Author Interview: Sarah Stitzlein

Sarah Stitzlein is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Cincinatti, USA. Here, she discusses her book, Teaching for dissent: Citizenship education and political activism


Why did you decide to write Teaching for dissent: Citizenship education and political activism?

I wrote the book, in part, after carefully watching the changing climate of dissent in the United States over the decade after 9/11, as it shifted from overt stamping out of political protest to a slow growth in public outcry across an array of issues from both the Right and the Left.  From the Tea Party calls for return to Constitutional purism to Occupy Wall Street raising consciousness about inequitable wealth distribution, people were shouting in the streets, yet many others responded in uncaring or disparaging ways, including moments of anger and violence.  I saw great hope in this situation as it indicated the democracy was alive, but not faring well; I saw an opportunity to improve democracy.  So, I turned to schools to highlight one pathway for how we could produce citizens who were capable of the more sophisticated and effective forms of political dissent that citizens need to be capable of to better democracy.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

My aim was to intervene into the shifting terrain of political protest in recent years to explicate how we might better prepare future citizens to engage in dissent.  Importantly, I wanted to show not only how to educate children in this way, but to argue that, as citizens of a democracy, they had a right to learn how to dissent.   A trump card that calls for action and change on the part of schools, this rights claim regrounded education as essentially about preparing for and sustaining good vibrant democracy, in part as a direct response to the changing conditions of dissent on our streets.


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

In part, my own political transformation made increasing dissent and the public responses to it interesting to me.  I was raised in a staunchly Republican farming family, but began to shift toward the Left as an adult, especially following 9/11.  I came to see that there were good people across the political spectrum who were struggling to communicate with each other and realized that effective political dissent was vital to all citizens.  Moreover, good dissent was essential to a thriving society where multiple perspectives proliferated, bringing an array of ways to reveal problems with current living and offer improved options for the future.  Looking back on my own educational journey, I realized it was not until college that I began to develop the skills of critique necessary to practice good dissent and I wondered how many others, like me, had missed out on an important democratic element in our K-12 experience.  As a result, I targeted the overt teaching of dissent in primary and secondary schools in my book.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

I hope that in an era of neoliberalism, accountability, and testing, the book will herald the need to realign our schools with their democratic purposes.  I hope that by calling attention to the active, but ineffective, protests in our streets, citizens, policy makers, and education leaders will come to see the important roles schools can play in the cultivation of good citizenship, which necessarily entails the ability to dissent.  And by offering insight into specific ways to integrate education for dissent into their curricula, I hope that the prospect of quality citizenship education becomes a feasible goal to implement.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

While I employ philosophical and interpretive methods that will speak largely to other scholars, especially philosophers of education and political theorists, I also intend to speak to citizens and education leaders who are struggling to understand the shifting political climate of the early twenty-first century and wondering what role schools should play in addressing it.  Because of this, I try to use rather straightforward language and argumentation, and I include a final chapter that discusses concrete aspects of implementation of citizenship curricula in schools and provides teacher resources.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

I continue to remain interested in our political context and its connections to the purposes of schools.  I’ve become quite concerned with recent attacks on public education in the United States via the accountability movement and the shift toward privatization and neoliberal corporate oversight of formerly public schools.   In my nearly completed new book manuscript, provisionally titled, Our Schools, Our Responsibility, Our Democracy, I aim to interpret this state of affairs and respond with a call to revitalize public commitments to education.  I contend that the recent accountability movement has shifted the onus of curing society’s problems almost exclusively onto schools, but claim that these burdens should not just be unidirectional.  I argue that there is a corresponding obligation on the part of citizens to support public schools, which includes upholding a commitment to schools as a central institution of democracy—something that sustains democracy but also, in its best forms, is democracy in action.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

I see philosophy of education as an effort to clarify key purposes and practices within education, along the way identifying roadblocks to achieving them and offering insight into improved pathways for doing so.


You can read Kurt Stemhagen’s review of Sarah Stitzlein’s book here.