Learning What You Cannot Say

Teaching Free Speech and Political Literacy in an Authoritarian Age

by John L. Hoben (Author)
©2015 Monographs XVIII, 241 Pages


How do teachers know the limits of their speech? Free speech means more than simply being free to agree, though the authoritarian managerial cultures of many schools increasingly ignore the need for a strong and empowered teaching profession. In response to this ongoing systemic contradiction, Learning What You Cannot Say provides a unique combination of teacher narratives, cultural theory and «black letter law» as part of a broader effort to create an active and effective critical legal literacy. The book explores the subtle ways in which cultural values inform shared perceptions of the black letter law and the detrimental impact of teacher apathy and confusion about rights. Since public schools educate our future citizens who learn not only from books but also by example, strong teacher speech is vital to the continued health of both our education system and our democracy. Any transformative form of political literacy, the author insists, must consider the cultural politics as well as the substantive law of rights.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1. Education & Free Speech
  • My Perspective: Changing Rural Communities and Their Schools
  • Voices From the Trenches: The Need for Legal Literacy in Education
  • Why Speech? Education and Expression
  • Rights, Schooling, and Culture
  • Public School Speech: A Confluence of Interests
  • Revisiting the Idea of Democracy as Education
  • Chapter 2. Rethinking Democracy in Education
  • Political Literacy in the Age of Neoliberalism
  • Dialogue and Democracy—Creating Communities of Meaning
  • Finding the Voice of the Oppressed
  • Illich and Schooling as an Obstacle to Empowering Learning
  • Political Literacy and Teacher Activism
  • Culture, Talk, and Educational Change
  • Can Today’s Teachers Become Transformative Intellectuals?
  • Official Knowledge and the Role of the Teacher
  • Redefining the Public Lives of Teachers
  • Chapter 3. The Meaning of Free Speech
  • Towards a Critical Appreciation of Rights in Schools
  • The Meaning of Harm
  • Performativity and the Speaking Subject
  • Bong Hits and Kafka: Re-Imagining Political Literacy
  • The Imagination and Political Literacy
  • Chapter 4. Speech, Community & Culture
  • Educating For Democratic Culture
  • Communities and Democratic Norms
  • School Culture and Teacher Leadership
  • Who Defines the Nature of the Teaching Community?
  • Insubordination: The Importance of Context
  • Neoliberalism and Speech
  • Place and the Politics of Speech
  • The Codes of Power
  • Chapter 5. Disciplinary Power & the reasonable limitation
  • Disciplinary Power and Professionalism
  • The Duty to Remain Silent
  • Paternalism and Reasonableness
  • Reasonableness and Utility
  • Pragmatic Speech: Politics and Context
  • Offense and Tolerance
  • Troubled Agency and Speech
  • Conclusion: Leaving it all at the Schoolhouse Gates? Realizing A Critical Legal Literacy
  • Insularity and the Gentle Infringement
  • Free Speech and Tolerance
  • Teacher Professionalism and Democratic Ideals
  • Censorship and the Missed Encounter: The Search for a Rights-Conscious Critical Pedagogy
  • References


First and foremost I would like to thank Paul Carr without whom this book would not have been possible. He has been the most insightful, knowledgeable and patient editor I could ever have hoped for. I would also like to thank Peter Lang for their continuous support and guidance at each stage of the publication process.

Without the educators who shared their stories with me this project would not have happened. I want to emphasize my deep respect for the teachers who work tirelessly behind the scenes in our education system every day. I would also like to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the School of Graduate Studies, and Memorial University for the Aldrich Fellowship that supported my research.

I am also very grateful to Connie Morrison and the late Kate Bride for their guidance and friendship. I would also be remiss not to thank Lionel for encouraging me to question authority and Myrtle who taught me how words can bear much kindness. Finally, I would also like to express my gratitude to my in-laws, Bernice and Winston, for their help when I was finalizing the manuscript.

To those who have helped me with this text, I am ever grateful: Andrea Rose, John Scott and Rosonna Tite. I would also like to thank Dr. Elizabeth← xi | xii → Yeoman; I am ever grateful for your kindness, your deep knowledge and the countless ways you have helped me to this stage. I would also like to thank Carolyn Lono for her indispensable help with the manuscript as well as Eileen Ryan and Laura Walsh for their patience and assistance. There are also many professors I would like to mention: Clar Doyle who has been a great influence on my teaching and writing; Amarjit Singh, for his wide ranging knowledge, and indomitable curiosity; Katherine Side who reminded me of the importance of focus and hard work; Paul Wilson for reminding me of the importance of free speech during my graduate studies and for working with me on the professional presentation we delivered on the topic; to Wayne Fife and Michael Corbett for their insightful comments; and Ursula Kelly who has had a profound influence on the way I think and teach. I would also like to thank Paul Thomas who helped me find my voice as a writer in so many ways.

I cannot give enough thanks to my beautiful wife, Sylvia. Without you none of this would be possible. I thank you for your constant encouragement, your love and your friendship though this busy, and sometimes difficult, time in our lives. Thanks as well to Sophia and Norah for the smiles, hugs and kisses. You bring so much joy to our lives. My family is a constant source of inspiration and strength for all that I do.

To my parents, Clarence and Ruby, thanks for believing in me. You have been supportive and gracious parents. I will love you always. Thanks as well to my sister Gail who, at an early age, taught me how to dodge flying Tonka trucks. Some things just can’t be learned from books.

← xii | xiii → FOREWORD

Tongues Tied: How Teachers Learn What not to Say

Ursula A. Kelly

In the summer of 2013, following massive leaks by National Security Agency (NSA) whistle blower Edward Snowden that reverberated worldwide, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter commented to CNN:

[Snowden] obviously violated the laws of America, for which he’s responsible, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far…I think that the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive, so I think that the bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial. (Watkins, 2013)

In a stunningly refreshing addendum to these comments only a couple of weeks later at a closed event in Atlanta, Georgia, Carter was quoted by Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s leading newspapers, as saying, “America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time” (Wing, 2013). Such comments, made by a respected Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president about one of the most significant security breaches in US history—comments that challenged the White House stance—were given no serious or prolonged consideration by mainstream American press. Instead, despite their consistency with Carter’s earlier statements, their accuracy was undermined by questions about the accuracy of the German translation and the absence of U.S. media at the event at which Carter spoke. These avoidance tactics pre-empted an← xiii | xiv → important conversation and created a missed opportunity for a debate that is desperately needed, not only in the United States but also in any nation where government agendas are used as a rationale for encroachment on citizens’ rights.

The disappointing shallowness of contemporary politics and the ennui it encourages can distract attention from the dangerous directions in which these politics have taken us and the erosion of rights—to privacy, speech, thought—that are at their core. What does it mean to have “a functioning democracy”? In an age of ever-present surveillance, how do issues of censorship, privacy and speech dovetail? What does free speech mean in these considerations? What do we relinquish when we resist the conversations that might bring insight to these issues? How has the kind of thinking that kept Carter’s comments off the radar become so commonplace? By what means has critical engagement been atrophied? How is public education—that site where nascent citizenship and critique so deeply mesh—implicated in the steady acquiescence of democratic rights? These questions are central to an engaged and critical dialogue about the terms of citizenship and about what it means to participate meaningfully in democratic life.

In a large-scale international study of teacher satisfaction —The International Teacher 2000 Project—researchers attributed their ­major finding of consistently widespread “profound dissatisfaction” among teachers in Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and England to “the ­concurrent juxtaposition of and antithetical nature” of two key factors: the “altruism, activism and desire to make a difference” that motivate entry into teaching; and “the growing attempts to control the process of teaching in order to control its output” (Scott, Stone & Dinham, 2001, p. 15). The data of this project are clear; the contradictions that arise from these competing tendencies in the day-to-day lives of teachers—the discrepancy between teacher values and system values and the disavowal of teacher autonomy and voice to ensure that system values prevail—create the harmful conditions that result in stress, apathy, and despair. Toward the end of the study, the researchers point to the loss that is an abiding feature of teaching in these times. They note:

The melancholy conclusion to be drawn from this argument is that teaching is not and cannot be quarantined from the social context in which it is embedded….What is required is a wider perspective on the nature and the enormity of the social changes that manifest at the “chalk face” in the patterns of discontent the voices of our participants reveal. (Scott, Stone & Dinham, 2001, p. 15)

← xiv | xv → Hoben documents brilliantly how the complex issues of democratic rights that arise from the Snowden affair and the findings of the International Teacher 2000 Project are of a piece. Drawing powerfully on his insights and expertise as a lawyer and educator, Hoben analyzes the much larger pressures, what Michael Apple calls “conservative modernization largely guided by neoliberal principles” (Apple, 2001, p. iv), that inform these contradictions of teachers’ work and how their influence also threatens to reshape schools into soulless sites of instrumentation, standardization and assimilation. Henry Giroux provides a disturbing synopsis of the fate of public schools and teachers under this ideological brokerage:

Public schools have become an object of disdain, and teachers labor under educational reforms that separate conception from execution, theory from practice, and pedagogy from moral and social considerations. As content is devalued, history erased and the economic, racial and social inequities intensified, public schools increasingly are hijacked by corporate and religious fundamentalists. The effect is not only to deskill teachers, to remove them from the processes of deliberation and reflection, but also to routinize the nature of learning and classroom pedagogy. (Giroux, 2012)

Hoben sees this “tragedy of the current educational system’s preoccupation with educational efficiency” and how it both creates and shuns “a forgotten world of dissatisfied teachers and apathetic students” (Hoben, 2014, p. 224). In the scenarios described by both Giroux and Hoben and realized daily in public schools, teachers are caught in a maelstrom of accountability measures that are divorced from the relational dynamics of a teaching and learning grounded in mutual regard and care for the individual and the collective—what really makes a difference in the lives of students and communities. Teacher work is overwhelmed by the professional intensification that arises from the demands of both these accountability practices and the effects of the increased social fragmentation created by the new economic times of which they are a part.

Hoben’s research is an account of both the diminishment and forfeit of rights to speech and the internalization of a managerial logic of speech as ‘responsible privilege’ as a central acquisition in the loss of critical voice. His work points to the intricate identity work at the core of this project of discipline and control: the re-crafting of teacher-selves through an insidious self-­regulation forged through institutionalized fear-mongering, the undermining of trust, decreased professional autonomy, and ever-present, unrelenting social criticism and alienation. When a response to fear is a readjustment of one’s legal← xv | xvi → and professional right to speak, such a response is the first symptom of curtailed freedom; fear has been internalized and operates as a self-regulatory impulse that serves those who create the conditions of fear and in whose interests it is mobilized. In the broad berth of rationalization that accompanies such self-effacement, teacher fear is reinvented as self-regulation cloaked as self-protection and ‘respect for authority,’ a cunning hegemonic strategy of manipulation that supports the decline of critical citizenship and a nulling of the democratic impulses of resistance and change. Such control strategies that have at their core exploitation through fear create the conditions for great inner strife and stress as teachers are sandwiched between their moral position as arbiters and advocates for youth and their communities and the overwhelming pressure to succumb to the assimilative and controlling pressures created by regressive reform and accountability measures.

Hoben’s treatise is, itself, underscored by a melancholic realization: democracy, never a completed project, has already lost ground. As Hoben notes, democracy within late capitalism is reduced largely to a right to consume. The excesses of consumerism are the great playing field of distractions that preempt a frank realization that the fulfillment of the promise of democracy is seriously imperilled by globalized interests that are threatened by the very critical engagement and transparency that are at the core of its promise. These times are fraught with the dangers of the fabrication of public discourse for political interests and the disregard and dismay of those who dare to challenge the unsettling orthodoxies they promote as the source of the problem rather than its ethical rebuttal. As the logic of schools becomes increasingly market driven, the curtailment of free speech and the increased presence and reach of its business partner, censorship, are insidiously extended.

Any relationship to this malaise is necessarily an ethically charged one and public education is the moral site for the nurturance of an engaged citizenry to wrestle with these complex issues—to learn to consider and to craft one’s own voice, to learn what to say in response to one’s own caring connection to self and community. It is the very site where one can learn a difference between critical awareness and self-serving righteousness. Yet, due to the power effects of a conflation of complex socio-cultural influences of the sort that Hoben intricately describes, public education is increasingly where both teachers and students are encouraged to be non-reflexive and learn what not to say. As such, public education is a site for the diminishment and containment of voice, not its elaboration and celebration. That such containment is not← xvi | xvii → more vigorously questioned within both education and the public realm is, itself, a crisis of education.

As Hoben indicates, the fate of communities is at the heart of debates about free—or freer—speech. When voice is nurtured and assured of its rightful place within democratic communities, then creativity, autonomy, and self and collective destiny can be shaped through debate and consensus that does not override difference but, rather, lets difference expand democratic possibilities. As Nel Noddings notes, “schooling consonant with genuine democracy not only recognizes differences. It respects and appreciates those differences” (Noddings, 2011, p. 4). In healthy, functioning democracies, an embrace of this fundamental dialogic tension of everyday life is how things can become better—for all. When voice, the very expressive essence of life, is sacrificed to those who control and manage in their own interests, then resistance is impossible and autonomy is surrendered to assimilation. Without voice, self-­determination accedes to corporate control and the apathy that such powerlessness produces. In this sense, the educational epidemic that is the loss of community schools is a breach of public trust for it constitutes an infrastructural rearrangement of the possibility of voice as a logistical part of the management of protest by the elimination of ‘a speaker’s corner’ on the home turf.

What happens when those who should speak feel they cannot? What happens when censorship becomes a blanket of false comfort around which to coddle one’s own complicity in privilege, a defensive position for a moral failure to use one’s voice in conscience and objection? Teaching has a long, documented history of complicity with conservatism. But the history of teaching also records the efforts of teachers who refuse to be rendered voiceless and who, in everyday ways, lead the struggle for voice, insight, justice, and social betterment. These teachers can inspire all of us, for, in resisting the “domestication” that neoliberal reforms prescribe and demand, they are rising to the challenges of retrenchment and forging “a new understanding of the relationship between democracy and schooling, learning and social change” (Giroux, 2012). This new understanding is a renewed relationship to teaching, one that is infused with hope and possibility and that counters the melancholy that might stifle or surrender agency and activism.


XVIII, 241
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2013 (September)
contradiction cultural theory education system
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 241 pp.

Biographical notes

John L. Hoben (Author)

John L. Hoben teaches in the law and society program and the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A member of the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, in 2007 he was awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship (Doctoral) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada to conduct a three-year study of teacher speech. Hoben regularly writes and presents on the theory and law of rights, technology and education, democratic education and civic literacy.


Title: Learning What You Cannot Say
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