The Politics of Recognition

As this election has made clear, many Americans seem to feel unrecognized or misrecognized by others. Or worse yet, people feel invisible or unimportant. Recognition is a critical piece of feeling acknowledged, valued, respected, and human. Being recognized means that someone else really sees you, with your struggles and strengths, and to some degree, understands you. Deep down, we all need this; but somehow, many of us are not receiving this.

As human beings often learn to define ourselves through relationships with others, this recognition is critical to our sense of self, worth and purpose. As Charles Taylor, a modern philosopher, asserts in The Politics of Recognition, “Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression.”[i] Differences in age, social class, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographical location, and culture – including race, cultural norms, traditions, and use of language – often inhibit people from fully understanding or seeing those around them. This is evident in the racism, sexism, and violence that been publicized in recent years. But it is also evident today, as we sit with a divided country and a controversial president-elect of the United States. I, along with most media outlets and political polls, admittedly did not see the results of this election coming. This means that many of us failed to see half the country. And nothing will change unless we work harder to understand others, to see beyond socially constructed façades, and recognize the beautiful humanity shining in all of us.

While we should try to really see those around us in every walk of life, I believe much of the work for the future of our nation must begin in the classroom. The way that teachers recognize the students they serve has serious implications for those children and adolescents, and society at large, as those students become adults. There is much research to suggest that meaningful teacher-student relationships, based on shared recognition, are linked to student engagement, efficacy, academic resilience and achievement.[ii] But research also suggests that a “cultural mismatch” between teachers and students can inhibit the development of such relationships.[iii] While this often refers to white teachers working with students of color – as over 80% of the teaching force is white and just over half of the students are people of color – it could also refer to an urban-raised, middle-class teacher working with low-income rural students. Our differences often blind us to our similarities. And teachers, as the adults in the room, must work harder to see all of their students, to form meaningful relationships with them.

Anecdotal evidence seems to confirm the importance of meaningful teacher-student relationships. When asked to recall their best teacher, people might refer to the teacher who took them aside and encouraged them to pursue computer science, who helped counsel them through a personal issue, who made a novel like Crime & Punishment relevant to their lives, who responded to their writing with thoughtful and individualized feedback, who called their parents and said something positive about them, who showed up at their soccer game or Quinceañera, and who created a safe and inclusive classroom community where they readily made friends with those around them. It is much less likely that someone would recall the teacher who was adept at lesson plan sequencing and transitions, who appropriately scaffolded new content upon their existing knowledge, who taught all the standards and test preparation techniques, or who had truly mastered abstract algebra. That is not to say that content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, lesson planning, and teaching the standards are not all vitally important to effective classroom practice, but these subjects overwhelmingly dominate the scholarly and popular literature on teaching and teacher preparation. We should also be attending to the relational side of the profession, to intentionally value every unique human being who sits before us. Because every student is important. Every teacher is important. We are all important. And if we really believed that and could better understand and love ourselves and others – connecting across seemingly large divides – then we could indeed have a better world.

So instead of losing hope today, instead of believing we have fallen backwards by decades, I am choosing to fight for a better tomorrow. I am choosing to acknowledge the other half of the country (the half that didn’t vote like me), while continuing to work toward better recognition of those who have been historically marginalized (and given the rhetoric of this campaign, might understandably fear the next four years). We are all valuable; our lives, our joy, our pain, our triumphs and tribulations are meaningful and important and worthy of recognition, as these make up the fabric of our very existence. We are more alike than different, more connected than we believe. We all matter. I see you, America. And I believe in you.



[i] Taylor, Charles. (1994). The politics of recognition. New contexts of Canadian criticism, 98-131.

[ii] See Cooper (2013); Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Sosa & Gomez, 2012).

[iii] See Sleeter (2008).

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Recognition”

  1. So true, and, sadly, it ccomes down to having enough money to pay for class sizes small enough to allow this to happen. Our own dear Arcadia now has some English classes hovering around forty.

    1. I agree. Class size is so important. I like somewhere between 16-25. I had one class that felt too small for good conversation, but most of my classes were too big (35-40 kids). It’s so hard to get to know all of the students when there are that many in one class, and you have 3-5 more classes a day that same size. Clearly we need better support for schools, especially in AZ!

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