On April 5, 1968, in the midst of his run for the 1968 Democratic nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, delivered a 10 minute speech in front of a hushed audience at the Cleveland City Club in Ohio. The speech was titled ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ ; April 5 1968 was the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Kennedy’s speech indicted not only the perpetrators of the violence, but also those who “look[ed] for scapegoats [or] conspiracies” in its aftermath. His opening reference to ‘shame and sorrow’ addressed the shock and sadness of his audience, but he went on to decry the ‘common agreement to meet disagreement with force’. He offered his audience no easy solutions to wider frustrations about increasing trends towards political polarisation that were wracking the country with civil dissent over America’s long-running involvement in the Vietnam War and the emergence of a Black Power Movement threatening to supplant Dr King’s strategy of non-violent resistance . Instead he reminded them that “The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed” and exhorted them to “admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men…learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all” and to “admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others.”
The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy spoke powerfully, informed by both reason and compassion, to challenge his audience about their own part in what happened next. History does not record the responses of the people at the Cleveland City Club that day, but it does record that the murder of Dr King sparked the greatest wave of social unrest across the United States since the Civil War, with riots in over 100 cities. On June 5th, 2 months to the day after he spoke in Cleveland, the brother of murdered 35th President John F Kennedy was himself fatally shot as he left the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after finding out he’d won the Californian Primary for the 1968 Democratic nomination.
In 2016, 44th President Barack Obama is notable as the only political figure in the English speaking world whose words speak to both feeling and reason. It is equally notable that over the last 8 years, for whatever reason, about half the voting population of the United States has been unable to hear him, and whether they supported him or not, his appeal for the peaceful transition of power last week could not pre-empt a wave of protest sweeping the United States in the wake of the election result. The vast majority of this protest has been peaceful, but mainstream news outlets have found it difficult to keep up as real and alleged examples of individual circumstance, distress or bad behaviour, surprise and shock are seized on, amplified and echoed around social media.
The 2016 Presidential Election provides data-informed educators with a textbook example of confirmation bias in action. The internet noise we’ve seen since November 9th is also a good example of our tendency to resort to the availability heuristic , which reinforces the confirmation bias tendency to support pre-existing interpretations and propose simplistic ‘solutions’ with the most readily available ‘evidence’. Classic fixed mindset behaviour. As Jonathan Haidt points out in this paper , overcoming confirmation bias (especially our own) is an uphill struggle, but when mature democracies are lining up to jump down the post-truth rabbit hole, awareness of our own confirmation bias tendencies becomes an educational imperative.
When I first started researching ‘non-violent classrooms’ in 2015 one of my teacher friends joked, ‘What’s all this about non-violent classrooms? We stopped beating the children years ago’ and I laughed with him, but that joke sums up the tendency of many intelligent and well-meaning educators to define the word ‘violence’ too narrowly: unless it’s physical, or shouting, it’s not violence. As teachers, a narrow definition of ‘violence’ lets us off the hook of considering how much our classroom management strategies are unconscious exercises in instilling compliance within a system that reinforces our own power as authority figures. But we mean well, don’t we? Maybe we do, but just as a calm, ordered classroom doesn’t necessarily mean the pupils are learning, the fact that we don’t beat the children any more doesn’t mean we are truly open to their full educational development. We all say we like debate in the classroom, but, for good educational reasons (getting through the syllabus) it must be focused, and ‘relevant’.
Perhaps understandably, when the education blogosphere looks at the neuroscience behind stress and learning, it tends to focus on the positive, the power of joy and enthusiasm and the connectedness of the ‘aha’ moment. As teacher, I too have a dream, that my classroom will be a safe space where every pupil will grow towards their potential as a learning human being. But in the world outside the safe spaces of our classrooms, BREXIT and the US election result are salutary lessons that emotions we have the power to regulate, even deny, within our classrooms – anger, fear and hatred – can assume a valency with the potential to change the world in frightening ways. So, as a teacher, what can I do? The first thing might be to acknowledge that I am not the objective arbiter of what goes on in my classroom, but a subjective participant. That my reasoning and intellectual processes are informed by both conscious and unconscious emotion, what Carl Jung called the Shadow Self. And also that whether I admit them or not, my own emotional defences will work to stop me seeing as clearly as I think I do.
To the extent that we insist on the ‘safe spaces’ of our educational discourse, we guard against awareness of our own emotional violence by channeling it into bi-partisan debate, by the implicit or explicit denial of emotions around power and control in forming opinions and fashions in educational practice, and by the narrow framing of the conversation around buzz-phrases such as ‘classroom management’ or ‘research-led practice’ to dismiss what is happening outside the classroom as irrelevant to the ‘real’ educational issues. At a time when Liberal Democracy itself is experiencing violent upheavals, those of us who value universal education as a one of its foundations need to bring to awareness and resist in ourselves a collective confirmation bias that adds up to what Robert F. Kennedy, addressing the Cleveland City Club in 1968, called “the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay.”