Teaching Dissent


thanks to Jennifer Murawski for the photo

When you look at the long history of man, you see that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion.

CP Snow

For too many teachers in too many schools around the world, the ideal student is still someone who is quiet, who speaks only when given leave to speak, who works hard at their studies, and who obeys the rules and does what teacher tells them. This universal notion of the obedient child is the norm against which the behaviour of our children and young people is still too often measured in their day to day schooling.

How schools are willing, except in very controlled and permitted ways, to encourage their students to offer dissent, to argue their corner, to disagree, to demand that teachers or others in authority explain decisions and to justify their utterances? Such dissent that is allowed might be corralled into a debating society or similar, but the notion of a classroom full of argumentative, disputatious and vociferous students would fill many teachers with horror.

It is good therefore to see an attempt to take one, admittedly very small, step away from this constant expectation of obedience and lack of dissent, by introducing primary school students to philosophy. A number of schools across the UK are trialling materials based on the Philosophy for Children (P4C) ideas established by Matthew Lipman in the 1970s, and involving 3000 nine and ten year olds in:

…hour-long sessions aimed at raising their ability to question, reason and form arguments.

In P4C, children typically choose a question, from a range on offer. This sparks discussion that involves them in:

…questioning assumptions, developing opinions with supporting reasons, analysing significant concepts and generally applying the best reasoning and judgement they are capable of to the question they have chosen…

This is all good, of course – anything that gives children opportunities to engage in critical and collaborative thinking of this nature is, by definition, a good thing (true collaborative thinking does not mean searching for a cosy consensus – it can also involve, as it does in real life so often, respectful collective disputation and debate, and resulting more often in an agreement to disagree than in any sense of unanimity of thoughts and ideas).

It does not, however, go far enough. Adding philosophy to the overt curriculum without also looking very closely at the hidden curriculum of a school – that aspect of schooling that establishes the underlying expectations imposed on students (and on teachers) – serves little ultimate purpose. Bart McGettrick, Dean of Education at Liverpool Hope University and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Glasgow, once defined the hidden curriculum thus:

All schools have a hidden curriculum…..The way the school is organised, the way the teacher talks to the pupil, the way we as educators listen to those whom we serve in schools, all affect the values which are transmitted, and affect the self-worth and self-concept of the pupil. These are some of the most important influences on how pupils feel and how they think and act….The strength of this should never be underestimated in the lasting impact of education on the lives of people.

If in the overt curriculum students are being taught how to think and argue logically while the hidden curriculum continually transmits the message that dissent is frowned upon, then  teaching philosophy will never be enough.

Dissent, protest, defiance, disputation – all of these are necessary and core components of a free society. If the school as an institution does not establish a milieu that gives our children the right, as well as the intellectual tools, to disagree and to voice their disagreement in a mature and honest way, and if teachers choose to cloak themselves in a mask of authority that brooks no dissension from their students, then we are simply not giving children and young people the means to express their own opinions in the face of every other ‘authority’ they will come up against in their lives.

Let’s think on what CP Snow says in the quote above and teach our young people to know that it is perfectly acceptable to disagree. Let’s help them by permitting them to develop the intellectual tools and the strength of character they will need throughout life to be able to determine their own opinions, to decide their own standards of right and wrong, and to be able to play an active role in a free society rather than the passive obedient role that they too often are expected to play in the micro-society of the school.

Bertrand Russell stated it well when he wrote:

Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.