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  • Writer's pictureDavid Youngblood

Why Dissent Matters

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”--Leonardo da Vinci

Classrooms thrive under dissent. I want students to dissent, it feeds engagement--that popular moniker floating around educational leadership circles today. Dissent involves a certain amount of risk both for the initiator and the recipient. It’s a scary prospect to be sure, but not one that should be feared or avoided. The roots of our nation, of all progressive nations, involve the tolerance of dissent.

All too often however, the administration within school systems has been too fearful of this necessary tool of progress and advancement. Instead, it prefers the complacency and ease of the “company men” (see Rachel’s blog: Rage Against the Machine). Going along with a suspect system does little to nothing to ensure that the system flourishes, improves, and is in the best interest of its adherents--students and teachers (or “customers” as the current lingo might favor).

Where does dissent arise? What feeds it, nurtures it, and keeps it a necessary and what should be “sought after” ingredient for success in a system? It’s a head-scratching moment to be sure when we consider that the course of education prefers the meekness of the sheep, compliant and ever-headed toward comfort and ease (and shearing), to the cunning and concern of the shepherd, who considers and targets and is constantly aware of and evaluating the possibility of every action, every movement. Commerce and efficiency adore sheep, progress and the soul need shepherds.

What are the models for dissent in literature? We begin with the much revered Socrates and his famous gadfly--Socrates reminds us that all societies need a “gadfly” to sting the “steed” of state into acknowledging its proper duties and obligations. “The wisdom of men is little or nothing’” Plato quotes his master. He goes even further as we look at his recollection of Socrates’s speech given before his execution for “corrupting Athenian youth.”

Plato’s Apology:

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long 1and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

But certainly there are others providing some guidance and assertion of the importance of this idea of dissent. Without these models, what is to become of each of us, of our communities, of our state?

Oliver Twist and his cry of “Please, Sir, I want some more.” Montag in Fahrenheit 451, who secrets texts, at cost, that he intuitively understands as necessary and proper to advance rather than stagnate the state. Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness who both see the destructive seeds of “groupthink” upon an unthinking power structure. Even our children see the fruits of dissent: it is there with Max and his wolf suit and Harold and his purple crayon, and countless others.

Why has the idea of dissent become unpopular in education? Think about the idea of efficiency in the economic system that is becoming education. Why is it possible for me, a common classroom teacher, to sit through sessions of staff development that glorify the idea of the company man as someone who agrees with the philosophy and purpose of the system, and as such, is necessary and to be admired? We must all ride the same bus. “Four legs good. Two legs bad.”

Agreement with the philosophy and the end goal need not be agreement with the methodology, and it is the methodology that must and needs to be constantly and consistently called into question. We need gadflys to keep us honest. Gadflys need not be correct all the time, Gadflys are by no means to be looked to as the solution, but they do represent the currents and unanticipated obstacles that often appear to disrupt the flow of the ship of state. They are necessary and essential to a healthy system.

I love dissent in my classroom--it reminds me that my students are alive and thinking and thirsting for something better. After all, our goal as an education system is or should be the promotion of good citizens not good consumers.

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