A Quick One, On Politics and Teaching

I’m watching Grace’s talk (which you should watch too) and thinking about her question:

Is teaching necessarily political?

This is a question that I find tremendously tricky — though I sometimes feel alone in finding it so, and I often do a terrible job explaining my trouble. I’ll try again here.

In watching Grace’s talk, I see a difference between two ways of arguing for viewing teaching through a political lens:

  1. You should adopt a political lens because it will help your students, and because it’s the right thing to do.
  2. You must adopt a political lens because teaching is political, and you have to open your eyes up to reality.

The second metaphor is behind talk of being “woke.” Right? It’s saying things just are a certain way. You need to see teaching as political just as you must see the world as round. Wake up!

This reminds me of a favorite passage from Maimonides’ treatise on sin and recovery:

“Ye that sleep, bestir yourselves from your sleep, and ye slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance, and remember your Creator!”

To see teaching as non-political is to slumber; to realize that it’s not is to open your eyes.

For whatever reason, though, this language feels wrong to me. It’s the first way of putting things that I’m much more comfortable with. Not that teaching is necessarily political, but that we can choose to see it as such, and that we should because it’s the right thing to do.

(I feel nervous sharing these rough thoughts. Some might accuse me of getting caught up in language, but what can I say? The question is one of language, and I’m caught up in it.)

In a comment on one of Grace’s incisive posts, I tried to draw an analogy between teaching as necessarily political and teaching as necessarily spiritual to try to make sense of this all. I’ll quote it here, but definitely go and read Grace’s post in its entirety:

Is teaching spiritual? Well, to someone who sees the world through spiritual lenses it certainly is! Every interaction — each moment — is stuffed with spiritual potential. Our sense for the spiritual is, arguably, tied up with the experiences of kindness, connection, understanding. We’re also capable of casual cruelty, and that mundane disregard for other people is the opposite of what it means to be spiritually engaged in a moment. In short, each moment in teaching is potentially spiritual, so let’s go out and say it: teaching is spiritual work. (Even when you fail to sense it, or treat the moment as mundane.)

At the same time, the classroom is not a religious center and there is a great deal of spiritual activity that would be inappropriate in a classroom context. In that sense, teaching is not spiritual, i.e. there is not widespread agreement among parents, students, educators and other stakeholders that there ought to be spiritual activity in the classroom. (Certainly not that there ought to be any particular sort of spiritual activity present.)

So is teaching inherently spiritual? It depends what you mean.

(a) A spiritual person (I guess I am) could say, yes, absolutely. Teaching is, or it can be, spiritual work. (And the absence of spiritual meaning is taking a sort of spiritual stand, too.)
(b) On the the other hand, spirituality is not an agreed upon purpose of schools or schooling. So you can bring spirituality to the fore of your classroom, but there are risks involved. (Like losing your job, or offending someone who has a strong opposition to spirituality or your particular spiritual message.)

We might also ask, SHOULD schools be more spiritual?

All of this feels as if it’s closely parallel to what we talk about when we talk about whether teaching is political.

The way of thinking about this that I find most natural is that teaching is not necessarily political, though it’s possible to see all of teaching through a political lens, and I really think that you should. 

Why see teaching through a political lens, if it’s not necessarily political? Because it’s the right thing to do for your students. It’ll sensitize you to a host of issues that — whether or not they help increase test scores or get kids into college — will make your classroom a more humane place for your students. People need to be loved and understood; your students are people. A political perspective helps.

But I admit to being entirely unsure of this, and confused as to whether there is really any real difference here. Is there anything important at stake between these two ways of arguing for seeing teaching as political? Are these just two ways of saying the same thing, or two fundamentally different perspectives on politics and teaching?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if I’ve articulated where I’m at in a way that can convince you that I’m not trying to stir up shit or to cause trouble, and I also don’t know if I’ve convinced anyone that this is coming from a place of really sincere concern for doing right by my students. I don’t know why this question feels important and elusive to me, but it does.

And now go watch Grace’s talk! It really is great.

2 thoughts on “A Quick One, On Politics and Teaching

  1. [Some rough thinking, after an afternoon at the park in the heat.]

    The Multiverse

    This is from Two Worlds Exist, a poem from Yehoshua November:

    Two worlds exist:
    The higher hidden one
    and our earthly realm.
    Everything that occurs in this life
    flows down from the hidden world.

    For November, the hidden world is a the spiritual world, God’s world. Everything emanates from that world — it is the true world, whether one is aware of it or not. It is what stands behind reality; it IS reality. Those who do not sense this reality are like sleepers, and to them November and Maimonides address the call: awake from your slumber. In other words, get woke!

    To November, Maimonides, and countless other mystics and spirituals, the true world is spiritual. It seems to me that this is very similar to the contemporary call to get or stay woke, and to recognize the true political world that stands behind our everyday one.

    November’s Two Worlds is a meditation on the relationship between suffering and spirituality:

    When I was younger,
    I believed the mystical teachings
    could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
    do not erase sorrow.
    They say, here is your life.
    What will you do with it?

    For the world behind our world to be political, not spiritual, the political must also explain suffering. And it does, in terms of power, oppression, and bias. The mystical teachings don’t erase sorrow; neither do political teachings. But once you’re awake to them, it’s only possible to see sorrow through that lens, the lens of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, anti-Semitism.

    How long have people been seeing a world behind the world? I don’t know, but I figure it has to be at least as long as Plato. For him, our world was just matter — the real action was in the realm of forms. Matter is just the shadow of reality. There are two worlds, the world of shadows and the world of the Good, which was full of abstract entities that assign order and meaning to our world.

    Does the habit of seeing a world beyond our world reach even earlier? James Kugel suggests that ancient religion involved seeing the world of God, gods and angels as sitting behind our daily experience as like that which lies behind a curtain, a curtain that might be lifted at any moment. Being awake to this possibility constituted a part of ancient spirituality, and ancient awakeness to the possibility of meaning:

    The God of Old was not invisible or abstract. He appeared to people – usually unexpectedly; He was not sought out. Often, He was not even recognized. Many biblical stories thus center on a “moment of confusion,” in which an encounter with god is at first mistaken for an ordinary, human meeting. In the biblical world, Kugel shows, the spiritual and the material overlapped: everyday perception was in constant danger of sliding into something else, stark but oddly familiar. God was always standing just behind the curtain of ordinary reality.

    This might be something fundamental about being human, or at least a certain kind of human: we seek what stands behind the curtain, to open our eyes to reality.

    In principle, there’s no reason why we can’t be open to multiple realities. But in practice most of us stick to our own and some other. There are many realms: the political, the spiritual, the ethical, the beautiful. Would it be possible to see all these worlds as standing behind the world of our direct experience? I wonder if that’s just too many worlds to attend to; how much can one person handle? People tend to pick a single world that stands behind our own — that is, the true world. Reality is subsumed by it.

    When we say that teaching is necessarily political, or that science or math is political, or when we urge others to adopt a political lens for viewing their everyday lives, I think we’re asking them to wake up to a particular reality. While there’s nothing that necessarily would stop someone from seeing something like teaching through a political and a moral lens at once, people might only have room in their hearts for two worlds: our’s and one else. If that world is moral, spiritual, aesthetic or scientific there might not be room in their hearts for a political world as well.

    To continue the thought, maybe to awaken to the political world you have to have some sort of vacancy. Maimonides’ rhetoric of “awaken!” is most effective for those who see just one world, or for those who have already accepted the burden.

    I have many limitations as a person. I tend to overanalyze (see: everything). I also tend to get wrapped up in emotions. I tend to overanalyze AND get overly emotional, which can be a potent combination. But that’s just it — I’m an “over-” person. My inner world is crowded, not vacant. It’s getting stuffy in here.

    When I consider a call to see the world as necessarily political — and to awaken to the political reality hiding right behind the curtain — it can only come at the expense of being awake to some other reality. And perhaps that’s why the idea of a moral calling (put in a political direction) is easier for me to swallow then a political one.

    Two worlds exist in a person, maybe three, but four is pushing it. But no one said these worlds have to be small; indeed, they can be huge.


    1. And what if the world behind the curtain is the mathematical world?

      This seems to be the premise of the kid’s book Math Curse:

      The nameless student, begins with a seemingly innocent statement by her math teacher- “you know, almost everything in life can be considered a math problem.” The next morning, the hero finds herself thinking of the time she needs to get up along the lines of algebra. Next comes the mathematical school of probability, followed by charts and statistics. As the narrator slowly turns into a “math zombie”, everything in her life is transformed into a problem.

      But most of us turn on or off our “math lens” at will, and presumably we can do that with other lenses as well. But are there some lenses that should always be on, that should be our default?


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