On Friendly Fascism

Troy Distelrath
May 22, 2023
A Freirean Reflection on False Generosity and Reactionary Backsliding in Nominally Progressive Schools

Growing up the son of a progressive teacher and a progressive administrator who worked within the system of public education to subvert its most dehumanizing facets, I quickly learned to identify the ways in which my peers and I were disempowered at school. I saw despotism in every detention; suppression in every syllabus. I felt, daily, that I was not free in those halls, that my lived reality was defined more by arbitrary parameters than problem-solving, more by suspicion than solidarity.

Consequently, when I was offered a teaching & curriculum design position at a non-profit, progressive school in one of metropolitan Detroit’s affluent suburbs right out of undergrad, I jumped at the opportunity to work in a space where I could empower young people with the feeling of being seen and appreciated as whole human beings.

But quickly, this dream turned into disillusionment as one of my overtures toward liberatory pedagogy after another was dismissed out of hand, victim of a latent but underappreciated threat in our broader pedagogical project: friendly Fascism.

Unlike the more easily apprehended authoritarianism of an overwhelmed, cattle-herding public school administrator who imposes one-size-fits-all methods of instruction delivery on educators out of sheer survival instinct or fear of falling short on state-mandated testing, there is a strand of pedagogical tyranny that pervades even our nominally libertarian learning institutions. From Montessori Children’s Houses, to Acton Academies, to the pods of the new “Microschooling” movement, we risk reactionary backsliding in the progressive movement if introspection and care are not taken.

In his landmark work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire (1970) reminds us that “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” This is precisely the insidious threat we face in progressive education: manipulation disguised as benevolence.

Coercion is, in one understanding of the word, domination without knowledge. It is the exertion of power on a falsely conscious subject, who is cruelly encouraged to believe they are making decisions of their own accord.

In perhaps no forum is this dynamic more evident than in poorly executed Montessori-style schools. Through smiles and a warm affect, some educators within such institutions convey, at first glance, love for their pupils that further inspection calls into question. As a pedagogue, should one ever find oneself qualifying the imperative of student choice with disclaimers like, “I’m all for student choice, but they have to choose between my choices" or “I’ve worked with these students for years, and doubt they actually feel this way; they just aren’t ready to make certain decisions yet,” it is time for one to pause and re-evaluate one’s ideological commitments.

Now, do not misread my words. Adult prerogative exists in a classroom, and always will. This is why Freireans speak not of bottom-up monologue - a hypothetical dictatorship of the youth - but of dialogue. While young people are working to hone their skills of reason, it is entirely likely that they will produce hair-brained schemes and half-baked ideas from time to time (Don’t we all?); however, so long as these ‘bad’ ideas are met with inquisitive conversation instead of paternalistic redirection, students will retain the freedom of thought and expression they ought to inalienably possess.

Fundamentally, progressive pedagogy is about rehumanizing ourselves and our students in the face of a ruggedly individualistic society and economy premised upon value extraction, capital concentration, and an unsustainable relationship to the Earth and its non-human residents. To issue directives, however politely veiled, and monopolize discourse, however well-informed by one’s expertise, is to foreclose the opportunity for the liberation of one’s students (and oneself!). Liberation is an ongoing struggle, never fully realized, that can only be glimpsed via autonomy, bold experimentation, and what Freire called “problem-posing,” or the process of learning to question the subjective reality to which one has been inoculated.

In institutions of progressive education, we must draw a distinction between love and possession. Whereas the former treats the intended recipient as a subject with equal agency, the latter reeks of hierarchy and domination, treating the recipient like a brute object to be owned and toyed with at will. Per Freire in The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation:

Revolutionary utopia tends to be dynamic rather than static; tends to life rather than death; to the future as a challenge to man’s creativity rather than as a repetition of the present; to love as liberation of subjects rather than as possessiveness [emphasis added]; to the emotion of life rather than cold abstractions; to living together in harmony rather than gregariousness; to men [and women] who organize themselves reflectively for actions rather than order; to creative and communicative language rather than prescriptive signals; to reflective challenges rather than domesticating slogans; and to values that are lived rather than myths that are imposed.

Rather than truly horizontal relationships of love born from an understanding that only dialogue may bear, some educators at ostensibly progressive institutions, including my previous employer, instead opt for relationships of tokenization. That is, these staff members somehow weaponize tenderness, seeking to collect students for proud display on their figurative mantle - not treat them as full human beings with legitimate interests, passions, and dissents of their own.

On the ground, this phenomenon manifested as benign smiles and hugs in times of convenience that were followed by the outright dismissal of student concerns in times of controversy. Students were ‘free’ to pursue any educational path they desired, so long as the paths they chose did not pose challenges to the school’s clandestine power structure. When eighth graders, our oldest cohort, petitioned for greater voice in the “specials” that were offered, I applauded their active citizenship in our school. But, when they resoundingly voted against taking “Coding,” which was the only special lead-taught by the Head of School’s son, all-of-a-sudden, approval became a micro-managed drag.

Likewise, when several students voiced their discontent with the Spanish offerings, which were amateurish and made available only in a large group rather than personalized setting, the Upper School Director and I set up Duolingo for Schools on student iPads and confirmed a new language selection with interested parents - only to have such choice squashed by the Head of School within weeks, with no discussion or parent notification.

Even recess became a hotbed issue, as the Upper School Director, myself (head teacher for Humanities), and the head teacher for STEM proposed we follow research on adolescents that suggests mandates to go outdoors leave those in the “emerging adulthood” phase of life feeling downtrodden and disrespected; in a dramatic showdown, the Head of School confronted several of us - despite the Upper School Director being her co-equal on paper - and told us off. She made sure we knew that she did not believe in student choice on this issue unless it was choosing what they want to do outside, weather, illness, or sporadic preferences be damned. No dialogue was to be found, just passive-aggression.

In the final analysis, a progressive movement is only as strong as its capability of self-criticism. If we are to spread a pedagogy of rehumanization from its relatively few enclaves in individual Montessori schools or public ed classrooms to the mainstream, routine self-purification is an indispensable component of our praxis. To mistake smiling, proper manners, hugs, high-fives, or any other aesthetic sign of positivity for the underlying conditions of justice is to be duped by the same neoliberal mentality that would applaud a rainbow-colored park bench for its inclusiveness, nevermind the anti-homeless bars that straddle it.

You can find more from Troy on his Substack: On the Side

Troy Distelrath
Troy taught American History, Civics, and the Humanities for one year at a middle school Montessori program in Michigan and also has several years' experience as a climate justice organizer with the Sunrise Movement. He is now a substitute teacher in metro Detroit and author of On the Side, a Substack about liberatory pedagogy.
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