Isolate Theocracies…Act “as if” and keep the balance


When we live in our teaching, ideas arrive as if from nowhere. Once, I heard the story of a man who never could remember how to swipe his card on the bus on the way to work. Each day, the driver or other passengers helped him. It turned out he later won a Nobel Prize. Do we have future Nobel Prize winners before us in our classrooms, among students who do not seem to have a clue much of the time? Who are we teaching?

Ideas feed my teaching and many of the most memorable have come from beyond the classroom. David Attenborough’s Gandhi reoriented my perspective and purpose as a teacher. My mother’s gift of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh became a classic for teaching Taoism to my eighth graders. Ideas surround us and wait for our perusal.

Recently, one came from an interview in The New Yorker with Philip Pullman, who argued for pursuing what matters in the face of those who wish to control all we do. He calls them “theocracies … the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned.”

Theocracies. Unquestioned leadership. I had not thought much about this since teaching history years ago. And here was Philip Pullman taking them on. I realized I have been part of this conversation from my first days of teaching with so many authorities. Sometimes, I even imagined I’d won. Pullman admits in his argument that theocracies eventually win out, but

That doesn’t mean we should give up and surrender … I think we should act as if. I think we should read books, and tell children’s stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference … We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding. We should act as if we were going to win …

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 17 “Teach As If” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting Students to Learn from Amazon: