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Learning What You Cannot Say

Teaching Free Speech and Political Literacy in an Authoritarian Age


John L. Hoben

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.
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Chapter 2. Rethinking Democracy in Education

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What knowledge is of the most worth? This is a question that is of central importance to any educator. However, in today’s world we quite often answer it in increasingly narrow, instrumental terms. From the current dominant neoliberal perspective, valuable knowledge is knowledge that helps people become productive members of the workforce in an increasingly competitive globalized world. So while most bureaucrats and corporate leaders are quick to point out the importance of job skills, they are typically much less ready to emphasize the fact that we also live in a democracy, a society based upon the notion of majoritarian rule and fundamental liberties. This is not often pointed out because we also live in a culture that is quickly becoming more and more inequitable as power is increasingly being shifted away from democratic institutions to serve corporate interests and a secretive military-­intelligence apparatus.

It is important to remember that speaking in historical terms, democracies are relatively rare. Yet, in an era where standardized testing has run amok, one rarely sees business leaders and journalists fretting over low voter turnouts or the public’s lack of knowledge of public affairs. When we talk about public schools it is crucial to be mindful that our democracy’s continued existence depends on a robust version of political literacy being taught to present-day← 33 | 34 → youth. This is because democracy itself is a form of cultural memory. In this sense, the collective amnesia created by a...

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