Education has always been political

I bought Mark Pegrum's From Blogs to Bombs the other day, for my own research and deeper reflection into the IATEFL LT-SIG day back in April where he presented via SecondLife.

 Right away, in the first few pages, this sentence of his jumped out at me.
Education has always been political.  At its best, it walks a tightrope between reproducing the status quo and providing open democratic spaces for challenging it.

He goes on to say:

When teaching through digital technologies, educators have a responsibility to help students explore the power of these new tools to craft individual and community stories, but also to help them perceive and compensate for their limitations and dangers...  It's vital that today's students graduate with the creative skills to make the most of digital technologies, as well as the critical skills to evaluate the freedom or lack of freedom to which they may lead.  

I believe, of course, that we shouldn't only be looking at today's youth but at all students  - no matter their ages and at ourselves, as educators - especially, especially those of us, the early adopters who are exploring digital media  and its applications in the classroom.

As passionately as we feel about education  and technology and technology in education, we know enough of the world to know that there are times of great differences in opinions and many generations have lived through the consequences of those beliefs.   

What political statements do we actually make by speaking and what statements do we make by remaining silent?

Recently, passionate twitter exchanges of a political nature were captured and posted on Mark Andrews's blog.   Within his PLN and his connected others with their own PLNs  (including mine) members exist  who are from all the countries involved.   The world has never, ever been changed by silence.

But being globally connected, how does one speak or not speak without causing cultural offense?

We've gone through this when I discussed truth-telling in classes so you can probably guess my thoughts:    no matter which way you flip it, the choice involved in speaking out or deciding not to is simply a flip-side of exactly the same coin and makes a statement.

Both are political decisions to be taken very seriously however  via our newly networked lives these conversations are now no longer limited, no longer private - these conversations we once would have had within families, circles and communities are recorded for the entire, very wide world out there. 

Does this put us in danger?  

What advice do we give to our students if they ask?  How public do we allow their opinions and discussions to be?

The decisions we make today about education, technology, and technology in education must be informed by a consideration of the long-term social, socio-political and ecological consequences: in short, what kinds of stories - individual, local, national and global - they'll enable us to write. 
It's up to us to shape our technologies as much as they shape us.   And given the pace of ongoing technological development, we have to start now.
What divides might we end up creating or enhancing or bridging?   

image credit: Nuclear Bomb by jtdjt on

13 Responses to “Education has always been political”

  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    June 05, 2010

    Hi Karenne,

    Although I come down on the side of the "we should speak out" camp, I'm undecided as to whether the digital arena is a good place to air these kind of discussions.

    If I'm honest, I don't really feel comfortable discussing controversial issues on Twitter because of the fragmented nature of conversation that goes on over there.

    At best you can only hope to get a representative snapshot of a debate via tweets from mutual friends taking part. At worst, you can come away with a very one-sided impression of a much broader debate, which largely took place between Twitter users you don't follow with dissenting views.

    Although I hardly caught any of the original discussion on Twitter that Mark blogged about as I was working that day, I follow a lot of people on there and I did see a few highly charged and personalised RT's flying about on the day from people I don't follow that made me feel pretty uncomfortable.

    I also think that when things get re-tweeted, the original context and intent behind the message can sometimes get lost in the mix.

    Although blogging is a better option, even then I think there is a flip side to the coin.

    To paraphrase what I said on Mark's blog, wearing your political colours on your digital sleeve might come back to bite you if you aren't shy of tackling controversial topics in the classroom and are trying nudge learners towards learning to think for themselves.

    The digital footprint issue is another potential minefield.

    Not just because there are some countries where dissent may get you into real trouble, but because TEFL is a Global Industry. Political regimes come and go; who knows where you might want to teach ten twenty years down the line?

    That person from West Xylophone on Twitter who unfollowed you last week because you were rude about their Eurovision Song Contest entry
    could be the future DOS standing in the way of your dream job - who knows? :-)

    In view of all this, speaking out unplugged gets my vote for the present, though I'm open to being convinced otherwise if someone can come up with a strong enough argument to the contrary...

    June 05, 2010

    Thanks Sue, I hear you and agree - I think this post was one of things where I muse in order to get other people's opinions... I stayed out of the conversation on Twitter as it made me quite uncomfortable knowing that I have PLN members on both sides, not just on Twitter but who read my blog and through Facebook... and I am not there - in the past I've been passionate about these issues and what occurred hurts but how much good do I do by adding my opinions?

    And Twitter is just too quick - too easy to offend, gosh knows, I've offended people in the past by being sarcastic or by being ironic and had these tweets or blog comments read very incorrectly.

    Na ja, we live, we learn - we can try to do good but good is so subjective!

    Thanks again for adding your thoughts!


  • Aparna says:
    June 07, 2010

    Hi Karenne: I am a first time visitor. I was/am drawn to the title "Education has always been political". Recently, with the TX board talking about books and I believe (not 100% sure), they were going to leave some history parts out. I am quite disturbed by that and when I read your post, it immediately brought that incident up.

    June 07, 2010

    They always say that history is written by the victors... it makes you wonder, doesn't it - before we had the era of transparency what we learn and what we know...

    sorry, bit deep for a blog but probing critical questions for today's world.

    Thanks for contributing, Aparna.


  • mark andrews says:
    June 08, 2010

    Hi Karenne,
    Rose Senior, a fellow Perth resident and an acquaintance of Mark Pegrum’s sent me a signed copy of Mark’s book “From Blogs to Bombs” at Christmas this year. I read it and included some parts of it in my digital literacy course with university undergraduates.
    We talked about many of the ideas in the book and came to the conclusion that the issues that Mark raises should be part of any secondary school curriculum, in view of the fact that so many young people spend so much time online. I would recommend the book to anyone.
    You also raise the issue of how, being globally connected, one speaks or doesn’t speak without causing cultural offense?”
    For me when I am online I know there are people reading what I write from both Serbia and Croatia and I try as much as possible to be as inclusive as possible, respecting different views, but at the same time I don’t want to hide my views. I think this is a real challenge but I don’t want to be afraid of writing what I think. It is a big challenge but one that I don’t want to hide from.
    Sue writes about digital footprints and “that person from West Xylophone on Twitter who unfollowed you last week because you were rude about their Eurovision Song Contest entry could be the future DOS standing in the way of your dream job - who knows? :-)”
    My view of this is in general is that if anyone unfollows you because they don’t like what you say, then there will be others who will actually respect you for what you say. I wouldn’t want to end up like a weathercock moving in the wind according to whatever might be popular at a certain time but forgetting my own principles.
    If somebody unfollows me for something I’ve said about something important and then they use it against me in the future, would that be the kind of person or organisation I would want to be working for?
    Thanks Karenne for following this up. Like Sue, I felt that twitter was not an appropriate channel for a discussion of that magnitude, although it did get things going and was worth it for that, and that’s why I moved it onto the blog. It’s not about what I, personally, might or might not think but it’s about providing space for a discussion to develop and as such I think it has been helpful in allowing more people to hear more views and long may the discussion continue both here, on the Gaza blogpost and elsewhere.

  • Sara Hannam says:
    June 08, 2010

    What an interesting discussion and sorry for coming in late. Thank you Karenne. As you rightly point out, life is political, and choosing to stay out of that is in itself a political act (and no less political than those who decide to express their opinion more openly). I don't really believe there is a neutral position here. It is simply a case of the medium through which we choose to communicate our views.

    As one of the people (with Mark) who both twittered and blogged about this issue (and many others) I would like to say that I agree with Mark that for me whether I lose the odd follower because of my views is not the priority. I imagine all of us could lose followers from any content we tweet - "controversial" or not. And indeed every tweet expresses an opinion about what we consider important or worthy of telling other people. Some people express strong views in their tweets about the 'rights' and 'wrongs' of teaching and pedagogy. I consider this the same.

    TBH accruing followers is not my reason for being on twitter or maintaining a blog, but I guess that from the followers I have some are interested in hearing what I have to say - and if anything, oddly enough, I gained a lot of followers during the tweet discussion on Israel/Palestine, some of whom were actually tweeting the opposite position. That could be considered as bridge building.

    Whilst I also appreciate Sue's point, and note that she has argued for the 'unplugged' approach both here and on Mark's blog, as I understand it Sue that is partly because your twitter account is also linked to your professional work is it not? That is of course a very different situation because then I suppose you would be considering the impact knowing your political or other views might have on your clients. For me, I must admit it is the last thing on my mind whether my tweets may affect my chances of getting a job later down the line! So it is difficult for me to appreciate that.

    My twitter account is not linked to my professional identity or job and I consider it a very fruitful space for discussion and debate and am fully engaged in following a lot of people who are not in education but are tweeting and blogging about politics. I contribute to blogs outside education and ELT too. I would also support Mark that blogs provide a democratic space where everyone can have a voice. Unlike, for example, a journal or magazine where only some people get the chance to get published.

    Ultimately, I think it is up to the individual to decide, and just as I respect those who choose to go "unplugged" (and would not ever try to force them to tweet their views if they don't want to) I also hope that they in turn support the right of those who want to stand up and express an opinion (and likewise will not try to convince us that we are wrong).

    So Sue I don't think any of us should try to convince you as for me it is not either/or, it is a question of personal choice. I don't think your choice to go "unplugged" though is any less or more political than mine. Engagement or disengagement are both political choices. But it is up to the individual how they choose to exercise that choice!

    Thanks again Karenne.

    Sara, Greece

  • Shelly Terrell says:
    June 08, 2010


    Great post and an important topic. Like I wrote to Mark's post, I rather people become upset at the discussion raised than to have silence. However, I do believe there are tactful ways to do this. I think we should definitely be aware not to offend for the sake of being controversial, because then we lose sight of the goal which is to make people think and react. Moreover, we need to have these global discussions online and so do our students. I think students aren't really thought how to do this in schools. This is extremely sad and has had an enormous impact. Governments go to war for the slightest issues. Genocide, damage to the environment, economic crisis, and more plagued the world and few of our leaders have the ability to resolve these issues in a peaceful way. I believe this is because most education systems raise students to live in microcosms and make them fear speaking up. Moreover, students aren't really taught to collaborate and communicate with students from other countries. Why should we expect them to be able to do this if they were never taught this? I read comments, arguments and more that make me uncomfortable online but I'm glad they do. I like stepping out of my comfort zone and being reminded on a daily basis I'm fortunate. Our students need to be reminded of this, too.

    June 12, 2010

    Mark, Shelly, Sara

    Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, with comments like these I like to mull over my responses properly and write back with the same deepness and sincerity that you guys put in to your comments.

    Thank you for adding your thoughts here!

    I agree that it is a huge challenge to write honestly and sincerely about certain political issues without causing offense.

    There is also the question of understanding the emotional histories of the people involved directly or indirectly.

    In some respects I am quite surprised by my own unwillingness to have jump into this particular discussion, given how passionate I had been in the past.

    It might be something to do with where I am living now and I have adopted the attitude of the people here who because of their history feel unable to publicly voice an opinion.

    The situation is so incredibly difficult, the moment one speaks out against what's going on in Gaza, one gets branded as an anti-semite.

    Sometimes I make parallels between what they had done to them and what they do now as an example of an abused child who grows up to become an abuser. It's dire - the situation there - the whole world watching and feeling torn knowing that wrongs are being committed but powerless to say stop.

    Anyway, I think it was good of you that "you took it to the blogs" - it gave it a permanence that one does not get via Twitter.

    June 12, 2010

    Hi Sara,

    Thanks so much for coming round and adding your thoughts!

    Yes I agree with you that we can't really worry about losing followers if people disagree with us (I'm certain I've lost some in the past for other more petty disagreements or strong statements on other issues!)

    However life is not about collecting people who "follow us" or "don't follow us" based on opinions but about being true and steadfast to our own beliefs.

    I understand what you are saying about tweets and blog posts not affecting your employment down the line... and I'd like to say that I agree except one doesn't know what's down the line... to be honest, I had exactly the same attitude as you do - except that hmmm... one of my series (which I absolutely stand by) did end up affecting me! But that's another story.

    Anyway, like you, I believe that it is through discussion that bridges are built and, in fact, I very much look forward to this new world we (actually quite early adopters) are participating in.

    I think it will become much, much harder for governments to hide the crap and the lies that they've been able to pass off as truths as we not only have all eyes on deck but we have voices and can reach thousands and even millions.

    It's my honest opinion that through social media a great many good things will come - and the question is, within this blog post is, because of this democratic "power", how do we encourage and teach critical thinking and critical opinion giving - as those higher skills are becoming even more important today than they ever before (i.e. wading through the crap that comes with an abundant access to information).

    This really needs to be addressed - finding truth has never ever been more difficult!


    June 12, 2010

    And Shelly, you've raised an incredibly important point.

    When one looks at youtube or some of the other public forums, it's simply astonishing how rude and basic some of the comments become when people disagree with each others opinions - tact flies out of the window.

    While I haven't, I hope, ever been quite so bad, I know the emotional impact that other people's words have had on me in the past.

    I understand the overreaction to something that is sad negatively about something I have done - once someone wrote something about all my ideas being nonsense. We made up in the end and I know the person was just upset and defending someone else but the truth is when I go back to that blog, I feel way too intimidated to add my thoughts as... they may well be nonsense.

    Anyway, this isn't about me - what I wanted to say is that these sorts of experiences are going to become an ever increasing part of our own students lives -they are becoming more and more involved in social media and they need help wading through the "rules".

    To top it off, they must communicate in a language which is not of their own. So not only do they need the skills to understand that someone else may only be being flippant or sarcastic but they must resist the urge to add more fire to the pot!

    Just about everyone knows that the wrong modal verb placed in the wrong sentence can start a war at home let alone across nations!
    I almost feel like writing a coursebook on "how to disagree politely!" :)

    Thanks for contributing to this discussion!


  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    June 26, 2010

    Afraid I'm very late on following up on this (as usual!) due to work & various other stuff going on, but nevertheless...

    Yes Sara, my reluctance to get involved with discussing these kind of issues on Twitter is because my account is connected with my job, but it has more to do with the fact that other people have become involved with the site since it became a public resource last year and I wouldn't presume to speak on their behalf, really, rather than anything else.

    I'm not averse to speaking out on issues that relate directly to what I do from time to time (such as, for example, public sector ESOL in the UK) but I feel a bit conflicted about getting involved in online debates that revolve around complex issues that I'm not well informed about; particularly as I don't usually have the time to follow up on ongoing discussions and feel a tad guilty when pressure of work forces me to drop off the radar...

    Re: my comments about Twitter & people unfollowing you after disagreeing with something you have said, Mark - I was speaking with my tongue very firmly in my cheek there. Actually, it doesn't especially bother me if somebody unfollows me because of something I've said on Twitter; the point I was trying to make is that once you put your opinions out there, then they are public currency for anybody to pick over and interpret how they see fit (or for that matter, republish out of context and/or misquote).

    I accept your point that you wouldn't want to work for the kind of person or organisation that judged you on your political views, but what would you do if you ever found yourself looking for work in a situation where there wasn't much else in the way of options?

    I'm playing devil's advocate here and in essence I don't disagree with what you are saying, but a lot of organisations and governments do have a tendency towards being rather conservative; it's also not unheard of for teachers to find themselves in a great deal of hot water and sometimes even sacked over something or other they've blogged about or commented on.

    Sarah, I agree with you that it is up to the individual to decide how they want to engage in the debate, and that we should support them in whatever way they choose to do so.

    What matters most I think, is that these kind of issues do get discussed, rather than sidestepped and ignored.


  • Eric says:
    July 26, 2010

    Truth or tact? Is that the question?

    For me, speaking out on critical public policy issues as a citizen in a democratic country remains a sacred right - and responsibility.

    Likewise, I frequently comment - often acting as a contrarian - on controversial topics on Twitter, Facebook, etc. If people subscribe more to dogma than dialogue and choose to defriend me or overlook my job application, so be it. We can only work for greater tolerance, reason, and freedom.

    On the other hand, inside my classrooms I teach the art of asking questions, critical thinking, and rational debate. Rather than advocating for a "right position" and avoiding controversies which seem like propaganda in the classroom, I focus on evaluating evidence and looking at a wider range of possibilities.

    Let me add two more personal experiences. We should never do anything that is foolish - and might cause our students harm. Therefore, if you teach in a dictatorship - Islamic or communist, Asian or Latin American -, commonsense and practical decency will impose limits on your teaching. Why risk the secret police visiting your students - especially if you are more protected as a foreign citizen? Learn and follow the local laws.

    As academic director of a private high school in Vietnam, I dealt with curriculum debates and censorship problems on a regular basis. I stopped a young English teacher from teaching (with downloaded copies) "1984" in Vietnam last summer. Why? 1984 is banned by the government. Simple.

    Worse, the teacher - who seemed to believe he was planting democracy and all good jazz - had little to lose because the worst that would happen to him would be deportation or revoking his visa. On the other hand, his students, however, might be banned from attending a university or denied a tourist visa. Why endanger your students?

    A second story from Vietnam. My conversation textbook, written for American immigrants often seeking citizenship, includes many great quotes celebrating freedom of speech and religion. Yet insights such as the German poets Heinrich Heine that "where they burn books, they will burn people" preclude its use in many closed societies. Solution: I only used chapters with non-controversial topics - and even the chapter titled "reading pleasures" had to be skipped.

    The more you reflect on the ethics of teaching English in still closed, but opening societies, the more you understand the advantages of tact. I eventually decided to just rewrite the entire book for Vietnam. Does this "safe" version still teach conversation skills, asking questions, and critical thinking? Absolutely.

    By the way, the few remaining secular communist regimes censor the same topics as many Islamic dictatorships: lifestyle choices, private vices, and public debates. Isn't that a sweet irony?

    Bottomline: Free speech remains a rare gift that comes from a western enlightenment tradition. As an American blogger, I rejoice in my freedom to speak out. As American Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass wrote, "The first amendment was not meant to pass out tranquilizers to power."

    Yet teachers must put students language needs and desires first in the classroom. Sometimes tact and caution must be deployed - in and out of the classroom.

  • Eric says:
    July 26, 2010

    Should the few who have freedom to speak surrender it because other folks lack the tolerance for open discussion? Or because of future, potential job prospects in closed societies? Should we avoid asking “who is responsible?” for global problems because some folks have extremely fragile feelings?

    Censorship always has its advocates, but speaking out on blogs and in op-eds is a rare and sacred right in the West. As American Supreme Court Justice William Douglass noted, "the first amendment (free speech) is not intended to tranquilize the public."

    On the other hand, our classroom instruction should fit the local circumstances. You don't teach the great novel 1984 in China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. As director of a private high school program in Vietnam last summer, I even stopped a young, naive American teacher from teaching the banned novel with downloaded copies. (The worst that would happen to him was deportation or denial of visa, but his students might be banned from university or denied travel visas. You don't endanger your students!)

    We need - as teachers - to always put students' needs first. You don't do anything to risk their safety. We want to expand, not limit, their options and choices in life. Therefore, the classroom must fit the local situation - and you can still teach vital language and critical thinking skills!
    Context, as ever, remains paramount.

    Let's remember that the right to free speech has been a long struggle against religious restrictions, political powers, and social taboos. As citizens, we should freely exercise it. Let’s speak truth where we can, and use tact when we must.


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