Politics of Compliance v. Politics of Resistance: “We don’t need no education”

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave the kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” Pink Floyd

The December 2018 incident involving high school wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to cut his hair in order to compete continues to draw attention. Erik Ortiz reports:

But following outcry from the community and the opening of a state civil rights investigation, an attorney for wrestler Andrew Johnson claims officials and referees are still giving him grief over his hair and have an “unrelenting fixation” with him….

Then, on Monday, an official with the state association that regulates athletics and conducts tournaments sent an email to state wrestling officials detailing which hairstyles require the hair to be covered. One image, according to NJ Advance Media, which reviewed the email, was of an unidentified black person with short, braided or dreadlocked hair and closely shaved sides.

More recently, Josh Magness details:

Police say the 11-year-old student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland said he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because the flag is “racist,” according to WTSP.

Ana Alvarez, a substitute teacher in the classroom, said she was offended by this comment and asked the student, who is black, why he didn’t leave the country, as reported by The Washington Post.

A teacher from Los Angeles, Larry Strauss, has subsequently weighed in on how the 11-year-old was treated:

When children in a class — of any age — assert their political views, they are giving you an opportunity to teach. Not to teach them to shut up and obey you, but to teach them that they live in a free country where everyone has a say in how we govern and where criticism is welcome, or supposed to be.

Both of these instances represent a truism about formal schooling that works against our claimed beliefs about formal schooling: Although many argue education is a “game changer,” in fact, formal schooling mostly reflects and perpetuates social norms, including the inequities such as racism, classism, and sexism.

Tracking, gate-keeping in elite programs, teacher assignments, standardized testing, discipline, and school funding all reflect that public school policies are grounded in racism and classism.

School dress codes remain biased, as well, by gender and race, disproportionately impacting girls and young women, particularly those of color.

The drivers of these realities, and essentially what erases the ideal of education being revolutionary, are embedded in what appears to be a defense of the 11-year-old refusing to do the pledge of allegiance—Strauss’s framing of “[w]hen children in a class — of any age — assert their political views.”

Consider here that Strauss is positioning a child’s act of not complying with the pledge as political, and in effect, asserting that those administrators, teachers, and students participating in the pledge are somehow not being political.

Here, we have evidence that formal schooling reflects and perpetuates society since this pledge controversy is nearly identical to the National Anthem controversy in the NFL involving, notably, Colin Kaepernick.

We must not ignore that these events are deeply racial (and racist) and reflect that power and normalization treat compliance as invisible (not political) and resistance as not just hyper-visible, but offensive (political).

Here is another truism about formal schooling: Everything everyone does in any school is inherently political, some negotiation of power, some acknowledged or ignored act of compliance or resistance. Yet, in school, as in society, only acts of resistance are seen as “political,” and thus, triggers for punishment, even being ostracized (denied the right to compete, ushered from the school by law enforcement).

Poet Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150)—and let’s recognize how this is often reflected in formal schooling.

Educator and activist Bill Ayers (2001) confronts the silencing purposes of education:

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)

Cutting the wrestler’s hair and arresting an 11-year-old seem extreme, but to understand these reactions as representative of how power (often white or in the service of whiteness) functions, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility explains:

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways….

Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality (McIntosh, 1988). The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life.

Unspoken, invisible—and thus rendered not political against the spoken and visible as political. Not political as right, preferred against political as wrong, to be punished, banished.

The compliant students (and teachers, administrators) are being just as political as the ones who are resisting. Calls for anyone—student, teacher, or citizen (including NFL players)—to be not political is itself a political act and a failure to acknowledge that the offended are not against being political, but against someone else’s politics.

As a critical educator, then, I am grounded in another kind of idealism expressed by Ayers, the ideal that current formal education not only refuses to seek but tends to erase, silence, render invisible:

Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is usually no more than training. We are so busy operating schools we have lost sight of learning. We mostly participate in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master a few basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole affair. Sometimes, these places are merely mindless, and sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

“Malevolent,” like the wrestler’s hair being sheered, like a child being arrested.

We are faced, then, with the politics of being another brick in the wall or joining in with the politics of resistance: “Tear down the wall!”


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

Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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