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.


How to argue for the appropriateness of scientists marching on Washington

This piece (“Science Has Always Been Political”) has a conclusion I absolutely agree with:

The argument for Science Marchers should not be to keep your government hands off of science; instead it should be that science and objectivity can have a complex political history, and that the discovery of facts can have a cultural and social basis—and “alternative facts” can still be lies.

And I’d think the argument for the importance of scientists marching politically should be straightforward. Scientists have no special obligation to avoid politics. The government is a major source of science funding, and so these institutions necessarily influence each other. If scientists have the ability to positively impact our society and government they, like any citizen, should act. The march has such a potential and, therefore, a political march on Washington is appropriate.

This is not the argument the piece provides, though, and I find the arguments provided unnecessarily convoluted. Not that this is like my area of expertise or anything. And, since Moses, Jenn and I had been going back and forth on this issue yesterday, I thought I’d write a post about it. Not because I have views that I’m confident in here but because I need space to stretch out on this discussion.

Here is our twitter discussion, by the way, in case you want to click through and see too much tweeting:

Thanks to Moses and Jenn for being so reliably thoughtful, and thanks to Moses for thinking to share this piece with me even though I’m sort of perpetually annoying about the relationship between politics and science/math.

The piece starts strong, from my point of view. Apparently, some scientists don’t know what “political protest” means:

Some very vocal scientists—even some of the March’s organizers—seem unaware of the political history of their profession, or they assume that the politics is a sideshow that can be separated from the business of uncovering the truths of nature. Even one organizer of the march tried to make this distinction,calling it “a protest, but…not a political protest.”

This is nonsense, and the piece correctly identifies it as such. A march on Washington that isn’t a political protest? I don’t even know what that means…

But the piece goes beyond pointing out this ridiculousness. Instead it argues that politics is inseparable from science.

What does that mean? First [Argument #1] that scientists have, historically, been interested in who is permitted to join the scientific community.

Questions about who could be a part of a scientific community and what kind of knowledge they could obtain were a matter of political control from the very beginning. The London-based Royal Society, established in 1660, initially restricted its membership to economically independent men, under the pretext that anyone else would lack the mental or moral capacity to set aside their self-interest and fairly observe the results of experiments.

Over 350 years later, some scientists still imagine their own purity, that quiet consensus within their own circles means that science is apolitical. (emphasis mine, -MP)

This is a political question, hence science is political.

I object a bit here. We slide very quickly from saying that who is permitted to do science is a political question into saying that science is political. Those aren’t the same thing, though. Granted that banning women from driving trucks would be political; is it political to drive a truck?

My objection here is entirely to the sloppiness of the argument. There’s no reason to overly complicate things: being a science professional puts you in contact with political questions. Why go the extra step to say that science — as a body of knowledge — is political?

A second argument [#2] for the political nature of science follows this first one. Scientists have gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion and many other views. These political factors influence their ideas, and therefore their ideas are political:

The science-purity position argues that if Newton’s laws are true and right, his ideas are an objective truth that has nothing to do with his sexuality, race, nationality, or religion. But this position (mostly advocated by people in positions of privilege afforded to them by race, gender, language background, or other identities) often conflates positions of political privilege for political neutrality.

I completely grant that Newton’s scientific ideas are influenced by his  identities and other views — every human is a whole human. Likewise, the inventor of the corkscrew necessarily had many identities and views that influenced his invention.

Is opening a bottle of wine therefore political?

I think we have to distinguish between Newton’s ideas and the ideas of Isaac Newton. Newton had his own ideas. Ideas have a life beyond the person who caused them to become well known, don’t they? (If they don’t, then is using a corkscrew a political act?)

Agree or disagree with my analogy, this seems to be taking us into very weird and abstract territory. What does this have to do with the appropriateness of marching on Washington?

third argument: Since some scientists have been political advocates, we can also be political advocates too:

The claim that politicizing science is something new also overlooks advocacy by figures in the history of science or casts the work of white male scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Linus Pauling as apolitical.

What if Oppenheimer and Pauling were wrong to politicize science? This is sort of a non-sequitur to me.


It imagines that ethical disasters such as eugenic sterilization,scientific racism, and using the imprimatur and prestige of science to justify sexual inequality and oppression are disconnected from the pure scientific facts themselves.

This is obviously an instance when science was influenced by racism and other awful political views. But it offers no response to the critic who says, precisely! Politics should stay out of science.

Argument #4: 

From a historical perspective, imagining science as apolitical is itself a kind of political argument

I’m not sure what “from a historical perspective” means here. Like, in the past, if you said science was apolitical you were making a political argument, so if you’re doing that now you’re probably also making a political argument? That’s my best read.

But we’re spending all this time trying to convince people that science has to be political. At what point is the article going to get around to telling us why science ought to be political?

The final argument [#5] is that since science is not objective — it’s truths are influenced by the people and societies who produce them:

The science march may be united in opposing “antiscience” abuses by the new administration, and it has attracted the interest of more than 100,000 people, but two camps are quickly coalescing: those who believe science is objective and those who know objectivity is social.


I don’t see how recognizing that the ideas of science have social origins impacts whether science is political, or whether scientists ought to be engaged in politics.

If somebody challenged the appropriateness of teachers striking, I would want to argue that we’re people and can do what we want. I’d argue that teachers need to protect our own interests, there will be no long-term harm to students, and that if you want to blame someone you should blame those who refuse to agree to our reasonable demands.

I wouldn’t go straight to the social science, the philosophy, to Plato or Aristotle.

The arguments in this piece don’t make a ton of sense to me, but more than any particular argument, I don’t understand the overall approach. If people are challenging the appropriateness of mixing science with politics, you don’t want to just argue that politics is inextricably bound with science. You want to argue that these political actions are appropriate.

Why not make that argument? Wouldn’t that argument resonate more widely than these very abstract points?



Teachers and Activists

Ta-Nehisi Coates identifies as a writer, but not as an activist:

Screenshot 2016-07-23 at 10.38.56 PM

This seems entirely sensible to me. Being a writer does not make you an activist, even though Coates’ writing is obviously politically relevant.

And (I’ll add) it’s good that to have both writers and activists. They answer to different calls and do different work. I wouldn’t want every writer to be an activist. I wouldn’t want every activist to be a writer.

Should every teacher be an activist? (Jose didn’t ask this question, but he got me thinking.)

We live in a world that finds it useful to use mathematical achievement as a loose guideline for how much money you should make. So, yes, there is something inherently politically relevant about teaching math. If you teach well, you have the chance to slip a person through the social machine.

Kids form their identities in our classes. School is part of the government. Every experience that a child has in school either supports or contradicts the hypothesis that their country has their best interests at heart. So there are political stakes to teaching math.

Does that mean that every teacher should be an activist? (Could be an activist? Is an activist?)

Perhaps this is a matter of semantics. What makes someone an activist? I take it the term refers to those who actively agitate for political outcomes. And perhaps that term can include many different forms of agitation, and maybe that can include the act of teaching math itself. Maybe teaching math in a certain way is a form of activism.

Personally, though, I think this runs the risk of mishandling the political energy of math educators. Teaching well is something teachers are already trying to do. What do we gain by seeing this as political activity?

I would rather see a more limited and ambitious use of the term. To be a teacher and an activist is to be a teacher who organizes or campaigns towards a political goal. And more teachers should be activists: they should form groups that push teacher organizations, districts and schools to adopt better policies.

Activism is important. It takes skill, not everyone can do it, and lots of people should. At least, that’s the activism I’m interested in.