I had a substitute teacher in my classroom the other day when I was out for some professional development. I got a chance to meet him when I arrived back at the building prior to the end of the day. He was a cool guy with an interesting story. Just in the brief conversation that I had with him, I suspected that he and I might have some ideological differences. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I like a sub who offers a change of pace from me. It keeps my kids on their toes.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I noticed the bumper sticker.
In the corner of my whiteboard, I have a bumper sticker that I found in a filing cabinet underneath a pile of posters. It’s a historic bumper sticker, created in 1979 by a group called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
I’ve had this bumper sticker for a while. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I appreciate the premise. However, on this day, it wasn’t the bumper sticker that caught my eye, but the slip of paper that was hanging beneath it. It read: “Were it not for a strong, well-funded military, our schools would not have the freedom to do what they do!” Following the quote was a hyphen indicating the quote’s author. Following the hyphen was the name of my sub.
I was not sure how to feel about this at first, but I definitely felt things. Part of me felt annoyed that a guest in my classroom would have the audacity to make such an alteration to the physical space. Part of me felt angry at the implication that the messages that I am providing to my students are somehow misleading or harmful. Part of me felt impressed by the guts and conviction behind such a bold, unapologetic move. And part of me felt a tinge of self-doubt that perhaps my sub had a point.
I spent some time thinking about those things, and I think that I know how I feel now.
Both of the quotes make legitimate claims. It is legitimate to claim that a strong, well-funded military allows Americans to enjoy many of our freedoms. But it is also legitimate to claim that we spend too much money on our military, particularly when compared with other potential areas for public investment, such as education. To be sure, a strong military and an educated populace are both essential components of a free country, and the debate over allocation of resources to each is a fair one.
In hanging his quote next to my bumper sticker, my sub definitely did his part to facilitate a conversation that undoubtedly has a place in a social studies classroom. That is why my sub’s quote continues to hang on my whiteboard.
But what motivated him to do it — to go through the trouble of typing that quote, printing it out, cutting it to size and hanging it on my whiteboard?
The way that I see it, there are two possible explanations.
The first is that my sub is a self-appointed member of the neutrality police. He believes that high school classrooms are places where knowledge should always be presented in a way that is unbiased and objective, and he takes it upon himself to address any violations of this principle. However, something tells me that this guy is not going around posting Peace Corps fliers next to National Guard advertisements or pinning Re-elect Obama buttons next to portraits of Ronald Reagan. Meaning there must be a different explanation.
That explanation is ideology. In my bumper sticker, my sub saw an ideology that he did not like, so he decided to amend it with one that he liked better. Since he names himself as the author, I think I can safely assume that the ideology expressed in my sub’s quote is his own, and I’m guessing that the sub also assumes that the ideology expressed on the bumper sticker is mine. In that assumption, he is partially correct. I do sympathize with some of the concerns expressed on that bumper sticker — that the spending and veneration we direct to our military should exist for our educational institutions as well. But aside from that ideological overlap, there is another, more pedagogically powerful reason that quote hangs on my whiteboard: It makes my students question things.
In a school that is chock-full of national guard posters and pencils, college acceptance recognition for current seniors who will soon be members of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, and the best damn Veterans Day ceremony you’ve ever seen, that bumper sticker makes my students question, just for a brief moment, whether the veneration that we provide to our armed forces can sometimes be just a little much. In a school that is the constant victim of budget cuts and failed bonds, growing class sizes and shrinking resources, that bumper sticker makes my students consider, just for a moment, whether the value that we place on our schools and on their education can sometimes be just a little bit insufficient.
It’s a 3-inch by 12-inch piece of paper that makes my students question the pro-military messages they are subliminally bombarded with every day of every school year. They may choose to embrace the sentiment expressed in that bumper sticker, or they may choose to reject it, but at the very least, just for a moment, they are asked to consider it.
I don’t have a problem with ideology in education. In fact, I don’t think it is possible to avoid it. Nothing in education is neutral. Even “neutral” itself is an ideology. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Our goal as educators should not be to eliminate bias — it should be to teach students how to detect it, analyze it and ultimately choose whether to embrace its sentiments or reject them.
Lots of different perspectives are included in my classroom, both in the content that I teach and in the voices of my students. As a source of authority, I usually don’t like to include my own. However, in certain situations I will share my perspectives on issues, not in an attempt to convince students to think like I do — although I’m perfectly happy to convince them if they’ll let me — but to explicitly teach them a more important lesson: While I may be a source of authority, I am not an ultimate source of truth.
I’m an adult. I’m educated and informed, but ultimately students should question me just like they question their books, their newspapers and any quotes that might hang on their classroom whiteboard. I want students to hear different perspectives, understand different perspectives, consider how different perspectives might merge with or challenge their own, and then ultimately choose whether or not to accept whatever it is that those perspectives have to offer.
I have my own perspectives and opinions on everything that I teach. Education is an inherently political act, and there’s no doubt that my leanings and biases enter into my classroom even when I’m actively trying to suppress them. But because my classroom is built around teaching students not what to think, but how to think for themselves, I don’t shy away from the ideological.
I hope my sub approaches his teaching with the same humility.
Bill Boegeman is a social studies teacher at Forest Lake High School.