Parrhesia: Academic bold speak

WORD POWER  Words are one of a teacher’s most powerful tools.  Like tools, they can be wielded to construct, disassemble, or repair.  Israeli born educator and psychologist, Haim Ginott’s most famous quote on the relationship between teachers and students included the lines,

“It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”

Ginott’s work centered mostly on younger children and teenagers.  His book Between Parent and Child, originally published in 1965, drew on his work with troubled adolescents in Jacksonville, Florida, and emphasized the need to combine compassion with boundary setting.  Of course, compassion and her sister, kindness, serve a teacher well at any stage of a student’s development.   Parrhesia, or bold speaking, may serve a teacher better when a student is a little older or when the relationship is already strong enough to withstand some shaking.

Parrhesia is a Greek word, and I learned it at a recent conference on educational leadership.  Dr. George Yancey used it and modeled it in his address to fellow scholars.  It means, he told us, to speak boldly.  In ancient Greece, it was a fundamental component of democracy, although not without its perils, as Socrates discovered.  Modern philosopher Foucault further defined parrhesia to include speaking boldly in the face of some personal risk or danger, to speak plainly even when there is a difference in power between the speaker and listener, to speak frankly even when it flies in the face of popular opinion.  This courage is founded on a willingness to criticize, not only social conditions, but even oneself, especially oneself.  

Dr. Yancey uses parrhesia in his classes with undergraduate and graduate students.  Its not always a comforting tool, as he demonstrated in his frank speaking on individual and institutionalized racism in education. It is a dispiriting reality that African-American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in Advanced  Placement classes and over-represented among the nation’s lowest achieving students and dropouts.  Talk about the institution’s responsibility in these inequities is scarce: discourse tends to focus on the deficiencies of students and ways to “re-mediate” them or “catch them up”.  But it was not his discussion of institutionalized racism that caught my attention.  Sadly, I am cognizant enough of this literature.  Rather it was the shocking and disturbingly familiar examples of individual racism he provided that tore at me.  Ugly words.  Even uglier behavior.  Commonplace epithets uttered when people think they are among like-minded bigots. Evidence that casual and hateful racism can exist in your neighbors, members of your own family, and even yourself.  Years ago, I taught myself to risk social capital with acquaintances, friends, and family by speaking up against racial jokes.  It’s gotten easier with age.  What hasn’t gotten any easier is the courage to look at myself and challenge the ways in which, consciously or not, I am a racist.  Parrhesia, the self-critical part.


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