The Importance of Intelligent Disobedience (from 5-15-16)

The room is full of students. And they are all silent. Absolutely silent. Waiting for the instructions they are about to receive. They don’t do anything until they are told to. They follow every instruction as it is given.

Of course, the instructions are given by a teacher… me. I am reading a script. I read it verbatim, as instructed. Because my job and teaching certificate depend on it. The entire room is being controlled by a outside authorities, the state of Florida Department of Education and a testing company, authorities that are not physically in the room, but which controls everything that is going on there as surely as if they were the puppet masters and we the marionettes.

How indoctrinated are we all into the cult of silent testing? I have had a student throw up – loudly – during a writing test, and everyone just kept working. During this year’s testing a student’s dog got hit by a car outside the media center where I was testing; much drama and blue police car lights. The kids kept right on testing.

For all the talk that floats around that kids are disobedient, in certain circumstances, they are incredibly obedient. They have been conditioned from early in their schooling to be obedient during standardized testing. Ironically, they are less obedient in class, where (at least in my view) what is going on has actual value.

Of course, I feel that what I’m doing in class has actual value mainly because, in many ways, I am being disobedient to what the System of school tells me I should be doing. I have been disobedient to edicts to follow scripted curriculum, to follow curriculum maps with “fidelity,” to not question “the test” in front of students, to use rubrics and data to track students’ progress, to make my teaching all about the test.

I have always been a good, compliant kid, even as an adult. I was rewarded for my style of teaching as district Teacher of the Year, and this helped reinforce my “good kid” psyche. Do good things, get rewarded. Within three years after winning, though, I discovered that the very things I was awarded for were no longer valued by the teaching profession. So I had a choice to make that caused me levels of stress that nearly drove me out of the profession: obey, and give up everything that makes teaching worth doing, thus shortchanging yourself and your students, or disobey and teach according to your conscience.

I chose the latter, but it wasn’t easy, even with the support of a great principal. Over the course of the past 12 years, I have grown a lot. I am much more comfortable being disobedient.

I might have saved myself a lot of stress and depression, however, if I could have traveled to the future and gotten myself a copy of the book I recently read from the library, the 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience by Ira Chaleff.

Although many lament the lack of obedience in our society, and feel that if everyone just “followed the rules” it would solve everything, Chaleff warns of the dangers of that approach. He is not against obedience, by any means. He asserts that in the majority of organizations, most of the time, obedience and following instructions is the only way an organization can function. So obedience, Chaleff says, is the best choice when the system is “fair and functioning,” the authority figure has legitimate authority and is competent, and when the order itself is “reasonably constructive.”

But he makes a very strong case that, appearances to the contrary, we are conditioning our citizens to be obedient to a fault. He gives examples of companies where those in power ordered criminal acts and the employees followed. He recounts the harrowing story of a phone call to a McDonald’s by a man posing as a police officer that resulted in a restaurant employee being confined and abused for hours by her supervisor and others—because they were just doing what they were told. The victim said she had always been to told that when someone in authority says to do something, you do it, without question.

He also reviews the famous (though perhaps not famous enough) 1960’s Milgram experiments in obedience to authority, wherein subjects were told by the “scientist” figure to give a person behind a window in another room electrical shocks, up to a fatal shock. The person in the other room was only an actor pretending to be shocked, of course, but the subject giving the shocks didn’t know this. Two thirds of subjects kept administering shocks up to a potentially lethal level because the “authority figure” kept telling them to do so. They were just “following orders.”

Add to this the history of “I was just following orders” excuses given by the perpetrators of atrocities, and the incidents of adult child molesters using their authority as a adults to keep their victims in fearful, silent compliance, and the need for “intelligent disobedience” becomes even more pronounced. Note the title of the book is not Disobedience for Its Own Sake; it is Intelligent Disobedience. The phrase comes from the training of guide dogs, who must be trained to be intelligently disobedient lest they follow orders from their master that get them both killed.

Chaleff gives examples of intelligent disobedience saving the day and transforming systems, including the Florida teacher who refused to give the FAIR test to her young elementary school students and ended up having the test removed as a requirement in those grade levels. He also critiques the realm of “classroom management” as being focused completely on absolute obedience and compliance to the teacher’s authority, of never, ever questioning what you are told to do. This can indeed go too far. I have often tried to point out to adults, and, more successfully, to students, that we are holding students to the very lowest level of Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Development: I don’t want to get in trouble.

Chaleff makes the case that intelligent disobedience must be taught in schools. Not being part of the school system himself, though, I don’t think he realizes two things. One, that questioning things should be at the very heart of the educational mission, and two, that teachers can’t give away what they don’t have, and they are being told to not question orders, to do what they are told, to not speak up. You can’t get students to question and learn intelligent disobedience if you, yourself, are not allowed to question.

For around ten years, our district Language Arts “used” the College Board’s SpringBoard program, a workbook that we were encouraged to use unquestioningly, day by day, page by page. I was intelligently disobedient about it, and have many reasons to believe that I was more successful than many of the teachers who followed it “with fidelity.”

Late into the “SpringBoard years,” as Common Core was being introduced, I sat at a Department Contacts meeting full of the lead Language Arts teachers at various schools, and when some of the teachers saw what the standards were demanding of students, some of these teacher leaders actually said, “How can we teach these standards if they are not in SpringBoard?” My goal here is not to debate the standards, but to note that obedience to the system was producing teacher leaders incapable of thinking about and making decisions about curriculum on their own.

Lots of people talk about the need to teach “critical thinking skills” (whatever they are), but we have set up a system where absolute obedience for teachers reinforces absolute obedience for students. Critical thinking involves questioning, and questioning can involve intelligent disobedience.

Chaleff laments the fact that intelligent disobedience is not being taught in schools and needs to be. As I finished the book and was talking to my wife – also an English teacher – about it, I had an epiphany. We English teachers are teaching intelligent disobedience – by teaching fiction. It makes me wonder if one of the main functions of fiction is, in fact, to teach intelligent disobedience. Think about how many novels are about characters standing up to authority. I am currently teaching The Giver to one class and Fahrenheit 451 to another (though Guy Montag isn’t always intelligent about the how of his disobedience, his why is right on the money).  I just went to see Captain America: Civil War yesterday. Intelligent disobedience again. Story after story, from Antigone to Star Wars to Harry Potter, is about the tension between authority and freedom, about characters being intelligently disobedient.

When I pointed this out to my wife, she said, “And what does Common Core want us to de-emphasize? Fiction.”

As I write this, I have just taken her thought a step further. When fiction is taught we are taught to “close-read” with students for literal meanings and “non-trivial” inferences. The standards do not encourage teachers or their students to connect fiction to their lives. That might encourage us all to emulate the intelligently disobedient characters we find there.

Every so often you read a book that seems to know you, to explain you to yourself, that helps you make sense of things in a new way. Intelligent Disobedience is one of those books for me. I highly recommend it.

After I return it to the library I’m going to need to buy my own copy.