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Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence

reviewed by John Ambrosio - 2005

coverTitle: Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence
Author(s): Megan Boler (Editor)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820463191, Pages: 157, Year: 2004
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In this provocative collection of essays edited by Megan Boler, socially committed teachers grapple with the complexities and dilemmas of conducting conversations, mostly in university settings, about controversial issues such as racism and homophobia. Organized as a conversation among the 10 contributors, many of whom respond to arguments presented in other essays, the text has produced, through its structure, a robust exchange of ideas about pedagogical goals and strategies.

In the introduction, Burbules insists that educators must be clear about the “aims of a socially committed classroom” and the educational cost of their instructional choices (p. xxiii). Among the questions educators must ask themselves, he argues, is whether they want

to create dialogue, wherever it might lead, or to foster dialogues oriented only to specific, desired ends? To challenge and change the views of dominant groups, or to strengthen solidarity and promote transformative action on behalf of the disempowered? To educate toward the status of greater knowledge and understanding (which includes understanding the good and the bad, the politically progressive and the retrograde), or to promulgate specific values and attitudes which the socially committed educator believes will make society a better and more just place (p. xxiii)?

Although these are “not all necessarily incompatible goals,” Burbules argues, the value educators assign to them is influenced by underlying assumptions about the possibilities and “mechanisms of social and individual transformation” (p. xxiii).

Contributors to this collection have various and sometimes sharply opposing views on these issues. In the lead essay, Boler frames the ensuing conversation by arguing for a “historicized ethics” that “takes into account that not all persons have equal protection under the law or equal access to resources” (p. 3). Because the right to speak, to be heard, understood, and responded to is asymmetrical, she proposes an “affirmative action pedagogy” that privileges marginalized voices in the classroom “even at the minor cost of limiting dominant voices” (p. 4).

Although some authors directly address the efficacy of Boler’s position, others are less concerned with who speaks and who listens than with how students hear, interpret, and respond (or fail to respond) to one another. One contributor, deCastell, rejects the parameters of the discussion altogether, arguing that Boler offers a “political solution to a largely educational problem” of holding students accountable by denying them the “right to be ignorant and the right to speak ignorantly” (p. 55).

Glass argues that given that some silencing always takes place in classrooms, silencing is not the problem, “but how and why it is achieved” (p. 20). Thus, he advocates the “selective muting" of dominant voices in order to amplify those of ideologically silenced students while ensuring that dominant beliefs remain available for critical inspection (p. 20). Mayo argues that speech and conduct codes aimed at protecting sexual-minority students have the effect of silencing public discussion, thereby preventing education on contentious issues. Speech codes, she claims, offer the “appearance of equality" and tolerance while failing to substantially alter discriminatory school practices such as excluding sexual minorities from representation in the curriculum (p. 36).

Jones insists that cross-cultural dialogue is not, as educators often assume, a neutral communicative form that serves the interests of all participants, but that it can also be a means by which dominant groups gain access to, and appropriate, the thoughts and culture of marginalized students. Garrison urges educators to refuse to “reduce otherness and difference to the sameness of our self-identity,” to learn to live with the ambivalence and “cognitive uncertainties” our inability to know “the other” (p. 89).

Li Li explores the multiple meanings of silence in different communicative contexts. The cultural view that “silence in others signals an absence of knowledge,” she argues, can be oppressive and disadvantages those whose cultural norms and frames of reference, personal choices, or cognitive habits belie this assumption (p. 72). Speech and silence, she insists, are integral and “dynamically interconnected” aspects of a continuum of human communication that has many potential meanings and possibilities (p. 76).

How can educators overcome the denial and resistance of privileged students, which induces paralysis and prevents them from assuming moral responsibility for social injustice? Houston claims that “it is the very concept of responsibility employed to hold us accountable that hinders us” (p. 108). A notion of moral responsibility that conflates “causation and moral blameworthiness,” she argues, “constitutes a moral fact about the worth of persons as moral agents,” one that students are likely to resist (p. 109).

Although Erickson views trauma as an inevitable aspect of diversity training, she is concerned with how much trauma people experience and how they react to it. While acknowledging the effectiveness of Jane Elliott’s (famous for her “blue eyes, brown eyes” exercise) antiprejudice work, Erickson takes issue with Elliott’s method of confrontation and humiliation because it forecloses the possibility of moral agency, making “raw experience inaccessible to rationality, reflection, or criticism” (p. 155).

As Burbules suggests, by expanding the “varied meanings” and elucidating the ineluctable relation between speaking, listening, and silence, these essays advance our conceptual and theoretical understanding of the enormous complexities of conducting what Garrison calls “dangerous discourse” in our classrooms (pp. xxvi, 92). The right to speak is of little communicative value when disconnected from how speech is heard and interpreted, from a desire to want to listen and understand. The development of certain attitudes and dispositions, such as a willingness to suspend judgment in order to hear what someone is saying on his or her own terms, of accepting the limits of our situated perspective, of holding open the possibility of being wrong and learning from the other, is essential to dialogues across difference. It is curious, then, that little attention is devoted here to how educators might foster and strengthen these vital dispositions.

Educators need to attend to the power dynamics involved in language and culturally constituted forms of communication, not only to create opportunities for the inclusion of marginalized perspectives, but to challenge and displace dominant communicative modalities in the classroom. If some silencing is inevitable, and I believe it is, then educators should apply this tool strategically, to open up spaces for socially, culturally, and ideologically marginalized views, diminish the potential for harm to students (as Garrison and others point out, however, it is impossible to guarantee a safe environment; we can only “strive to create safer places”), to prevent a hijacking of the class, and so forth (p. 95).

How can educators engage students, as Berlak asks, at a “deep emotional and analytical level” with controversial issues such as racism (p. 123)? Must students be traumatized in some way, have their worldview and identity shaken up or shattered, as she suggests, to create the possibility for significant personal change? If so, to what degree, if any, are educators prepared to deal with the social and emotional fallout? Can rational dialogue and exposure to challenging perspectives alone lead to transformative experiences for students, or does educating ignorance and bias also require some kind of trauma?

The essays in this volume offer no clear answers to the pedagogical dilemmas facing socially committed educators but seek instead to disturb and interrogate dominant cultural beliefs and assumptions about dialogue that can inform and improve how we conduct controversial conversations in our classrooms. In this, they have succeeded.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2514-2517
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11807, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:58:54 PM

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About the Author
  • John Ambrosio
    University of Washington, Seattle
    E-mail Author
    JOHN AMBROSIO is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research interests include how White teachers learn from racialized students, transformative pedagogies, and school reform. His most recent publication is “No Child Left Behind: The Case of Roosevelt High School” in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2004.
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