Politics and Dialogue in Education, Students As Researchers, And Do Any of Us Have A Right To Our Opinions?

Absolutely Not!!  And in one sentence here’s why,

Whenever people use this phrase, it is usually to say that they have a right to have their opinion considered as truth, even if their argument is logically demonstrated to have serious holes in it.  You see the problem here???

Now I understand the assertion I have made here may irk most people because most tend to get very defensive when it comes to arguing for the sanctity of their opinions.  Nonetheless the forthcoming explanation of my answer to this question is not meant to satisfy raw emotions.  It is an appeal to logic…nothing more, nothing less.  

My critical consideration of this question came to fruition as the result of a discussion with a fellow blogger about the viability, efficacy, and overall mission of charter schools in the American educational system.  There’s an extensive backstory with plenty of other opinions woven in so I ask you to please bear with me.  He cited what he called the “ideological instransigence” of the public schools as one of the reasons for why some people support the continued proliferation of charters and tax-funded vouchers for private and religious schools.  According to him, the public school system shamelessly indoctrinates its students into the ideological dogmas of secular humanism, socialism, and communism.  Just by virtue of it being public, he views the public school system “as a system aligned with the political religion that the state should provide everything to everyone, not just regulate the basic interactions between individuals.”  Since not every parent believes in this government-dependent communitarian ideology, he argues that public school officials should not be surprised that some parent’s opt to enroll their kids in charters and religious schools.  Indeed, he goes so far as to say that, “public school teachers who try to capture the souls of their students for the religions of environmentalism, global warming, and the like should expect parents to want to take their kids out of such an environment.”  My fellow blogger goes on to say that some parents feel that Darwin’s theory of evolution should not be taught as dogma in biology class, and that is why they are justified in supporting tax-funded vouchers “usable at schools which reflect their particular flavor of religious conviction.”

Now after making all these assertions, John (I will call him John now) goes on to ask the  question “Who has a right to educate one’s child?  Oneself, the parent, or does some other entity in the society have a claim on one’s children’s character and intellect formation?  Many here (many meaning the people who regularly comment on the blog on which were engaging in this discussion) seem to me to think that they have a legitimate claim on my child’s time and thought.”

From my vantage point, John is asking the wrong question in regards to his previous statements about the ideological nature of American public education.  The question is not who or what entity has the distinct right to educate America’s children.  No one reserves the “Right” to educate.  Education is a right, but certainly there exists no right to educate just as basic medical care is a right but certainly no one has the right to administer healthcare.  Furthermore, John’s argument seems to suggest that education is only a political act when it has a leftist, socialist, communist, communitarian flavor.  Obviously, this notion could not be farther from the truth.  Education is always going to be a political act.  Imagine if we were to fully return to the instrumentalized and mechanical pedagogies of the back to basics movement, in which the only purpose of education was to produce students trained to be obedient workers that would passively assimilate into the status quo of the society they were entering.  Imagine if social studies teachers all across the country were instructed by the state to whitewash the history of America and the world, to present our past as relatively benign and devoid of conflict, controversy, and suffering.  I suppose that if you were an ideological patriot who believes in the infallibility and general moral excellence of America and American values, you would view this type of education quite favorably.  But to claim that this type of education is not political is wholly insincere and ignorant.  Why should parents be expected to pull their children out of a learning environment in which global warming is regarded as a major issue and environmental stewardship is a key aspect of the curriculum, but sit idly by while their kids experience an education such as the one I just described?  Your answer could only be ideologically driven.

The question we should be asking in regards to the political bend of American education is, “What should be the purpose of education in a democratic society?

Eric Gould, author of The University in A Corporate Culture, argues that a democratic education must do three things:

“First it must be an education for democracy, for the greater good of a just society–but it can not assume that society is, a priori, just. Second, it must argue for its means as well as its ends. It must derive from the history of ideas, from long-standing democratic values and practices which include the ability to argue and critique but also to tolerate ambiguity. And third, it must participate in the democratic social process, displaying not only a moral preference for recognizing the rights of others and accepting them, too, but for encouraging argument and cultural critique. In short, a university education is a democratic education because it mediates liberal democracy and the cultural contradictions of capitalism.” (as cited in Giroux, 2007)

Now here Gould is describing education for democracy at the university level but I believe the same goal and consequent objectives needs to be applied to our public educational system as well.  After citing Gould’s quote, I began to critique further John’s viewpoint that parents have the distinct right to pull their children out of a classroom which they find ideologically objectionable.  What John is essentially advocating for is a neoconservative-parent led ideological assault on academic freedom which would no doubt be a requirement in maintaining a fascist society.  Now this kind of assault on academic freedom has occurred and is even occurring in our society today, but it hasn’t been led by neo-con parents.  Rather it’s been engineered by this massive neo-con/neoliberal ideological machine that came into fruition back in the 1970′s with Lewis Powell’s, a man  who would later become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Court, authoring of the infamous Powell Memorandum.  I will let Professor Henry Giroux, one of the victim’s of this infamous document’s vicious ideological assault explain its gist,

“Powell identified the American college campus “as the single most dynamic source” for producing and housing intellectuals “who are unsympathetic to the free enterprise system.” He was particularly concerned about the lack of conservatives on social sciences faculties and urged his supporters to use an appeal to academic freedom as an opportunity to argue for “political balance” on university campuses. Powell insisted that “the basic concepts of balance, fairness, and truth are difficult to resist, if properly presented to boards of trustees, by writing and speaking, and by appeals to alumni associations and groups.” The Powell Memo was designed to develop a broad-based strategy not only to counter dissent but also to develop a material and ideological infrastructure with the capability to transform the American public consciousness through a conservative pedagogical commitment to reproduce the knowledge, values, ideology, and social relations of the corporate state. For Powell, the war against liberalism and a substantive democracy was primarily a pedagogical and political struggle designed both to win the hearts and minds of the general public and to build a power base capable of eliminating those public spaces, spheres, and institutions that nourish and sustain what Samuel Huntington would later call an “excess of democracy.” (Giroux, 2007)

What has the Powell Memo wrought in the hallowed halls of American academia and beyond?

  • Persecution of Leftist Academics as well as foreign students, scholars, and American citizens critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush years (ex. Professor Tariq Ramadan, Professor John Milios, Professor Waskar Ari, Professor Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Hamid Dabashi, George Saliba…among others)
  • Proliferation of Right Wing groups such as Campus Watch, ACTA, Target of Opportunity, and discoverthenetworks.org-their purpose to reveal and shame radical professors who criticized the Iraq War
  • The inspiration and ideological basis for the Heritage Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the foundations of Richard Mellon Scaife, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation all associated with Koch Oil Family and other large corporations
  • These foundations financing over 500 neo-conservative/neoliberal think tanks over the last thirty-six years including the AEI institute, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the David Horowitz’s Center For the Study of Popular Culture (Giroux, 2007)

How has this network of think tanks served the American people?  Again, I will allow Professor Henry Giroux the floor,

“An ultra-conservative re-education machine—an apparatus for producing and disseminating a public pedagogy in which everything tainted with the stamp of liberal origin and the word “public” would be contested and destroyed.” (Giroux, 2007)

Think about the way in which our government operates today.  Think about the attack on public education being waged by both the corporate left and the corporate right.  Think about the demonization of public sector workers.  Think about the huge profit margins of large corporations.  Think about the austerity being imposed on the middle and lower classes while the big banks and financial elite who precipitated the economic meltdown  enjoy the benefits of deregulation, massive bailouts, and the Fed’s policy of quantitative easing.   Think about the collapse of what should be public, systemic concerns into private problems.  Think about our growing wealth inequality, the 1% growing and growing at the expense of the 99%.  Think about the perfectly legal corruption of our political system and ordinary American’s overwhelming feeling of apathy towards the fact that their dying democracy is rapidly becoming a flourishing plutocracy.  Would you say that these think tanks and the wealthy foundations which fund their operations have largely succeeded in their ultra-conservative/neoliberal re-education?  I certainly would.

So if you want an educational system based on the guidelines set forth by Mr. Powell here, well then say goodbye to any semblance of democracy and say hello to a corporatized neoliberal fascist America.  Just please stop trying to argue that this type of education is  somehow devoid of an ideology and political agenda relative to an education for democracy which may include in its science curriculum, units on global warming and environmental stewardship……because that’s just plainly false.

I proceeded to comment further on the impracticality and irrationality of John’s notion of allowing  parent’s to have ultimate ideological authority over what their children learn in school.  I used Columbia University’s investigation of Professor Joseph Massad to put this issue in context.  Back in 2004, he came under intense politically motivated scrutiny as a result of being featured in a pro-Israeli film called Columbia Unbecoming, produced by the David Project, an organization linked to the Israel on Campus Coalition.  In the film, an ex-Israeli soldier and Columbia student, Tony Schoenfeld, contends that Massad answered one of his questions in class by asking “How many Palestinians have you killed?”  Later accusations were made by a second student, Deena Shanker, that Massad had said in class “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom.”  Now under pressure from various pro-Israeli American media, Columbia brought together a faculty committee to investigate these allegations as well as others accusing Massad of intimidation, spreading anti-semitism, and penalizing pro-Israeli students with bad marks.  The committee found Massad innocent of these three charges, however it did lend credibility to Shanker’s accusation even though she provided three different accounts of the incident to three newspapers and three other students in the class came forward to say that it did not occur.  In addition, it turns out that most of the complaints against Massad were never lodged formally probably because they originated from students who never actually took his class.  All in all, after the investigation ended, the situation just proceeded to get uglier and uglier.  The right-wing media endlessly lambasted Massad.  Pro-Israel students started attending his classes just for the purposes of stifling intellectual debate.  It was documented in the Columbia faculty committee report that Massad had good reason to think that a fellow faculty member was surveilling his classes and encouraging his students to provide information on his lectures as part of an operation to get him fired.  The story of this muddied and tarnished academic even made it onto the New York political scene when Congressman Anthony Weiner publicly called upon Columbia’s president to fire him in the name of academic freedom.  Funny huh…..the idea that promoting academic freedom means firing the leftist professor for his political views?

Joel Beinin, Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University, wrote this in regards to Columbia’s decision to investigate the allegations against Massad,

“It is unclear why students’ emotional reaction to information or analysis presented in a classroom has any bearing on its factual accuracy or intellectual legitimacy. Undoubtedly many white student supporters of Jim Crow practices at universities throughout the American South in the 1960′s were distressed to learn that these practices were illegal and despised by many Americans. This did not make them any less so….Politically motivated groups, using evidence that was not made available to the public, pressured a major university into investigating its faculty based on criteria completely alien to academic procedures. Most of those who complained about professors were not students in their classes (and some were not students at all). As the Ad Hoc Report notes, some faculty members apparently recruited students to spy on their colleagues. But this was of less concern to the New York media than Columbia’s failure to prevent the teaching of courses critical of Israel, irrespective of the scholarly validity of the course’s content.” (as cited in Giroux, 2007)

Now Beinin is talking about protecting academic freedom against student’s emotional reaction. The same case can be made for protecting academic freedom from neo-conservative parent’s ideologically driven emotional reactions to their kid’s learning about global warming or stewardship of the environment or the theory of evolution.  I imagine most in America would say the parent has ultimate authority over the child.  What people often don’t realize is this response is problematic because it assumes that the parent always has the best interests of the child in mind in respect to his or her education.  Now if a parent has this proper understanding of the difference between indoctrination and teaching as a political act, and simultaneously sees a teacher trying to indoctrinate his or her child than by all means he or she should pull that child out of that class because it is in the interests of the child, but not because he or she has a right to do so. However, if the subject matter turns out to ideologically objectionable to the parent, such as a christian evangelical parent being opposed to a unit on evolution, than that parent absolutely does not have any right to pull that child out of that classroom. Now in a society such as ours, one can not force that parent to let that child remain in that classroom or else we risk becoming rather totalitarian but nonetheless the right still does not exist.  To put creationism up against the theory of evolution and treat them as if they have equal claim to intellectual legitimacy and therefore should be taught side by side in a science classroom is absurd.  This concept of fairness and balance never being able to be applied to pedagogy applies to public school teaching as well as university teaching.

The real goal of the neoconservative and neoliberal ideology, very similar, is to prevent students from thinking analytically and synthetically because of course then students would feel compelled to challenge the power structures that define their existence and perpetuate injustice while making the rich richer, the rest of us more docile and submissive, and the politicians more corrupt. It’s an insidious ideological project that is driving this, not a desire for balance or fairness. Those words are only a facade used to advertise their goals as ultimately benign and harmless.

John then proceeded to ask me to elucidate my position further on the teaching of environmental stewardship.  He posed the question, “Does teaching “environmental stewardship” include teaching the often disputed claim of man-made global warming?  John qualified this question by saying,

“I can easily imagine a responsible elementary school teacher, convinced that industrial activity and the burning of fossil fuels is putting an excess of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which must naturally increase the greenhouse effect and result in man-made global warming and that she or he might with the best will in the world teach from a “save the planet” perspective and try to get kids to “use less energy,” “bike instead of drive,” “support solar and wind energy,” and so forth. Would that sort of teaching seem desirable to you and would it seem—not fair and balanced—I know you think it is not possible to be fair and balanced, but would such an approach seem “scientific” to you rather than ideological?

Now teaching for environmental stewardship would no question have to include the topic of man-made global warming.  The real question is how do you teach students about this subject which combines both science and politics.  What I would absolutely not do to my students is start preaching about the evils of global warming and the ignorance of climate change deniers.  I would not impose one set of facts or one set of viewpoints on my students, and then test them on their memorization of those viewpoints and those facts.  That method of teaching conforms to what Paulo Freire dubbed the “banking system” of education in which students are treated as passive receptacles to be filled with and then tested on the contents of the teacher’s narration.  I have read enough about and experienced enough of the banking approach in my career as a student to be intimately familiar with all its pitfalls and problems.  Never do I intend to fall into its trap once I start teaching, and if I do well then I hope I will be aware enough to extricate myself from its clutches.  The banking approach to education teaches students not to take ownership of the learning process more than it teaches them about whatever subject they are supposed to be learning.  In my classroom, one of my objectives would be to teach students to be researchers of whatever topic we may be studying.  Now John says that global warming is controversial.  Indeed it is.  But the question I would pose to my students is why is it controversial.  Whose interests would a real and serious acknowledgement of man-made global warming by our government work against?  Whose interests would it work for?  Is the controversy legitimate or is it fabricated?  How does the mainstream media cover global warming as opposed to the alternative media and why?  What is the scientific research on global warming?  How valid is it, and if is indeed valid then why are there so many forces working to discredit it?  I would not answer these questions for the students in a lecture.  Of course this is a very general account of how I would conduct the class (Please don’t start picking it apart and accusing me of not having it all planned out because that’s plainly obvious and its not my goal with my writing here), but instead of listening to me lecture, the students would do some kind of research project in which they would locate the answers to these questions themselves within various primary and secondary sources.  I would also incorporate classroom presentations, small group discussions as well as a series of larger teacher-guided discussions in which students would discuss and debate the implications of their findings.  Time would also be dedicated to connecting the issue of global warming to my student’s lived experience by for example, exploring the ways in which global warming affects our local community.  Now besides teaching students about global warming, a unit formulated in this manner also has many other invaluable lessons attached to it.  Students will now regard the process of teaching and learning and the formation of knowledge in a different manner than they would under the banking system.  In the words of Paulo Freire,

“The students, no longer docile listeners, are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher.  Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality.  The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality.  Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge.  Because they apprehend the challenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context, not as a theoretical question, the resulting comprehension tends to be increasingly critical and thus constantly less alienated.  Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the students come to regard themselves as committed. (Freire, 1970)

Within the problem-posing method and regarding students as researchers, learning no longer represents a chore.  External motivators such as grades and extra credit which have actually been proven to distract from the process of authentic learning, cease to be the center of the student’s attention in respect to the educative process.  Now students focus on the ways in which their education is a practice of freedom, meaning that they are now able to critically and reflectively analyze “the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, a transformation.” (Freire, 1970)  I would add that students no longer view themselves as powerless, passive receivers of the status quo.  They now seek to transform their lives and the lives of others through the praxis, the process of reflection and reflective action.

 I sought to describe further the role of the teacher in the context of a critical classroom dialogue.  The teacher’s job is to keep the dialogue authentic and true to the praxis.  What does this mean?  According to Freire, the word is the core of dialogue.  The praxis, reflection and action, constitute the word.  If one is absent, the other suffers and as a result the word becomes false and the dialogue becomes empty.  Reflection without action is empty and meaningless, that  to complain about injustice without taking any action to end it, to lament the various social forces that shape your very being and dehumanize you without taking any action to counter them.  Freire calls reflection without action, verbalism. (Freire, 1970)  Action without reflection has its pitfalls as well.  It is rash and impulsive.  It does not take the time to stop and reflect on itself.  Indeed, Freire says, it is “action for action’s sake”.  He calls action without reflection, activism. (Freire, 1970)  Now I am not saying I disagree with Freire on these points, but certainly every classroom dialogue will not elicit action in the form of reflective action.  I do, however, believe that a series of classrooms dialogues should culminate in some form of action.  It is not enough for students to reflect, because, in the end, they will ask what they are reflecting for, and then what will you tell them?  As the teacher, you have helped create an environment with them in which reflection has brought them to a greater understanding of themselves and the world, and now they have this overwhelming desire to change it.  Verbalism is never enough.  Here is the argument for why our schools, especially in marginalized areas, absolutely need to be more integrated and connected to the social workings of the greater communities that surround them.  They are not their own separate and isolated entities, and it does our student’s a deep disservice to make them think that what they do in the classroom only matters in the classroom.  Classroom dialogue  needs to be conducted as a practice of freedom in which students become aware of “the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves.”  If they are able to view all aspects of their lives as dynamic processes in transformation, then they will be better equipped to take control of those processes through the praxis.  They will have discovered their own power and agency within their world.  What more could you ask of education?    

Now finally, here’s where I get to the question of “Do Any of Us Have A Right To Our Opinions?”  I have written a bit on what a reflective classroom dialogue should achieve.  But how does a classroom dialogue come to be reflective, and what role does the teacher play in making sure that it is truly reflective?  Obviously it can not just be a haphazard and disorganized discussion in which students talk over each other and try to impose the will their findings and opinions on others.  That would be wholly unproductive and eerily similar to the kind of commentary one hears from mainstream media talking heads such as Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity etc.  These are people who believe that they must always be correct just by virtue of them being able to shout louder then the person they may disagree with.  In a serious dialogue, the people participating must not only be willing to hear different points of view, but they must also be open to being transformed by the people with whom they are dialoguing.  Yes, this means that, in an authentic dialogue, no one is allowed to say, “I’m entitled to my opinion and your entitled to yours.”  What in the world does that oft-used phrase mean anyway?  Can anyone logically argue that opinions are entitlements on par with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  It’s a wholly illogical statement.  As I said at the very beginning of this post, this phrase is used as a convenient and seemingly polite escape from a conversation in which one’s views are being logically challenged. Whenever people say, “I have a right to my opinion and you have a right to yours”, it is usually a way to end a conversation that has the potential to be uncomfortable, liberating, and transformative.  I believe this is wrong, and it is not in either party’s to be so close-minded.  Certainly, within an authentic dialogue, this phrase has no place and it is the teacher’s job to ensure that it is not used by students as a mechanism to silence one another and thereby foreswear any further exploration of the topic at hand.  Indeed quite to the contrary, one of the primary roles of a critical educator, through the dialogue process, is to guide students in understanding the origins of their viewpoints so that they may engage in a self-reflective and critical interrogation of these viewpoints.  If the student can no longer argue for something, well then he or she has to be able to come to terms with that.  Obviously this job is not reserved for the teacher.  In an authentic dialogue, students also challenge each other to engage in this type of critical self-reflection.  Within this dialogue, students are even encouraged to challenge the teacher thereby severing the characteristic dominance that defines the teacher-student relationship within the banking mode of education,

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers.  The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.  They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. (Freire, 1970)

Works Cited

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Giroux, H. (2007). The University In Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

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I write to dialogue. So please, let's engage each other in some dialogue.

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