- Teaching for Dissent
In Teaching for Dissent, Sarah Stitzlein argues that not only is American society obliged to include the concept of dissent in the educational curriculum, but that pragmatist doctrines provide encouraging rationale for its practice. When we think of dissent and education, they are usually at odds; images of student protests or a recalcitrant pupil are likely foremost in our minds. As the father of a rambunctious toddler, I am not so sure that teaching for dissent is high on my list of preferred preschool activities, but there is something to be said for making citizens aware of their right and democratic duty to voice opposition. Stitzlein is making the case that it is a civic obligation to practice dissent and that its necessity warrants classroom time amongst the competing interests of achievement test preparation and the objectives of a well-rounded education.
The justification for teaching for dissent is especially American; the Founders supported it (for the educated elite) and the pragmatists showed how it could be done a century ago. Do we still have the same type of dissent in mind today? Stitzlein recognizes that the angry debate between political parties provides the popular conception of dissent, but she is promoting a return to the ideal of the political philosophers like Jefferson and Paine. It is not just a valuable activity, she says, contrasting the way “dissent is [currently] understood as a negative right—a freedom to be engaged without government intervention—[while proposing] instead that dissent should be seen as a positive right—a freedom that requires certain governmental supports.”1 The main issue that her thesis must (and to some extent does) confront is a shift in our educational priorities to return to a liberal arts perspective. This is no small task in the era of No Child Left Behind and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) approaches to education, but there is precedent for looking to better options in the classroom.2
The book starts its argument at the time of the American Revolution, crediting Jefferson as the force behind the end of censorship in schools: “[Jefferson] believed that if schools were going to teach children to support good governments or dissent against bad ones, the government should not be able to control what information was being taught to students because it could bias them, thereby making their [End Page 107] consent illegitimate.”3 The Progressive era pragmatists “enhanced” dissent with their focus on the inquiry, questioning, and experimentation necessary to solve social problems in the dialogue of democracy,4 yet they also fell short of developing a unified and sustainable praxis of dissent.5
Defining dissent can be a contested affair. Its manifestation can fall along a spectrum from a polite difference of opinion to an impassioned challenge on the theoretical level or from civil disobedience to armed conflict on the practical level. Stitzlein works through various conceptions of dissent, culling out some of the negative connotations to arrive at a notion of effective dissent. “Good dissenters” are intellectual, practice moral sensitivity, and embody the pragmatist spirit as connected to certain dispositions in the form of Deweyan democratic habits.6
After going a bit further into the transformation of dissent from a negative to a positive right in chapter 4, the theme then requires that we envision teaching for dissent as a way to guarantee that we are progressively seeking what our government owes us, in contradistinction from the notion of dissent as a means of stopping the government from violating our fundamental rights. This shift in perspective is a logical puzzle, however; how would we frame issues as opportunities for positive dissent without having to invoke challenges to the status quo and thus work from a reactionary position? A neopragmatist approach might help here if we link the positive right of dissent with the liberal idea of social progress, that is, lessening cruelty in the world.7 Then we can see dissent as an open-ended practice where the objective is...