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with Quentin Wheeler-Bell

Carrie Welsh  00:03

Hello, you’re listening to the Ethics & Education podcast from the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Carrie Welsh, I’m the program director of the center.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  00:15

And so a lot of my research now is to is understanding how power works to distort how people understand problems, because if you can distort how they understand the problem, they end up fighting for the wrong thing. Right, and if they’re fighting for the wrong thing, it’s going to reproduce the problem.

Carrie Welsh  00:32

This piece was produced by Kellen Sharp, who interviewed Dr. Quentin Wheeler-Bell, a philosopher of education at Indiana University Bloomington, in the fall of 2019. In this piece, Dr. Wheeler-Bell discusses one of the driving questions of his scholarly work: what is education for liberation?

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  00:59

At the core of my research is really thinking about what is education for liberation? The tradition, the philosophical traditions that come out of comes out of the tradition that is asking that question fundamentally stems from my work as an activist. I came to the university out of grad school, pursuing a PhD, but I had no clue what to do.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  01:28

My name is Quentin Wheeler-Bell. I’m currently teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington. And I teach philosophy of education, but in the eepartment of Educational Policy and Leadership. Part of my work, and some of the work that is probably most accessible is thinking about what does a liberatory education actually entail for children growing up in urban ghettos, and kind of critiquing some of the assumptions that are made philosophically about that.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  01:57

So when I think of education for liberation, I think about, what does it mean for people who are living under conditions of oppression? And what do they need to know to be able to not only navigate inside of those conditions, but ultimately transform them, right? So it’s also about who’s oppressed where and why. So context really does matter. When I first got into this, it was mainly really, black people are oppressed, how do you challenge racism and for black people, then I started to see the larger scope and like, okay, the question of liberation is not simply about black people, even though that’s very important. There are multiple ways in which oppression operates. How do you diagnose it? Meaning, Are you clear about why oppression exists, how it operates, and what’s needed to challenge it? So that’s the the kind of nerdy grad school part that comes out. I realized, Oh, this is not an easy question, this question of like, what is liberation really requires an understanding of what you’re fighting for, why you’re fighting. What are the principles that guide it?

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  03:06

And that’s where I started getting into philosophy, I started to realize, Oh, this is a philosophical question. It’s a question of what is good? What’s just how do we shape what’s just like, how do we fight for, and that power can also distort how people understand what is just. And so a lot of my research now, too, is understanding how power works, to distort how people understand problems, because if you can distort how they understand the problem, they end up fighting for the wrong thing, right. And if they’re fighting for the wrong thing, it’s going to reproduce the problem. Part of it is shifting the discussion, to see it in a completely different light. So what do I see is the problem is this, that this locates me within what they call the critical tradition in education. And what I mean by the critical tradition is, it is a scathing critique of a problem now, I would argue, in America, and we’re looking globally.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  04:03

One of the problems that we have to confront is neoliberal capitalism, right. And that becomes a major problem that shapes the inequalities; they shape how resources are distributed. And what I mean by that is if we think of it in in a kind of fundamental way, when you go to work, you work hard at a particular job, right? But if you’re in a traditional corporation, or a traditional company, your work, the amount of money you get, is simply determined by a contract set by the boss, right? You don’t have a democratic say on what gets produced, or how resources get distributed. It’s simply based on that contract. But what happens when there are gross inequalities inside companies, right? Do they get a say over their workplace conditions? Do they get a say over how resources are distributed, how they’re produced, and why that matters–and this is why I say identifying the problem–why that matters is we’re thinking about how communities develop, like in many inner cities, problems with gentrification. What gentrification does is sort of the way in which capital develops it for the middle class and elite and pushes out the poor for the poor never get to say it is do they get a say in how it develops where they can stay there, right, and no longer be poor, do they get a say to stay in the community. So you displace it.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  05:24

And that’s what I mean by understanding the problem. Part of it is how capitalism operates. So you have to have a critique. But it’s also understanding when, especially when you’re talking about the condition of African Americans, how racism operates, right. And racism operates in different ways where systems get set up, such that these problems then get reproduced. They happen. There’s a reason, you know, we think of racism as somebody’s, their racist beliefs or intentions. But we have to ask, why are there systems set up in place? Like for example, if you’re looking at a system of racial oppression, and you think about the average Black family’s worth, net worth, once you take away depreciating assets, versus the average white family, the average Black family is only worth $1,800, once subtracted depreciating assets; the average white family is worth $80,000, right? in the same class, if you move up in class, it can change. How are–How is that disparity? Like, that disparity is completely ridiculous. Now we have to ask, why is that occurring? And that’s what I mean by helping people identify the problem. It’s a history of how capitalism works. It’s a history of Jim Crow and segregation and slavery in the building up where that inequality is so vast. I always think we have to–children need to learn–not just African American children, but as a nation because it’s a it’s a problem across the nation. And that’s what I mean by helping people identify the problem, like, in many cases, especially when you’re coming from marginalized communities, you feel it, you feel like the problem sort of in your bones like you know, you don’t always have the language to articulate it. And I think that’s the part of the task of education and education for liberation is helping people articulate, understand it, see it in a different light. So then they can go on and find ways to try to attack it and challenge it.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  07:32

You never want to ask an academic or one person, what’s the solution? Why, because it’s not my problem. It’s a collective problem, which means the solutions have to be collective right? We have to work at these solutions collectively to figure them out. Because part of the part of the problem is this assumption that you can walk into a community and give them their answer to their problems. It’s that very assumption that leads to this sort of elitism that thinks as if they don’t need to understand it, they don’t have a unique picture. What I do believe at the core, it’s about how to democratically empower people so that they have more control over their community resources, and the larger country large. So the fundamental–and this is the philosophical piece–the fundamental piece is, how do we expand democracy? So more people are controlling their workplace, more people have control over their schools, they have control over their how their communities develop, why, under what conditions they’re developing, and that then becomes sort of the solution.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  08:36

The technical piece is a complex problem, you know, there are multiple steps to it. And I think we’re lying to people to think that here’s the solution, all we need to do is implement it. Part of it we just don’t know, we don’t know how to make it. But this is the important thing about education is education doesn’t always need to start with an answer. It starts, sometimes, with the question. Like if we think about, like cancer research, no one says, How do you solve cancer before we give you money for cancer research? It’s like, No, no, no, no, you first identify the problem, right? Then we fund it so you can figure out how to solve it. Now we then collectively move forward, right? And I think that’s the thing, can we properly identify the problem? Help students, community members, people understand it. So then they can start to design solutions to challenge it. You have to think of this strategically, right? And you have to think of it strategically, by which I mean, who is in the best position to be receptive to learning it, right? Versus how much work is it going to get to push it at the policy level, right?

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  09:48

And this is one of the things that I’m interested in–what are the spaces that are available in society for people to get together and mobilize to teach about this? In education, there’s a lot of critique of the school choice movement and the ways in which school choice, you know, reproduces larger inequalities, the effect that it has. But one of the things that people don’t understand is that a major advocate of the early school choice movement was a progressive movement. And it was especially prominent in the Black radical tradition, because what they wanted is schools, that they can teach their own children how to challenge that. So it’s like, first we have to teach our children, then they can go out and be better equipped to fight. I would love it, if more communities will pick this up as a mission, but the easiest audience to first target is the people who are suffering from the problem itself. Because they’re far more receptive; they’re like, oh, you’re gonna teach me about this.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  10:48

And this is personal, like, this is how I felt when I went to college. I encountered my African American professor, who like, introduced me to this. You really want to teach me about this? I’ve been trying to figure out how to understand this all my life, and you’re now providing me the resources–thank you. And same with going to Madison. When I went to grad school, it was there like you can be as radical as you want, like, here are the resources. It’s hard work, you just have to do it. And I thought, oh, thank you. And I think starting there matters with people that are invested. And that doesn’t just have to be if you’re coming from a marginalized or oppressed community. I mean, there are multiple people, but you want to target, you want to be strategic about who you’re targeting. And I would say start with the people that first care about the problem, so then they can push for larger change. So for example, if we’re thinking of just a typical college campus, right, college campuses have a lot of ethnic studies, people think ethnic studies are sort of just this offshoot. But there’s a lot of political work pointed in ethnic studies and ethnic studies actually starts out of the Black Power movement as a movement to access education, so you can challenge the larger system and society.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  12:13

I think part of the learning task is also not understanding how to ask the question. And that’s one of the things that I had to learn personally. I was like, I know I want an education for liberation. I just couldn’t form the question. But as you ask a question, you try to answer it, think it through, you’re like, Ooh, that question doesn’t make sense or sort of is a little off. Maybe I’ll ask another question. Or, huh, I never thought of it from this perspective. So I’ll give you a sort of a concrete example, with my work in general. One of my one of the things that I try to do is critique the idea of integration, right, that racial integration is the aim of racial justice. And you think, Well, why would you critique that? How would you even know to ask that question. Well, part of it is, is sort of thinking, if you’re integrating, integrating into what, right? Only reason I asked that question is, I also came from a tradition where Malcolm X asked, What are you integrating into a burning house? Knowing that I was like, Oh, that’s a good question. If it’s a burning house, why would you go in there? But that’s not really a question, sort of an experience I sort of knew tacitly that.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  13:28

But also having this is the importance of teachers, having teachers help frame new questions, help you understand how to rethink the questions that you’re asking, really helped shape your learning environment as well. So at Madison working with Harry Brighouse, one of the things that Harry, you know, when I first met Harry was talking to Harry, I only understood the problem in terms of race, I only could see race as being the problem that a lot of African Americans face. And Harry’s like, I don’t think you’re asking the right question; class has a factor in it. And I was like, okay, of course it does. Black people are poor, right? But it was like, Yeah, because of racism in America. And he’s like, No, you have to understand how class works. And I was like, what do you mean by that? Him introducing that to me now made me ask a different question: Well, how does class work? And then as I started to investigate, I was like, Oh, this makes a lot of sense how class works. Okay, okay. Now I understand how class and capitalism start to work, I understand how capitalism is also not only structuring wealth, it structures who has access to assets, and the main what they call the means of production. And then, if you own the means of production, and in order to live, you have to work for those people. They then hold the power over how you live, so now, their power structures, your labor, I was like, Okay, this makes a lot more sense. Now I see how the institution of slavery wasn’t simply just about slavery and the repression of African Americans, but it was also a capitalist relationship where slaves were treated as labor in a completely different relationship. Okay, that makes sense how you would get the numbers, where you were talking about wealth inequality. Okay, you built a system that redistributes wealth to the top in the first place, and then you racialized that system. Now, this makes it about why you see a racial gap, and it’s getting worse, right? We think, oh, after the Civil Rights Movement, we should see improvement. No–after the Civil Rights Movement, you had the unleashing of global capitalism, which meant inequalities even intensified. So if you were on the bottom, it simply went higher. Okay, this makes a lot of sense.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  15:55

And I thought to myself, this is part of history! Why don’t we teach children? I would love to learn about this in school, like, oh, the economy changes, it impacts people this way. We think sometimes these are such big questions that they can’t be introduced to children, but we can break them down into smaller parts to help them think about. And for me, it was why is that not being taught to children? Like why aren’t we teaching children this all along along the way, so they have a better understanding of what’s going on in the world, thinking about that larger implication. It’s like, Oh, you can actually teach children how to critique the system, how to understand it. We already do this, but we do it in favor of the status quo, right. And we think about ways to teach them how to reproduce the status quo, we can also teach them how to challenge it. But we have to be willing to think about those steps about how to go about it.

Quentin Wheeler-Bell  16:53

People don’t understand that while it’s a lot to take in, it is grounded in real lived experiences. So don’t feel as if this is so distant, how do you get there, that’s part of the learning process, the learning process is being able to wrestle with things that shake you that challenge you that really push you. And it’s in that moment that you know, you’re learning; if it comes easy, it’s not learning. Don’t be fooled by that. Because one of the things that’s important is it took a lot of really smart people to construct this system that messes things up. It’s going to take really smart people to work collectively to sort of fight back. So for me, this is what I look at my career as, but I also hope to give to people that we need intellectuals that are willing to both have the moral compass, but also the intellectual capacity and the compassion, to work with the people to change society. If we don’t have that, then there’s no possible way we can move forward.

Carrie Welsh  18:14

Thank you for listening. If you’re an instructor and you’d like to use our podcast in your class, we also make study guides with ideas for readings, discussion questions, and class activities. You can download the study guides at our website. This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by Kellen Sharp.