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Zembylas/Boler Pedagogy of Discomfort

Posted By: Lee Zwanziger on September 9, 2002
To the Editors and Fellow Readers:

I am writing to comment on the article "On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a "On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a 'Pedagogy of Discomfort'" by Michalinos Zembylas and Megan Boler. Like previous commentator Neitzschman, I will not consider each point but instead focus on a single concern.

I first commend the authors for raising the important point that war or the possibility of war may create a context of emergency in which public emotions may be manipulated, noting that of course it is also a context in which that sense of emergency may be well justified. However, Zembylas and Boler raise the point in their own context, in such a way as may hinder the possibility for serious consideration of the very point raised, and in effect promoting further net erosion of freedom both intellectual and political.

That is, there is indeed good reason to be concerned in the context of consideration of war, that the war effort may facilitate increased centralization of power or other empire building, whether by devious plan or simply as an effect of the need for coordinated action that somehow never returns to the start point. There is precedent for this in our history; consider for example the war between the states, in which the union adopted vast increases in central power, including the institution of an income tax, national currency, and conscription, to say nothing of suspension of habeas corpus (the latter temporary). Woodrow Wilson described the main achievement of that war was the creation of a "national consciousness." Then during Wilson's presidency in the first world war, the size of the federal bureaucracy more than doubled, including an array of new agencies previously unimagined if not unimaginable in the American context. And central governmental activity---and growth in federal employment---in the second world war dwarfed that of the first. There are of course many other dimensions of societal and governmental response to war to be studied as well. Likewise I agree that individual citizen vigilance is the best check on potential expansion of centralized power. But that vigilance would have to rest on knowledge. Emotional massage whether public or private is no substitute. And knowledge is no threat to genuine patriotism.

I suspect I am at least as skeptical both of textbooks and of mass media as are the authors---the former often too light on actual information, the latter too likely to provide politically selective coverage, though not limited to the authors' example. Crucially, Zembylas' and Boler's article leaves a truly dangerous omission, which would be particularly damning to educators. The authors speak of what "any educator concerned for democracy" should ask, but information, facts, and historical analysis do not seem to make the list. Empowering the student and citizen would require actual reading of primary sources, and knowing a great deal of actual information about history including concrete particular wars. And without that basis, simply providing discomfort and alternative readings does not empower the student, does not overcome power structures, in fact does nothing but shift the power, here to the "educator" who is standing in as Socratic midwife, superintending the birth not of truth but of an alternative ideology preferred by the educator. This does not equip the student to discern the difference between, for example, speech that is about something and speech that is just talking, however emotionally stirring or seemingly radical the latter may be.

Reference to Foucault was in fact a lovely example here: a fountain of interesting and fertile ideas to be sure, but they necessarily remain only hypothesis-generators until or unless thoroughly grounded in evidence such that they are supported, and supported more soundly than other ideas. Yes, I know I could be charged with failing to play the game he suggests. But that is not because I fail to take Foucault, still less Zembylas and Boler, or for that matter critical reading and thinking itself, seriously. Rather it is because I do take them all seriously, and because reality is neither a clever language game nor comprehended by emotional reeducation. And so I would urge educators (presuming all of them to be concerned with democracy!) to consider seizing the so-called teachable moment to reemphasize historical grounding for free and informed students, thus empowering students to distinguish emotive and historical content, and thereby to become true protectors of democracy.

Respectfully yours,

Lee L. Zwanziger
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 Zembylas/Boler Pedagogy of Discomfort by Lee Zwanziger on September 9, 2002
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