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Education as “Politically Contested Spaces”

We must stop conflating partisan and political.

Steve Strieker in The Answer Sheet confronts ths current state of education from the specific events of his home state:

“In Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, teaching has been relegated from professional status to political fodder.”

He then builds to this conclusion:

“In Walker’s Wisconsin, education is not a profession. It is politics….

“With the current attack on public education, however, our next generation of professional educators will have to be seasoned young, impervious, and politically active. Otherwise, future educators will be doing more political initiatives in education, for less than professional pay, and with less professional liberties.”

This commentary offers the opportunity for educators to examine closely both traditional calls for teachers to be objective and not political as well as many educators’ own claims that education shouldn’t be political.

“Politically Contested Spaces”

First, let me offer where I believe the discussion of education as political (or not) often becomes distorted. We must begin this discussion with a clarification of terms, specifically between “political” and “partisan.”

I will concede and even argue that classrooms, teachers, and education in general should avoid being partisan—in that teachers and their classrooms should not be reduced to mere campaigning for a specific political party or candidate. And this, in fact, is what I believe most people mean (especially teachers) when they argue for education not to be political.

But, especially now, we must stop conflating partisan and political, and come to terms with both the inherent political and oppressive call for teachers not to be political and the inevitable fact that being human and being a teacher are by their nature political.

Joe Kincheloe (2005) clarifies the inescapable political nature of teaching and the classroom:

“Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.” (p. 2)

Every choice made by an administrator, a teacher, and a student is a political choice. Humans are always in a state of politics, a negotiation of power. To deny this is to push our political nature beneath the surface (that which shall not be spoken) and relinquishing the power to the status quo.Bill Ayers recognizes that education that denies the inherent politics of teaching and learning is reduced to silence and compliance:

“In school, a high value is placed on quiet: ‘Is everything quiet?’ the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it.” (p. 51)

These are the facts before us:

  • People in positions of authority who mandate or coerce others to be politically neutral or objective are themselves being political and oppressive; thus, they are either purposefully or implicitly using their authority to act politically themselves to maintain the balance of power in their favor. Politicians do this, administrators do this to teachers, and teachers do this to students. To remove another person’s political autonomy is the most corrosive act of politics we know; it is oppression.
  • Silence and inaction are political acts, often invoked as stances against being political. This irony is not without consequences. To remain silent, to remain passive—both are political acts of compliance, both are acts of endorsing those who are speaking and acting.
  • Teachers have only two choices: Act or be the tools of other people’s actions.

Teachers have long been prone to being the tool of other people’s actions, prone to put up a hand and wave off being political, prone to shutting doors and pretending that silence and stasis are objective and professional behaviors.

These tendencies were always political behaviors, as Kincheloe notes: “…educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.”

To pretend to be objective, to wave off or deny the politics of teaching and learning, to shrug off our voices because we must do as we are told are all political concessions to those in power who are the ones using their politics to beg for our silence and inaction.

The silent and inactive teacher is molding the silent and inactive student.

These acts are conceding the world to the status quo, conceding our voices and our humanity.

Another irony: That’s not teaching, and that’s not education.

Indoctrination is the result of silent and inactive teachers committed to being compliant.

Strieker’s commentary asserts that the current state of education is a shame. I agree, but for me the shame is that educators remain silent and inactive, willing to be the tools of other people’s politics.

To embrace the politics of teaching and learning, however, Ayers explains:

“Education will unfit anyone to be a slave….Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.” (p. 132)

Calling for teachers not to be political is barbed wire. It is far past time for teachers to tear down walls.


Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kincheloe, J. L. (2005). Critical pedagogy primer. New York: Peter Lang.

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