Analysis, Critique, and Dissent
Many of our most pressing national issues involve struggles over cultural recognition, resources, and power: gay marriage, immigration, and health care reform outside schools, and multicultural education, religious practices, and equitable school funding within schools, to name just a few. Looking at these issues historically reveals that perpetuating the status quo has led to ongoing injustices for many citizens. Rather than remain complacent with these struggles, the youth need habits of analysis and critique that engage inquiry in action, especially in acts of political dissent. Certainly, we have seen a recent proliferation of dissent on our street corners and in our town halls. While some of these protests have energized youth, motivated previously uninterested citizens, or led to significant impact on legislation and leadership, others have been relatively ineffective or outright destructive. Many young people experience frustration with social and political issues but lack the know-how or desire to engage in political dissent well. They are unprepared not only for an ideal democracy, where dissent is carefully employed to improve social life, but also for democracy as it is currently being lived outside school walls, where dissent is alive but floundering.49 As I have argued elsewhere,
In order for the state to have legitimacy, it must have the consent of the governed. The laws and contracts, and even the rights, conferred by a state are valid to the extent that they are upheld and respected by the citizens and insofar as they are entered into without undue coercion. The requirement of the consent of the governed, however, intriguingly also entails the reverse: the possibility for and lively invocation of dissent. For it is not without the opportunity and capacity to dissent that the citizenry can establish and maintain that the laws and systems guiding them are desired, good, or just. I argue that the government’s need for the consent of the governed suggests that citizens must have the opportunity to express dissent and not be coerced into simply giving consent. If this is the case, then citizens must have the ability, skills, and know-how to invoke dissent. Hence, dissent becomes more than just a negative right that one can freely express, but instead a positive right—an entitlement of citizenship in a democratic state. Dissent becomes a pivotal requirement in the establishment and maintenance of a legitimate democracy. If students have a right to dissent, they must have the capacity to dissent in order to invoke their right to do so.50
That capacity via an explicit education in dissent should be developed in schools. Like many others as of late, I am making a rights claim when it comes to an education for dissent. But, importantly, dissent comes along with corresponding responsibilities to reflect, deliberate, and act. It is not a mere personal entitlement, but rather an empowerment to act politically for and with others.
Dissent, as discussed and embodied in one of our very earliest documents, the Declaration of Independence, holds democracy attentive to the needs of its citizens and is the process through which governments and the structures or programs they oversee should be changed when they begin to wrongly deny citizens legitimate aspects of safety and happiness, including facets of what we might call social justice today. Not only, then, does the legitimacy of the government depend on maintaining the consent of the governed, but also people are entitled to abolish the government if it is not meeting their needs and interests. James Madison heralded this right to alter or abolish the government through dissent as “the transcendent and precious right of the people"51 Moreover, as the problems become more severe, the Declaration proclaims dissent as not only a right, but a duty that good citizens should undertake: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security"52 Finally, as the authors of the Declaration defend their own dissenting actions, they claim that those who dissent have an obligation to put forward a new and better form of living—the very vision they sought to achieve through their Declaration. It is not simply enough to complain about leaders or overthrow a government; one is compelled to propose and work toward a new alternative in its stead. In this way, the habits of dissent bring together our rights as citizens with our responsibilities to uphold justice and democracy for ourselves and others.
Habits of analysis and critique form the basis of dissenting action. They shape how we perceive and interpret the world around us, sensitizing us to moments of injustice and beckoning us to examine the causes and implications of social and political struggles. They are dispositions to question and challenge, rather than to accept and obey. Most obviously, analysis and critique help to shape our ideas and impressions. But these habits do not stop at thought; rather they are calls to action, to do something to make the world better, fairer, or more just. As a responsibility toward a better and more just world, they are projective and forward directed. Dewey describes the education of citizens toward this type of social improvement in this way: “A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder"53 Situated within educational contexts today, habits of dissent can lead to the formation of new publics around identified problems and a realigning of public school goals around citizen will and needs. Unlike the cynicism I mentioned at the outset of this book, which is driving individuals and institutions apart, dissent pulls them together in a community or in a commitment to act.
These habits, with their links toward dissenting action, distinguish the more complete picture of Dewey’s vision of citizenship education that I am painting here. Westheimer and Kahne have described broad categories of citizenship education. It would seem that Dewey’s emphasis on active civic life and volun- teerism might render his view of citizenship education aligned with the “participatory citizen" model that Westheimer and Kahne describe.54 But when the habits of critique and analysis are taken into account, Dewey’s desired citizen is more akin to what they call “a justice-oriented citizen" as someone who engages in cultural criticism and social movements. Certainly for Dewey, the role of cultural critic, especially one who employs a reconstruction approach with a spirit of meliorism and who is skeptical about leadership’s use of power, is key to being a good dissenter.
Dewey demonstrated this type of citizenship himself. For example, he employed analysis and critique of blind patriotism and military institutions on campus in his article “Our Education Ideal in Wartime"55 And his habits moved him to form the Committee on Militarism in Education—a public with shared concerns—to distribute pamphlets and raise awareness about the negative impact of military organizations on campuses. Notably, while Dewey’s actions were typically Left-leaning endeavors, engaging in cultural criticism and social movements is not necessarily a Left undertaking. Certainly, the rise of the Tea Party reveals the ability of these tools to be employed in ways that lead to or embrace conservative views. This shows that the habits of analysis and critique themselves are not politically affiliated, even if the conclusions they reach may be.
Critique entails the Deweyan process of inquiry, where observations are made, facts are gathered, and participants discuss their experience. But it is not quick in reaching a judgment; rather, it carefully considers the genealogy of conditions of a policy or practice in question and how people and power are implicated in it.56 Finally, to be an effective critic and to use one’s criticism to produce action in the world, one must have a good understanding of language. Teachers should engage students in activities that help them understand how language works to wield power, to bring unity to publics by generating a sense of “we," and to persuade others of political views. This likely would entail crafting and delivering arguments for one’s positions on issues that genuinely impact social living and being pushed to test those arguments in experience or have them challenged in debate with disagreeing peers. Certainly, there are already curricular opportunities within many schools that develop a child’s ability to detect and evaluate arguments made by others (such as seventh- grade CCSS English Language Arts Standards 7.RI.8) and a child’s ability to make claims and follow logical reasoning (7.WHST.1). Teachers might further tailor those lessons to real-life examples from democracy within and outside our school walls.57
Teachers can provide encounters with controversial social issues to provoke students to engage in critique, all the while guiding their skills of cultural analysis by supporting a spirit of criticality that asks tough questions to reveal how power works in social situations and how it privileges some people and not others. Teachers might also take their students outside school walls, to learn more about the dissenting movements currently unfolding, and to engage in analysis of what they are doing well and what they are not, as well as how they are shaping democracy. Even better, teachers might, when appropriate, engage their students in social movements and associations actively dissenting so that students can cultivate and test out their habits of critique and analysis. Finally, teachers can employ the Discovering Justice, Public Achievement, Freechild, or Mivka Challenge programs to help students learn not only about US laws and justice, but also how to critique them, how to get involved politically, how to use their agency to solve social problems together, and how to take a stand when fighting for one’s own well-being as well as social justice.
In chapter seven I argued against some of my likely critics, asserting that citizenship education for citizen responsibility could be done in ways that are not coercive or that do not jeopardize the legitimacy of the state, because they condition the ability of the citizen to freely give consent. While I am calling for teaching habits that are aligned with supporting and perpetuating vibrant democracy, it is the habits of critique, analysis, and dissent that provide the best assurance against those problematic possibilities. Even as teachers nurture democratic habits, they must engage children in deep and sustained conversations that question democratic values and practices so that children can come to affirm those for themselves or revise them if warranted. Teachers and their classroom activities should call those habits into doubt or reveal elements of them that are problematic so that students do not uphold them unquestioningly.