Books: Challenging Students to ‘Creative Rebellion’

By Garret Keizer — January 25, 1989 8 min read

Ihave sometimes said that the best way to handle the kids who pose the biggest discipline problems in a school is to put them in charge of discipline. I am only half fooling. I think a major problem in our schools is not that kids are too brash and nervy but that we are not brash and nervy enough.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our insipid campaigns for “school spirit” and “student leadership.” We vainly hope to make a treadmill look like a sacred quest; we ask kids to be excited in a void of ideas, because only in talking about nothing can we be sure not to arouse any controversy. We don’t even talk to them about patriotism anymore.

We ask kids to take a stand in all the places where we have been taking a nap. Then, when we have few takers, we complain about the apathy of youth.

The so-called “rebelliousness” of youth--which often appears as little more than the hard edge of apathy--may also come from our failure to issue a significant challenge to our young. In public education, as in popular entertainment, we have sold our children a curious bill of goods on the subject of rebellion.

First we tell them that rebellion is basically good, creative, liberating. The bright lights of science, art, and politics were all rebels. Second, we tell them that rebellion is the natural attitude of youth. It’s healthy, inevitable, and to some extent tolerable for the young to rebel.

Assuming we’re right on the first two points, we ought to add a third: that rebellion is only as good, creative, and liberating as its opposition is strong, coherent, and not totally disarmed by points one and two. To quote the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, somewhat out of context: “You cannot strike a match on a crumbling wall.”

Take classicism away from the Romantics who rebelled against it and what does one have left? A few surly extras on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.

Take away every claim of authority from our pronouncements, and thus any clear point of departure for a young thinker, and what does one have left by way of youthful rebellion? A few mannerisms less original than James Dean’s.

An interesting observation in this regard is my students’ understanding of the word “radical.” The term arose in discussion one day, and it was not long before I realized that my students and I were talking about two different things. Finally, I asked them what a “radical” is.

As nearly as I can quote their definition, a radical is a fun-loving person. At first, I was amazed at their innocence. But in retrospect, I am even more amazed at how accurately they had described their own predicament--and for that matter, how accurately they had intuited the nature of so much American middle-class “radicalism.”

In the absence of any real challenge, given or received, when opponents assume postures more than they take stands, we’re pretty much left with “fun,” aren’t we? If reaching or redefining a promised land is not the “radical’s” business, than all that remains is to raise a little hell.

Our failure to challenge kids to purposeful leadership, or even to provoke them to creative rebellion, is matched by a still more significant failure to acquaint them with great ideas.

It is not simply our school assemblies and slogans that are so bland and pointless, but the tenor of our curriculum. Kids are shockingly unaware of the religious and political ideas that have shaped their history and are even now revolutionizing their world.

In a century torn by ideological struggles, we seem to think that the best favor we can do for our young is to have them ignorant of all ideology. I wonder if any of them assume what their elders seem to have assumed, that the safest way to assure pluralism is to bury it in nihilism.

A bright student came to me several years ago with a question on her mind. She’d been watching a television series on the Holocaust.

“What’s a Jew?” she asked. “They don’t believe in God, right?”

As gently as I could, I explained that her phrase “believe in God” was essentially a Jewish invention, or discovery if she preferred. She acknowledged the debt with an “oh!” but then wanted to know why the Nazis were so anti-Semitic.

Like many other students, she thought that the Nazis had invented anti-Semitism. And like many other students, she probably could have located Israel on a map, named its prime minister, and recited the dates of its wars and founding.

She would have been able to do the same for Iran and the Soviet Union. She just could not tell me in any detail what many a Jew, Muslim, or Marxist has lived and died for.

Admittedly, we often shy away from acquainting students with ideas because we fear indoctrinating those ideas, or distorting them with a teacher’s bias. That is a good fear to have.

I know of a school in [northeastern Vermont] where a young girl, who may one day be an important scientist, was persecuted in a science class for her beliefs on the origins of humankind. Her ideas were quite conventional: She accepted Darwin wholeheartedly.

Her teacher, if I must call him that, disagreed--and argued his case for “creationism” by repeatedly making monkey noises at the girl, an argument her less-evolved classmates found easy to copy. Apparently his understanding of ethics was as profound as his definition of science.

Those who may seem overly zealous to prevent this kind of travesty are not such extremists after all. But the same vigilance we exercise to keep science classes from turning into Sunday-school classes needs to be exercised to prevent legitimate fears from turning into superstitions. It is possible for students and teachers to explore “alien” ideologies (provided they are not utterly alien to the discipline being taught) without alienating one another.

Once, a girl in my class decided to do a research paper on the John Birch Society. Her father was a Bircher, as she herself was soon to become, so this, her first major research paper, was a rite of passage as well.

Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic over her choice of topic, she assumed I was also sympathetic to her political point of view. Almost conspiratorially she confided to me her worries about a history teacher who would also be reading her paper and giving it a grade.

“Mr. M-- is a pretty liberal guy, and I’m worried how he’ll mark it,” she said.

I assured her that Mr. M-- would insist, as I would, on an objective presentation of factual material and on sources other than publications of the society, but that our insistence did not in any way imply a prejudice against her or her work.

“As far as politics go,” I told her, “mine are probably a good deal to the left of Mr. M--'s, and look how excited I am about your paper.”

I had meant to put her at ease, but my mistake was immediately evident from the blood leaving her face. From where she stood, Mr. M-- looked as pink as a piece of prime rib, and I was to the left of that? ...

Well, it was a wonderful paper, and working on it with her was the beginning of one of the warmest relationships I ever enjoyed with a student. ...

What I saw in this girl--what I see again and again in young people that enables them to rebuild cathedrals and defy monkey-mimicking science teachers--was the ability to believe in something more than survival, gratification, and success. It was her having some conviction, aside from any content of the conviction itself, that I strove to reinforce.

I think it was Toynbee who said that the values of Sparta and Valhalla are preferable to no values at all. And a misfired challenge to the young may be preferable to allowing their need for challenge and commitment to go unmet.

A couple of years ago, my colleague Bob Ketchum and I attempted to take our experience with student tutors and his experience in the Peace Corps one step further by using young people to teach adults in the community. If teenagers in Nicaragua could reduce illiteracy by tens of percentage points, why couldn’t teenagers perform similar wonders in northeastern Vermont?

And with the performance of even a dubious wonder, what questions might they be led to ask about democracy, education, and the meaning of a life? So we and a handful of students founded salt--Students and Adults Learning Together.

Our members included my John Bircher and a very determined young man who would later join the Marines for some of the same reasons that he volunteered to be a Vermont Brigadista--because he believed he had a purpose beyond keeping fast food in his belly and gas in his car.

As a matter of prudence and courtesy--I hope not of timidity--we decided to begin by offering our services as auxiliaries to an adult-education program already in place: We were welcomed, given mixed signals, stalled, then told before we had even begun that our services were not needed.

The idea needs to rest awhile before being revived, and then we shall need to revive it more assertively--but that is not my point.

My point is that a handful of Vermont teenagers were ready to give up lunch periods, after-school time, and weekends to tutor their neighbors, mind their tutored neighbors’ kids, and take numerous risks, not least of all the risk of accomplishing nothing, and to make this commitment without the incentives of money, awards, privileges, or grades. Where we saw possibilities, they saw promise.

Working with students like these, I have come to the conclusion that the recent invention called adolescence appeals to them about as much as it appeals to me--not much at all.

Puberty is beautiful; adolescence can be as cheap and trashy as the interests that prey upon it. As an idea, it is far more appealing to 10-year-olds who want to talk “dirty” and to certain 35-year-olds who want to live the way 10-year-olds talk.

The hearts of most 16-year-olds are made of finer stuff. They do not want to be adolescents. They want to be young women and men. They believe in a promised land. And if we are not inclined to believe in something like the same thing, our every effort to help them amounts to a betrayal.

From No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community by Garret Keizer. Copyright 1988 by Garret Keizer. Reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books U.S.A. Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: Challenging Students to ‘Creative Rebellion’