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Teacher Political Disclosure as Parrhēsia

by Wayne Journell - 2016

Background/Context: The traditional stance on teacher political disclosure within K–12 education is that neutrality is the only morally appropriate approach for teachers to take when broaching political or social issues in their classes due to their role as state employees who serve a particular community. A number of recent high-profile cases of teachers intolerantly disclosing their political beliefs in their classrooms have only served to reinforce the belief among the general public that teachers too often use their positions of authority to proselytize to their students. However, both theoretical arguments made by scholars and empirical data from K–12 classrooms suggest that disclosure may be beneficial to students’ learning experiences and civic development.

Purpose: This article seeks to better understand the benefits and limitations of teacher political disclosure by framing disclosure around Foucault’s conceptualization of parrhēsia, which can loosely be defined as the ability to speak the truth in spite of danger or fear.

Research Design: This is an analytic essay/theoretical argument. As a way of scaffolding the discussion, I incorporate vignettes of data collected from my research in high school civics classrooms. Of particular interest to this argument is Mr. Monroe, a teacher I studied during the 2012 Presidential Election.

Conclusions/Recommendations: An analysis of teacher political disclosure using a parrhēsia framework suggests that educators should rethink the conventional wisdom that supports non-disclosure. Although disclosure carries inherent risk, it also offers democratic and interpersonal benefits for students. Both in-service and pre-service professional development, then, should present teachers with a complete picture of the risks and benefits of disclosure, and teachers should determine whether to engage in parrhēsiastic acts by strategically balancing those risks against the potential of disclosure to support their pedagogical goals.

Hess (2005) has described the decision whether to disclose ones political beliefs or affiliations as a dilemma K12 teachers face when teaching about controversial or politically charged issues. The term dilemma implicitly suggests that the question whether teachers should disclose their political opinions is an open issue, which Hess (2009) defines as having multiple competing views and, thus, ripe for deliberation. Yet, as the political climate in the United States and other democratic nations becomes more polarized and a sizeable percentage of the general public views teacher disclosure as a form of indoctrination (McAvoy & Hess, 2013), I would argue that the question of teacher political disclosure in K12 classrooms is becoming closer to being a closed issue. My work with pre-service and practicing teachers (e.g., Journell, 2011b, 2012) aligns with research across multiple contexts and content areas that suggests teachers often deliberately avoid disclosing their personal beliefs about controversial or political issues for fear of being reprimanded by administrators or accused of indoctrination by parents and other members of the local community (e.g., Hess, 2004; Ho, Alviar-Martin, & Leviste, 2014; Kelly & Brandes, 2001; Miller-Lane, Denton, & May, 2006; Oliveira, Cook, & Buck, 2011; Oulton, Day, Dillon, & Grace, 2004).

That teachers would be afraid of disclosure is not surprising given the number of high-profile cases that have made news in recent years of teachers being fired or suspended for openly displaying their political beliefs at school. The vast majority of those cases, however, have either involved teachers (1) intolerantly defending their beliefs, such as the North Carolina teacher who was suspended after a recording of her engaging in a shouting match with her students during the 2012 Presidential Election ended up on YouTube (Troop, 2012); or (2) acting in subordination of district policies, such as the Oregon teacher who was fired for attempting to block a district-approved presentation by Planned Parenthood (Daily Mail, 2013). Although the disciplinary actions in these instances were prompted by the teachers inappropriate actions and not necessarily their beliefs, the narrative articulated in the media situated the teachers disclosure as the primary offense, with those on the opposite side of the political spectrum arguing that each case illustrated how teachers use their positions of authority to proselytize to students.

Of greater concern is the case of Deborah Mayer, an Indiana elementary school teacher who was fired simply for her admission that she was against the Iraq War. One of Mayers students asked whether she would ever participate in a peace protest, to which Mayer responded by disclosing that she honked for peace when she drove past antiwar demonstrators (Egelko, 2007). Mayer was dismissed soon thereafter, and when she appealed the ruling, a federal court of appeals denied her claim by arguing that expression is a teachers stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary (Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corporation, 2007, para. 4). Although this ruling set a precedent for school districts in the United States, the dismissal of teachers for open disclosure of their political beliefs is far from an exclusively American phenomenon, as suggested by recent reports from other democratic nations (e.g., Nikuradze, 2012; The Local, 2014).

These types of disciplinary actions against teachers become problematic when they are contrasted with theoretical arguments and empirical data that suggest teacher disclosure is beneficial to students learning experiences and their civic development (e.g., Cross & Price, 1996; James, 2009; Journell, 2011b; Kelly, 1986; McCully, 2006). This article seeks to better understand this tension by framing the question of teacher disclosure around Foucaults conceptualization of parrhēsia, which can loosely be defined as the ability to speak the truth in spite of danger or fear. Although I will disclose that I am generally in favor of tolerant teacher political disclosure, the purpose of this article is not necessarily to advocate a position. Rather, as Dressman (2008) has noted, using social theory to frame educational issues offers a sense of the world that is different than what is typically presumed, and so it provides a context for new associations and meanings to be formed from data (p. 64).


In the years preceding his death, Foucault delivered public lectures at the Collège de France during the 1982–1983 (2008b) and 1983–1984 (2008a) academic years and at the University of California at Berkley during the Fall 1983 semester (2001) in which he problematized the ancient notion of parrhēsia.1 According to Foucault (2001, 2008b), the word parrhēsia was first used in the works of Plato and Euripides but became a standard part of the Greek language by the end of the fifth century BC, and ultimately became part of Christian texts. In his lectures, Foucault discussed parrhēsia within the context of six tragedies of Euripides as well as works by Plato and Thucydides, exploring the evolution of the meaning of the term over time (Beasley & Peters, 2007).

Although Foucault (2001) stated that parrhēsia can be loosely translated into English as “free speech,” he argued that simply being able or willing to speak what is on one’s mind does not make one a parrhēsiastes, or one who uses parrhēsia. Rather, a parrhēsiastes is a person who “does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse” (p. 12). Foucault, however, was quick to distinguish between frankness and stream of consciousness. A parrhēsiastes, according to Foucault, chooses his words carefully and only says what he knows to be true so “that there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth” (p. 14).

What separates parrhēsia from other forms of truth telling is the element of danger that is placed on the speaker. Ironically, Foucault (2008a) used the act of teaching to define what parrhēsia is not:

A teacher, a grammarian or a geometer, may say something true about the grammar or geometry they teach, a truth which they believe, which they think. And yet we will not call this parrhēsia. We will not say that the geometer and grammarian are parrhēsiasts when they teach truths which they believe. (p. 11)

Instead, Foucault (2001) argued that “someone is said to use parrhēsia and merits consideration as a parrhēsiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him in telling the truth” (p. 16). He continued by offering an example of parrhēsia in the form of someone speaking truth to power:

However, when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk. (p. 16, emphasis in original)

Since the tyrant could easily punish the philosopher for criticizing his rule, perhaps even with a sentence of death, the philosopher is acting as a parrhēsiastes by speaking the truth in spite of that potential danger. In contrast, Foucault argued that the tyrant is not a parrhēsiastes, even if he responded to the philosopher’s accusations by saying what he believed to be true since the tyrant is in a position of power over the philosopher. Therefore, another characteristic of parrhēsiastic discourse is that it must be “a form of criticism, either towards another or towards oneself, but always in a situation where the speaker or confessor is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor” (pp. 17–18).

The final characteristic of parrhēsia, according to Foucault (2001), is a sense of duty in telling the truth to others. Although Foucault (2008b) acknowledged that telling the truth can be persuasive, the duty of parrhēsia lies not in engaging others in a debate or other forms of rhetoric; rather, the parrhēsiastes performs a service simply by providing a frank assessment of truth to others. As Foucault continued to explore parrhēsia over time, this sense of duty transformed from parrhēsia practiced in the political arena as part of an individual’s relationship with the state, to the parrhēsia that should define the way in which individuals interact with each other and, by extension, themselves (Gros, 2008).

Although Foucault’s work on power and control has become widely used within educational research, his work on parrhēsia has not (for exceptions, see Beasley & Peters, 2007; Coloma, 2013; Freund, 2009; Peters, 2003; Steele, 2010; Vansieleghem, 2011; Zembylas & Fendler, 2007). Beasley and Peters (2007) argue, however, that parrhēsia is “relevant in understanding the exercise of power and control of contemporary citizenship, especially in situations where there is some risk for a person telling the truth to a superiora situation that clearly can occur in schools (p. 88), particularly within the relationship between students and teachers and the relationship between teachers and the local community.


The disclosure dilemma is rooted in the belief that teaching is an ideological enterprise defined by power and authority that is part of a pervasive social structure designed to maintain the status quo (e.g., Counts, 1932; Foucault, 1991; Freire, 1993). Although nearly all aspects of instruction, including the curriculum being taught, are influenced by ideology and corresponding power structures (e.g., Apple, 1979), the power dynamics at play are often either hidden or engrained within existing social or community norms, which serves to limit opposition. The teaching of controversial issues brings those power dynamics to the forefront, as the discussion of open political issues creates the possibility that ideas and beliefs that run counter to the traditional values of a school or community might be raised. For those in the ideological majority, the consideration of alternative points of view represents an inherent danger, and thus they scrutinize the actions of teachers as both gatekeepers of information and decision-makers who determine how information is presented and taught (Reich, 2007; Thornton, 1991).


For decades, scholars have attempted to define what should be considered controversial within public education and how teachers should broach controversy in their classes (e.g., Gardner, 1984; Hand, 2008; Hess, 2009; Johnson & Johnson, 1979). At a basic level, scholars agree that issues should be considered controversial and open for discussion when multiple competing and rational viewpoints exist. For the purposes of this discussion, I am focusing on controversial public political issues, or issues that are debated within the public sphere. This broad definition encompasses a host of issues, ranging from questions of whether tax rates should be raised for wealthy citizens to the morality of sociopolitical issues, such as abortion.2 By definition, both tax policy and abortion are equally controversial since they are both issues with competing rational viewpoints. However, one controversial issue may generate more passionate discourse than another depending on the context in which it is presented or the beliefs of the people discussing it.3

Determining whether controversy exists is not always clear. In the United States, for example, the question whether gay individuals should be allowed to marry would seem to fit the criterion for controversy as a growing number of states are lifting bans on gay marriage, but over a quarter of the states still do not legally recognize unions of same-sex couples. In contrast, the question whether heterosexual couples of different races should be allowed to marry in the United States should not be considered a controversial issue using this criterion. Although a minority of Americans may still oppose interracial marriages, the vast majority of the citizenry believes that interracial marriages should be legal, and the Supreme Court validated that opinion in 1967 with a unanimous decision in the Loving v Virginia case. Consensus, therefore, is not required for an issue to be considered closed since any competing viewpoints that may exist may not be deemed rational.

As Hess (2009) notes, however, what is deemed to be a rational competing view can change over time and is often dependent on context. Although gay marriage is a controversial issue nationally, it may be considered a closed issue in deeply religious, politically conservative communities. Similarly, although opposition to interracial marriage would not be considered rational at a national level, recent polling data suggest that isolated areas of the country might still consider interracial marriage an open issue (Public Policy Polling, 2012).

Given the volatility in defining controversy, teachers ultimately make the decision whether to frame issues as open or closed in their classrooms, although they may be pressured to make those decisions based on a perceived reaction of the school or community (Camicia, 2008; Hess, 2009; Hess & McAvoy, 2015; Ho et al., 2014). In this sense, the power of teachers is undeniable. An illustrative example can be found in Washington and Humphries (2011) study of a teacher in a rural, predominately White school in the United States who used her authority to define interracial marriage as a closed issue despite the fact that a large percentage of her students, and presumably their parents, were opposed to interracial marriage and, thus, considered it an open issue. Of particular interest to this argument is the role of teachers in these types of discussions. The question whether teachers should disclose their views on controversial or political issues is a controversial issue unto itself, one that is influenced by the ideology of the school and surrounding community.


The traditional stance on teacher disclosure within K12 education is that neutrality is the only morally appropriate approach for teachers to take when broaching political or social issues in their classes due to their role as state employees who serve a particular community (e.g., Brandt, 1959; Bullough, Gitlin, & Goldstein, 1984; Elliot, 1973). After all, students are a captive audience in that they are required to attend classes and often forced into participating in discussions they did not choose with people they did not select (Hess & McAvoy, 2015). Yet one of the inherent purposes of public education is to prepare students for future societal participation. This relationship between the responsibility of neutrality and preparing students for engaged citizenship creates what Hess and McAvoy (2015) termed the political education paradox in which schools must balance the need to provide students with a nonpartisan political education . . . with the need to prepare them to participate in the actual, highly partisan political community. They continued by stating that part of the ethical challenge of teaching about politics is determining where political education ends and partisan proselytizing begins (p. 4).

For many teachers, the answer to this ethical dilemma is to maintain a neutral classroom in which they attempt to avoid disclosing their own political or social views to their students. Although such a stance may be a noble goal, neutral classrooms cannot exist. The literature offers multiple examples of supposedly neutral teachers who unknowingly disclose their political leanings through their words and actions (e.g., Goldston & Kyzer, 2009; Journell, 2011a, 2011b; Niemi & Niemi, 2007). Further, as both Callan (2011) and Reich (2007) note, basic classroom decisions, such as deciding how long a discussion will last or which students are given the opportunity to speak, are ways in which teachers, perhaps unknowingly or subconsciously, advocate or dismiss certain beliefs. Even the decision to say or do nothing when confronted with a controversial issue is a political stance since ignoring controversy is implicitly affirming the status quo (Jensen, 2007; Reich, 2007).

Given those parameters, Kelly (1986) developed a framework over 25 years ago for better understanding the ways in which teachers disclose their political beliefs in the classroom that is still useful today. The framework consists of four stances, the first of which Kelly called exclusive neutrality, which describes teachers who attempt to avoid controversy at all costs. Although research suggests that teachers may attempt to avoid controversy in their classes, especially when an issue is volatile within the community they teach (e.g., Byford, Lennon, & Russell, 2009; Hess, 2004), Kelly argued that this stance is both undesirable and impractical. Try as they might, teachers can never completely censor their classrooms from controversy, and once controversy is introduced, either by a student or an outside event, the decision to engage or not engage students in discussions of the issue represents a break from neutrality.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is what Kelly (1986) called exclusive partiality, which describes teachers who openly advocate a certain position when discussing a controversial issue in an attempt to encourage their students to adopt that position. For some advocates of social justice approaches to education, for example, such a stance is desirable (e.g., Ayers, Hunt, & Quinn, 1998; Counts, 1932; Kelly & Brandes, 2001; Zinn, 2002); however, Kelly argued that overt partiality discourages open discussion, which is a civic skill necessary for life within a democratic society (Parker & Hess, 2001). Moreover, the image of a teacher proselytizing in front of a classroom of students is how the public often envisions disclosure, with most holding negative views of overt partiality in the classroom (McAvoy & Hess, 2013).

The third stance is what Kelly (1986) termed neutral impartiality, which involves teachers engaging their students in discussions of controversial political issues but without disclosing their personal beliefs. In her research, Hess (2004) has termed this stance balance and has observed that it is the stance most often attempted by teachers. Teachers who seek to have a balanced classroom will present both sides of controversial issues but will stop short of disclosing on which side they personally stand for fear of indoctrinating their students or facing backlash from administrators or parents. At most, teachers employing a neutral impartiality stance will take the position of a devils advocate, but they will make it clear to students that they will not publically advocate a position (Kelly, 1986).

On the surface, a neutral impartiality stance seems acceptable, if not desirable. Kelly (1986) argued against neutral impartiality, however, on the basis that neutral classrooms cannot exist, and if teachers do not openly disclose their beliefs, then their students are unable to place classroom instruction into a proper context. My study of social studies teachers during the 2008 Presidential Election supports this argument. In the four classes taught by teachers supposedly practicing neutral impartiality, all said or did things that revealed their political leanings (e.g., showing speeches of one candidate but not the other; insulting a candidates beliefs). But when I interviewed students in those classes, few could accurately state which candidate their teacher supported or provide evidence to support their opinion (Journell, 2011b). Hess and McAvoys (2009, 2015) study of 35 high school social studies classes from 2005 to 2009 yielded similar results; in only five classes could 70%100% of students accurately identify their teachers political views. Interviews also confirmed that many of these students could not identify when their teachers were subtly advocating a certain partisan perspective, either through their speech or the curriculum. This inability to detect bias in their teachers instruction raises the question whether students are able to separate fact from their teachers opinions; such an inability, Kelly argued, is potentially dangerous to students civic development.

Kelly (1986) also argued that a neutral impartiality stance prohibits teachers from modeling how to tolerantly articulate ones political beliefs in a public setting, which is an essential skill in a pluralistic democratic society (Gutmann, 1987; Hess, 2009; Parker, 2003). Tolerant political discourse is not a skill that develops naturally, and students likely are not being exposed to it on television or social media (Sobieraj & Berry, 2011) or within their personal relationships outside of schools (Mutz, 2006; Walsh, 2004). Teachers, then, must model what appropriate political discussion should look like as they would any other type of academic skill (Parker & Hess, 2001).

Kellys (1986) preferred stance is what he termed committed impartiality, which encourages teachers to openly disclose their political views but in a way that allows competing views to receive a fair hearing within the classroom. In contrast with an exclusive partiality approach, teachers employing a committed impartiality stance are not trying to persuade their students to adopt certain beliefs. Teachers who practice committed impartiality recognize the authority they hold in the classroom and take steps to ensure that competing, rational perspectives are viewed as equally legitimate. Such steps include giving equal time to contradictory viewpoints, encouraging students to openly disagree with their teachers political beliefs, and ensuring that students academic performance is not tied to their political beliefs.

For Kelly (1986), a committed impartiality stance allows teachers to use discussions of controversial issues as a tool for civic development by modeling appropriate civil discourse. If students view their teachers both tolerantly defending their own beliefs with conviction as well as deferring to competing viewpoints in a thoughtful manner, it could provide a stark contrast to the political incivility they are likely to witness in other aspects of their lives. Moreover, as James (2009) and Hess and McAvoy (2015) have argued, when teachers reveal their political beliefs to their students, it creates a sense of transparency about teachers positionality with respect to the content being taught, which students respect even if they happen to disagree with their teachers views. My aforementioned research during the 2008 Presidential Election supports this notion; the vast majority of students I interviewed in the two classes in which their teachers openly disclosed their candidate preference stated that they enjoyed knowing their teachers political stances and believed that it helped them better contextualize their teachers instruction and refine their own political identities (Journell, 2011b).

Despite these theoretical and empirical arguments for committed impartiality, teachers, students, and those outside of K12 schooling remain conflicted about teacher political disclosure.4 In that same study, Hess and McAvoy (2009) surveyed 22 high school social studies teachers and over 500 secondary students and found that students were almost evenly split when asked whether they wanted their teachers to disclose their political beliefs more often. Yet nearly 80% of those students believed that it was fine for teachers to share their political opinions in class, and approximately 76% reported that knowing their teachers political views would not persuade them to adopt those same positions. Generally, Hess and McAvoy found that students were supportive of teachers who shared their opinions, provided they did not appear to force their beliefs onto their students.

The teachers, on the other hand, appeared more skeptical of disclosure. Approximately 54% believed that it was fine for teachers to share political opinions in class, and they were evenly split about whether they believed disclosure was a good idea for social studies teachers (Hess & McAvoy, 2009). These findings align with other research that suggests teachers struggle with the idea of disclosing their political beliefs, even when presented with theoretical arguments supporting disclosure. Miller-Lane et al. (2006), for example, had 12 middle/secondary social studies teachers read Kellys (1986) argument for committed impartiality, but all remained cynical of disclosure and stated that they preferred a neutral impartiality stance for their classrooms. Similarly, Kelly and Brandes (2001), in a study of 12 pre-service teachers enrolled in a program designed to promote social justice pedagogy, found that over half believed that teacher neutrality was a worthy goal even if it was not always possible.

Teachers hesitancy to embrace disclosure may be influenced by the opinion of those outside of education. Recent research suggests that nearly half of the American public feels that teachers use their positions to proselytize (McAvoy & Hess, 2013), and those fears are not without some merit. As the vignettes that prefaced this article attest, there are teachers who take an exclusive partiality stance in their classrooms, and research also suggests that the line between committed impartiality and exclusive partiality is thin and often vacillates, especially when issues encroach on aspects of teachers identities, such as their religious beliefs (James, 2010; Journell, 2011a). Although they do not explicitly discourage teachers from disclosing their political views, McAvoy and Hess (2013) acknowledge that in this era of increased political polarization, it may be that the teacher should sacrifice her opinion to maintain public support for the practice of deliberation (p. 42). In addition, research suggests that teachers often avoid disclosure for fear of appearing in violation of community or school values (e.g., Goldston & Kyzer, 2009; Journell, 2012).

As Hess and McAvoy (2009, 2015) acknowledge, the issue of teacher political disclosure is both complicated and controversial. Traditional methods of analyzing disclosure have explored students and teachers perceptions of teacher disclosure and ways in which teachers disclose political beliefs in their classrooms; however, these approaches have not offered great depth with respect to better understanding the potential affordances and constraints of disclosure. In this article, I offer a theoretical discussion in which I use parrhēsia to problematize issues related to teacher political disclosure. As a way of scaffolding (Dressman, 2008) in this discussion, I adhere to the “methodologically eclectic” (p. 22) approach offered by Levinson (2012) in that I incorporate vignettes of data collected from my research in high school civics classrooms to illustrate salient aspects of theory.

Of particular interest to this discussion is Mr. Monroe, a high school civics teacher I have had the opportunity to study on two different occasions (Journell, Beeson, & Ayers, 2015; Journell & Buchanan, 2013). Mr. Monroe was far from an ideologue, having voted for President George W. Bush and President Obama twice, and he rarely, if ever, shied away from broaching controversy with his students. Yet he often straddled the line between disclosure and non-disclosure of his own views. My interviews with him also suggest that he was a reflective practitioner who often struggled with the notion of being a parrhēsiastes, which makes him an ideal subject to analyze within a parrhēsia framework.

Ultimately, the disclosure experiences of Mr. Monroe and the other teachers included in this article reflect a larger conversation about the relationship between teachers and society. Social theory, therefore, seems particularly useful as a medium from which to study teacher disclosure. As Dressman (2008) has noted, analyzing phenomena using social theory [views] the topic to be studied as an inherently social phenomenon, embedded within a broad network of language, discourse, meaning, and practice that must be taken into account (p. 64). By analyzing disclosure through the framework of parrhēsia, I hope to better illuminate the effect of disclosure on the relationships between students, their teachers, the context of schooling, and the truth.


A political cartoon on the state of public education in the United States that has recently made the rounds on social media offers a comparison between the professional statuses of teachers today versus 40 years ago. The panel from 40 years ago shows parents reprimanding their child about his lackluster grades while a confident teacher sits behind her desk with an all-knowing smirk on her face. That image is juxtaposed with the cartoonists interpretation of the current power structure in public education in which angry parents are reprimanding a terrified teacher about their childs lackluster grades while the child smiles arrogantly in the background.

Although the message behind the cartoon was not specifically intended to address teacher political disclosure, the comparison between schooling then and now is nonetheless important to this discussion. At first glance, one might argue that teachers could never be parrhēsiastes due to the power they hold over their students in the form of discipline, grades, and access to the curriculum (Gore, 1998). As Foucault (2001) noted, “the commitment involved in parrhēsia is linked to a certain social situation, to a difference in status between the speaker and his audience, to the fact that the parrhēsiastes says something which is dangerous to himself and thus involves a risk” (p. 13). In this traditional relationship between teachers and students, then, teachers can never engage in parrhēsia; instead only students can be parrhēsiastes since they are the only ones in that relationship who would assume an element of risk for speaking the truth (Beasley & Peters, 2007).

If one only views classroom authority through this narrow definition, then further discussion of teachers as parrhēsiastes is not warranted. However, the changing power structure in public education, as represented in the cartoon described above, suggests that teachers would assume considerable risk if they were to disclose political opinions that run contrary to the views held by communities that they serve. The social situation, then, that defines the parrhēsiastic act of teacher disclosure is not the one between teachers and students; rather, it is the one between teachers, the state, and their constituents. If teachers speak against community norms, then they risk disrupting what Foucault (1991) termed the governmentality of society, which can be defined as the effort to create governable subjects through various techniques developed to control, normalize and shape peoples conduct (Fimyar, 2008, p. 5). Within this framework, schools and the instruction that students receive act as apparatuses of security (Foucault, 1991, p. 102) that instill and protect societal norms.

That schools and the communities they serve have a reciprocal relationship is hardly a novel concept (e.g., Dewey, 1916); however, recent decades have seen a shift in the role teachers play within that relationship. Whereas 40 years ago, the teaching profession was largely respected within the United States and teachers authority over curriculum was rarely challenged, teachers currently work in an environment where their professional capacities and curricular judgment are often questioned. Scripted lessons, reliance on high-stakes assessment data as singular measures of teacher effectiveness, and attacks on teachers unions and protected rights of teachers (e.g., collective bargaining, tenure) are examples of policies that are implicitly designed to limit teacher agency and deprofessionalize teachers (Givan, 2014; Milner, 2013; Swalwell, 2014; Swalwell & Apple, 2010; Vaughn, 2013). Although critics of the teaching profession often preface their attacks by stating that not all teachers are worthy of criticism or that the problem lies in the structure of public education and not the teachers themselves, the Discourse (Gee, 1999) created by the combination of these criticisms ultimately makes it difficult for teachers to be viewed as professionals capable of making sound pedagogical decisions and creates a climate of distrust between teachers and the public. In other words, a teacher working 40 years ago who disclosed his political beliefs to students may have been less likely to face criticism from parents or administrators (and thus would not have been a parrhēsiastes) than a teacher working today who may face repercussions for voicing unpopular opinions.5

Another factor that plays into the public’s aversion to teacher political disclosure is the historical perception of what constitutes a good teacher. Many modern conceptions of teaching harken back to the 19th century, when public school teachers were primarily women who were discouraged and often legally prohibited from participating in the political arena (Albisetti, 1993; Enoch, 2008). Teachers are often criticized when they disclose their political opinions or participate in partisan political activities outside of the classroom, in part because these activities contrast with this historical view of teachers (Swalwell, 2015).

Teachers, of course, are also citizens, and therefore it is unreasonable to suggest that they should not possess political beliefs or participate in political activities. Yet teachers are often held to a different standard than individuals in other professions when it comes to articulating their beliefs and engaging in partisan activities, both inside and outside of the classroom (Swalwell, 2015). Teachers, then, are left to negotiate the risk of doing so on their own. As Hess and McAvoy (2015) note, context matters when teaching about politics and deciding whether to disclose ones political views to students. Teachers must weigh the pedagogical benefits of doing so against the possible repercussions from students, administrators, or parents.

Making this decision more difficult is the fact that not all disclosure carries the same amount of risk. Similar to the way Hess (2009) describes issues being subject to tipping from controversial to non-controversial over time, the risk involved with disclosure may or may not be present in every classroom. If a teacher shares the same political beliefs as the majority of the local community, then no disclosure dilemma exists. In such a case, the teacher disclosing her beliefs is not an example of parrhēsia since her opinion will only add legitimacy to existing values and fuel intolerance for divergent opinions (Hess & Ganzler, 2007). Even if a small minority of diverse opinions exists within the classroom or local community, research suggests that those voices will succumb to the spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1993) that engulfs those who deviate from the majority opinion, thus eliminating any inherent risk (Journell, 2012).

If that same teacher, however, found herself in a school or community in which she was part of the political minority, then considerable risk would exist. Consider, for example, Mr. Harrison, a teacher that I observed during his coverage of the 2008 Presidential Election. Mr. Harrison taught at a school that was overwhelmingly for Obama, and as an African American, was part of a larger community that was also overwhelmingly Democratic. The fact that he supported McCain in the election made him a pariah in both communities. In one of our interviews, he described a confrontation he had with friends after Election Day when he revealed to them that he had voted Republican. He stated, It didnt go too good . . . when I started talking to them about it . . . they asked me about it, and I explained to them, and they were just like, you know, whatever, dude; traitor (Journell, 2012, p. 582). Had Mr. Harrison voiced his political beliefs to his students, he likely would have faced the same reaction. It seems clear that disclosing in this context would have qualified him as a parrhēsiastes, but instead he chose to remain publically silent about his beliefs.

The question becomes, then, at what point is there enough of an ideological mismatch between the teacher and local values that disclosure constitutes a considerable risk? Consider Mr. Monroes class as an example. He was an Obama supporter who taught a class in which 17 of 26 students supported Obama. The school, however, was located in a district in which Obama received 52% of the vote and in a state in which Romney won 51% of the vote. In his classroom, Mr. Monroe was part of the ideological majority; however, there were enough conservatives in the room that they did not feel compelled to be silent during political discussions, and the election results of the surrounding district suggest that the local community was divided almost evenly among liberals and conservatives.6 Although the risk involved with disclosure may not have been as high for Mr. Monroe as it was for Mr. Harrison, I would argue that the ideological contrast between Mr. Monroe and a sizeable percentage of his students and the local community offered enough of a risk for Mr. Monroe to be considered a parrhēsiastes should he have chosen to disclose his beliefs.

Whether an outside observer would think there is considerable risk ultimately is immaterial; rather, the determining factor of whether risk was present is whether Mr. Monroe perceived risk to exist. At the outset of the election study, I asked Mr. Monroe whether he planned to disclose his political preferences to his students. He replied,

No, I dont. And, I mean, I have read reasons to and reasons not to. But I reallyI mean, there are a couple reasons why. I mean, I would say a small reason would be [that] I dont want to have that conversation with a parent. But I would worry more that [his students] would want to believe exactly what I believe.

Despite this clear acknowledgement of risk, both in the form of antagonizing parents and indoctrinating students, Mr. Monroe quickly added, Now, there are a few issues that I will let them know [where he stood] and gave gay marriage as an example. He then continued by saying,

I totally understand the other side [of the gay marriage issue]. I mean, I understand it 100%. The only thing that I really want [his students] to think about is, are you denying that right because of legitimate reasons or is it discrimination? If it is legitimate reasons, then I am with you. But if it is not, then we need to get together on this.

Mr. Monroe then expanded his examples to include other political issues about which he felt strongly:

And then, there are a lot of changes that I think we need to make. Like, I tell them that I think Congress should have term limits and that soft money should be banned. But, I mean, on abortion and stuff like that, I try tonow, if someone says, if someone makes the point, abortion should be illegal in all situations, I will say, I think we need to think about rape, life of the mother, etc. because, you know, if I am in one of those situations, I need to have some options.

These statements illustrate the conflict that many teachers face when teaching about controversial issues. Mr. Monroe recognized both the risk associated with disclosure and the authority he wielded in the classroom; but at the same time, there were certain truths that he believed needed to be told to students and he was not afraid to articulate those views in his instruction. The question becomes, then, whether Mr. Monroe could be described as a parrhēsiastes given his willingness to disclose only those beliefs about which he felt passionately. If one adheres strictly to Foucault’s (2001) characterization of a parrhēsiastes as “someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse” (p. 12), then Mr. Monroe would not qualify since he refused to reveal his candidate choice and was hesitant to give his opinion on select controversial issues. Yet I would argue that Mr. Monroe willfully committed parrhēsiastic acts with issues of personal conviction or when issues conflicted with his social justice beliefs.

The labeling of teachers as a parrhēsiastes or an anti-parrhēsiastes is ultimately a moot point since few, if any, teachers would qualify as a true parrhēsiastes, and even if they did, it would be almost impossible to assess. However, any instance of disclosure can be considered a parrhēsiastic act, provided it occurs within a context in which the teacher assumes a certain amount of risk, even if the teacher does not choose to disclose everything she believes. The remainder of this article will discuss implications of disclosure using both the democratic and interpersonal aspects of parrhēsia described by Foucault.


In describing the original intent of parrhēsia as a way of speaking truth for the purpose of bettering society, Foucault (2001, 2008b) used the work of Plato to critically assess the impact of truth on democracy. Underlying this discussion is the fundamental issue of who is entitled to speak the truth within a democratic society. As Foucault (2001) asked,

Is it enough to accept parrhēsia as a civil right such that any and every citizen can speak in the assembly if and when he wishes? Or should parrhēsia be exclusively granted to some citizens only, according to their social status or personal virtues? (p. 72)

Foucault argued that the answer to those questions creates implications for how the society is governed and, referencing concerns Plato (1992) addressed in the Republic, raises questions regarding the long-term stability of society. The relationship between democracy and parrhēsia, therefore, is “problematic, difficult, and dangerous” (Foucault, 2008b, p. 168). As Foucault (2001) noted,

We can begin to see the crisis regarding parrhēsia is a problem of truth: for the problem is one of recognizing who is capable of speaking the truth within the limits of an institutional system where everyone is equally entitled to give his own opinion. Democracy by itself is not able to determine who has the specific qualities which enable him to speak the truth (and thus should possess the right to tell the truth). And parrhēsia, as a verbal activity, as pure frankness in speaking is also not sufficient to disclose truth since negative parrhēsia, ignorant outspokenness, can also result. (p. 73)  

Foucault continued by saying that if parrhēsia is given to all citizens, “the overwhelming influence of bad, immoral, or ignorant speakers may lead the citizenry into tyranny, or may otherwise endanger the city” prompting the warning that “parrhēsia may be dangerous for democracy itself” (p. 77).

Yet Foucault (2008b) also recognized that democracy relies on “good parrhēsia,” or true discourse that “[enables] democracy to exist, and to continue to exist,” creating a paradox in which “there is no democracy without true discourse, for without true discourse it would perish; but the death of true discourse, the possibility of its death or of its reduction to silence is inscribed in democracy (p. 184). As apparatuses of security for the state (Foucault, 1991), schools also engage in this paradox. Teachers must constantly maintain a balancing act between allowing the free exchange of ideas and imparting knowledge, beliefs, and skills that they feel are essential to students ability to function in a democratic society.

When assessing how disclosure fits within this paradox, it is useful to refer to Kellys (1986) typologies of teacher disclosure. Foucault would argue that neutral impartiality, the most common approach taken by teachers (Hess, 2004), is undesirable because neutral teachers offer no clear direction to students. If democracy relies on good parrhēsia, then it is incumbent upon teachers to clearly articulate the knowledge and beliefs that they wish to impart to their students. Without direction, the chances increase that the masses will be influenced by “bad” parrhēsia (Foucault, 2001).

This parrhēsiastic relationship assumes, of course, that teachers are good parrhēsiastes. It is, however, often difficult to discern between positive and harmful parrhēsiastes, a concern that Foucault (2001) addressed directly:

In its basic form, this same problem now reappears in the field of education. For if you yourself are not well-educated, how then can you decide what constitutes a good education? And if people are to be educated, they must receive the truth from a competent teacher. But how can we distinguish the good, truth-telling teachers from the bad or inessential ones? (p. 93)

If one chooses to answer this question by looking at the truth being spoken, then agreement will never exist since individuals will assess good parrhēsia as confirming their versions of the truth. If, however, one assesses the parrhēsiastic virtue of a teacher by her willingness to disclose her full beliefs, regardless of the danger that it may bring her, then it can be agreed that she is a good parrhēsiastes. If a teacher hides her true beliefs and is dishonest with her students, she will not only hurt their relationship by being deceitful, but she will also act as a bad parrhēsiastes, which is dangerous for democracy.

Foucault, then, would argue that Kellys (1986) description of committed impartiality is the ideal stance for democratic education given that it addresses both aspects of the democratic paradox. On one hand, a teacher practicing committed impartiality discloses unfettered truth to her students, which allows her to model parrhēsia and offer her students needed direction. At the same time, however, she welcomes parrhēsiastic discourse from her students, even versions of the truth that contradict her own beliefs. In other words, the teacher allows the true, open discourse that is the essence of democracy, but also acts as a participant in the democratic process. In this relationship, both the teacher and her students are parrhēsiastes: Students must be willing to speak the truth to their teacher who is in a position of authority over them; and the teacher, assuming the conditions for parrhēsia that were discussed in the previous section are met, must be willing to speak the truth despite possible repercussions from parents or administrators.

What, then, of exclusive partiality? As I will illustrate in the next section, Foucault would have likely preferred that teachers engage in exclusive partiality instead of neutral impartiality due to the deceitful interpersonal relationship that occurs when teachers attempt to be neutral. Yet it is difficult to argue that exclusive partiality allows for the democratic exchange of truth. Democratically speaking, one must ask whether there is ever an appropriate context for teachers to engage in exclusive partiality in their classes.

The answer depends on the way in which one defines democratic education. On one hand, an exclusive partiality stance that limits opposing viewpoints from being raised or validated can never be considered a democratic position because it forces students to align their beliefs with those of their teacher, creating a context in which the teacher could be accused of indoctrination. On the other, if a teacher uses his authority to speak the truth in a way that advocates for democracy while simultaneously silencing opposition, such a decision could be considered a productive form of parrhēsia.

An obvious example is the notion of teaching for social justice. Others have written about whether social justice pedagogy is undemocratic or a form of indoctrination (e.g., Applebaum, 2009; Freedman, 2007), and the general sentiment that emanates from that work is that teaching for social justice involves engagement, not necessarily agreement (Applebaum, 2009, p. 399), which still allows for democratic discourse and the free exchange of opposing viewpoints. For a true parrhēsiastes, however, simply engaging students with truth may not be adequate.

Consider, again, Mr. Monroe. His classroom bookshelves were adorned with social justice literature, including Freire’s (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and he strongly believed in taking a social justice approach in his classroom. With respect to disclosure, Mr. Monroe typically wavered between neutral impartiality and committed impartiality stances; however, when it came to issues of social justice, he often took an exclusive partiality approach to his instruction. The following story, offered by Mr. Monroe in one of our interviews, illustrates his approach to dealing with classroom discourse that could be described as offensive:

I had a student last yearthey were talking about the [birther] thing and then some girl started talking about how my daddy says that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and Muslims are terrorists, or something, and I cant have that. And, yeah, I try to address it. I mean, I dont wait. I dont just let that go and then plan a lesson the next day. I try to address it right then [but] I try to do it in a way where she doesnt feel like I am attacking her too much.

Mr. Monroe continued by saying, I am definitely politically correct when it comes to people and if they might find [something] offensive. So, I dont really put up with that too much . . . I let a lot of stuff go, but that is not one of them. Indeed, my observations of Mr. Monroes instruction found that he rarely let an opportunity to address issues of social justice go by without correcting the misconceptions that he believed students held.

Some educators might argue that stopping such conversations, provided that students are being civil to one another, is an example of teachers abusing their authority (e.g., Callan, 2011). Yet it could also be argued that Mr. Monroe’s stance was an example of the good parrhēsia that Foucault believed was essential to protecting democracy from ignorant or immoral discourse. In any case, Mr. Monroe believed that it was his responsibility as an educator to take an exclusive partiality stance toward speech that he deemed hateful or supporting acts of injustice, regardless of how students or their parents might react.

Although correcting a students comment about Obamas religion or birthplace might be a parrhēsiastic act due to the fact that the student was mimicking a parent’s viewpoint, no legitimate evidence has ever surfaced that disputes Obama’s Christian beliefs or his status as an American citizen; thus, it does not meet the criteria of a controversial issue, which could lessen the potential risk involved in disclosure. Mr. Monroe, however, often took an exclusive partiality approach to controversial issues in which he felt there was a clear social justice slant. In this sense, he was politically biased. As he admitted in our closing interview, Im probably more critical of some conservative things, but I think there are more conservative things that need criticism.

An example of this bias can be seen in Mr. Monroes interaction with students regarding tax policy. Two students, both self-professed conservatives, argued that a fairer way to collect income taxes would be a flat tax for all Americans. Mr. Monroe told them that a flat tax would not generate enough revenue for the federal government and would place a greater burden on low-income households. Up to that point, I would argue that Mr. Monroe had been taking a committed impartiality approach in that he was voicing his opinion while simultaneously giving voice to opposing viewpoints.

Yet, when the students continued to press for a flat tax, Mr. Monroe shifted from committed impartiality to exclusive partiality. He stated, I cant afford to pay [a flat tax]. I cant afford to pay a higher tax rate. I think the rich can. He continued by saying, What about those with a disability? There is a problem with thinking that you are only rich because you work hard. There is a flaw in that. Some people are exposed to circumstances that make things difficult. More importantly, Mr. Monroe then stopped the discussion and moved to another topic without giving the students an opportunity for a rebuttal.

Another example occurred during discussions of voter identification laws, which was a contentious issue during the 2012 campaign. Prior to the lesson, Mr. Monroe told me in an interview that

We are going to talk about the long voter lines tomorrow. You know, and I am probably going to play that clip of that guy from Pennsylvania saying, We are going toyou know, we [passed strict voter identification laws], check which is going to win Pennsylvania for Romney. I think they need to know why, you know, Republicans want voter ID laws. But I am also going to talk about why Democrats want more early voting.

Mr. Monroe continued by saying,

I try to give both sides, but I mean, I am sure they can sort ofI mean, I will try to present the information in a way tomorrow to show that there is a better argument for early voting days than there is for voter ID. Because there is.

Again, the shift from committed impartiality to exclusive partiality is apparent when the discussion moved from political strategy to, at least in Mr. Monroes view, issues related to social justice.

These examples illustrate the difficulty in assessing the merits of teacher political disclosure. Returning to Foucaults democratic paradox, Mr. Monroes use of exclusive partiality stifles democratic discourse by limiting opposing viewpoints. Yet it could also be considered good parrhēsia in that Mr. Monroe used his authority to promote greater democratic access and participation, a stance that ultimately supports democracy (Freedman, 2007).7

To borrow, then, from Foucault (1984), it appears that disclosure, like all displays of power, is “dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad” (p. 343). From a parrhēsiastic standpoint, a committed impartiality approach satisfies both aspects of the democratic paradox and provides greater civic depth than neutral stances. Exclusive partiality is more complicated; it clearly limits democratic discourse, although one could argue that good exclusive partiality is occasionally necessary for democracy depending on the instructional aims of the teacher. The line between committed impartiality and bad exclusive partiality, however, is thin, which is why the parrhēsiastic relationship between teachers and students is important.


As Foucault documented in his lectures, the meaning of parrhēsia evolved over time from the ability to speak truth to members of the state to a framework that should govern interpersonal relationships and, by extension, allow individuals to effectively govern themselves. Foucault (2008b) continued by noting that

One cannot attend to oneself, take care of oneself, without a relationship to another person. And the role of this other is precisely to tell the truth, to tell the whole truth, or at any rate to tell all the truth that is necessary, and to tell it in a certain form which is precisely parrhēsia. (p. 43)

According to Foucault (2008b), parrhēsia “is one of the essential conditions for us to be able to form the right kind of relationship to ourselves that will give us virtue and happiness” (p. 45).

Foucault cautioned, however, that not just anyone can fulfill this obligation as a parrhēsiastes for an interlocutor. As Foucault (2001) noted, “a good truth-teller who gives you honest counsel about yourself does not hate you, but he does not love you either” (p. 141). Schools offer a unique civic environment because they are one of the few places where students interact with others outside of their family, inner circle of friends, and places of worship (Parker, 2010). It would be difficult for anyone in those relationships to act as a true parrhēsiastes since she may care too much for an individual to risk upsetting that person with the truth. Teachers, on the other hand, often meet these criteria. Good teachers care for their students, but they do not love them in the same way as parents or close friends might. As a result, teachers are well positioned to serve as parrhēsiastes for their students.

A true parrhēsiastic relationship is one that involves reciprocal trust between both parties. As Foucault (2008b) explained,

To start with we find parrhēsia meaning that the master is obliged to tell the disciple all the truth that is necessary, and then we find it again with the idea that it is possible for the disciple to tell the master everything about himself. That is to say, we pass from a meaning of the notion in which parrhēsia refers to the master’s obligation to tell the disciple what is true, to a meaning which refers to the disciple’s obligation to tell the master the truth of himself. (p. 47)

For this relationship to exist it is essential that both the master and the disciple be a true parrhēsiastes and not a flatterer or a coward. At that point, a power relationship “is thereby constituted between the subject and the other by telling the truth. One becomes a confessing subject who is likewise subject to the judgment of the other” (Flynn, 1987, p. 214). For Foucault, this relationship becomes what he called a parrhēsiastic game in which both parties must agree to accept the truth from the other regardless of how much it may hurt. Only then can the interlocutor grow as a person. As Foucault (2008a) noted, “The parrhēsiast does not reveal what is to his interlocutor; he discloses or helps him to recognize what he is” (p. 19).

When teachers do not disclose their true beliefs, they disrupt this relationship. Consider the following exchange that occurred between Mr. Monroe and his students following an episode of CNN Student News that reported on atheist students protesting a monument of the Ten Commandments on public school grounds:

Mr. Monroe: Lets talk about that last story a little bit. What was the deal with the school?

Student 1: The Ten Commandments were in front of the school.

Mr. Monroe: Who got mad about that?

Student 2: Some busybody atheist group in another state.

Mr. Monroe: [Reads the 1st Amendment of the Constitution verbatim to the class.] That is the First Amendment to the Constitution, which is basically our rule book. Using that as a guide, what do you think?

Student 3: If they cant make a law prohibiting it, then it should be OK.

Mr. Monroe: OK, so you are looking at the first part of the amendment. But it also says you cant make a law requiring the establishment of a religion. If this was a private building, would this be a problem?

Student 2: No.

Mr. Monroe: That is the issue. That this is happening at a school paid for by taxes.

Student 4: If it shows the history of the school from the 1950s, I think it should stay.

Student 5: How long has it been there? [Mr. Monroe replies.] Why are they complaining then?

Mr. Monroe: This group says it is violating the First Amendment because tax dollars pay for the school.

Student 5: But it wasnt their tax dollars.

Mr. Monroe: That is true. That is an interesting point. Since they are in another state, it wasnt their tax dollars that paid for the school. So, that might be an issue there. Let me ask a different question. What if [name of their school] built [a similar monument] this year? Would you be for it? [Most students are vocal that they would be fine with it. Some students state that as long as students were not required to learn about the Ten Commandments it would be fine if they were just posted.]

Mr. Monroe: So, you are drawing a distinction between seeing something and being forced to read it or learn about it?

Student 1: Kind of like the pledge of allegiance. I dont think that students should necessarily have to say that.

Student 2: We are assuming that it was paid for by tax dollars. What if it was donated? Then, it wouldnt be an issue. [Mr. Monroe ignores his comment.]

Student 5: But this is America. Most people practice Christianity.

Mr. Monroe: [Rereads the First Amendment.]

Student 5: I am not saying [Islam] is bad, but there are not that many Muslims in America compared to Christians.

Mr. Monroe: But this is about the Constitution, and in certain areas of the country more people practice Islam than Christianity.

Student 5: But we are still talking about here at [name of school].

Mr. Monroe: But that is the point. I know it is hard to separate yourself from where you were raised. Heck, I am from [state of birth], where it is very Christian. I dont know the right or wrong answer to this issue, but this is something that we have to consider.

Yet it was clear from this exchange that Mr. Monroe did know the right answer, at least according to his interpretation of the First Amendment. By not disclosing, Mr. Monroe was not being a true parrhēsiastes, and as a result, he did little to aid in his students’ personal growth. The vast majority of his students were content with what appeared to be a clear violation of church and state separation simply because they agreed with the faith being advocated in this particular story. If one analyzed this exchange using the Habermasean (1984) notion that consensus is reached via the most persuasive argument, it would be difficult to disagree with the outcomefacts were presented, students were allowed to openly deliberate, and ultimately a conclusion was reached.

In contrast, I believe Foucault would argue that Mr. Monroe did not play his part in the parrhēsiastic game. Although disclosing his opinion might not have changed the students’ minds, a frank disclosure of truth would have forced the students to think more critically about the issue and make their views on the separation between church and state more complex, which would have contributed to their growth as individuals. Of greater concern is that Mr. Monroe attempted to subversively influence his students beliefs instead of being forthright with them. In this exchange, it is clear that he viewed the Ten Commandments as a violation of the First Amendment, but instead of openly stating his opinion, he chose to ignore comments made by students that contradicted his view and kept returning to the text of the First Amendment even after the students had determined that the monument was not a violation of church and state. One could argue that Mr. Monroe was simply playing devils advocate to the students collective opinion, which is a perfectly acceptable teaching strategy. Yet, without revealing his true beliefs, this use of a devils advocate position is an example of a teacher using his authority to push his views on students in a way that is deceitful. Without disclosure, a devils advocate stance puts Mr. Monroe in a greater position of power; he is requiring his students speak the truth but is not taking the same risk himself. Moreover, there is not a clear distinction between fact and Mr. Monroes opinion.

For the sake of comparison, consider the following discussion that occurred between Mr. Ryan, a teacher that I observed during the 2008 Presidential Election, and his students regarding Obamas proposed tax policy (Journell, 2011b, pp. 230231):

Mr. Ryan: What I dont like about [Obamas economic proposal] is that the people making $250,000 are supplying the jobs for everyone else, and I am not making $250,000 so dont think I am saying this because I am going to get hurt by it. Its just the overall way I view the economy for everyone.

Student 1: Well, how will McCain pay for things if he cuts taxes on everyone?

Mr. Ryan: He will have less programs.

Student 2: Does that mean he will shut everything down? That will cause people to lose jobs too.

Mr. Ryan: But who owns businesses? Not the government. It will be government programs that get shut down.

Student 2: But people work for those government programs.

Mr. Ryan: Well, I would assume that welfare would be one that would be scaled down. Now, I dont think welfare should be eliminated, and not all conservatives think that welfare should be eliminated. And not all liberals think that welfare should be expanded. We cant look at it as extremes, which is what a lot of people do.

Student 2: But doesnt the top one percent of the worlds wealthiest people own the greatest percentage of wealth in this country? So what is the big deal if they are taxed more?

Mr. Ryan: I see your point, but they are already taxed a lot. Are you saying everything should be equal?

Student 2: Not equal, but I agree with Obama. If you are making $50 an hour, you have more money to throw around than if you are making $10 an hour. If they earn it, good for them, but they should be able to share it.

Student 3: I know several people who are on disability and they just sit around and collect money and dont try to get better, and I dont believe that people who work hard for their money should have to give it to lazy people who just sit at home and collect it.

Student 2: Just because you arent rich doesnt mean you dont work hard.

Student 3: I agree, and there are people who are rich who dont work hard, who inherit money like Paris Hilton, but I think most people work hard and I dont think it is fair.

Mr. Ryan: Well, not everyone on disability or welfare is lazy, but it is a catch-22.

As one can gather from this conversation, Mr. Ryan was a fiscal conservative who was voting for McCain, a decision he disclosed to his students. In many ways, he taught in a context that was similar to Mr. Monroe; the district surrounding the school was politically divided and his class contained a mixture of political opinions. Yet Mr. Ryan was not afraid to disclose his views and took great care to assure his students that they [could] have whatever opinion they [wanted] as well (p. 229).

The conversation in Mr. Ryan’s classroom represents a positive parrhēsiastic relationship, especially when compared to the conversation between Mr. Monroe and his students. Mr. Ryan was forthright in his beliefs, and his students also responded by countering with their version of the truth. The goal was not necessarily to persuade the other to adopt his views; rather, each was speaking truth to the other. At the end of the discussion, neither Mr. Ryan nor his students had changed their position on Obamas tax policy; however, each was privy to a more complete picture of the issue which might not have happened had Mr. Ryan not disclosed and been a willing participant in the parrhēsiastic game.

Another concern that occurs when teachers do not partake in the parrhēsiastic game is that students make their own assumptions about their teachers’ beliefs, and these assumptions are often based on stereotypes and incorrect information. As Levinson (2012) noted in her recollection of teaching in inner city schools,

It is not only students ethnoracial identifications that pose pedagogical and political challenges. Teachers own ethnoracial identities also play into the studentteacher relationship in powerful and sometimes unpredictable ways. I was always aware that my students accurately saw me as White and middle classwhich to them meant wealthyand that this led them to make other assumptions that were sometimes less accurate. Many of my students assumed, for example, that I was a Republican. This may in part have resulted from my unwillingness to tell them my political views; since my students in both Atlanta and Boston were overwhelmingly Democrats, they may have reasonably extrapolated that I was reticent because I didnt want to subject myself to their scathing attacks. But I think it also simply resulted from their associating Republicans with wealthy White people, and Democrats with poor people of color. (pp. 7071)

Indeed, surveys given at the end of the semester indicated that only 11 of the 26 students correctly identified that Mr. Monroe had voted for Obama and had based their answer on examples from the class. Eight other students guessed that Mr. Monroe had voted for Obama but either could not identify why they felt that way or had made an assumption based on the fact that he was a middle-class teacher. Four students believed that Mr. Monroe voted for Romney, and three stated that they had no idea for whom he voted.

For students who are politically astute, lack of disclosure is not as concerning. For the vast majority, however, a reciprocal truth-telling relationship with teachers is essential to ensure that they are able to discern between fact and their teachers opinions, as well as good and bad parrhēsia. In this sense, disclosure is less likely to result in indoctrination since students can see instances of bias for what they really are. An example can be found in my 2008 election study: Conservative students whose government teacher displayed intolerant exclusive partiality against Republicans had no problem with their teacher voicing his opinions. As one student noted, hearing his teachers admonishment of conservative ideology made him more of a Republican because it forced him to truly evaluate his conservative beliefs (Journell, 2011b, p. 235). More importantly, this example illustrates the parrhēsiastic relationship at work. Even in an intolerant environment, the fact that the teacher and students had enough mutual respect to tell each other the truth allowed each to arrive at more precise understandings of the world.  


During one of his final lectures, Foucault (2008a) quipped, Everyone knows, and I know first of all, that you do not need courage to teach (p. 24). For the tenured chair of The History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France, that statement may very well be true; however, K12 teachers seemingly need quite a bit of courage to teach openly in this era of political polarization. Willingness to disclose ones political opinions to students carries inherent risk, and conventional wisdom suggests that teachers would be well advised to avoid disclosure altogether. Yet, after dissecting the act of disclosure through a parrhēsia framework, I would argue that it is time to rethink this line of thought.

Can teachers abuse their power when disclosing their personal beliefs? Absolutely. The immediate example that comes to mind is a teacher who penalizes his students grades if they do not adhere to his political worldview. Such an action goes beyond simply speaking the truth to forcefully requiring the interlocutor to adhere to a certain set of beliefs. This type of extreme exclusive partiality does not advance democracy in any way and creates an authoritarian relationship between teachers and their students. I would argue, then, that such actions should result in disciplinary actions against the teacher. This type of scenario, unfortunately, is how many in the public envision teacher political disclosure, and they subsequently conflate it with indoctrination even though empirical data suggest that few teachers are abusing their authority in this manner.

Even in cases where teachers disclose in an exclusive partiality fashion, a parrhēsiastic relationship should help alleviate the concerns of students and parents who worry about indoctrination. As someone who tends to lean liberal on most issues, I have often thought about how I will feel if my daughter is ever taught by an exclusively partial conservative. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that I would rather have her taught by an outspoken conservative than a subversive one. As a parent, I would not have an issue with my daughter being exposed to conservative ideology as long as it is presented as someones opinion and not objective fact; rather, I would welcome it. My daughter should have the right to be exposed to a variety of perspectives, not just the ones she hears at home. However, she should also have the right to process those perspectives as what they truly are and develop her own civic identity. If a parrhēsiastic relationship between teachers and students is not achieved, then this type of growth is less likely to occur or will be limited due to students’ inability to discern between fact and opinion.

The hysteria over teacher political disclosure has led to the kneejerk reaction by many administrators and teacher educators to advise teachers never to disclose their political opinions to their students. Yet an analysis of disclosure as a parrhēsiastic relationship between individuals suggests that disclosure offers civic and pedagogical benefits for both teachers and their students. A committed impartiality relationship in which both parties subject each other to the truth not only tips the balance of power in the teacherstudent relationship more toward the student, but it also provides students with a model of tolerant democratic discourse as well as the ability to express their opinions safely in a public forum.

Given these potential benefits of disclosure, I believe teachers should be the ones who ultimately decide whether disclosing their beliefs to students is appropriate. Disclosure should be part of the pedagogical decision-making process of teachers and not dictated by those who distrust the professional capacities of educators. The current educational discourse in the United States and other democratic nations too often limits teachers ability to make professional decisions regarding their instruction, especially when those decisions go against what is considered acceptable instruction or teacher behavior. Although examples of teachers going against the grain (Cochran-Smith, 1991) exist (e.g., Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Kimmel, 2010), research suggests that doing so becomes increasingly difficult in the current political climate. It has become accepted within the general public that teachers should willingly concede their freedom of expression when they sign their contracts, a belief that is too often reinforced within school districts and teacher education programs. As the teaching profession continues to be attacked through movements to rescind the protections of teacher tenure and minimize teachers instructional autonomy, it will become increasingly challenging for teachers to engage in a parrhēsiastic relationship with their students.

Those who do not view teachers as capable of making reasoned pedagogical decisions too often fail to recognize the complexity of disclosure by treating it as a dichotomous entity that can only be “good” or “bad.” Simply telling teachers to disclose or not to disclose does not prepare them for the challenging instructional decisions they must make in the classroom, often within the heat of the moment. As Foucault (2008b) noted,

Another series of problems that we see arising on the basis of this question of parrhēsia concern the government of the soul, psychology. What truths does one need in order to conduct oneself and others, and to be able to conduct well by conducting oneself well. What practices and techniques are needed? What knowledge is needed? . . . To whom and to what must one turn for the training in parrhēsia, and also for the definition of the place of parrhēsia, of the moral conditions for being able to tell the truth, and of the way of guiding souls? (p. 306)

These questions offer implications for both teacher professional development and the training of pre-service teachers. When pre-service and practicing teachers hold steadfast to the belief that they will be neutral in their classrooms, they should be presented with research that shows that even the most well-intentioned teachers cannot be neutral in practice.

Teachers, then, should be presented with a complete picture of the risks and benefits of disclosure, particularly the preferred stance of committed impartiality. Ultimately, disclosure is a personal decision since speaking the truth often carries a significant amount of risk. I would never fault a teacher for choosing not to disclose since not everyone has the ability or desire to be a parrhēsiastes. It is also nearly impossible for any teacher to be a true parrhēsiastes since it would be impractical for teachers to speak their mind in all situations. Yet any teacher can choose to engage in parrhēsiastic acts, assuming her classroom context fits the criteria for parrhēsia. As with any pedagogical decision, the determination of whether to engage in a parrhēsiastic act should be made strategically by balancing the risks versus potential rewards of disclosure, and not simply because neutrality was advocated as the only safe or appropriate path for a teacher to take.

If teachers decide that the merits of disclosure outweigh the risks, then further counsel is needed. As Mr. Monroe’s experience illustrates, it may be incumbent on teachers to engage in exclusive partiality if they believe silencing opposing viewpoints is beneficial for the civic and/or social development of students. As mentioned earlier, this use of teacher authority is controversial, and teachers must determine for themselves if and when they will choose to use that authority. Within the parrhēsiastic relationship, however, Foucault would argue that it is imperative that teachers occasionally insist on using good parrhēsia as a way of protecting democracy. Yet the criterion dictating what type of speech should be silenced with truth is ultimately subjective.

For those who view teaching as a science, such ambiguity may be unsettling. The decision whether or how to disclose one’s political beliefs in the classroom seems to be part of the art of teaching. Even in the most scripted of teaching environments, teachers will have to grapple with the disclosure dilemma, since disclosure is ultimately part of an interpersonal relationship between teachers and students. As the excerpts from Mr. Monroe’s classroom illustrate, disclosure often occurs when lessons go off script and students choose to either speak the truth themselves or seek truth from others. In other words, as long as teachers and students coexist in an instructional space, this relationship will exist.

A parrhēsiastic analysis suggests that this interpersonal relationship is exceedingly complex and open for interpretation. Yet it has become common practice to treat disclosure in a simplistic and safe manner. It is imperative, then, that teachers and other advocates for K–12 education be educated about the complexities of disclosure and take steps to remove the negative stigma commonly associated with it.   


1. The word parrhēsia is spelled differently in each of the edited collections. In the transcription of the 1982–1983 lectures (Foucault, 2008b), it is spelled “parresia,” but in the transcriptions of the 1983–1984 lectures (Foucault, 2008a) and the Berkley lectures (Foucault, 2001), it is spelled “parrhēsia”. I have chosen to use the latter spelling for consistency.

2. This criterion excludes socially taboo topics, such as race, gender, and religion, from being considered controversial issues. None of these topics is controversial on its own; however, many controversial issues have racial, sexist, or religious undertones that only increase the risk of broaching such issues in the classroom (Evans, Avery, & Pederson, 1999; James, 2010; Journell, 2011a).

3. For example, the question whether the concealed carrying of guns should be legal is a controversial issue. A classroom discussion of that issue may or may not elicit passionate feelings among students. However, if that discussion were to have occurred in the immediate wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, then the likelihood of passionate responses would probably increase. Similarly, if that discussion was broached at a meeting of the National Rifle Association, then one would probably expect a passionate reaction.

4. Astute readers will note that all of the research presented in this section was conducted in secondary classrooms. Teacher political disclosure, to my knowledge, has not been empirically studied in elementary classrooms, although theoretical arguments exist (e.g., Journell, May, Stenhouse, Meyers, & Holbrook, 2012).

5. Certainly, examples can be found to refute this claim. The Scopes trial of 1925 is a famous example of a teacher’s professional judgment being questioned for conflicting with community values, as are the cases of teachers being fired for appearing sympathetic to communism during the Cold War. Within educational circles, however, the rise of high-stakes accountability standards, increased attacks on teacher tenure, and the growing demand for alternatively licensed teachers over the past 30 years have been viewed as attacks on the teaching profession.   

6. There are limitations to using candidate choice as a barometer for determining the political ideology of a community, since voter decisions are often determined by non-ideological factors (e.g., Keeter, 1987; Sides & Vavreck, 2013). Perhaps a more accurate illustration of the political ideology of the community surrounding Mr. Monroe’s school can be found in the results of the 2012 Amendment One referendum, which was a state constitutional amendment seeking to define marriage as between one man and one woman. The county in which Mr. Monroe’s school was located was one of eight that voted against the amendment, but with only 53% of the vote.  The amendment ultimately passed at the state level with 61% of the vote.  

7. For the sake of comparison, in my study of social studies teachers during the 2008 Presidential Election (Journell, 2011a), two teachers used an exclusive partiality stance to state that they believed there should be a Christian litmus test for presidential candidates, a belief that limits democratic access.


I would like to thank Pat Avery for her feedback on an earlier draft of this article as part of her discussant remarks at the 2014 CUFA conference. I would also like to thank Katy Swalwell for sharing her extremely helpful resources on teachers unions.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 5, 2016, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19370, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:29:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Wayne Journell
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    WAYNE JOURNELL is Associate Professor and Secondary Social Studies Program Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research focuses on the teaching of politics and political processes in secondary education. In 2014, he received the Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award from the National Council for the Social Studies and the Early Career Award from the College and University Faculty Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies. He is also an associate editor of Theory & Research in Social Education, the premier research journal in the field of social studies education. Recent publications include: Journell, W. (2013). What preservice social studies teachers (don’t) know about politics and current events—and why it matters. Theory & Research in Social Education, 41, 316-351. Journell, W., Beeson, M. W., & Ayers, C. A. (in press). Learning to think politically: Toward more complete disciplinary knowledge in civics and government courses. Theory & Research in Social Education.
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