This is a guest post by Ira Chaleff, author of the book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong

The project of the book, Intelligent Disobedience, began when I found that guide dogs for the blind are first taught all commands they need to know, and then are sent for higher level training to learn to resist and disobey commands which, if executed, would cause harm. I immediately recognized the power of this metaphor for human development.

In my research for the book, however, I found that human education placed almost all its emphasis on the first stage—learning obedience—but virtually omitted the second stage. Teachers are typically trained on the primacy of classroom management before learning can occur. This creates a zero tolerance approach for the slightest failure to follow each successive instruction given by the teacher.

While this may be an efficient approach to marching students through a set curriculum and between classroom activities, it has the meta-effect of creating a mindset for surviving in an authoritarian culture but which is poorly equipped to question or improve that culture.

Homeschool educators reading this may, with some justification, feel a sense of satisfaction that they are working from a better balance of values. And so they may be, but I caution them not to be too sure on this point just yet.

The role of the teacher contains a paradox:  he or she is the authority in the classroom while a key part of that role is to encourage young minds to question authority. The tension in these different aspects of the teacher role requires self-awareness to minimize the tendency of the first obligation to not undermine the second, higher obligation.

This authority issue may be compounded in homeschooling as the teacher is also the parent; both authority roles are charged with the sacred responsibility of raising children to be independent thinkers and accountable members of their communities. Homeschool educators, it can be argued, have an even greater responsibility to appropriately balance being the authority figure and teaching to question authority figures.

Here are a few thoughts that may be of help in playing these juxtaposed roles.

Talk about why.
Whenever possible, back up your commands with reasons rather than appeals to your authority. Help children to understand why they are being told to do something. This takes self-discipline when your patience is stretched like taffy. (A good way to introduce the concept of intelligent disobedience is to use the analogy of the guide dog.)

Talk about personal responsibility of followers.
Stanley Milgram talks about the autonomous state and the agentic state. In the autonomous state we make our own decisions and feel accountable for them. In the agentic state someone else is making the decisions and we are being told to follow them, as if we are an agent of the other person. In this condition we do not feel responsible for what we do. But we are still responsible.

Teach the path of conscientious objection.
Classroom discipline places almost all responsibility on the external authority. To develop the capacity for intelligent disobedience, kids must develop a capacity to listen to their inner authority and their innate sense of values. Help them be aware of this source and how to balance it with the knowledge and prerogatives of the external authority. (Often religions call this “listening to your conscience.” Stories of great conscientious objectors allow for natural discussion of how to hear your inner voice.)

Expose kids to arguments. Dissent is part of education.
Respectful disagreement between two authority figures—two adult family members, a parent and teacher—in front of children helps them understand that authority figures can’t always be right if they sometimes disagree with each other. It humanizes authority and makes intelligently questioning authority a social norm.

Done well, these lessons will influence crucial junctures where preparation for intelligent disobedience makes all the difference. It is my hope that these thoughts generate a conversation throughout the community about making intelligent disobedience part of every education.