Teaching Politics & the Politics of Teaching.

by Alan Shapiro


"Politics: the total complex of relations between people living in a society"
(Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary)

"This is a great discovery, education is politics! After that, when a teacher discovers that he or she is a politician, too, the teacher has to ask, What kind of politics am I doing in the classroom?"
Paulo Freire, A Pedagogy for Liberation (with Ira Shor)

At the beginning of my career as a secondary history and English teacher I was given texts and mimeographed curriculum outlines. My history classes dealt first with the arrival in the new world of settlers and their encounters with Indians who, ignorant of property values, sold Manhattan for $24, attacked some settlements and disappeared from the text, only to turn up many pages later assaulting wagon trains heading west and then disappearing for good into reservations.

As for English classes I began with a grammar text that dealt with the parts of speech, sentence diagramming and correct English and Silas Marner, all of which I dutifully taught.

One of my first school assembly experiences featured an electrifying performance by Pete Seeger, who had 900 students clapping, chanting, stamping feet, and singing South African freedom songs. A day later the principal discovered who Pete Seeger was and ordered every record, printed song, and scrap of paper with his name on it confiscated.

It did not occur to me then that my teaching about the Indians accepted tacitly what, in another context, Edward Said calls "the politics of dispossession"; that my teaching about correct English accepted tacitly the politics of social class; that the principal's behavior reflected the know-nothing repressive politics of the fear-ridden 50s and accepted tacitly the politics of racism.

It took me far too long to understand something of the political character of the school and my role in supporting it, far too long to realize that daily I was a political actor but had some choices about what kinds of politics I wanted to do and whose interests I preferred to serve.

But in time I learned that if texts present blandly and uncritically regressive politics and they usually do it is important to help students learn how to examine them critically and consider an alternative politics. From whose point of view is the 1846-1848 war between the U.S. and Mexico presented in the text? What specific words or passages make you think so? Compare this excerpt from a Mexican text. On what do the texts agree? disagree? What might we do to resolve any contradictions?...What was the agreement between Republicans and Democrats that resulted in Hayes' 1876 election as president over Tilden (omitted from the text)? How can we find out? What was the impact on African-Americans of this agreement (omitted from the text)? How can we find out?

Our text declared "I didn't do nothing" and "I ain't going" incorrect English. Why? How did the authors decide? Why should or shouldn't you pay any attention to them? If they declared a usage "standard English, where did their information come from? What makes standard English standard?

Alfred North Whitehead writes, "A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth." Students need to understand that history and the rules of English are not simply out there to be recorded but are made and interpreted by human beings like the ones, for instance, who decide every day what constitutes "the news" for newspapers and TV channels.

Students need to learn to inquire and to interpret. This cannot mean simply answering the teacher's questions.They must learn how to formulate their own questions, how to pursue and weigh answers, how to recognize bias, how to make reasonable judgments and at the same time remain genuinely open to others' views and to the possibility of changing their own. For as Peter Elbow writes, "the truth is often complex and...different people often catch different aspects of it." But being open-minded does not mean being empty-headed, nor should it induce paralysis. While, in Zbigniew Herbert's words, remaining "faithful to uncertain clarity," one needs to consider whose interests will be served by whatever one does or does not do.

My classroom politics also demanded an examination of a host of processes, from how desks were arranged and where people sat to how class rules were made. How would students participate in the what, how and why of their learning experiences? How would those experiences were evaluated and by whom?

I discussed abandoning grades with students, one of whom asked the most revealing question I think I have ever been asked as a teacher: "How will I know I have learned anything if you don't give me a grade?" The politics of teaching had trained into this student and many of his peers a radical distrust of their own experience. They had accepted the preposterous idea that only others could tell them what they knew and understood and what they didn't, and that the state of their knowledge and understandings could be most meaningfully encapsulated in a number or letter.

A decision about changing the grading system is of course not normally within the range of teacher-student prerogatives. Nor are such other systemic features of school as tracking, curricula, and a hundred other matters either hallowed by unexamined tradition or determined by administrative fiat.  Grading, whatever its scholastic rationale, involves control of students, the promotion of competition and cheating, race and class and the teacher's personal politics; tracking, whatever its scholastic rationale, inescapably means the politics of class and racial profiling. Written curricula are political documents. They can be guides; they can inhibit inquiry and the time needed for it. They can outline controversial areas worth examination; they can sin by commission and omission. They can provide resources; they can clothe teachers and students with blinders and straitjackets.

I was well into my teaching career before the organization of unions with collective bargaining rights made possible the involvement of teachers in decision-making about such matters (and, in time, gave me the opportunity for 13 grade-free years of teaching and much else). As a union activist, I found myself in debates about the union's politics and whose interests they would serve. There is business unionism, whose interests are confined to salaries and working conditions; there is also a unionism whose interests include education.

"This is a great discovery, education is politics!" Paulo Freire said. That all of us teachers were engaged in politics was indeed a great discovery for me, for no one at Teachers College had ever mentioned it.

"The aim of education should be to teach the child to think, not what to think," wrote John Dewey, who also wrote, "All those affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them." And that means, among other things, teacher and student participation in determining what is worth thinking about.

And whose interests did I prefer to serve? Those of the learners and their education. John Dewey one more time: "Let us admit the case of the conservative: If we once start thinking no one can guarantee where we shall come out, except that many objects, ends, and institutions are doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place."



Alan Shapiro, a founding member of Educators for Social Responsibility, is author of many of the activities on this website. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org