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Radical Eyes for Equity: The Paradox of Fostering Community Norms in the Classroom in an Era of Indoctrination Histrionics

After 18 years teaching high school English, I transitioned to higher education in 2002. For well over a decade, I have been teaching first-year writing to incoming college students, who in many ways struggle with the contrast between what it means to be a high-achieving high school student and a successful college students. [1]

One of the first discussions I have with those first-year students is about student behaviors, ways in which students are expected to behave that are unlike behaviors outside of the classroom.

We often discuss hand raising, asking permission to go to the restroom (or being denied access to the restroom), bell systems for being late and class dismissal, and taking tests (and the focus on not cheating).

The discussion is designed in part for students to interrogate the norms of being a student and schooling, but also to begin to consider how college norms are different.

I start here advocating for students to stop behaving as students since many of those behaviors center the authority of the teacher/professor and erase the humanity and autonomy of those students.

My university has recently committed to an expanded advising program that guides students purposefully through their first two years. Since I enjoy working with first-year students, I just volunteered for the program and attended training last week.

One of the sessions addressed the community norms that the program seeks to foster in students, norms of classroom behaviors that should be applied across all of their courses.

Although we didn’t spend much time on this, what stood out to me was the tension between “community” and “norms”—terms that are too me positive, the former, and negative, the latter [2].

Additionally, I am certain that our current political climate around education—anti-CRT legislation, curriculum bans, and book censorship—that suggests teachers and schools (especially higher education) are indoctrinating and grooming children and young people would result in some people finding these norms “woke indoctrination.”

Ironically, these goals are designed to encourage a more free and considerate exploration of ideas; in short, this is about the importance and power of community:

But teachers like McLaughlin and a growing group of parents are starting to realize that for our children to be healthy, happy and successful, we need to teach them a more profound lesson: interdependence — that is, how to rely on others and how to be a person whom others can rely on, too.

What McLaughlin knows and what research suggests is that lasting self-worth cannot come from approval based solely on external rewards, such as trophies, college acceptance letters and fancy job offers. Rather, an understanding of one’s inherent value comes from knowing one’s place in a community — from the sense that others value you and that you add value to others. Researchers call this feeling “mattering”: Only by building interdependence can kids gain social proof that they do indeed matter.

Forget independence. Teach your kids this instead.

I have two vivid and humbling experiences from college. The first in Mr, Pruitt’s class as a first-year student and the second in Dr. Predmore’s class, likely when I was a junior.

As an eager students who had a great deal of success engaging in classroom discussions in high school English (Mr. Harrill’s classes), I found myself excitedly speaking up in Mr. Pruitt’s class until I suddenly realized I was embarrassing myself.

That day I recognized I had much left to learn and not speaking up, listening with new ears, was often a better option.

Just a couple years later, after I had declared as a secondary English education major, I had grown some as a student, but I entered class one day for Dr. Predmore’s Southern literature course and once again found myself embarrassed at my lack of knowledge (but I had learned not to speak up too quickly by then).

I was then evolving in my quest for academic/intellectual humility.

Much of my grounding as a teacher for forty years has rested on those experiences and how to foster high engagement, intellectual humility, and intellectual curiosity in students. I also recognize that a great deal of the norms of schooling are counter to human dignity and deeply engaging with knowledge in critical ways.

There is also another layer to the paradox of community norms in the classroom; along with the tension between education and indoctrination is how teachers/professors and students can navigate academic freedom in a space that has a diversity of beliefs and experiences.

Academic freedom is incredibly important in an education system dedicated to fostering democracy and individual freedom; however, “freedom” is not license, and neither teachers/professors nor students are “free” to simply say anything.

Further, learning is often uncomfortable (student discomfort having been politicized, even weaponized, by conservative recently), but while intellectual discomfort may be expected or even necessary, no one should feel emotionally or physically threatened or unsafe.

Few people have a genuinely good grip, though, on where that line is, and often, the teacher/professor is left to determine that threashhold.

Currently, issues around safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other mechanisms designed to encourage respectful and open discussions are also under attack (and some of the debate around this is certainly warranted).

In the real world, students and teachers/professors will make mistakes, but I remain convinced that formal education must seek to balance academic freedom, free speech, and seeking ways not to further marginalize or dehumanize anyone—recognizing fully that some topics and comments are necessarily inappropriate for class discussions.

Free speech and academic freedom, however, fall back under the problem of norms.

If you spend just a few minutes on social media, you soon learn that billionaires, politicians, and the so-called average citizen all have very weak or even distorted understanding about free speech and academic freedom.

Simply put, what we can say and should be allowed to say on Twitter/X simply is not the same as a classroom, and technically, free speech is grounded in the role of government to monitor or control speech (made even more complicated by the recent over-reach by states such as Florida).

The paradox of community norms in the classroom then becomes that a classroom setting is the ideal place to identify norms and then interrogate that if those norms are ultimately fair and healthy.

Community matters, but share values are not without problems—unless we are willing to continually revisit and revise those shared values in the context of avoiding either/or thinking in which we reduce “value” to either supporting the individual or the community.

As John Dewey and other progressives have argued, we simply do not have to choose one or the other since in a democracy, community and the individual are sacred.

So I return to the problem I have with “community norms.”

Often “norms” are fixed and work in ways to control or police human behavior; community is. a thing in progress, an evolution that is made stronger by its constant state of possible flux.

Norms, you see, are the seeds of indoctrination, and while I fully reject the current conservative histrionics around indoctrination, I am a critical educators who also fully rejects indoctrination.

The best classroom, one where human dignity and humanity are honored in the pursuit of democracy and individual freedom, is a community, and the best community is a thing in progress, stable enough to support us and malleable enough to serve us better as we grow together.

[1] What Do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

[2] See:

On Normal, ADHD, and Dyslexia: Neither Pathologizing, Nor Rendering Invisible

Normality in Sayaka Murata

A Vision of Being Human: “Am I normal?”


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...