Public Education, Justice, Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Refusal—is there a Common Denominator?

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the 1970s, I took a course in political philosophy.   As part of the course, I had to write a term paper.   The 1970s was a very turbulent time in America and so I decided that my paper would be about the right of protestors to engage in civil disobedience in their opposition to the Vietnam War.   When I started to research civil disobedience, I started with two premises:  One that the protestors and draft resistors were absolutely right in their justification to take over buildings, burn their draft cards and even attack police and two that I understood what civil disobedience really meant and when it was justified.   When I was finished with my research under the guidance of a true educator, I ended up having more questions than answers.

This professor taught me that a truly educated person is one who is comfortable to walk in the shoes of those you disagree with.  Only in this way can one garner a true understanding of what various concepts really mean.    Doing this increases one depth of understanding and clarifies all the “isms” that people use—more as clichés than anything else.  It also enables one to make connections and synthesize different ideas.

Originally, I planned to write about how we educators may need to use civil disobedience in order to try to stop those who want corporatize and privatize education through charters, vouchers, and de-professionalizing teaching.   Then something happened in the last week that made me rethink everything that I planned to write about.  The event was the Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage the law of the land.   All of a sudden I started to hear the word civil disobedience coming from those opposed to the ruling.  What I did not hear was the specific type of civil disobedience those on the right planned to engage in.  Then it became clear to me why the myriad of GOP presidential candidates and fundamentalist religious preachers could not describe exactly how they planned to be civilly disobedient.   It is because they do not have a clear understanding about when civil disobedience is justified or what exactly is civil disobedience.  And obviously next I began to think about whether public educators have a justification to be civilly disobedient.

We in public education and those who oppose the Supreme Court ruling have something in common.   We both believe that laws have come into existence, which are unjust.   In addition, we both believe that we are absolutely right in our world view.  Where we differ is in how we define the philosophical concept of justice. One side views justice as coming from some ephemeral being while the other side views justice as a concept that is a human construct.

Recently, I posted an article on Facebook which elicited an angry response from a friend.   It was an article from a clergyman who had a different interpretation as to what the bible says about homosexuality.   My Facebook friend believes that what a particular bible says is immutable because he/she knows that it was written by god and anything written by god can never be changed or interpreted in a different way.   Here is someone who is unable to walk in someone else’s shoes to gain a deeper understanding of the those who see the world in a different way.   Obviously, what the bible says has been reinterpreted many, many times.   One just has to look at history and see about two thousand years of religious wars and conflicts over the nature of god and the truth in three different bibles. (By the way I am purposefully not capitalizing the words bible and god for reasons that will soon be obvious).  The fact that there are three different bibles, canon law, talmudic law and sharia law as well as a myriad of commentaries on each is the evidence that our religious and spiritual understanding of god and our relationship to a possible supreme being has changed many times over the centuries.   Even the Jewish bible or old testament to Christians and Moslems changed in its spiritual understanding of the nature of god and the universe.   Biblical research reveals that different parts of the bible were written at different times by different men.  For example, there are two stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  In addition, the modern conception of heaven and hell does not exist in the first five books.  Those ideas would come into Judaism and later Christianity from the Hellenistic world.   Now I know what I am saying may offend some who read this.   I bring this up to show that free and open inquiry through education and study made our understanding of how our Western religions developed and changed possible. I do not capitalize the word bible because there is more than one bible and I do not capitalize the word god because there is more than one conception of god.  If there was only one interpretation of the bible there would not be hundreds of Christian denominations, different branches of Judaism, and the Sunni and Shiite conflict within the Moslem religion. Furthermore, there are several billion people who inhabit this earth who have a completely different spiritual understanding of the world. It is unfortunate that people who believe that their view is the absolute truth and who have used some type of power relationship to enforce their truth have a lot of blood on their hands.  One needs to look no further than South Carolina to see what is wrought by any type of extremism—either religious or political.

Let us move away from religion and return to the concept justice.   Historically speaking, the modern view of justice comes not from religion but from the Enlightenment.   Originally, governments were thought of having received their authority to rule from a religious perspective.   The Chinese thought Emperors received a mandate from heaven, a thousand years ago, European feudal monarchs believed they had to be anointed by god’s earthly representative (the Pope),  and approximately five hundred years ago the absolute monarchs of Europe thought they ruled by “divine right.”   Our modern concept of governmental justice derives from a social contract between people and the political institutions that they create.  It is simply that governmental power derives from those who are governed.   People established governments to keep order, protect us from danger, and give us a measure of “liberty” and “justice”.  Ah, it is these last two concepts that have caused every political, social and economic conflict in the modern western world over the last several hundred years.

When I took political philosophy in college, I was greatly influenced by the writings of John Rawls.  In 1971, he published “A Theory of Justice.”  It was this book in that college course which gave me insight into what exactly is injustice and the role civil disobedience plays in trying to correct injustice in a given society.   Rawls defines justice to mean that people within a given society should have equal liberty and equal opportunity. In addition, he states that liberty is a reciprocal relationship between people and groups.  Basically, your liberty cannot harm someone else either socially, economically or politically. Rawls believed that injustice can only occur in a near-just society that is well ordered and has a constitutional government.  He also understood that most near-just societies often are imperfect and that the concept of justice is ever changing and usually defined by those who have power in that society in order to keep or derive some economic, political or social benefit.

This definition clearly describes the history of our country.   The founders knew they were creating an imperfect political system.   Otherwise, our constitution would not have an elastic clause or a process to amend or change it.  Also, it was created through compromise based on certain religious, social, economic and political concepts that existed at the end of the 18th century.  However, most of our founding fathers had the general conception that justice meant that a government should not deprive a person of his/her life, liberty or property without some type of due process of law that all members of the state would agree with.  Furthermore, Rawls also understood that a strong democratic process enable groups to exchange opinions and ideas without fear of intimidation. He felt that exchanging opinions checks the partiality of different groups and widens their perspectives.  However, even after long and fruitful discussion—especially in a democratic republic—it sometimes does not yield a unanimous agreement.   Therefore, we have to apply the basic principal of any democracy “majority rule” as Rawls called it, which means the majority wins.   This principle is based on the presumption that it is less likely for a majority to be mistaken. On the other hand, sometimes the majority can be mistaken because of selfish economic interests, religious beliefs or certain life-experiences.  It is for this reason that he believed that a “near just” society allows the minority to express their views.   In our society, the way we have decided to do this is through education and the social contract imbedded in our constitution that allows for dissent through a free press, the right to petition the government for redress, and the right of legislative representatives to express their varying points of view.

So what exactly is civil disobedience and when is it justified.   First, civil disobedience is political in nature.   It is used when a political law is deemed to be unjust based on evidence that the law denies equal liberty and equal opportunity to a minority.  It is a clear, serious and blatant violation of justice by denying a group economic, social or political participation in a democratic society.   Next, normal constitutional routes must have been tried and have been subverted by those who hold power.   Third, the level of disobedience must never reach a point where it threatens the rule of law within a society because those who engage in civil disobedience accept that most of the laws of the society are just.   Fourth, the action must be controlled so as not to provoke those in power to unjust violence.  Therefore, it must be peaceful.  Fifth, the exercise should be rationally framed to advance a specific objective (change of a law).  Sixth, it should be public and educational.  Seventh, those who engage in civil disobedience must accept the legal consequences of their action in a peaceful manner.  Therefore, when I began to apply this definition to those who were protesting the Vietnam War, I came to realize that many protesters were not really engaged in civil disobedience.  Instead, they were engaging in what he termed conscientious refusal.

According to Rawls, what he calls conscientious refusal or objection is a simple refusal to obey what one considers an immoral law based on a personally held and immutable moral, social or political view.  Therefore, conscientious refusal is not really appealing to a “shared” political conception of justice.  It is not necessarily seeking to convince the majority or the authorities to change the law. It is often the attempt to force someone’s will through violence and power. For example, those who burned draft cards did not object to the draft law, but to end the war based on their own point of view—moral, economic or political–and chose to create disorder to force their belief system on the government.   Often, the conscientious objector does not have a sense of justice because many objectors  use violence to resist the law that is opposed, such as anti-abortion protesters that find abortion so wrong that they will manhandle pregnant women and kill doctors that perform abortion.  And yes, it has been reported that several groups have threatened that one solution to preventing gay marriage is to inflict harm on those who acquire a legal marriage license.

Now, what has all this to do with public education?  To me, the most important purpose of public education at the school and college level is to create a common civic view of what constitutes justice in our society through open and free discussion.  Through education one develops a common civic culture through consensus.   It is to develop the conception that there are general principles of civic justice and a constitutional mechanism to resolve our differences.    It is to develop the understanding that we are a country based on law and not on threats and fear.  It is for different people to get together and try to create a common civic conception of government and justice.

The real beginning of the voucher and charter movements was based on the idea of conscientious refusal.   It began when America’s consensus of what represented justice fragmented.   That fragmentation occurred when the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional.   There was a plurality that was unable to accept Afro-Americans having equal political, social and economic status in our society.   Therefore, by creating separate charters, home schooling, or enacted vouchers to pay for religious schools, a separate and different type of curriculum could be taught.   One could create a curriculum based on a biblical view of the world or one that would create limited opportunities for certain groups through the exclusion of disabled, noncompliant, or ELL students.   One purpose of the many no-excuses charter school is to create compliant workers and citizens who will not question authority.   By defunding public education, what remains is a shallow shell, teaching a limited curriculum in which there is no time to discuss different ideas.  In addition, common civic institutions have little control as to what is taught in many charter and voucher schools.   The Gates, Broads, Kochs and Waltons understand that when one controls education, one controls the story. They do not want students to be taught alternate viewpoints.   They want students to accept their power and authority to control the government by saying that through their schools, they will give everyone the opportunity to join them in membership while at the same time really allowing very few into the club.  The control of education is really about who will control American society.

Those who want to privatize education truly hate public school teachers because most of us are products of a liberal arts education.   A liberal arts education teaches one to think, question and become a lifelong learner.   Instead, the reformers wish to create a post-secondary educational system that is vocational and job related.   They see no purpose to teach history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy or political science.   I believe their purpose is to destroy the intellectual foundation of those who would question their right to control this nation socially, economically and politically.  It is for this reason that they are trying to destroy unions—especially public employee unions by undermining their ability to collect dues. They want to make it impossible for people to organize collectively in order to create a political balance.  It is interesting that they got the Supreme Court to rule that money represents speech for corporations in Citizens United while, at the same time, they want to destroy that same right for workers.

I fear the ultimate goal of those who want to privatize and corporatize this nation is to fragment our common civic culture.  The privatizers want to use schools to divide us and not unite us.   They want an educational system that will foster hate and mistrust among different groups.   They want Afro-Americans to distrust middle class whites.   They want different ethnic groups to be in conflict with each other.   They want Latinos and Afro-Americans to fight each other over the few crumbs thrown to them.   They surely want to foster and support schools that will try to circumvent the tolerance most Americans now feel toward LBGT people, not really because of any real religious or moral point of view, but to create enmity in order to hold onto power.  After all, when one studies history, those who rule often disregard the moral codes they impose on others (the Borgias Popes, the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, etc.).  Our present billionaire oligarchy that controls so many politiicans want to destroy Rawls conception that justice means equal liberty and equal opportunity for everyone.  When one turns people into human capital only having economic worth, it is dehumanizing and sets up one group against another.

On the other hand, people should be free to believe and teach their children whatever they want, but not on my dime.  It is for this reason public school must remain democratically run so that a consensus can be reached as to what should be the curriculum within a given community.  Yes, the politics of school boards can be messy, but that is what democracy is all about.  Strong democracies force people to compromise and moderate their ideas through open discussion.   In addition, strong democracies are able to deal with civil disobedience.  In strong democracies, civil disobedience is a stabilizing force in a well ordered society.   In this country, its use has been to offer protection to the least advantaged.   Its use has been to expand justice in our society.   However, charters, vouchers and other privatization schemes are really a form of conscientious refusal to accept an expanded view of justice.  People should be wise to learn from our history that each time people in our nation chose to limit liberty, it led to violence, conflict and dysfunction within our political system   Think about Prohibition, Jim Crow and McCarthyism.

Finally, should teachers engage in civil disobedience to save public education?  The answer is obviously yes.  Teachers feel that de-professionalization, punitive evaluation systems, denial of collective bargaining, and the closure of public schools based on circumstances where they have no control violates the consensus of what represents justice.  These acts deny equal liberty and equal opportunity afforded to others in the society.  The purpose of these laws is to deny teachers, parents and children equal liberty and equal opportunity to participate economically, socially and politically in our nation. Teachers as well as parents must engage in civil disobedience to motivate those in power to change certain laws.  Its purpose will be to educate most Americans to understand that we now have injustice. Civil disobedience often works best when those in power do not have the means to prevent it from happening. Here would be some examples.  Groups of retired teachers could follow around hedge fund billionaires that finance charters and give support to AstroTurf nonprofit organizations whose goal it is to weaken public education. We could do the same with Arne Duncan until he engages teachers in a constructive discussion.   Retired teachers could trespass and video for YouTube the private schools where the corporate reformers send their children to contrast the type of education they want for their children as opposed to everyone else.  Teachers within a collocated school could also take videos of the well-stocked charter classrooms as compared to the resources their public school classrooms have.  Teachers can picket collocated charters before the start of school and after the day ends (charters usually have longer school days) to drive home the fact that a separate and unequal school system has been created. In mass, public school teachers can educate parents about the consequences (or lack thereof) of opting out of the test culture that has been created outside of the school day.  The most extreme act of civil disobedience would obviously be to just refuse to give those invalid and unreliable common core assessments to prevent its use until those in power negotiate with all stakeholders—parents, teachers and students.

I think this country has to make a choice.  Either we want to use education to create a common civic culture that expands justice for all Americans or we want to create an educational system that will fragment and create rifts that will eventually be unbridgeable.  This happened in the past.   One just has to study how schools in the United States developed during the anti-bellum period in the North and South.   It lead to the development of two separate cultures that either could have gone their separate ways, but what often happens in history, a majority culture  that is more powerful economically and politically forces their will on the weaker.   We know the result and still live with its consequences.   On the other hand, we can build a common national civic culture, using public education as a foundation, to create a shared sense of justice, but also respect for our individual differences and beliefs. There is a place for private and religious schools in our society, but their role should be to engage with the dominant political culture and not to impose their will on others.

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11 thoughts on “Public Education, Justice, Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Refusal—is there a Common Denominator?

  1. Once everyone who contributes a dime has their say about how students are to be educated in the classroom, what kind of classes will meet the approval of everyone.

    Suppose people were assigned to restaurants the same way we traditionally assign students to attend schools. What menu would we expect? First, any potential health hazards to customers should not be on the menu because of the danger of cross contamination. Peanuts, shellfish, and any other foods that elicit strong allergic reactions would be banned. I suppose the next ingredient issue would be meat. What if a devote Hindu moved into the catchment area? Of course, which kinds of meet would also be a problem, so pork is probably off the menu as well. We could go on and discuss the virtues of various vegetables, starches, grains, etc. In the end, when everyone has contributed a dime to our collective restaurant, we will end up with a rather bland menu that no one finds especially appealing. How much better to offer a variety of restaurants?

    Choosing collectively gives us great power to combine all our contributions to the same task, but it also requires compromises that will hurt everyone if the compromises are not necessary. It seems to me that allowing students the ability to choose a flavor of school will allow the teachers in the school the autonomy to do what they do best in the way that they do it best.

    • I do not disagree. Living in an imperfect society makes life interesting. It would be pretty boring to live in a world where everyone agrees with one another. As I said, consensus is often not possible and we have winners and losers. What make America great is that the loser can pick himself up to fight another day.

    • Sounds great, but “choice” often applies only to those the “choice” school allows. The problem is less about “customer is always right” and more about “which market can we target efficiently and profitably”. Choices should be available, but the opening has more often been “failing schools” (not lack of options on the menu).

      • Choice is often limited by circumstances. In my state, the median high school has 250 students. There is little choice of classes available to those students because of the size of the school. Should equality concerns limit the ability of students in larger schools to make some choices that the smaller schools do not allow?

      • If the richness in opportunities is not available because of those sometimes harsh realities, the naturally occurring inequitable outcomes shouldn’t be accompanied by “failing schools/teachers/unions…” rhetoric. The level of thinking/performance being measured on new common core tests is sometimes a few grade levels above the chronological age of the students taking the tests. The best way to get that kind of performance is to provide all with an enriched experience with a variety of opportunities in the arts (visual, performing…),real literature with depth in analysis/discussion… Instead of taking opportunities from some I say give opportunities to the ones who don’t have them.

      • As the parent of a student that routinely worked many grade levels above his chronological age, I have little sympathy for the sort of one size fits all philosophy of traditional public education. It would have been foolish of my local public school district to try to provide the classes that were appropriate for my student. Luckily the local university was able to provide the classes.

        That however, is not especially relevant in this discussion. It seems to me that some students will be best served by something like a Montessori education, while over might be best served by a Waldorf education, and another group by a Chinese language immersion program, etc. This can not all be done in a single school, so I think you have to allow students to enroll in a school based on what is best for the student rather than the street address of the home where the family lives.

      • I agree with the need for making choices available, and any argument I make for equity is not one for sameness-but availability of choices for all

      • I think giving students equal availability to choices involves allowing students to choose the schools that best fit their individual needs and aspirations. In densely populated areas, this should not be difficult. In sparsely populated areas, it is likely to be impossible outside of some sort of distance learning program.

  2. So the question is which educational choices we should leave to the individual student/family, and which choice society should make for the individual student/family. It seems to me that the important points of disagreement concern a) the age of the student, b) the set of classes a student can choose from, and c) who should pay for those choices. Most would be fine with older students choosing from a variety of courses within a school paid for on everyone’s dime. Most would be happy with students choosing all their courses on their own dime (if they have enough of them, of course). Fewer would be happy allowing an individual student/family to choose courses, perhaps all their courses, from sources out side the public school on everyone’s dime.

    I am curious about where you think the reasonable line stands.

  3. What I have experienced as a veteran teacher inside a big city district, is that in the past decade older teachers are being methodically pushed out, and the short-term youngsters hired to replace them are not part of any union, or any organization, within which to engender a broader “civil disobedience.” How can this be addressed? What should civil disobedience in this moment look like?

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