The Politics of Calling for No Politics

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (HBO Documentaries, 2013) offers a window into the intersections of music, religion, and politics in the context of Vladimir Putin’s Russia:

On Feb. 21, 2012, members of the feminist art collective Pussy Riot, donning their colorful trademark balaclavas, or ski masks, participated in a 40-second “punk prayer protest” on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral before being detained. Arrested and tried for trespassing, wearing “inappropriate” sleeveless dresses and disrupting social order, Nadia, Masha and Katia were accused of religious hatred in a trial that reverberated around the world and transformed the face of Russian society.

The Guardian UK: Pussy Riot on Putin, ‘punk prayers’ and superheroes

The film ends with two of the three band members still in prison, their unwavering ethical statements expressed in court haunting viewers along with the sometimes shocking and always confrontational performance art detailed in the backgrounds of these young women.

As I have written before, the expression of political commitments is often denied in certain contexts, notably for educators. The ongoing narrative around Pussy Riot triggers, I suspect, thoughts of the Dixie Chicks, an American country/pop group who watched their fame turn to infamy by a single political comment:

It was 10 years ago this week — as the country was barreling toward war with Iraq — that Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, stood in front of a packed house in London and said:

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

Especially since the politically charged counter-culture 1960s when US popular music merged with making social and political commentary, musicians and musical groups have capitalized on and suffered under their choices about being political or not. Athens alternative group R.E.M. and California-based CAKE are but two groups who have often worn their politics on their sleeves, both garnering and alienating their fans.

For musicians, the argument runs toward a purist view of entertainment: Just entertain, detractors exclaim. This purist view, ironically, is a political statement, one that determines for all musicians, all artists the singular role of art, a sort of art for art’s sake. A long tradition supports this view, one confronted by John Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

The British Romantics argued for the immutability of art in its pursuit of beauty, even over this life. But other poets have seen quite a different world, and quite a different view of poetry. Andrew Marvell urges his coy mistress: “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.”

From Keats to Marvell there is a sexual politics at play, underneath competing views of the roles and purposes of art. A parallel debate exists about the rightful place of politics in the classroom.

Stanley Fish and the Politics of “Academicizing”

Stanley Fish plays the same note over and over in Save the World on Your Own Time, a purist view of being academic: “That’s what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities” (p. 11). Fish’s view of academics is “simple” (his word) as it entails only bodies of knowledge and analysis of those bodies of knowledge.

Fish also claims his argument that educators must be apolitical in the classroom is a minority view, an assertion that has some credibility at the university level (although not much), but is completely off-base when applied to K-12 teachers. Traditional and current expectations for teachers remain inside a belief that teaching can and should be objective—the teacher persona entirely divested from the politics of the person assuming that role.

In essence, Fish is embracing and even celebrating the phrase “merely academic” as he sees academic pursuits in their purest sense disassociated from the real world.

While I do not want to revisit Fish’s discounting the argument that everything is political (which he deals with multiple times and in a somewhat uneven way), I want to confront two problems I see with continuing to argue that teachers should avoid being political in the classroom.

My first concern lies with Fish’s framing of the purposes of education. His definition of academics is certainly compelling and shared by many, but equally credible educators embrace a different view of education, one couched squarely in and of the world. The social reconstructionists of the early 20th century embraced education as a lever for changing the world. Social justice and critical educators also start with the premise that education is historically bound and inherently political, as Kincheloe (2005) explains:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (p. 2)

To take Fish’s apolitical academic pose in the classroom becomes a political act of maintaining the status quo, the norms, regardless of any instances of injustice. Within Fish’s parameters of fields of knowledge and analysis, the politics of who decides is left unchecked, unacknowledged.

For critical educators, there is a moral imperative to move beyond fixed bodies of knowledge and technical analysis, thus moving toward raising student awareness that some agent(s) of power drive(s) a consensus within a field as an initial step to providing that student opportunities to develop her agency either within that consensus or against it.

In its simplest form, Fish appears comfortable with the disassociated academic environment in which acquisition of content (Freire’s “banking” concept) and analysis are all that a teacher should approach. This appears valid only if Fish’s definition of what academics should be is also embraced.

Thus, my first concern is that Fish has every right to his definition of academics and the role of the teacher within that, but he doesn’t have the right to define academics for me or anyone else.

My argument about the role of the teacher is also couched in a tradition that embraces education as social reconstruction and critical pedagogy, seeking social justice; thus, the role of the teacher is necessarily political.

That brings me to my second concern—Fish’s extended discusion of postmodernism and his dualistic, and distorted, representation of social justice, critical educators.

Fish uses Mark Bracher to represent educators who embrace “everything is political,” and builds to a powerful and somewhat appropriate comment: “In [Bracher's] view teaching is indoctrination and the only question is, will it be our indoctrination or theirs?” (p. 176).

And it is here I both agree with Fish and have to take exception to him. If his characterization of Bracher is accurate (I’m not going to argue about that), then I agree with Fish and share his concern about anyone who sees teaching as necessarily indoctrination. To conflate “all teaching is political” with “all teaching is indoctrination,” however, is falling into a false and misleading dualistic trap.

I also agree with Fish that the classroom should never be partisan. I have made this argument before, but calling for political teaching is not calling for partisan politics in the classroom:

I will concede and even argue that classrooms, teachers, and education in general should avoid being partisan—in that teachers and their classrooms should not be reduced to mere campaigning for a specific political party or candidate. And this, in fact, is what I believe most people mean (especially teachers) when they argue for education not to be political.

But, especially now, we must stop conflating partisan and political, and come to terms with both the inherent political and oppressive call for teachers not to be political and the inevitable fact that being human and being a teacher are by their nature political.

That said, critical educators reject Fish’s “academicizing” and education as indoctrination; as Kincheloe (2005) clarifies:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

Embracing political transparency as an educator is rejecting both apolitical posturing and indoctrination.

Ultimately, I do support Fish’s right to his view of education and the role of the teacher, just as I support those musicians and artists who seek entertainment and art for the sake of entertainment and art.

But I remain in solidarity with the Pussy Riots, R.E.M.s, CAKEs, and critical educators who see education as integral to not just life, but a better life—as complicated an endeavor as that is fraught with the possibility that we make in our sincere efforts mistakes.

Being fully human is embracing our essential political nature, and as a teacher, I must be fully human.

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26 thoughts on “The Politics of Calling for No Politics

  1. I would really take what Stanley Fish as to say with a grain of salt. Did you know that this distinguished literary scholar not only lacks a law degree but also has also served on law faculties and even as an assistant dean in the Duke Law School. What business does he have teaching law or anything else?

  2. Excellent post! I wholeheartedly agree that all teaching is political, and that in order for education to be a truly liberatory and socially transformative process it must be politically transparent. I do however take issue with your statement that Fish has a right to his view on education and the role of the teacher. It has always confused me when someone says “I have a right to my opinion on this” as to what this phrase actually means. As a critical educator, I am sure you would agree that the opinions of all individuals are socially constructed. If one were to follow logically from this point, it would meant that no one’s viewpoints are exclusively their own but are constantly being constructed and reconstructed by outside forces. Indeed one of the primary roles of a critical educator, as I understand it, is to guide students in understanding the origins of their viewpoints so that the student may engage in a self-reflective process and critical interrogation of those viewpoints. Joe Kincheloe refers to this understanding of etymology, or origin of culturally validated knowledge, as one of the four aspects of postformal intelligence. I guess I’m saying that when people say “I have a right to my opinion” it is more often than not a way to end a conversation that has the potential to be uncomfortable and liberating. I believe this is wrong and its not in anyone’s interest to be so close-minded. It is certainly not someone’s right to act in this manner. Because, in the end, even one’s tendency to end a potentially transformative conversation in this manner is influenced by social forces Now people do it. One can not force someone to not do it. I suppose that’s what we mean when we say “I have the right.” Of course force is never justifiable and it’s not going to work either.. But nonetheless I see defining one’s own opinion and the opinion not to discuss one’s opinion any longer as rights as inherently problematic.
    I guess the best example in reference to my argument would be to ask the question “Does a parent have the right to pull their child out of a classroom which they find ideologically objectionable.” I imagine most in America would say yes because they would say the parent has ultimate authority over the child. What people often don’t realize is this response is problematic because it assumes that the parent always has the best interests of the child in mind in respect to his or her education. Now in your post you make the distinction between indoctrination, a teacher imposing his or views on the students, and what Kincheloe describes as the teacher taking a position and making that position understandable to the students. Now if a parent has this proper understanding of the difference between indoctrination and teaching as a political act, and simultaneously sees a teacher trying to indoctrinate his or her child than by all means he or she should pull that child out of that class because it is in the interests of the child, but not because he or she has a right to do so. However, if the subject matter turns out to ideologically objectionable to the parent, such as a christian evangelical parent being opposed to a unit on evolution, than that parent absolutely does not have any right to pull that child out of that classroom. Now in a society such as ours, one can not force that parent to let that child remain in that classroom or else we risk becoming rather totalitarian but nonetheless the right still does not exist. What do you think?

    • I don’t think it makes any sense to say that a person has a right to do something, but only in circumstances or for reasons of which you approve. They either have a right to do it or they don’t. Conditional rights are not rights.

  3. Children need to be taught to think, analyze, evaluate, make hypotheses, test them and articulate their thoughts, verbally and in writing. However, I don’t think children should be “indoctrinated,” with one person imposing his or her point of view with disregard to the point of view of the child. Many people — teachers, friends, and family — will inform the child, provide a pool of information, motivation and encouragement. Ultimately, the child will choose to remember certain things and decide to think a certain way. Politics is just another name for human society interacting and governing its interactions. We all need to learn to think critically about politics, and we can never do that if politics never enter the classroom. Woe to the child without a voice. Then we have all lost something precious. All our voices matter.

  4. As a musician, I think my desire to keep my music apolitical IS a political decision, and one that I’ve made consciously. I absolutely WILL NOT set boundaries in my music. We have enough of them. There’s a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama that states that the most dangerous human tendency in the world is us vs. them, and I will not create a “them” in my music.

    I respect people who feel otherwise since, like I said, my decision is at its essence a political one. Maybe they’re stupid fantasies, but I like the idea of two people listening to a piece of music I’ve done and saying, “Hey, that speaks to me,” even though they are both very different. Wouldn’t it be a great thing even for a white supremacist to hear one of my pieces and turn to the person next to them and say, “Wow, that piece reminded me of my life,” and for that person to say, “Yeah, me too” … and for that person to be a Jew. Or lesbian or gay.

    I want to make it possible for my music to be listened to and enjoyed by people who are willing to risk having an artistic experience with others who may not agree with them. Sure, it’s a fantasy, but it’s a nice one although highly unlikely. Most people like art because it identifies their jersey color. They choose to experience the art not because of its beauty, appeal, or transformative power but simply because it marks their tribal membership. “If I’m seen to listen to this music or wax rhapsodic over this painting, will it make me look like the Right Sort to the Right Sort?” I’ve got no time for that. I WILL NOT draw a boundary or a line in the sand with my music. I refuse to do it. Some people made a big thing of performing to integrated audiences, and that’s how I see it. I want to share my music with people who are willing to risk having an artistic experience together with someone who they feel is The Enemy, even if that’s only five or six people.

    And since we’re only talking maybe five or six people in the universe willing to do that anyway, this approach is not a safe or lucrative one. We live in polarized times, with A and B type people. If you publicly identify as an A person, the B people hate you but the A people have your back, and vice versa. Refuse to identify one way or another? Everyone hates you and no one has your back.

    Again though, for me that’s a political decision at bottom, so I completely respect people who put more granular politics into their art.

  5. Bah! Full of quibbles and equivocations. You define all of human experience as political, denounce partisanship in the classroom, then pretend one form of it (yours) is ethically superior.

    • I would like to think that teachers do more than just force feed their students raw facts to be regurgitated on command. If there were no more to it than that we wouldn’t be able to teach art, or music, or literature, or languages, or… the list is endless.

  6. It as the iceberg more hidden than revealed /the girls through the centuries try freeing people from religious brainwashing. People’s
    brainwashed state see them as the devil / not the angels they are. The girls in lives having known torture as burnt at the stake yet will
    continue in the effort to free the religious brainwashed /its a action
    their heart desires / a angel can’t be anything other than an angel.

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