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Leadership and Activism

Why I Wouldn’t Point My Finger in the President’s Face

I don’t respect the office of the presidency. I don’t think a title makes a person worthy of respect. I have no problem mocking the president or his misguided educational reforms – just as I did with Bush (though it was admittedly easier with a president who used such creative grammatical structures).

However, if I met with him face-to-face, I wouldn’t wag my finger at him. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t do that to our misguided governor, either. I believe that tone matters. I believe that anger can be expressed without dehumanizing people, using loaded language or creating straw man enemies that you set on fire Burning-Man-style in an ideological desert.

I would ask him questions. I would listen to his well-rehearsed answers and ask him more questions. I would present facts. I would share stories. I would, if possible, build a relationship. Because ultimately no one has any reason to believe me until they have learned to trust me. For what it’s worth, I would do the same with the governor. I’d even break bread with her and see if she really does eat scorpions for breakfast.

I don’t believe that being a radical means screaming until your red in the face or using pejorative, dehumanizing language to provoke someone into an argument. Even the most radical of truth can be spoken in nuance, through a dialogue that involves real questions and real listening.

If you want me to see the dark side of education, talk to me without calling me a prison warden, a slave driver, a thief or a child abuser. If you want me to consider a more corporate style of reform, talk to me without using loaded language to describe the population that I teach. If you want to engage with me, don’t point your finger at me.

It never works.

About John Spencer

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


7 thoughts on “Why I Wouldn’t Point My Finger in the President’s Face

  1. I agree with you. I wrote the President a letter to share my thoughts:

    Posted by Maureen Devlin | January 28, 2012, 6:55 pm
  2. And here’s my pushback:

    In the years that I was unschooling my kids, my State Department of Education repeatedly threatened thousands of legally homeschooling parents with prosecution for truancy. District attorneys initiated prosecutions of law-abiding families that cost them thousands of dollars to defend against. Children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care for months by Child Protective Services because a CPS agent has decided that they cannot possibly be properly “socialized” if they homeschool. Everywhere they go my children have been challenged by complete strangers who feel entitled to grill them about their education, asking them whether they are learning anything, whether they have friends, and how they will get into college or get a job, always with a strong implication that they are likely to be deficient in all these respects. Other kids feel empowered by the adult attitudes they see to talk as if all homeschoolers were weird, socially inept, and uncool. Every media report on homeschooling has included a public educator issuing dismissive and superior pronouncements that homeschooling parents are incompetent to teach their children. And of course after all these years the NEA in its official resolutions still states unequivocally that “ home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience.”

    My children have had to be tough enough to deal with this since they were kindergarten age. Believe me, it has not been easy on them, and has created very real emotional and psychological harm.

    There is nothing “nuanced” about the current compulsory education laws and the ways in which the police power of the state has been used to enforce them. There are strong emotions out there for some very good reasons. People have deep wounds and sometimes they get worked up. If you don’t want to engage with people who are upset and speaking in strong terms, that’s your choice. Another option would be to try to hear the good heart behind their anger and let their tone and word choice roll off your back.

    Posted by Carol Black | January 28, 2012, 10:05 pm
    • My point is about tone. I am an outspoken critic about compulsory education. I have never argued that they are socially inept or that they are a threat to public education. Yet when I repeatedly read blog posts that attack teachers rather than the system and that use loaded language and insults against those of us who have not decided to opt out, there’s an issue.

      I have written blog posts on this very blog about how home-schoolers and public schoolers can learn from one another. That’s the paradox and the nuance that I speak of. Compulsory education is wrong. Always. Citing kids for truancy is crazy. I agree. However, taking that anger and lashing out at the wrong people in the wrong ways will always be just that – wrong.

      I want to engage, but that’s the issue right there. You can’t engage when someone is shouting you down and calling you names.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 28, 2012, 10:19 pm
  3. I guess what I’m saying is that I think you can. If you can hear what’s behind their anger, you can often respond in a way that will connect with their calmer, more civil side. I’m not saying that it’s possible on a bad day, but it’s possible. And there is a danger that if we become the politeness police and are too demanding that people maintain an even tone at all times, that it becomes very limiting in terms of the honesty and vitality of the conversation.

    Posted by Carol Black | January 28, 2012, 10:40 pm
    • I agree with both of you, but honestly I think there are a lot of people in the alternative world, myself often including who end up siloing themselves off on islands instead of building bridges to change. Their anger is often so central to the conversation that you can never get them to move away from it. The alternative world honestly needs to learn from the Corp reformers. They have had such great success, not because they have a better product, but instead a positive message. They sell parents hope, and change, and often a false sense of success. They don’t sell them anything new. In many ways all they sell is message. The alternative world is really bad at this, we often fight among ourselves and attack many people who are or should be allies. To me that is what John is talking about, but also I think we need to be wiling to challenge the alternative education to be understand their message, and understand what they purpose is. We need to work together and if all we do broadcast the negative, it is not going to happen, and it has not worked. We need to build collectives of people from all schools and all types of models, with the idea of human dignity, and human rights and to do this tone does matter…..

      Posted by dloitz | January 28, 2012, 11:05 pm
    • I think you make a valid point here. However, I want to clarify something. I’m not at all looking for nice. I don’t give a shit about politeness. Really I don’t. It’s about intent. It’s about the way we use words to shape reality. Using angry words directed at a system is understandable. However, those same words, when applied to people, lead to a place of dehumanization. I can’t listen to someone who just called me a slave-driver. I can, however, listen to someone who calls a school a prison. I can’t listen to someone who calls me a child abuser. I can, however, listen to someone who says, “my child faced abuse” or “the system can sometimes lead to abuse.”

      It’s not an issue of maintaining an even tone. It’s an issue of maintaining a tone that doesn’t resort to name-calling, insulting and slandering a person or a group of people. I have honest, vital conversations with my wife. We never yell at one another. We never call names. We engage in hard conversations. We share how we are feeling. We don’t avoid conflict. And we certainly don’t play the politeness police around one another (sometimes it gets heated in a discussion). But I can listen and I can trust her because she is not resorting to name-calling. I think the same goes with all relationships.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 28, 2012, 11:19 pm
      • I totally agree with everything you’re saying here; of course name-calling and blaming the wrong person for your suffering is never the right thing to do. But just as some people do yell at home and still have good families, it’s also possible to let somebody overstep the line a bit and then shift the conversation to a better place without making a big deal about it. (It’s actually a worthwhile point to remember that people have different cultural backgrounds which can impact the way they express themselves; some cultures yell and some don’t, and some use big hyperbolic rhetoric while others understate things.)

        One of the big problems in discussing education is that so many people have raw unfinished business in this area; we were told as children that it was up to us to adapt to the system, and that if there was a problem it was within us. We were taught not to trust our own perceptions, and shamed or punished if we couldn’t conform. In the process of working up the head of steam to finally resist this message, people go a bit overboard and color outside the lines. Their opinions are not always carefully honed and perfectly articulated; they have big emotions which are not always crystal clear, and it can get messy.

        But that may not mean that they really intend to dehumanize you, and sometimes if you just remain steadfastly human (and keep your sense of humor), you can shift the conversation. If not, it’s probably not somebody you need to be talking to.

        I totally agree with David that one of the biggest problems in reform movements of all kinds is the tendency to splinter and spend your energy debating those who are closest to you. (I’ve always observed that nobody hates each other like two environmentalists with slightly different strategies.)

        But I have sometimes found that the people who state things strongly have been the greatest impetus to positive change in my own life. In our homeschool group we had many individuals with strong opinions about all kinds of things, from homeopathy to vegetarianism to video games to toy weapons, etc. (In our family we used to refer to ourselves as the Advil-popping chicken-eating homeschoolers.) One year at our Thanksgiving leftovers pot-luck picnic, a woman who had particularly strong opinions about macrobiotic vegetarian eating looked over the food spread on the table and announced, “You know, when I walk past the poultry aisle at the grocery store, I just see rows and rows of tortured dead bodies.” Needless to say, this was a buzzkill at a turkey dinner, but you know, it stuck with me. I thought about that day many times over the years, and while I didn’t become a vegetarian, we eat a lot less meat, and we try to be careful about where it comes from and whether the animals were humanely treated. This very (graphically) clear statement had an impact on me that all my friends for whom vegetarianism was “just a choice” never had. And interestingly, this woman, who could be very abrasive, almost had tears in her eyes when she said it. It was a moment of genuine human contact – definitely not pleasant, but genuine. So I thank her for her passion and her honesty.

        I’m just sayin.

        Posted by Carol Black | January 29, 2012, 1:17 am

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