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Learning What You Cannot Say

Teaching Free Speech and Political Literacy in an Authoritarian Age

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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 4. Speech, Community & Culture

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SPEECH, COMMUNITY & CULTURE

In 2012 in Edmonton, Lynden Dorval, a Calgary physics teacher, was fired for refusing to stop handing out zeros to students who did not complete assigned work. The school board had repeatedly admonished Mr. Dorval who took the position that the “no 0” policy failed to teach students responsibility and undermined the integrity of the assessment process. Although the case did not find its way into the court system, Dorval became something of a poster child for members of the public mystified by many of today’s ‘student-centered’ educational policies. After much public debate and media scrutiny, the beleaguered teacher subsequently found a position in a private school and later retired. In a small but symbolic victory for teacher autonomy a Board of Reference subsequently ruled that Dorval had been improperly suspended by the school board.

Whatever we think about Dorval’s grading practices, it is important to remember that this very public incident underscored the tension between schooling’s increasingly rigid administrative apparatus and the professional judgment of a senior teacher. It also represents a distinctive moral conflict that is the heart of many contemporary public school speech cases: between the demands of a teacher’s employer and the integrity of the education system itself. Unfortunately, these tensions are compounded by the centralization of policymaking power in the hands of experts who often fail to take teachers’ concerns seriously.

Although the Dorval case is centered more around the issue of teacher autonomy, there...

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