Subversive Teaching

NEW CURRICULUM MATERIALS WON’T HELP

We Need Strategies for Subversion

I recently participated in a forum with the American Historical Association with regard to teaching history at the secondary level under the new strictures from fascist politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott. Laws like Florida’s censorship of so-called Critical Race Theory and flat-out banning of The 1619 Project from classrooms are a threat to anyone who believes that a comprehensive and critical history curriculum is important for all citizens in a democracy.1 The policies are also anathema to anyone who believes that academic freedom is the best policy for securing a quality education for all students.

I must say that the representatives from the AHA were well-meaning and demonstrated a deep concern for us secondary level history teachers on the front lines of the discipline. It was gratifying that their first step was to come to us as respected professionals to find out what we needed to help us in the face of this new, authoritarian environment. Unfortunately, they were asking the wrong questions.

The underlying question they seemed to be asking was, “how can we as an organization help secondary teachers teach with integrity while at the same time obeying the law?” The answer is, “you can’t.” These laws are wicked, and must be disobeyed by anyone who takes their professional obligations as an educator and as an academic seriously.

I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys every one it touches. Its upholders as well as its defiers.

Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

So, as the organizer asked, “Is there anything that we can do to help you as teachers,” my thought was, ‘well, if I teach something that a parent believes to be objectionable, I can be sued…so, a legal defense fund would be nice.’

The bottom line is that teachers do not need more curriculum materials. Not that we’ll ever turn down free curriculum materials (or free anything else for that matter). What we need are avenues and tactics by which we can subvert the law.

I would never teach such stuff. Teaching this stuff is against the law. So I expressly forbid anyone scanning this QR Code.

This website is just such an avenue. It’s a private site that I specifically do not use as a curriculum resource. In fact, all around my classroom, there are QR Codes that open to Dangerous Knowledge, but they are all specifically labeled “Under no circumstances should you scan this QR Code.”

I have the relevant text of the legislation printed out and posted in the front of my classroom, so whenever the conversation strays to something that might be considered “Critical Race Theory,” I direct students to the law.

For instance, in a discussion about redlining in my Sociology Class I immediately stood in front of the guiding text of the law and explained…

“Yes, banks and many federal and state programs denied loans to African Americans and would not finance loans for improvement of properties in African American communities. That made it near impossible for African Americans to benefit from the same opportunities to gain wealth through housing that was available to other Americans. Furthermore, this was instituted in the law…but that’s an example of Critical Race Theory and [pointing to the text of the law] teacher Critical Race Theory is against the law. So I will, under no circumstances, teach you that this happened. And I will in no way insinuate that this historical fact is still materially significant today.”

When discussing the Great Recession the discussion turned to the fact that African Americans disproportionately held subprime mortgages despite qualifying for prime mortgages when they applied. A lot of this had to do with the fact that many African American homeowners were the first generation in their families to hold a mortgage and, therefore, had nobody to advise them on how to negotiate these loans in their interests. They were first-time home buyers, of course, because of the policy described above in the discussion about Red Lining.

Again, “what I just described is, according to the law, Critical Race Theory. It is illegal for me to teach you Critical Race Theory, so I will not do so.”

Obviously, this ruse will fool nobody. But it’s the best I can think of. Really, what else can I do? When I became a teacher I had to sign on to a very clear Code of Ethics. As a member of the American Historical Association and the American Sociological Association, I also agreed to accept their professional standards of ethical conduct. I also must hold myself accountable as a responsible adult charged with maximizing the human potential of all students in my care.

Fortunately, all of these different ethical influences align. I’m not to discriminate, I’m not to cause harm, I’m not to falsely represent the academic revelations of my discipline, and I must share a comprehensive and critical context associated with all of the lessons I plan. These are Codes of Ethics that every parent should assume that I will uphold when their children are under my tutelage.

The only dictate that I’m expected to follow that does not align with the ethical standards of these three institutions is the law. Hence I’m faced with the age-old question, what should I do when what I know to be right contradicts the law?

There’s no one good answer. The wages for disobedience are, for many, severe. It is no testament to anyone’s character that they choose to obey the law and protect their livelihoods, putting their own children first of those of their students. Wicked laws force us onto this moral tightrope. That’s how we know they are wicked. And it’s easy to legitimize. After all, most of my students’ parents either voted for the fascist Governor and his equally fascist legislators who made this wicked law possible, or they didn’t bother to vote at all. So, there. Now your kids can remain ignorant because that’s what you actively or tacitly want.

On the other hand, the people we admire the most are those who took a stand against wicked laws by finding innovative avenues of disobedience.

If organizations like the AHA, or the ASA or any association dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge wants to help they can start here. We don’t need better informational pamphlets. We need political cover. We need resources by which we can be disobedient. We need innovative and nuanced methods of subversive teaching so we can do what’s right for our students.


Notes

  1. It should go without saying that such legislation is not an unfortunate side-effect of otherwise well-meaning legislation. Indeed, censorious legislation is the fundamental to the fascist agenda. Step one for any fascist movement is to gain control of a nation’s historical discourse. This is done by a. Creating a mythology that reflects the self-interest and perception of the “true” citizens. In other words, this mythology reinforces the beliefs that the target population has about its own superiority, intelligence and virtue. It tells the story about the base that the base wants to hear. b. Eliminating or deligitimizing any avenue by which this mythology may be challenged.

Welcome to Dangerous Knowledge

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY DANGEROUS KNOWLEDGE?

This website is dedicated to something we are calling “Dangerous Knowledge.” This category infers that there is something out there that could be referred to as “Safe Knowledge” or maybe even just “Knowledge.” So, what is meant by “Dangerous Knowledge”, and why should people care to participate in what this website aspires to offer?

Human society is driven by knowledge. Knowledge is the foundation of human identity and motivation. As such, complex structures and agencies are in place for constructing, reproducing and perpetuating knowledge, while subtle value systems help us determine what constitutes the right kind of knowledge and encourage us to reject the wrong kind of knowledge. Knowledge is not an innate characteristic of human beings and human culture. It is intentionally constructed through complex interactions between individuals, groups and institutions.

But what is it?

Well, in essence, knowledge is the story that we tell about ourselves in relation to the world around us that is accepted as valid by those with whom we share it. So, knowledge has two basic components. Knowledge is revealed, and knowledge is accepted. The story we tell does not have to be true in the scientific sense. It can be entirely fantastic. It can be poetic. It can be shared in technical jargon. If it is shared, and it is accepted as a valid story, then it becomes more than a story. Shared and accepted knowledge becomes the foundation of human endeavor. Without knowledge, humanity is impossible.

At the personal level, knowledge is incorporated into our identities. We are what we know about ourselves in conjunction with what others know about us. So, at the micro level, knowledge is the foundation of human identity and human relationships.

At the larger, societal level, knowledge serves two immediate purposes. Society can be understood as a shared story by which its members embrace a common understanding of the world around them. It is through this collective story that members of a society form a consensus about who we are and how we belong together. We can embrace a collective identity as Americans, or Catholics, or Yankees fans, or Trekkies that we incorporate into our personal identities as well as into our presentation of self to those around us. They, in turn, can determine how their own stories fit in with ours. So, the first function of knowledge is the formation of a binding consensus. This is largely a good thing.

There is, however, a potentially darker side to knowledge that must be understood. Since knowledge shapes identity and motivates human endeavor, stories must be told that encourage people to do the work necessary to perpetuate society. The stories we tell determine how we form families, why we go to church, our voting patterns, the hobbies we have, the work we do. Individuals expend their energy and spend their time not just on their own pursuits, but in the interest of larger social forces. This is a necessary component of social institutions. Social institutions, like family, or the market, or the government, construct stories about their own centrality and importance, and people accept these stories as valid and offer their own labor to perpetuate the institutions. There is no other way. So, the second characteristic of knowledge is that it motivates human behavior.

And this is where it gets tricky because knowledge does not necessarily happen organically. It is constructed through social forces and reproduced through social groups–all of which are ultimately composed of human beings with their own interests. Stories don’t just happen. They are told. The tellers have their reasons for telling. These reasons may be benign, even beneficial, as when we tell stories that bind us together in a common cause, or when we tell stories by which we develop a sense of sympathy and empathy for others.

Sometimes, however, the stories that are told, the knowledge that is constructed, is more malevolent. Their intent is to manipulate and exploit. They are the stories of the cons, the snake-oil vendors, and their shills. These malign forms of knowledge are defined by this website as Authoritarian Knowledge.

Authoritarian Knowledge or stories can be juxtaposed with what could be called Democratic Knowledge. Democratic Knowledge is consensus-driven. It emphasizes inclusion, community, and shared common humanity while acknowledging individual distinction and creativity as a human good. Finally, Democratic Knowledge is subject to evaluation, challenge. and change. Democratic Knowledge is thus, inherently dynamic–which sometimes means that Democratic Knowledge can be destabilizing during times of uncertainty.

Authoritarian stories share some common elements. First, they confirm the legitimacy of unequal power dynamics that result in the exploitation of one group, what we can call the demos, in the interests of another (often much smaller) group, which we can refer to as the authority. Secondly, they seek to diminish the power of the demos. This is done in two ways. These malign stories may define the demos as inferior, morally, culturally, genetically, or biologically and therefore deserving of exploitation. Additionally, they seek to fragment the demos by “othering” some segment or segments of the demos as a threat or as being less deserving of human consideration. This divisive story is often told in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, ideology, or any other characteristic that might serve as a signal of distinction. Finally, Authoritarian stories are held as sacred, not subject to challenge or contradiction by other stories.

In any given society we see an inherent tension between Authoritarian and Democratic forms of knowledge. At any given time, or in any given context, Authoritarian stories may come to dominate a given social group, institution, or larger society. This often happens as a result of social uncertainty and instability associated with Democratic stories. Sociologists refer to such periods of uncertainty and instability as anomic. During anomic times, the security offered by Authoritarian stories becomes attractive. Over time, Authoritarian stories can become entrenched into the culture, become incorrigible propositions or what could be referred to as “common sense.” An exploitative status quo then becomes the binding story of the larger society. Authoritarian common sense is the underlying story justifying racism, sexism, homophobia and many other divisive concepts.

This leads us to the third quality–knowledge challenges status quo arrangements. When it comes to Democratic Knowledge, challenge is an intrinsic, even welcome, component. Authoritarian stories, however, are sacrosanct or not subject to challenge. Any story that might serve to challenge Authoritarian common sense is, therefore, dangerous–Dangerous Knowledge. Any Authoritarian regime must silence Dangerous Knowledge if it is to preserve the perceived legitimacy of its own authority. This is done through censorship and/or by discrediting the dangerous stories or storytellers. Regardless, Dangerous Knowledge cannot be tolerated in an Authoritarian regime.

Today we see a renaissance in Authoritarian storytelling in ways many of us (though not all of us) believed we had left behind long ago. The regimes rising in the verse of such stories are actively engaged in censoring and/or discrediting Dangerous Knowledge wherever they see it. For many years Authoritarians have attacked media organizations, collective organizations such as unions, and educational institutions including colleges and universities as well as public school curricula. Any avenue by which Dangerous Knowledge can be spread, or Democratic Stories may be told, has been subject to relentless authoritarian propaganda. Now Authoritarians are in positions by which they can directly censor Dangerous Knowledge.

This website is intended to combat this Authoritarian tendency in our current culture by offering a repository of Dangerous Knowledge that the cons and shills would rather we not see. If this is something that interests you, then sign up for updates or, if you are even more passionate about combating authoritarianism, contact me for ways to participate.