At the end of the summer, the day before I went back for pre-planning for the new school year, I went with my teen-aged kids to see The Dark Knight Rises, the last movie in Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy. I really liked it, more than I expected, but one scene stood out for me, a scene not about Batman himself, but about a police detective named John Blake. Blake is attempting to get some of Gotham City’s children out of the city on a bus before a nuclear bomb goes critical and destroys the city. Another police officer, going on old orders, refuses to let the bus cross the bridge to safety, because if he does, the bomb will go off. As Blake points out, the bomb will go off anyway in a matter of minutes.
The police officer blows up a section of the bridge anyway, to prevent them from leaving, saying he is “Just following orders.”
After Gotham is rescued (sorry if that was a spoiler), Blake leaves the police force in disgust at the blind obedience of his fellow officers, saying that sometimes “structures become shackles.”
We live in a time where structures are indeed becoming shackles– especially in education. District staff, principals, and teachers are all being asked to just follow orders. By implication, students are as well. The message is, “You are an employee. You do as your employer tells you.” I’ve also heard the message, “It’s the law now, so you’ve got to do it.”
In other words, follow your orders. Now most of the times following orders is a good and proper thing. Society couldn’t function without some rules. It doesn’t matter which side of the road drivers in different countries ride on– British drivers drive on the left, we drive on the right– but it does matter that everyone in the same country follow the same rule. If drivers don’t, disaster ensues. Following orders for such obviously useful rules is not just the right thing to do– it is the only safe thing to do.
But obviously not all rules or even laws are so obviously useful and right, and when laws and rules conflict with a person’s higher values, then dissent is not only a possibility– it should be a necessity. Without dissent there would have been no Declaration of Independence, and no United States of America. Without dissent, we might still be living in a segregated United States of America. Without dissent, women might not be voting yet.
Of course, not all dissent is correct or constructive, and some dissent can actually become violent and destructive. But healthy dissent is necessary for a society to stay healthy. Or a school system.
Back when education reform started– around the same time my teaching career did, in the early 90’s– the reformers were the voices of dissent. They said the system favored the job security of teachers over the education of children. They said we needed to be reaching our lowest performing students. I think their dissent was valuable. I wonder if their solutions were really what was needed.
Now the reformers say that if we don’t like the reforms, we are in favor of the “status quo.” I hate to tell them– but reform is the new status quo. There are teachers who have never know anything but the education world of standardized testing and standardized teaching. And how many hundreds of thousands of children have gone through a system that treated them like so much data and then spit them out the other side?
Over the past few years, I’ve heard people “in charge” say things like this:
“It’s the rule now. “
“You need to just do it.”
“It’s been signed into law.”
“You are just an employee.”
“You need to follow the rules.”
Those statements only go so far. What if you were ordered to beat a child, or keep teaching in a contaminated classroom? You’d refuse– you’d dissent. Well– how far does dissent extend? At what point do you stop saying “Okay” to everything and speak up?
They are all the equivalent of a parent saying, “Because I said so.” I’ve heard “because we said so” invoked to defend the Common Core Standards, yet the standards themselves promote using evidence to make your point. The Common Core would give give its own defenders an “F” for saying “Because I said so.”
It used to be that we could talk about textbooks and have professional opinions of them. Now we have programs and reforms coming at us that we are supposed to accept without question. We are discouraged from thinking for ourselves. “Just do it.” The slogan takes on a different meaning under these circumstances. As Diane Ravitch has stated, how can we expect teachers to teach children to think for themselves if they are not allowed to think for themselves. Any reform of education that discourages thinking is an irony, a paradox, an oxymoron.
I am an English teacher. I do more than teach good grammar, reading skills, and writing skills. My calling– and I do think it’s a calling– is to not only teach the What and the How, but the Why. Language is here to help us make sense of life. Language has power– our words and ideas can literally change the world. Our nation has as one of its foundational principles– written down in the Bill of Rights– the importance of the free exchange of ideas.
To teach my students that reading and writing are about only career and college readiness violates my calling as a teacher. Reading and writing encompass career and college, but they also encompass so much more. When everything I am tells me that certain policies will hurt kids and ultimately hurt the teaching profession and the nation, then I must speak up about them. To not speak up is to violate the very foundations upon which my subject matter rests. If English teachers, the people who teach our children to think and write and speak, feel censored, unable to tell the their truth, then our profession is meaningless.
So when I speak up here as a dissenting voice, as so many teachers are, I am carrying on a proud tradition. When I satirize and parody education reform by making fun of the FCAT with the U-SKUNK, or the Common Core Standards with the Standard Standardized State Standards, I part of a long line of satirists who have tried to make people see things in a different way through humor. My voice may be small, but that is no reason to stay silent.
To look around you and know that what is happening is bad for kids, and yet remain silent because you fear a slap on the wrist, a bad job evaluation, or even getting fired, is the real crime. If nobody says anything against them, the pushiest voices win, and the structures they build become shackles.
As the bumper sticker says, “Speak up, even if your voice shakes.”