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Echoes of Power and Silence: Navigating Ideology and Expression in the Classroom

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

As I was preparing to mark the roll one morning while covering a grade 5/6 class as a Casual Relief Teacher (CRT) in a government school, a senior teacher suddenly entered the room. He directly approached one of the students, pointed aggressively, and demanded, “Take that sticker off, I don’t want to see any of that at school.” His stern warning to the other students about facing disciplinary action for similar behaviour echoed through the classroom.


At that moment, I hadn't seen the sticker and was unaware of its content. However, I instinctively suspected it related to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Palestine, given the school's significant Muslim student body known for their activism and interest in the Palestinian situation. Their concern seemed only natural to me.


I soon approached the student and inquired about the incident. He told me that it was regarding a sticker that expressed solidarity with Palestine. This revelation initially offended me deeply. As a teacher who embraces critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970) and a decolonial approach to education generally, the suppression of students exhibiting critical consciousness was troubling. However, I wasn’t just troubled due to the educational philosophies that I value deeply, and this is where, as an intellectual, I must further expose my potential biases; I am also a Muslim Arab who is deeply troubled by the ongoing carnage taking place in Palestine.


But it also hit me hard because it instantly reminded me of my own experience as a grade 5 student in a similar school setting (government school with a large Muslim student population), which I discuss in this article. I recalled September 11, 2001, when our teacher had us watch the news coverage of the terrorist attacks that subsequently resulted in the widespread vilification of Muslims. I instantly questioned the ideological biases that I saw so clearly in front of my eyes at that moment. Why was it okay for teachers to almost compel Muslim children to watch news about another disaster that took place but also villified Muslims, but not okay for Muslims to show solidarity for the disaster that’s taking place against their brothers and sisters in Palestine?


As an intellectual committed to considering multiple perspectives and acknowledging internal biases, I initially tried to rationalise the school's stance. I reassured myself there had to be a valid reason behind such a policy, not yet fully aware of the ongoing debates in education regarding teachers' expression on this topic.


A few weeks later, at another public school with a significant Muslim student population, I encountered a similar situation. While supervising students during mealtime, I heard a grade 5 Muslim student passionately arguing with another teacher about being silenced and not being allowed to show solidarity with Palestine. She was voicing her distress over the thousands of innocent lives lost due to Israel's actions. The teacher’s response, hinting at some governmental contractual obligation to avoid such discussions, was eye-opening. I wondered which contract she was referring to.



Image representing silencing political views


I admit that despite being an activist who had studied the social sciences and who is concerned for world affairs, I’m often guilty of being out of touch with the news. Growing up as a Muslim in the West, frequently demonised during the war on terror, I've learned to channel my pain constructively through learning, self-education, spiritual strengthening, and other areas of self-development. This approach, however, sometimes leads me to be less informed about current global events and the detailed dynamics of worldwide occurrences.


After a brief Google search, I was shocked to discover the extent of censorship in Australian schools. An ABC News article revealed the Victorian Education Minister's directive to teachers, urging them to avoid political discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This decision, while aimed at keeping schools neutral, raised concerns about the suppression of free speech and critical thinking. A 9News report further highlighted this issue, focusing on the limitations placed on teachers' expression of political views, especially regarding global issues. Meanwhile, the World Socialist Web Site criticised the Victorian government’s approach as a broader act of censorship, indicative of a worrying trend towards stifling political dissent and critical discussion in education. These insights were alarming, underscoring the challenges faced by educators in navigating the complexities of political expression in the classroom.


This discovery led me to asking another question; if government directives are targeted toward teachers showing solidarity with Palestine, why are we silencing students who show solidarity? Putting aside my Freirean belief that students should be critically engaging with the world through critical consciousness, aren’t we harming Muslim students by silencing them aggressively and threatening to discipline them when they display solidarity with their brethren? What exacerbates this harm is these students’ proximity to such events overseas; often, these Muslim students do not just align with Palestinians due to their faith, but also share ethnic and linguistic origins.


Theoretical Perspectives


Ideology in the Classroom


Reflecting on this incident, I'm reminded of Louis Althusser's theory on how schools function as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). According to Althusser (1971), educational institutions play a critical role in maintaining the dominant ideology and power structures within society. This encounter in the classroom starkly illustrated this concept: the school, as an ISA, enforcing a certain narrative and suppressing alternative viewpoints, particularly those challenging dominant political ideologies. It raises profound questions about the role of education in either perpetuating or challenging societal norms and power imbalances. In this light, the school's reaction to a simple sticker becomes more than just an issue of discipline; it's a reflection of a larger, systemic effort to mould students' understanding and interaction with the world, aligning it with the prevailing ideology.


Furthermore, examining the situation through a Foucauldian lens, particularly drawing from his seminal work "Discipline and Punish" (Foucault, 1977), provides additional insight. Foucault's concept of power and surveillance is acutely relevant here. The teacher's assertive action can be seen as an embodiment of Foucault's 'disciplinary power,' which operates through constant surveillance and the threat of punishment. It's not just about the act of removing a sticker; it's about instilling a consciousness in students that their actions, aligning with certain ideologies, are constantly being watched and judged.


This kind of disciplinary mechanism serves to internalise control, leading to self-censorship and conformity. Foucault's analysis would suggest that such micro-level power dynamics in a classroom reflect the broader workings of power and control in society. This incident, therefore, isn't just a singular event but a representation of how power is exercised and perpetuated in everyday settings, subtly influencing, and shaping behaviours and beliefs in line with accepted norms and expectations.


Reflecting on my recent experiences as a Casual Relief Teacher and the unsettling incident with the sticker, I'm drawn to the theories of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, which offer profound insights into the dynamics at play. Althusser’s concept of schools as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) resonates deeply with what I observed. The school's swift action to suppress a student's expression of solidarity with Palestine exemplifies the role of educational institutions in perpetuating dominant ideologies and maintaining existing power structures.


Similarly, Foucault’s analysis in "Discipline and Punish" sheds light on the nuanced mechanisms of power and control embedded within such interactions. The authoritative demand by the senior teacher for the student to remove the sticker can be seen as a manifestation of Foucault's 'disciplinary power'. This act of surveillance and the implicit threat of punishment serve not only to correct immediate behaviour but also to internalise a sense of constant oversight among students, leading to self-regulation and conformity.


These theoretical frameworks help contextualise not only my recent experience as a CRT but also hark back to my own days as a student. I recall the post-9/11 period when our teacher had us watch news that cast Muslims in a negative light. This, too, was an exercise of ideological and disciplinary power – shaping our perceptions, controlling the narrative, and subtly aligning our worldviews with the dominant discourse.


Both experiences, though years apart, highlight how educational settings can become arenas where ideological and disciplinary powers intersect. They underscore the subtle yet profound ways in which students are moulded, disciplined, and sometimes silenced. My role as a teacher now carries the added responsibility of navigating these complex dynamics, striving to foster an environment of critical thinking and open expression, while being acutely aware of the underlying structures that influence and constrain these very endeavours.


The Importance of Classroom Deliberation

 

In light of the recent incidents in my classroom and the broader context of educational challenges, insights from Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess’s study on 'Classroom Deliberation in an Era of Political Polarization' are particularly pertinent. Their research underscores the importance of creating an 'open classroom climate' where students are encouraged to engage in discussions on controversial issues, thereby becoming more politically tolerant, informed, and engaged (McAvoy & Hess, 2013)​​. This approach aligns with the principles of critical pedagogy and democratic education, emphasising the need for students to deliberate on 'open questions' that have multiple and competing views, thereby fostering democratic dispositions and values (McAvoy & Hess, 2013)​​.


Such an environment not only counters the damaging effects of political polarisation but also equips students with the skills and values necessary for a deliberative democratic life. In this context, the incident with the sticker in my classroom, rather than being seen as a disciplinary issue, could have been an opportunity for meaningful discussion and deliberation, encouraging students to explore diverse perspectives and engage in civil discourse (McAvoy & Hess, 2013)​​. This approach would have allowed for a more authentic, challenging, and democratic education, which is especially crucial in times of intense political polarisation and contentious issues. This is particularly important since those who are silencing the expressions of solidarity with Palestine claim that they are doing it to avoid polarisation and division.


Conclusion


In conclusion, the incidents I encountered as a Casual Relief Teacher reveal much more than isolated classroom challenges; they reflect deeper societal and ideological currents shaping our educational landscape. Drawing upon the insights of Althusser, Freire, Foucault, and contemporary educators like McAvoy and Hess, we see the crucial role of education in either reinforcing or challenging prevailing ideologies and power structures.


As educators, parents, and community members, we have a responsibility to foster environments where critical thinking, open dialogue, and respectful deliberation are not only encouraged but celebrated. It is through such practices that we can hope to nurture a generation of informed, tolerant, and engaged citizens who are capable of contributing to a democratic society.


Let us therefore advocate for educational policies and classroom practices that embrace the complexities of our world. Let us encourage discussions around difficult topics, rather than shy away from them, to ensure that our schools are not just places of learning, but spaces where future leaders, thinkers, and changemakers are shaped. The future of our democratic society depends on our willingness to engage with these challenges head-on, creating educational environments that reflect the diverse, multifaceted world we inhabit.



References


Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation). In L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (pp. 127-186). Monthly Review Press.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books.


McAvoy, P., & Hess, D. (2013). Classroom deliberation in an era of political polarization. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 14-47. doi:10.1111/curi.12000

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