The Politics of Teaching Children

Decades ago, an old preacher friend offered me this pearl of wisdom. Purposefully perverting Jesus’ oft-quoted words in Matthew, the preacher said, “For where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there is politics.”

Experience has taught me that the two or three don’t even need to be gathered in Christ’s name. They could be gathered to rob a bank, or unclog a commode. And, really, it just takes two to make politics. And by politics I mean very simply: the possession of power and the use of it to control others.

Because politics is unavoidable, we have hierarchies on which we agree (or say we do) that some will possess more power than others. And this brings me to the topic of public schooling.

A school makes for an intriguing study of the ways and means of power-wielding, because teachers and administrators possess all of the power in a school. This is by necessity, I’m told, for children and adolescents are not mature enough to wield power. So all of it must rest in the hands of the educators.

This sounds reasonable until one considers the wise words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I can tell you from experience that the power I wield over my classrooms will—if I’m not on guard—seduce and corrupt me into believing that I’m somehow more valuable, more intelligent, and more deserving than my students. And, if I’m not on guard, I start to see my students as little minions who must have my permission to speak and move.

Consequently, my students are inclined to beseech me—for good grades, for mercy, for advantage over other students, for access to the restroom. And, as a result, they become disturbingly compliant, almost to the point of addressing me, “I prithee, Lord. What dost thou demand of me?”

I’ve been teaching long enough to see that this power-laden model creates considerable danger to our society—in at least two ways.

First, a system that spends such great energy indoctrinating its students to comply with whoever holds power is practically guaranteeing that its students will not think for themselves, which means that they won’t take the risks necessary to challenge existing ideas or to create new ones. In short, such a system is a surefire way to prevent society from advancing.

Second, consider what this teaches young people about how power should be used. The hierarchies won’t go away, and some of our students, by whatever means, will get their hands on the control knobs. Are we not modeling that once you grab hold of power, then you must use it to demand that everyone comply with you? Doesn’t our example send the message: Don’t dare let anyone challenge you! Haven’t the politics of government and business given us enough of that crap already? Do we really want to train upcoming generations to do the same?

I don’t have a detailed solution to these problems, but I’ll pitch three suggestions.

First, teachers need to erase the idea that they’re the unchallengeable bosses, and instead ask students about their own lives, about their aspirations and frustrations, and then listen when students answer. Doing this has taught me that “I ain’t all that,” that I’m usually not the smartest guy in the room. Sure, because I have half a century of experience on my students, I may be the most knowledgeable. But rarely am I the most intelligent. Listening to my students also shows me that those whom the system labels as “low” (as in IQ) are often among the wisest.

Second, students need to know that it’s okay to challenge a teacher. It’s okay to ask some form of “Why the hell are we doing this, anyway?” And if the teacher can’t give a solid, reasonable answer, he or she needs to ask the student what ought to be done. Teachers are not obliged to agree with or do what a student suggests, but, by respectfully listening and considering, teachers will model that it’s okay to challenge authority, and it’s okay for authority to let itself be challenged. God knows our society desperately needs this lesson.

Third, I make a plea to John Q. and Jane Q. Taxpayer to demand of city councils, state and federal governments that their dollars be used to HIRE MORE (good) TEACHERS, so that teacher-student ratio will look like ten students and a teacher gathered around a table. This will create give-and-take dialogue among students and teacher in which each person at the table (including the teacher) is a learner, and in which all may know they’re in the presence of humans of equal value. To the contrary, when teachers are faced with 20+ kids in a classroom, they’re tempted to turn tyrant—simply to survive—and that benefits no one. (I know. I’ve been there.)

Thus, the politics of teaching children is greatly in need of reform. But we can make that reform if we set our minds to it. After all, we love to extol democracy, don’t we?  And is not the essence of democracy the sharing of power?

2 responses to “The Politics of Teaching Children”

  1. 10 to 1 sounds good to me, a baby boomer in a third grade class of 48, as I recall, fortunately with a teacher that broke the class into groups she could deal with 8 or so at a time.

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