Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom.

Author:Bannier, Betsy
Position:Book review

Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom.

By Rick Ayers and William Ayers

(Teachers College Press, 2011)


Seasoned teachers, weary from years in classroom trenches and navigating test-this-not-that imperatives, are already acutely familiar with the reality painted by the Ayers brothers in their introduction to their book Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom (2011). They write: "While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, too often we find ourselves locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and generally false bits of information"(6). Less familiar to teachers, however, are the seldom-traveled pathways out of this mess. In concise form, Rick and William Ayers offer what could be interpreted as a field guide to help educators find their way into an irreverent (and thus unpopular) teaching space and hold their ground once they have arrived.

Drawing on the educational theories of John Dewey and Martin Haberman, the philosophical frameworks of Michel Foucault, and the liberating teaching practices of Paulo Freire, Ayers and Ayers guide the reader in coming to terms with the reality that our factory-model schools are devolving into prison-model institutions. Along the way, "teaching designed to develop free minds in free people" has become a form of teaching the taboo (37). Timely examples of such teaching are provided, such as one instructor's "curriculum of questioning" centered on the influx of military recruiters in his high school (84). As the multiple realities of living in a nation at war, flaccid employment prospects, and legislation that prioritizes military spending over educational funding all collide, classroom discussion along these lines is urgent.

Teaching the Taboo also includes a personal and self-reflective aspect, when it offers a snapshot of the experiences of a classroom teacher, Malik Dohrn, who happens to be the nephew and son of the two authors, respectively. Dohrn quips about those who actually teach and those who talk about it: "No offense, but you guys are both in the talk-about-it class" (92). This forces Ayers and Ayers to acknowledge their privileged position as academics in a commodity-based educational system where public school teachers are "near the base of the educational hierarchy, just above the student, who is at the very bottom...

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