Lessons Learned from a Lesson on the Freedom of Speech

Like many, I have been thinking a lot about freedom of speech lately. My purpose in this post is not to comment on that freedom. I have always been a strong advocate for free speech, but speech and actions are not the same.  

These events have brought me back to my high school days. I know how faulty memories are, but the episode I recall is my “Western Civilizations” teacher during my freshman year. (That is the teacher who organized the class trip to Washington, DC in the spring.) She was discussing the quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

I remember hearing that and thinking, “yeah, that makes sense… this guy really believes in the freedom of speech.” What I recall from that episode, however, was the teacher’s response. She became quite agitated that we were not sufficiently energetic with our responses. I recall, she began curtly asking individuals what the quote meant and if we did not use the language she preferred, we were told to answer again until we used the preferred language. 

That was before I decided to become a teacher (a decisions I made before my senior year in high school), but I remember thinking, “this is crummy teaching… what is she trying to accomplish?” 

I have no idea what my classmates were thinking or doing, and I have no idea if they made a connection with the idea in the way I did. I am not even sure my version of the lesson is accurate, but I do see some lessons for teachers. 

  1. Do not misjudge student’s reactions. Students may be engaged with your lessons. They may be making a connection… one they even blog about 40 years later… but it may not be obvious. 
  1. If students are not reacting in the manner you think they should, engage with them. What are they thinking? Why are they thinking it? (I think the teacher lost a chance to learn one of here students made a deep connection with Voltaire’s myth and a foundational idea of our society, but she made me recite the preferred answer just as a few others had.) 
  1. Do not confuse behaviors with learning. My classmates and I were parroting, but I am not sure we were learning. I learned the point of her lesson, but then I learned much about her and what is good teaching… those were probably not in her objectives (this was decades before those were a thing), but it is what I learned. 
  1. Do not react with indignation when students are not showing the proper (from your perspective) deference to your lessons. If they do not see them as relevant or important, it is your job to demonstrate it. Anger and insistence has no place in teaching.