014). Leading for equity and social justice : From rhetoric to reality Place of publication not identified : Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.