On thoughtful disagreements and righteous anger

I have been writing this post in my head since at least Occupy the DOE, so it is not simply a direct reply to president of the American Educational Research Association Bill Tierney’s recent email in which he, I expect in anticipation of the protests planned for Arne Duncan’s invited talk at the AERA conference, wrote:

“I am weary of the abuse of social media by writers hurling anonymous, venomous insults—a practice that encourages the general retreat to intellectual neighborhoods. Our work and our interactions with one another should model productive conversation about the nature of education, schooling, and reform. The conference gives us an opportunity to demonstrate very publicly how thoughtful disagreements can take place. I hope that in the invited addresses, the presidential sessions, the myriad papers, roundtables, and posters, and in my own presidential address, we will challenge our own assumptions rather than simply reconfirm what we think we know.”

I will get back to this email in a moment, but first I want to tell what I was writing when this email arrived. Because I was thinking about the multiple ways we are silenced and silence ourselves. I was thinking of righteous anger and the ethical imperative to defend our humanity, our potential for democracy; to do justice as love in public.[i]

This week I received yet another email from a colleague, a person who I have never met or known, telling me that s/he could no longer withstand the toxicity of his/her academic workplace; that the imposition of the edTPA was driving her/him from teacher education. I get these emails regularly from people who have committed their life’s work to teacher education, but are being threatened, intimidated and surveilled into silence, resignation, despair.

And on facebook I follow the lengthy discussions as teachers, often using pseudonyms for fear of retribution, wonder if they can speak to parents about their concerns with standardized testing. I read as teachers post their letters of resignation, their weariness with being called lazy and selfish by corporate deformers while their work is increasingly micro-managed into emptiness.

I hear from a colleague who worries about posting a paper on the AERA portal, fearing that higher ups will read it and thus complicate a tenure review.

Another colleague emails to remind me to not use her edu account when communicating about activism.

Last week, a colleague presented a research quandary: she wants to research the sites from which neo-liberal corporate education ‘reform’ emerges, but everyone she interviews from these sites has signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Just as faculty and students being made to use the edTPA must sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Secrecy and silencing.

And then, just as a reminder, there is me- who lost her job for speaking my concerns about the TPA and supporting students who refused to participate in the field-test being run by Pearson.

We live at a moment when demands for silence are profound; when voicing disagreement and making arguments for academic freedom elicit implicit and explicit threats; when ‘toxic’ work environments are more and more the norm, and teachers, students and higher education faculty are subject to the imposition of ‘standards,’ rubrics, scores, outcome measures, data points and other aspects of the accountability regime that discount whole swaths of what it means to know, research, communicate, be human.

For those of us who ever find ourselves in some space on the margins, being discounted is not new. Some people have never had the privilege of being treated as if their voices matter to those in positions of power.  As a woman, I am well acquainted with being told to lower my voice, to speak more carefully, to not be so negative, to engage in thoughtful disagreement more politely, to smile more. As a woman who came of age during the woman’s movement of the 1970s, I know a head pat and attempt at dismissal when I see one. As an ambivalent academic, I am well aware of the ways that claims of professionalism, objectivity and politeness have been used to secure the status quo and protect it from challenges by those left out by history and oppression.

“I am searching for a methodology of the heart.” (Diversi and Moreira).  What does a methodology of the heart look like? what does it sound like? is it angry and sometimes ‘rude’? does it ever ache in a space beyond words? does it make us uncomfortable, a discomfort we learn to translate into boredom or weariness? how do we listen to this methodology? when do we act from and within it?

I find myself boxed in by Pres. Tierney’s email, a box that will be familiar to those who wish to be heard from the margins. If I am angry, am I a ‘venomous’ blogger? If I note that the Secretary of Education has promulgated practices that lead to school closures, attacks on teachers unions and collective bargaining, the opening of public resources to profiteers, and the abuse of children and of education through the imposition of high stakes testing, the common core and technocratic accountability regimes am I being un-thoughtful?

I think of Freire’s pedagogy of the heart. It is teaching, at every level; it is research, wherever it happens; it is political work. It emerges from our lives, our bodies, our experiences. It is messy and discomforting and activist. It takes many shapes, uses the range of words, speaks from our bodies.  As an activist and a scholar, I will speak and act from these places. I will name injustice. I will not allow illusions of propriety to allow violence to go unnamed and its perpetrators unchallenged.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never bring about genuine change.” (Lorde, 1983, p 112)

[i] “Justice is what love looks like in public.”- Cornel West

Diversi, M. and Moreira, C. (2009). Betweener talk: decolonizing knowledge production, pedagogy, and praxis. Walnit Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Lorde, A. (1983).  The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In. C. Morega and G.E. Anzaldúa (Eds.). This bridge called my back: writings by radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.


  1. maureen downey says:

    Dear Barbara,

    I want to thank you for your intestinal fortitude to deal with these bullies. Your post is particularly personal to me as I graduated from the same institution where Professor Tierney teaches and had one class with him. I did one of the most cutting edge PhD dissertations on an ethnic/religious group never examined in an educational setting, and travel in war conflict zones and teach –nominated for a dissertation award and received dissertation fellowship. All of the professors in the same program as Tierney think alike, talk endlessly about poverty, children in foster care, school violence, gun control, education reform, non-tenured track faculty, but all they are interested in is being windbags in writing and supporting charter schools and union busting. God forbid if non-tenure track faculty would form a union. I have written them all emails about the aforementioned issues as well as global human rights issues not one has responded to me. I am not surprised by his callous response. In solidarity I will be with you all tomorrow outside of the Hilton to fight against union busting, and the overall corporatization and privatization of education.

    • Barbara Madeloni says:

      Thank you Maureen. After his presidential address yesterday, I am even more appalled by the deep acceptance and promulgation of neo-liberal ideology–and the self-promotion.

      See you this afternoon.

  2. dbpigtail says:

    I love this beautifully written and eloquent post. I love your call for ‘righteous anger.’ [We live at a moment when demands for silence are profound] [For those of us who ever find ourselves in some space on the margins, being discounted is not new.] These two sentences spoke mountains to me. I am not a teacher, but a parent of a preschooler in a small rural upstate NY town. I am scared to death about the future my children face in education and as a result have become quite vocal about my concerns. Most of the time I feel like an outcast. But slowly I learn through 3rd party anecdotes or secret confessions that many feel the same. At times I have been afraid to let my ‘righteous anger’ show, but that fear is fading quickly. When I read a poignant post like yours, I am given hope and this makes me even more determined to fight for authentic education for my children (and for all children). Thank you.

  3. Peg Metzger (Bflo,NY) says:

    I think that you are wonderful! I admire the guts it took to stand up for your principles in the face dismissal. Cloning you a few thousand times would be a great benefit to all of us.
    It was an honor to meet you last week in D.C.
    Next year… same place… same purpose!

  4. Mr. Tierney wrote “Our work and our interactions with one another should model productive conversation about the nature of education, schooling, and reform. The conference gives us an opportunity to demonstrate very publicly how thoughtful disagreements can take place.”

    What are the chances that Mr. Duncan will engage in “productive” conversation at AERA? Productive conversation requires discussants of equal power and an an opportunity to converse, not a speech with a Q&A format where the one who answers questions gets the last word. The point of a thoughtful conversation is not to stake out opposing sides to a disagreement thoughtfully, but for each side to hear and respond to the other. The chances are next to nil that Duncan will listen to, much less hear his critics. He has not done so thus far.

    The kind of “thoughtful conversation” Tierney seems to have in mind will not/ can not interrupt the bubble-in, hierarchical, corporate-dominated nature of education, schooling or reform. It will just promote more of the same.

  5. Jeff Canady says:

    Barbara, Thank You for mentioning this subject and quoting Cornel West. Last Sunday he preached a sermon at Howard University Rankin chapel which he completely disagreed with your approach to activism. He stated very clearly he will gladly except the racist role of the “Angry Black Man”. If your not angry at the conditions that children, parents adults are in in this country when will you be angry. What a “Intellectually Community” is I have no idea. Your personal preference and style in yours. But as a former seminarian I have a profound disgust for a call for an which I can only label as nothing more than an “obnoxious peace.’ We have peace because we chose to subject ourselves to whatever abuse or tyranny chosen while staying civil with our oppressors!! As Martin Luther King Stated “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. whatever affect one indirectly affects others directly. When Bill Tierney walks the roads and experiences the abuse at the hands of school reformers then he can chose his own personal response. Until that time he can take his White Horse email to the bathroom where the paper can be used in a constructive manner!!

    • Barbara Madeloni says:

      Curious, and worth spending some time understanding about my writing, how some readers have read this as my supporting Tierney’s call for ‘thoughtful disagreement.’ Mine is a call for righteous anger. Hence the statement that I will not allow propriety to keep me from naming violence and its perpetrators. I think we agree Jeff.

  6. Mark VanDerwater says:

    On the one hand, your thoughtful consideration of Bill Tierney’s message caused me to slow down and consider disfferent ways of approaching Arne Duncan’s appearance. On the other hand, Tierney’s words suggest both condescension and naivete. “Righteous anger,” and sharp rebuke based on moral conviction of people with less power than the writer, can be easily dismissed as ” abuse of social media by writers hurling anonymous, venomous insults.”
    “… productive conversation about the nature of education, schooling, and reform” implies that both parties “will challenge our own assumptions rather than simply reconfirm what we think we know.” Is Arne Duncan coming to do that? Or is going to just “sell” an idea using flawed reasoning, contrived data in the service of special interests. We have to recognize that open-minded conversation with parties employing deceit and coercion just makes us suckers.

    • Barbara Madeloni says:

      Hi Mark:

      I meant to suggest Teirney’s condescending tone when I wrote of speaking from the margins and the ways calls for propriety silence. I have no illusions about Duncan’s intent or the impact his policies, violent policies, have on children, teachers and communities, and I find the tone of Tierney’s email to be dismissive and controlling. Sorry that was not clearer.

      • Barbara, I am 100% behind the stand you took! I thought I heard some self-doubt and I meant to encourage you to stand strong against appeasing this cynical assault on public education. I apologize if I was wasn’t clear. I am in awe of the cost you paid for your principles. I truly meant this in support of your principled stance. Thank you.

        • Barbara Madeloni says:

          Thanks Mark. I am so curious about the range of responses to this. I did not mean any self-doubt, but I did mean to not speak from and within the traditional discourse of a kind of linear proof. I meant, and I guess I have to work on it, to trouble the very way we address the issues, the pretense of objectivity. When I become more human in it, I am not less certain. Indeed, I feel more certain to name the place I stand. Thanks much for your words of support.

  7. M. Reyling says:

    Thank you, Barbara Madeloni. Eloquent, thoughtful, and just.

    “Anonymous, venomous insults” hurled toward Arne Duncan’s policies are not inappropriate. If he can’t take the heat(ed debate), maybe he should get out of the…..way and let teachers teach.

    (In all of the online venting about the (unjust, detrimental…) policies that have been pushed from the tippy-top down, very little of it has been of the personal attack type of thing against AD–outside of his lack of experience for the job–that no one has the time for anyway.)

    And maybe Bill should look at all of the professional bullying of educators and actual bullying of school children before crying, “No fair.”

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