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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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Conclusion: Leaving it all at the Schoolhouse Gates? Realizing A Critical Legal Literacy



As Gibson and McKay (2005) remind us, “educating for citizenship is becoming increasingly more important worldwide in light of mounting consumerism, global interest in the possibilities for democracy, and unprecedented political apathy” (p. 167). Although from a positivist perspective (Hart, 1961), free expression might be simply seen as that form of speech existing outside of the realm of state interference, the opportunities, forums and occasions for the exercise of speech are all influenced by culture as well as law. Teacher educators are increasingly confronted by an educational bureaucracy that systematically silences teachers and undermines their ability to inform the public of the educational systems most fundamental failings. As part of this oppressive apparatus, accountability rhetoric leads to the intensification of educator’s work and a lessening of the professional discretion that enables them to be effective advocates for educational change (Helfenbein & Shudak, 2009).

Censorship, like “violence,” as Simone Weil noted, “turns anyone subjected to it into a thing” (Weil in Sontag, 2003, p. 12). Indeed, the inroads made by neoliberal reforms to remodel the administrative structures of school districts to resemble their corporate counterparts has left little room for critical voices. The effect of this incipient authoritarianism is compounded by the chilling effect created by teachers’ general lack of legal knowledge and uncertainty regarding the nature of their rights. Teachers frequently articulate← 195 | 196 → a general reluctance to exercise their freedom of...

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