9 min read

Dissertating about Schoolmen with Matt Ryan

Sixth Annual Schoolmen's Week Proceedings
Program Cover, Sixth Annual Schoolmen's Week Proceedings

It's really remarkable that you're taking time out of your day to read my too-many words about words in education. Thank you. Before today's conversation, some quick stage setting.

When I hung my shingle as a freelance editor, I landed on the name Schoolmarm Advisors. I explain why I use schoolmarm here and while the name doesn't precisely get at what I do, it's in the ballpark, and frankly, I like the sentiment, look, and messiness of the word. There are a few other terms related to teaching that have shifted out of regular usage such as scholar, a generic term for a student, and normal, as in normal school or college to indicate it's a teacher preparation program. There is also the delightful, messy word schoolmen.

Schoolmen is an archaic, categorical noun that describes someone who presents an opinion about how school or teaching should be done and/or acts on that opinion and/or seeks to persuade others to act on that opinion.

Just having an opinion about schools and teaching doesn't make one a schoolman. While some teachers - of all genders - did attend schoolmen conferences and meetings, they were categorically teachers. John Dewey? Schoolman. Margaret Haley? Teacher. A woman teacher might be a Schoolmarm but that usually wasn't up to her. Men teachers were just teachers, schoolmasters if you're feeling exceptionally archaic. Gender plays a role in one's status as a schoolman, but so does power.

Schoolmen, generally speaking, were/are in in positions of power or have/had access to power that could mean the ability to act on their opinion or convince others to act upon it. Despite being a union leader and the first women speaker at an NEA meeting, Haley would never be described as as schoolman. Redding S. Sugg, Jr. who prefaces his book, Mother-Teacher: The Feminization of American Education with:

The first profession opened to women consisted of the sale of sexual love and was called prostitution; the second, an initiative of nineteenth-century Americans, was a traffic maternal love and was called pedagogy.

Mr. Sugg whose book is much better than the preface suggests was a schoolman.

The word is neither a compliment nor an insult. It describes a class or group of people- mostly men, mostly white - who move through the world sharing and acting on their ideas about how teaching and schools should operate. Alfie Kohn is a schoolman. Ken Robinson was a schoolmen. Daniel Buck is a schoolman. Corey DeAngelis would be/is a keynote speaker at schoolmen week's proceedings as would Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

When I asked Matt Ryan, a conservative-leaning high school English teacher, his opinion on the word, he told me.

The word sends my antennas up as it is a word that has fallen out of fashion. So when I see it used, I reflexively question the unstated implications of the choice. While I find it hard to imagine a complimentary reading of the term, I try to assume a playful—not a malicious—tone. Ultimately, though, I don’t imagine it to be very helpful if the objective is to persuade. Reminds me a bit of another term I’ve seen: “EduBro”

Matt and I disagree vehemently about many, many things and have had extended conversations on Twitter. We've blocked and unblocked each a few times and allow me to reiterate, do not agree on a whole bunch. I reached out to 5 people who've blocked me on Twitter and/or I've disagreed with vehemently and vice versa. Four of them, I would classify as schoolmen (even one who is a woman), Matt, I would not. Mostly because he's a practicing teacher but also, he expressed an interest in being persuaded.

Schoolmen do not look to be persuaded — they seek to persuade. They do not wonder (at least in public) — they know. They are right and you are wrong. They sit outside teaching and learning and have little interest in what the teachers — the women on the inside — have to say. I'll be returning to the idea of schoolmen in the future, including why I think it's a useful term to use and how it helps/hurts.

My questions to Matt are below in bold. We talked about discourse, a dude who called me a bitch, and the classroom as a political space. Thanks again for reading.

You recently said you don’t separate the message from the messenger and I am baffled by that concept. If I didn’t do that, I couldn’t take anything some schoolmen, especially the conservative ones, say or write seriously because every time I’d pick up one of their books, I’d keep hearing, “this man doesn’t think women are capable of knowing if an abortion is right for them,” or variations on a theme. So, I have to explicitly coach myself to read the words on the page as separate from the things I know the author has said or done. The challenge in EduDiscourse is there are a few schoolmen who hold fairly anti-woman views but offer solid educational views worth considering. I appreciate that you likely see their opinions differently and that’s for a different newsletter. I’m interested in poking at that message/messenger issue and getting your perspective.

Asking how/why you do it, I think, is an interesting question but not really applicable to helping us think about discourse around K-12 education. I think what may be more helpful in terms of “the discourse” is understanding what it means when you say you don’t separate the message from the messenger. What does that mean, functionally-speaking in terms of how you engage with others?

Good question. With nonfiction, I don’t separate the message from the messenger because it is my understanding that the speaker in a nonfiction piece is the author. What this means functionally is that I recognize that I cannot consider what the individual says or writes without considering their other beliefs. So if I generally disagree with the individual, I understand that I approach their thoughts from a more skeptical perspective. It also means I will likely be more guarded in my discourse.

I suspect you weren’t the first to use it but I think I’m pretty safe saying you’re a fan of the phrase “Twitter scolds.” Would you mind saying more about who you use that phrase to describe and what you see as their impact on discourse? 

Actually, I think I might have coined the phrase “EduScold.” I use the phrase to describe those whom I believe actively seek to read the worst intentions in others and use every opportunity to publicly shame them with several purposes in mind: to diminish the other; to announce themselves as one of the good folks; to strengthen their circle; and to silence others who are watching. EduScolds often encourage pile-ons, and very, very few desire to be the one taking the blows.

Given that definition, doesn’t a tweet like this make you an EduScold? That is, it seems like you’re reading the worst intentions, seeking to shame, to announce yourself as a good one, strengthen your circle (as evidenced by the replies), and perhaps seek to silence others. 

Had I quote-tweeted, screenshot, or named individuals, I would likely be guilty of eduscolding. But I am, in fact, not interested at all in identifying these folks. I also risked putting off some people I regularly interact with who clearly hold a different opinion on this issue.

Gotcha. So out of curiosity, in your opinion, what’s going on here? Two EduScolds going at each other? 

It’s hard to tell. I know, I know; an unsatisfying answer. But what I appreciate is that you’re pushing me to clearly define a term that I coined and am comfortable using. And, admittedly, it ain’t easy! There seems to have been some extended dialogue between the two before one took to quote-tweeting. So I’m not sure either was actively reading the worst intentions in the other. Most EduScold don’t engage with their targets. As I tweeted to you once, “You're not an EduScold because you always engage and share your position instead of just offering judgment.”

Thanks - we'll get into my status as an EduScold in a bit! We disagree on the nature of the classroom of a political space. I’ve seen you repeat students have no idea of your partisan affiliation and each time I notice it, I think, “you’re a middle-aged white guy who teaches in a Catholic school. You participate in The March for Life. People have a starting point for some of your politics.” It’s the same mechanism that leads Libs of TikTok and those that help her look for teachers with blue hair. To be sure, assumptions are often wrong and people are always more complex than a single identity. We are not our political affiliation. I’m curious where you see the line in the classroom. That is, if a teacher insists on using the name on the roster instead of the child’s preferred name, is that being “political”? Or conversely, if a student says to a teacher, “hey, mind calling me E instead of Elizabeth?” is the teacher being political if they consent? 

I’m not sure this is a starting point though. In my limited experience, the middle-aged white guy teachers I know--in Catholic schools and public schools--don’t share my political beliefs. Since I began teaching in 1999, my interactions with my colleagues have me believing that I’m in a solid minority when it comes to my political views. I also define “political” in a way that is much narrower than most. Political means relating to governmental affairs and officials. Religion is not politics. Aesthetics and science aren’t politics. To answer both of your specific questions, I would say that neither teacher is being political. In my classroom, I don’t want my students to know how I would define my political ideology or who I vote for. 

My hunch is that some of difference in how we see the world is tied up in communication. I’ve read some of the work from researchers like Danna Goldthwaite Young, about the differences in how liberals and conservatives communicate; basically, we use the same words but we’re not speaking the same language. My question and your answer about political classrooms is a great example of that. So, if I may, I’d like to ask it in a slightly different way. Teacher A is conservative while Teacher B is liberal. A non-binary student approaches them and says, “mind calling me E instead of Elizabeth.” Assuming there’s no district policy on the matter, Teacher A would be, in effect, revealing their politics if they refuse. If A asked you for advice, what advice would you give A? 

I would tell Teacher A to call the student what they asked to be called. This seems like a basic rule of respect. Added more here: I guess I would ask if you think the decision to call the student “E” would necessarily reveal anything about either teacher’s politics?

I would hope any teacher would see it as such. The challenge is that not all do. The silencing of those who hold wrong opinions, I assume, is connected to your thinking about “meanness” on social media. You shared with Kory that such tweets are a way for you to cope with pile-ups, which I totally get. One thing I’m struck by though is when someone tweeted this at me - and you were tagged on the tweet - you didn’t say anything to him. We had an exchange in DMs about it so perhaps you reached out to him privately (but I suspect not as the tweets are still up.) I’m wondering about that disconnect. It’s clear you’re bothered by meanness on social media but when it happened in your mentions, you didn’t say anything. Do you see yourself as more of a passive observer of behavior on Twitter? 

To be honest, I’m not sure why I didn’t say anything. It may be because we chatted about it in DMs. I also think the aggressiveness of the tweets shocked me. But I may have been wrong to not have said anything. If so, I am sorry.

I appreciate that. Funny enough, I reached out to five men in education with whom I’ve had exchanges on Twitter. You’re the only one who not only agreed, who even bothered to respond. So thank you for that. Out of curiosity, what do you see as advantages to the current level of discourse around teachers and teaching? Disadvantages?

The advantage is that there is more transparency. Given the platform of social media, we can now openly see a lot of what teachers are promoting and what is going on in classrooms. The disadvantages? At the top of my list would be the spreading of misinformation and the targeting and silencing of those who hold the wrong positions. Too often we assume the worst intentions. And too many are governed by the flawed philosophy that impact is always more important than intent.

Despite those flaws, you’ve remained on Twitter/X to run #CanonChat. Talking about a text, I’d imagine, offers a number of benefits over talking about people, politics, school, etc. What are you hopes for #CanonChat? 

To the best of my recollection, this project grew out of my #DefendTheCanon tweets that I would regularly share. In the early days of COVID, like many others, I had more time to fill and I thought that the best way to defend the canon was to encourage others to read these great works and share their interpretations for others to see. My hope is to challenge the flawed beliefs I often see about canonical works: they’re only written by Dead White Men; they’re outdated and don’t speak to contemporary audiences; they’re narrowly focused and aren’t universal. And I hope that #CanonChat may encourage a few teachers to keep teaching classic texts or to add more of them to their curriculums.

When asked about where to make a donation in gratitude for his time, Matt demurred. So, in honor of his time, I'm going to make another donation to Stich Buffalo. Thanks, Matt.