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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

I’m Not a Moderate (Even When It Looks Like It)

I’m a firm believer in respectful dialogue. I think tone matters. I believe metaphors need to be accurate. I cringe at all things militant (because military metaphors lead to wars and wars have huge casualties), even when we are advocating for revolutionary change. I believe in the power of humility and the necessity for paradox and nuance.

It would seem, then, that I’m a moderate. The truth is I’m not. I’m “that guy” who believes firmly in both un-schooling and public schooling (until the social systems are fixed so that parents can legitimately earn a living wage on one income). I’m “that guy” who speaks out against standardized tests, coercive discipline, punishments and rewards. And yet, I’m also “that guy” who pushes back and says, “Sometimes a loss of choice and autonomy are a part of existing in any community.” I’ll speak out in front of teachers about the need to listen to kids and I’ll remind youth that there is wisdom in listening to people with a little more experience.

The moderate middle is about finding a compromise and applying it across the spectrum. It isn’t about using a respectful tone so much as it is about talking nice and avoiding uncomfortable conversations. It’s Mickey Mouse and Anderson Cooper and the sense of normalcy that pushes anything “radical” toward the margins. It’s white noise. The moderate middle says, “Can’t we just have homework that is more meaningful and move to standards-based grading instead of doing away with them altogether?” or “Instead of getting rid of the discipline system, can’t we just switch to awards-only?”

Paradox and balance demands that we humbly recognize the tension in freedom and safety, in the group and the individual, in the humanity and and the machine, in planning for the future and living in the now, in teaching and learning, in systems and relationships, in being global and local, in listening humbly and speaking boldly.

Believing in balance and paradox does not mean finding an orderly middle between the two extremes. Rather, it means holding onto both sides simultaneously. Call it impure. Call it cognitive dissonance. Call it bat-shit-crazy. But it’s where truth almost always lies. It’s the messy tension of holding onto multiple perspectives and understanding the layers of nuance implicit in the paradox. It’s the bold idea that truth doesn’t have to be binary. It’s the humble reality that we’ll never get it right and that’s okay as long as we stay within that tension.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “I’m Not a Moderate (Even When It Looks Like It)

  1. Move over, John T. Let me join you in that huddle of cognitive dissonance. Teaching is nothing if it’s not about exploring conflict vs resonance, cooperation vs standing firm. I once asked a teacher to stop using the phrase “in the trenches” because it offended my sensibilities about how we define school. I never want to see education as a war.

    Lately, however–say, in the past couple of years–I have grown increasingly angry and militant. While I agree that we don’t get around to solving problems when we’re bent on winning, things have gotten incredibly skewed. Quoting Martin Luther King (snipped this quote from a Teacher Tom blog):” If we are not careful, our colleagues will produce a group of closed-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, brethren! Be careful, teachers!”

    We’ve stopped looking at the glorious mysteries of kids and learning, and started trusting numbers more than observation and conversations. Homeschooling and un-schooling are no longer thoughtful alternatives available to concerned parents–they’ve become escape hatches from the perversion of one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality public education for every child.

    Holding two conflicting ideas in your mind is supposed to be the mark of intelligence. And foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Move over, John T. I get what you’re saying.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | January 17, 2012, 7:11 pm
    • We had a home-school / unschool conversation last night with my wife’s cousin. She knows that it’s impossible as a single mom to go that route and yet she’s frustrated by the shallow homework, the teach-to-the-test mentality and the way some of the best teachers at her sons’ school have left the profession altogether. The problem is complex. The solution is complex, too. It’s never as easy as a walkout. Not as long as she works. And it’s not as easy as choosing a charter school (most in Phoenix are corrupt businesses that don’t look out for the students)

      I think King is the classic case of a man who was painted as a moderate in his day when he was, in fact, boldly radical. True, he worked within the system (at times). He chose non-violence. He avoided most of the military metaphors even when speaking with anger. But his position was nuanced and it was uncomfortable for people on both sides of the aisle. I think that’s the kind of approach we need to take.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 18, 2012, 9:09 am
    • Is there room in that huddle for me too? I’m right there with you John and Nancy.

      Posted by Kirsten | January 23, 2012, 8:22 am
  2. I see a need for everyone on all sides of the argument. You need the radicals to get all fired up and you need those in the middle to calm everything down. Personally, I have grown very tired of the voice of the radical lately, mainly because I’ve read too many of them who seem to speak in platitudes and cliche. Granted, I am PROBABLY reading the wrong people here.

    I think that moderates can be more effective than you offer here, because I don’t think that they are doormat-type people-pleasers just because they seem even-keeled. In fact, I think that they can be manipulative and subversive. A good moderate can straddle the line between both sides and play them toward the end he wants to achieve. He may even be able to change things the way the radical wants them to be changed without making the fuss the radical makes. Because it’s done quietly and without bombast.

    In all honesty, I’d like to be the one who walks into the room and smacks the jukebox while two people whine that it doesn’t work and how unfair it is that it doesn’t work. In other words, The Fonz.

    And Nancy, you’re right–“in the trenches” is a TERRIBLE metaphor. I teach All Quiet on the Western Front. Trench warfare is one of attrition: months and months of fighting for a football field’s worth of land. Vietnam is a better metaphor: Hostility all around you, you don’t know what’s coming next, the generals are clueless, and there’s no support at home.

    Posted by Tom Panarese | January 17, 2012, 8:49 pm
    • Good point, Tom. I think the best balance and “even keel” is often less a middle ground of moderation and more an ability to hold onto both extremes at once. Manipulative and subversive are critical. We need to be quiet sages and loud lunatics.

      For the record, I want to be the Fonz as well.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 18, 2012, 9:04 am
  3. Great Post John. I feel often, even though I think I am not quite as balanced as you are, that I fall into that category, as well. I am currently working for the Boy Scouts of America — where I am often found to be “that guy” and at the same time, I am extremely moderate in terms of my understanding of where, when and how the Boy Scouts have positively influenced American Society and Progressive Education. Anyways, I find your post intriguing and accurate. This is where the truth lies, by understanding where all of the paths cross, where our voice might say one thing, and our actions might do another, while both not and simultaneously contradict themselves.

    I think this speaks to a louder voice as well, when it comes to a greater part of society and those of us, caught in this schism and the way we think and act. It is nice to hear your voice on here about the way in which think and act, because I believe there are plenty of us within this realm that think and act very similarly and many others, whether they know it or not, do as well.

    Posted by caseykcaronna | January 18, 2012, 2:30 am
  4. It is uncomfortable ground for sure, but oh so necessary that some are willing to stand there. I like how Cornel West put it recently “none of us are purely part of the solution, we are all shot through with contradictions.”

    Posted by Kim Wilkens (@kimxtom) | January 18, 2012, 7:44 am

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