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Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship Education and Political Activism

reviewed by Morgan Faison - February 22, 2013

coverTitle: Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship Education and Political Activism
Author(s): Sarah M. Stitzlein
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1612052282, Pages: 208, Year: 2012
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Dissent occurs when a citizen openly disagrees with the mainstream sentiments or the dictates of those in power (p. 53).

The current political climate is rife with visible expressions of American dissent.  On nightly news programs and in public town hall meetings, citizens from any number and type of political group can be seen displaying their disapproval and concern with the direction of the nation.  As Stitzlein offers in Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship Education and Political Activism, the extent to which contemporary displays of dissent are constructed, presented to, modeled before, and practiced by American students is critically vital to the progression of a healthy democracy.  The author troubles the effects of the high-stakes testing and accountability era on the development of dissenting virtues like “critique, skepticism, and critical thinking” (p. 16).  As she argues, the evolution of our democracy is heavily dependent upon how well students are led to envision themselves as dissenters; those who can both critique the political system and offer practical solutions.

Sarah M. Stitzlein is a philosopher of education and an Associate Professor of Curriculum Theory in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at the University of Cincinnati.  In the eight chapters that comprise Teaching for Dissent, Stitzlein unpacks the historical and philosophical foundations of American dissent and its evolution into what we see today.  In so doing, she examines the writings of important American Founders and pragmatists as well as significant historical events and the discourses and activism of the American citizenry that developed in response.  Her purpose is to provide a broad contextual backdrop in order to answer the following questions:


How has dissent been (mis)understood throughout history and what role should it play in advancing our democracy?  


What is healthy dissent and how can it provide a “hopeful vision” for our democracy (p. 15)?  


Why should schools prepare students to be able to invoke their right to dissent and who is prepared to facilitate this work?

In Chapter Two, Stitzlein begins to weave together an analysis of contemporary dissent with a portrait of the dissenting approaches that characterize the early American republic.  The author’s overarching critique of contemporary dissent was particularly compelling.  She argues that contemporary dissent movements “do embody a founding American spirit” (p. 18).  However, she asserts that they often miss the mark because their grounding relies too heavily on notions of an already existing complete and perfect democracy.  Overall, her portrait of dissent during the early republic suggests that although the early colonists and Founders held a high regard for dissent at times, their commitments toward this American value waxed and waned.  

Chapter Three highlights the contributions made to the refinement of American dissent by the Progressive era pragmatists.  Notably, here Stitzlein makes important connections between the Enlightenment values that influenced the Founders and the rise of pragmatism that emerged during the latter part of the 19th century.  Stitzlein begins to unpack a major piece of her overarching argument in Chapter Four by asserting that dissent must be framed as both a negative right and a positive right.  Stitzlein includes a clear and interesting discussion on the state’s responsibility to obtain consent from the citizenry and the role that dissent should play in supplying the state with citizen feedback.  Thus, if dissent is a positive right, the state is necessarily obligated to provide the services for citizens to be able to invoke their right to dissent.  Stitzlein concludes the chapter by arguing that as future adult citizens who will need the skills and dispositions to invoke their right to dissent, students in public schools should be the primary beneficiaries of teaching for dissent.  

The current climate in schools, however, poses a serious threat to this endeavor.  As such, I appreciated Stitzlein’s assertion in Chapter Five that highlights the ways in which many urban schools emphasize conformity and, in turn, relegate the development of dispositions for dissent to the margins.  This point resonates deeply with my own experience as a former teacher in a predominantly Black, urban school.  The potential for my students to learn how to dissent was often thwarted.  Moreover, their opportunity to develop the dispositions for healthy dissent were counteracted on a daily basis because the school required that much of their time be spent on learning and regurgitating factual information for standardized tests.  Stitzlein would agree that the institutionalization of rigid learning standards has seriously compromised efforts to develop future dissenters.  

However, after the valuable assertion made in Chapter Five, Stitzlein’s arguments would have been bolstered by a return, again, to the historical and philosophical development of dissent.  While she does include a well-written analysis of the dissent that characterized the early republic, her demand that dispositions for dissent become a standard and regular part of the curriculum in schools should have been thoroughly situated in the time and contexts where it has been taught in schools.  Past her discussion of the early republic, it is unclear whether teaching for dissent in schools appears in other moments in history or for particular groups of students.  Moreover, her readers would benefit from a historical synthesis of dissent in American schools, especially given the sheer number and nature of changes undergone with regard to school organization, school curriculum, standardization, and school inequity.

Nonetheless, from her compelling appraisal of the professional climate of schools, I strongly agree with Stitzlein that the pressures that are placed on teachers makes teaching for dissent a very complicated task.  Given my research interests in teacher education and teaching for social justice, I especially enjoyed the chapter entitled, “Teacher Dissent.”  I believe that teachers' own skills, dispositions, and dissent savvy are surely critical factors if students are to learn how to dissent.  Stitzlein adds an important point that “effective dissent requires not just skills…but also a climate that values self-expression and encourages questioning” (p. 123).  An increasing distrust of teachers as well as the punitive responses characteristically given them if they speak out against school policies creates a climate that discourages teacher dissent.

I highly recommend this book to potential readers and I think it is an appropriate text for its intended audience: educational scholars and practitioners.  Although dense at times, a close read is sure to inform and enlighten those who are interested in the topic.  Given its aim to historically and philosophically ground dissent, this book might also be useful for Critical Friends Groups or for teacher educators to use in social studies certification classes or in-service professional development programs and workshops.  Stitzlein deserves much praise especially for her fair and balanced critique of contemporary dissent movements.  Moreover, she intentionally takes a bipartisan approach to support her arguments about modern dissent movements and her reading audience will be pleased with her modeling of diplomacy and healthy dialogue!


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17029, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:35:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Morgan Faison
    Emory University
    E-mail Author
    MORGAN FAISON, a former elementary math teacher, is a second year doctoral student in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She has served non-profits, vocational, and k-12 public and private schools across the state of Georgia in professional and curriculum development capacities especially within the context of urban teaching and learning, multicultural competence, and culturally responsive pedagogy. Morgan is currently conducting a critical narrative inquiry on the cultural understandings and social justice capacities of Black teacher “millennials”. Her research interests include multicultural/antiracist teacher education and urban mathematics education.
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