Book Review: Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship education and political activism

Book Review: Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship education and political activism, by Sarah M. Stitzlein

Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013. Pp. 208. Hb. $140.00. Pb. $33.95.

Reviewed by Kurt Stemhagen

Stitzlein’s Teaching for Dissent provides a strong argument for embracing dissent in school and society. On the societal level, Stitzlein makes the case that dissent should be thought of as a positive and not a negative right. Rather than simply being free from government interference when dissenting, dissent is such an integral democratic activity that citizens have the positive right to learn about how to participate in dissent. This moves dissent from society to the schools.

In schools, according to Stitzlein, students should learn to differentiate between types of dissent and the cultivation of what Stitzlein labels ‘good dissent’. Good dissent requires goals that seek a more just life, democratic means, inclusion of a variety of perspectives, and a self-critical, well-intentioned dissenter. The articulation of a range of activities that are robust enough to be considered productive dissent yet that still fit within our democratic structures is an accomplishment in itself. Indeed, a highly praiseworthy feature of Stitzlein’s project is that she finds a way to engage both of the major dissenting contemporary political factions in the United States (the ‘Tea Party’ on the Right and the ‘Occupy’ movements on the Left).  She does so by describing a version of dissent that is flexible enough to contain competing visions of the good and of what America should be.

Stitzlein positions the roots of American dissent in the colonial and progressive eras. While her choice to focus on these eras is understandable, as she connects contemporary dissent movements to both, the relative lack of mention of the 1960s antiwar and more general countercultural movements proves a hindrance to articulating the fullest account of dissent, particularly as antiestablishment dissent was so culturally pervasive and exerted real influence on philosophy of education and eventually educational practice (e.g., open schools).   That said, Stitzlein puts her historical work, like a good pragmatist, in the service of her broader aims related to making the case for the teaching of dissent. Viewed this way, the problem becomes a lesser one – perhaps she should have simply been more transparent about the kind of history in which she was engaging. This is clearly a small quibble with an excellent book.

As a teacher educator I am drawn to the book’s implications for teachers and teacher preparation programs. In fact, like Stitzlein, I see teacher freedom to, and interest in, dissent as preconditions for the cultivation of dissent and its related sensibilities in students. In particular, the chapters ‘Teacher Dissent’ and ‘Grounding Dissent in Hope’ provide a strong theoretical framework for how and why to teach prospective teachers to participate in educational policy formation and social, political, and cultural movements beyond their classrooms.

Her identification of genuine hope (not platitudinous pseudo-hope) as a key to ‘good dissent’ and to democracy in general is as clear as it is inspirational. Tying dissent and hope together is exactly what is needed in general, but nowhere more so than in public schools and with teachers, a group for whom morale is low and anxiety high (at least in the U.S. context). What Stitzlein provides with her vision of pragmatic hope is a way for teachers to ‘hop(e) in view of the difficulties of life, rather than in spite of them’ (p. 152). How this ties into dissent is that ‘good dissent’ requires a view of better possibilities and Stitzlein’s coupling of dissent and hope provide exactly what teachers need as they work in their various contexts. Pragmatic hope offers a reason to start with current realities and to work toward something better. Stitzlein’s notion of ‘good dissent’ provides a way for teachers to engage in such efforts. Teaching for Dissent delivers the means to, and a justification of, the ends that teachers should commit to, namely, the bedrock democratic values of hope and dissent. This is an important book that should inform teacher education and teacher activism for years to come.

Correspondence: Kurt Stemhagen, Virginia Commonwealth University, P.O. Box 842020, Richmond, VA 23284.

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