Yes, good teachers can be activists

A persistent myth about education is that the best teachers never bring politics into the classroom

Published January 14, 2018 11:00AM (EST)


Excerpted from "'You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!' And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education" by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Myth: “Teacher Activists Are Troublemakers”

Good teachers never muddy the water by bringing their personal politics into school. They should not be social workers or activists. Teachers need to stick to imparting knowledge of the subject matter. Future teachers should just learn methods and focus on practice; no more of this feel-good stuff like values, emotions, or theory—student achievement should be their primary concern.

Consider the problems created for the young Black students in Jenna Lee-Walker’s classroom at New York City’s High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry. Lee-Walker took it upon herself to create a curricular unit about the Central Park Five—young Black and Latinx men who spent their teenage years in prison after they had confessed under duress to a violent rape that they didn’t commit. After more than a decade in prison, they were cleared on DNA evidence and the late confession of the actual perpetrator. The students would likely identify with the young men, get “riled up,” and then look to Lee-Walker to help them process their insights and feelings—something she had neither the time nor the skill set to do. OK, she was teaching some factual material, true, but she was simultaneously and clearly spinning an activist agenda, and she could have taught better and more useful lessons without the controversy and all the drama.

It’s irresponsible and reckless for teachers to upset their students, to distract them from the work at hand, and to undermine and distort the classroom learning environment with their personal political agendas and so-called “social justice” teaching.

Teacher activists are troublemakers. When they bring their activist politics into their teaching, they should be fi red, as Jenna Lee-Walker was.

Reality check

Galileo Galilei, the “father” of astronomy and physics, or of modern science itself, depending on who’s summing up his life and contribution, is also the father of teacher activism. Galileo was born in Florence in the middle of the sixteenth century, and as a mathematician, engineer, philosopher, astronomer, and physicist, he played a leading role in the scientific revolutions rocking the world during the Renaissance.

In Bertolt Brecht’s play about Galileo, the great astronomer sets forth into a world dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: “The cities are narrow and so are the brains,” he declares recklessly, and intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo finds himself propelled toward revolution. Not only do his radical discoveries about the movement of the stars free them from the “crystal vault,” which received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his insights suggest something far more dangerous: that we humans, too, are embarked on a great voyage, that we are also free and without the easy support that dogma provides. Here, Galileo raises the stakes with his activism and risks taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority—and the powers of church and state strike back fiercely. Like Jenna Lee-Walker, this activist teacher needed to be stopped cold. And he was.

Under the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, Galileo denounced his discoveries—things he knew to be true—and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of the faithful, but he was exiled from humanity by his own conforming but dishonest word. In Brecht’s play, a disillusioned former student confronts the great scientist in the street: “Many on all sides followed you . . . believing that you stood, not only for a particular view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of teaching—in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute.”

There it is. Activist teachers insist on the liberty of teaching and the right to think at all, and they show their students by example why it matters and how it’s done. The line between commitment, advocacy, and activism is a wobbly one at best. It’s a contested and explosive space, and it’s surely in play today—activist teachers uphold the right to talk to whomever you please, the right to read and to wonder, the right to pursue an argument into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church or any other orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.

Too often science is taught as something fl at and formidable, but science is never an absolute set of certainties. Effective science teaching—activist teaching—frees students from the crystal vault, engages their curiosity and creativity, and encourages them to dive in and sail off on their own voyages of discovery and surprise. Each step in scientific inquiry comes to an incomplete and tentative conclusion that is still, in some important sense, up in the air, leading typically to next questions: What next? What else? Why does it matter?

“Science is a great and worthy mistress,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “but there is one greater and that is Humanity which science serves.” True, and science is fundamentally subversive—it demands free inquiry, a spirit of skepticism and doubt, a curious disposition of mind, humility, nuance, and a reliance on evidence. Meanings about the world and how it operates are constructed differently in different cultures and the drive for science education should not become license to do violence to the delightful and multiple lenses through which our world can be approached. Science is always queering the common sense by asking the next question, and the next. Science never stands still, and we might ask if science isn’t, after all, by its nature political and activist. The answer is yes, both historically and right now.

The accepted science of any particular moment proves to be incomplete and often incorrect. The dogma of Galileo’s time, of course, but more recently the pseudoscience of eugenics, promoted in the early twentieth century by the great lights of the Progressive Era. Pursuing their social improvement project, these scientists applied an interpretation of Darwinian theory to suggest that there were provable lower and higher classes and categories of human beings and that, indeed, social policy and law should give “natural selection” an assist, limiting immigration of people from Africa and Asia and curtailing the births of African Americans, Jews, and others they categorized as “idiots” or “morons” or “imbeciles.” Eugenics perpetrated discrimination and exploitation in the United States and was adopted by the Nazis in Germany as justification for promoting a “master race” and engineering the Holocaust.

Renowned theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson argues that science is a human activity, not just a set of settled facts. Indeed, science and math are also humanities—they are systems of analysis constructed by humans and changing with every generation. Science is an art form, not a rigid method. He writes:

Science is not governed by the rules of Western philosophy or Western methodology. Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures, rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children. Insofar as I am a scientist, my vision of the universe is not reductionist or anti-reductionist. I have no use for Western-isms of any kind. I feel myself . . . on the “Immense Journey” of the paleontologist Loren Eiseley, a journey that is far longer than the history of nations and philosophies, longer even than the history of our species. . . . I was lucky to be introduced to science at school as a subversive activity of the younger boys. We organized the Science Society as an act of rebellion against compulsory Latin and compulsory football. We should try to introduce our children to science today as a rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice.

Good teaching unsettles the questions and invites authentic inquiry. And yes, that has an activist edge. Powerful science and math education does not divorce numerical processes from the social context they live within. Deep learning happens when students work together to solve problems, often inventing the processes or rules necessary to solve those problems.

There is a fundamental incompatibility between the kind of faith in their own infallibility —their hallucinatory megalomania— that too many government leaders and members of the political class seem to harbor, and the practice of scientific inquiry. Politicians tell us that activism and teaching must be separated. In truth, they must be integrated, for they are the same thing.

“Activism” gets a bad rap in our society, and so do the teachers who take it seriously. Any mention of the word conjures vivid images of conflict or chaos, and many perceive that as somehow disconnected from the work of schools. In truth, however, schools in the United States have always served specific public goals that teachers are expected to be instrumental in embracing, enacting, and ensuring. These goals can be broken down into three broad categories: political, social, and economic.

Teachers are asked to induct the young into the polity and the larger democratic order, to prepare them to be actors and leaders in a free society. Teachers are also tasked with cultivating a sense of responsibility and participation in their students, and they are responsible to prepare students for the world of work or a career. Teacher activists can embrace these universal goals in unique ways and can work toward socially just transformational change inside and outside of the classroom. The politics of transformational change require challenging dominant interests and the beliefs and practices that sustain unjust power in everyday life. This change is not bound to or defined by the images of chaotic rabble-rousing demonstrations that the word “activist” may invoke in some. Instead, teacher activists are charged with being politically astute educators. Their work calls them to contribute to equity in outcomes for students, schools, and the wider community in concrete as well as metamorphic ways. An activist orientation develops when educators begin to understand their practices and themselves as responsible and vital participants in relationship to the dynamic society in which they live and work.

Yet the label invites discomfort for teachers who proclaim the title and for those who witness these proclamations. Teachers, and those who come to know and love teachers, often feel more comfortable with the other formal and informal roles teachers take on—mentor, parent, guide on the side, sage on the stage, and counselor. In the current era of standardization, accountability, and corporate-style schooling, the word “activist” often triggers an accelerated heartbeat and an audible sigh. Because of these reactions, teacher activists often find themselves on the defensive with colleagues or supervisors for paying too much attention to happenings outside the classroom, presumably at the expense of what’s going on inside it.

Despite the grumblings, teacher activists forge ahead, relying on their understandings of the inextricable nature of inside/outside class occurrences and the interplay of their richness to add real-world context for teaching and authentic learning. Politicians and policy makers may claim that teacher activists proselytize or that teacher activists are too radical, too political. The reality is that there are no politically neutral schools nor any entirely objective and completely detached teachers—there never could be and there never should be. Teaching is a human activity, embedded in social beings and in life itself; teachers who think they are striking a neutral pose are too often unconsciously or implicitly supporting the status quo. Those teachers should name and claim that stance and defend it if they choose. Teachers who question or criticize the way things are in this or that realm should also claim that space and defend their questioning and criticizing.

In 2015 and 2016, New York City public school teachers were pressed by administrators to remain silent about the impact of high-stakes testing on schools, teachers, and students. In the face of the massive, parent-led Opt-Out movement in New York City, administrators told teachers they did not have the right to speak up about the testing regime’s value, or lack of value. But parent and teacher activists continued to speak up and act out, and two results are noteworthy: the state shortened the exams, removed time limits, and agreed to suspend the practice of evaluating teachers based on student test scores. Then, the newly elected state education chancellor, Betty Rosa, came out in support of the Opt-Out movement, noting that if she had school-age children, she would refuse to have them tested. Thank you, Chancellor, and thank you, teacher activists!

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 made speaking up even more urgent, as many urban students are immigrants and/or Muslim and have concerns for themselves and their families based on the president’s xenophobic and racist statements. Class discussion and activist options make these issues real and solutions actionable.

Teacher activists draw on many frameworks—including multiculturalism, critical theories, theories of care, spirituality and love, multidimensional ethical theory, theories of participatory democracy, antiracism, and anti-oppressive education—to make sense of and reconcile the duality of their lives and work. Education scholars Michael Dantley and Linda Tillman synthesize these theoretical lenses with five specific characteristics that clarify the definition, application, and requirements of teachers as activists: (1) a consciousness of the broader social, cultural, and political contexts of schools; (2) a critique of the marginalizing behaviors and predispositions of schools and their leadership; (3) a commitment to the more genuine enactment of democratic principles in schools; (4) a moral obligation to articulate a counter vision or narrative of hope regarding education; and (5) a determination to move from rhetoric to civil rights action.5 Teacher activists pursue social justice.

Teacher activists are compelled to engage issues on the basis of a principle that Edward Said argues must be assumed to be universal: “that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously.” There are no hard and fast rules to follow in expressing this commitment—in either overt or less recognizable ways. But teacher activists take on a responsibility, according to Said, “to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whoseraison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” Said argues for someone who is “neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical . . . sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, everso-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do.” This unwillingness to accede cannot be simply a passive shrug or a cynical sigh; it involves, as well, publicly staking out a space of refusal. The core of activist teaching and inquiry must be human knowledge and human freedom, both enlightenment and emancipation.

This fulcrum is key for engaged teachers, although it in no way lays out a neat road forward—choose the way of opposition and you do not inherit a set of ready-made slogans or a nifty, easy-fi t party line. There are no certainties—and for some this might prove difficult, perhaps even fatal—nor any gods whatsoever who can be called upon to ease specific, personal responsibility, to settle things once and for all.

Activist teachers are out there on their own, with minds and hearts, an ability to empathize, to touch and to feel, to recognize humanity in its many unexpected postures, to construct standards of truth about human suffering that must be upheld despite everything. “Real intellectuals,” including teachers, Said writes, “are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth, denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority.” Said is uninterested in allying with the victors and the rulers, whose very stability he sees as a kind of “state of emergency” for the less fortunate; he chooses instead to account for “the experience of subordination itself, as well as the memory of forgotten voices and persons.”

Activist teachers maintain a kind of doubleness—something akin to Du Bois’s double consciousness, in which African Americans are compelled to see society and the world both as Americans and as Black people, this duality being a synthesis and, therefore, greater than either perspective alone. Teachers who embrace activism are both insiders and outsiders, participants in the fullness of social life but simultaneously removed from and slightly askance to any settled associations. They must cultivate, then, a state of steady alertness in order to speak the unwelcome truth—as they understand it—to power.

This does not mean that activist teachers are required to be, in Said’s term, whiny “humorless complainers” like Cassandra— the character from Greek mythology who, Said points out, was not only unpleasant in her righteous prophesying but also unheard. It means, rather, that they work at “scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories and peoples.” This, for Said, can be “a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.”

We live in a time when the assault on disadvantaged communities is particularly harsh but at the same time gallingly obfuscated. Access to adequate resources and decent facilities, to relevant curricula, to opportunities to reflect on and to think critically about the world is unevenly distributed along predictable lines of class and color. Further, a movement to dismantle public schools under the rubric of “standards and accountability” is in place and gaining momentum. This is the moment when teachers have to choose who to be and how to act.

However teacher activism is understood, in a dynamic, contested, and troubled world—a place as imperfect and out-of-balance as this one—troublemaking can surely be a good thing.

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