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:
- You should adopt a political lens because it will help your students, and because it’s the right thing to do.
- 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.