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Before I went to Hong Kong, people would ask me, “What about the protests?” and I almost always answered with “I hear you can avoid those.”

And that statement is absolutely true. The beauty of living in a pluralistic democracy is the freedom to avoid all things political if you so desire.

I spent a full week there and never saw the massive protests, except on the news channels. For all the news of violent protests, there was a sense in which you could easily spend time there and everything feels . . . normal. And yet, the protests were all around in subtle ways. On Monday, members of an apartment complex across from my hotel hung a banner that read, “Free speech. Free Hong Kong” in bold letters.

As I walked through the streets, I noticed a number of residents wearing American flags or Houston Rockets jerseys. I noticed the yellow ribbons tied around street poles to signify solidarity with the Occupy Hong Kong movement. At one moment, as we were eating dinner, both of the people I was with stopped.

“Can you believe they’re playing that?” one woman said.

“You mean the song from Les Mis?” I asked.

“It’s become a bit of a protest song,” she explained.

Suddenly, I noticed it everywhere. I heard “Do you hear the people sing?” at a bar and at a bodega and at a coffee shop. There’s a stirring example of students singing the song at the start of the school year over the Chinese national anthem.

Again, the protests were subtle but all around if you were paying attention.

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Democracy is Inconvenient

Before visiting Hong Kong, people asked me about it and I would answer, “It’s complicated and I honestly don’t know enough about this to have an opinion.”

This answer came from a place of recognizing my own bias and a desire to step aside and listen first before having an opinion. The truth is that it is complicated and messy and nuanced. I met people who supported democracy and believed in the movement but did not endorse some of the more violent methods of the protestors. Others said little about protestors and instead criticized the police for provoking them. Certain teachers told me that they were concerned about raising their kids in a Hong Kong where future freedom was uncertain but they also recognized that Hong Kong and China were connected through commerce and industry. Again, it wasn’t a matter of two sides and two perspectives. It was an issue of multiple perspectives and nuanced opinions.

But nuance can’t be an excuse for complacency. “It’s complicated” can’t be code for “let’s just ignore it.” I’ve listened to countless teachers talk about the slow evaporation of personal liberty. I’ve spent a week hearing people talk about due process, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The reality might be nuanced but there is still a sense of moral clarity. There’s no such thing as “both sides” here. Freedom is right. Authoritarianism is wrong.

It’s been heartbreaking to hear these stories. I’ve heard from teachers who work at Christian schools who are legitimately concerned that Beijing will crack down on their churches and their freedom to practice their faith. I met a former mainland China teacher whose parents were imprisoned in the 1980s for running an underground church. But I also met members of the LGBTQ community who are worried about a Beijing crackdown. These teachers are socially progressive and, truly, have very little in common with the previous teachers in Christian schools.

Except . . . they do. We all do. There is a human universal desire for freedom.

On Friday, a group of teachers were talking about the protests and the challenges that the protests pose to students who either support the protests or who are more pro-Beijing. The conversation was nuanced, with a discussion of supporting the ideas of democracy while disagreeing with the violence from both protestors and police. They talked openly about the challenges of running a school in the midst of the turmoil.

After the conversation, a teacher said, “People just want to go about with their lives and the protests are disruptive. The protests are really inconvenient. But democracy is inconvenient. Freedom is inconvenient.”

The Greater Goal of Education

I believe that schools should be bastions of creativity and wonder. I want to see students make and design and problem-solve. I want to see students learn how to curate information. I want to see them connect and collaborate with others. Note that these are all branded as “21st Century Skills” that students will need for the creative economy. I’ve even described the need for students to learn these skills as we shift from a corporate ladder to a maze.

However, the ultimate goal of education can never simply be attaining a better job. The maze isn’t simply a search for a better job. It’s also about building a better world. At it’s core, education should be about developing critical thinking citizens who will contribute to a democratic society. Collaboration is necessary for careers but it’s a critical idea for building a better future as a society. Yes, information literacy will help students in analytical jobs but it will also help them determine the accuracy and context of news stories.

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It’s true that empathy is important for design but it’s also vital for the future of democracy. I want students to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers but I also want them to solve social and political problems as well. I want students to make stuff but I also want them to make a difference.

I’m not referring to indoctrination. My goal is not to see students become progressive or conservative social activists but, instead, to engage in democratic dialogue and to see their role within the world.

So, what does this mean in each subject area? Here are a few ideas:

  • Math: Help students see that math is not socially neutral but instead is deeply rooted in our lived experiences. Help students develop statistical understanding and make sense out of how math can be manipulated with bias. In other words, encourage them to seek out examples of “bad graphs” that are deliberately used as propaganda. Help them think critically about research and statistics. Integrate mathematical reasoning into service-learning projects by having students do community needs assessments.
  • Language Arts: Help students deconstruct the social and political realities in the novels that they read. Have them engage in Socratic Seminars, not merely as a way to deconstruct a text, but as a way to engage in democratic dialogue. Teach them information literacy and media literacy. Find ways to break past the “filter bubbles” of social media by reading texts from multiple viewpoints. Our standards are content-neutral and topic-neutral, which means we have the opportunity to expose students to all kinds of texts that will provoke critical thinking. Create a citizen journalism unit where students create blogs, documentaries, and podcasts that capture the stories of their world.
  • Social Studies: Model democracy through simulations, debates, and mock trials. Help history come alive in a way that expresses multiple viewpoints and narrative strands. More importantly, start social studies earlier. Often, this subject is minimized with the incessant pressure of standardized tests.
  • Science: Help students learn scientific literacy. Encourage them to make a connection between scientific concepts and social and political realities. For example, climate change might feel distant and abstract. However, I met a teacher here in Salem, Oregon (where I live) who had students explore why we went an entire summer with no drinking water. By making sense out of the toxic algae and reviewing data of earlier ice pack melt, they could see how climate change impacted their lives. Note that they weren’t being explicitly political. Some students saw free-market solutions as the ultimate answer. Others wanted government intervention. But, importantly, they at least well-informed.
  • The Arts: Help students see the role of the arts in social movements. Allow them to see how expressing one’s voice and impact the rest of the world. I would have never guessed that a song from musical theater would become a protest anthem in Hong Kong but it’s a small example of the way art reflects and spurs social change.
  • Health: Incorporate ideas of civic engagement into lessons about personal decisions, goal-setting, etc. For example, health classes will often have a career exploration aspect but I think a democratic exploration is equally important. Instead of just “what do you want to be when you grow up?” we ought to ask “what do you want to change when you grow up?”
  • Foreign Languages: Include an element of cross-cultural dialogue and an exploration of the social and political realities of those contexts.
  • Technology: Help students think critically about technology and Big Data. Allow them to see how Apple essentially caved and deleted a Hong Kong protest app in order to appease an authoritarian government.

I realize that this is not an exhaustive list. In fact, I would encourage you to leave a comment at the bottom sharing how you see democracy in the classroom. Ultimately, too, we can play a critical role in our approach to classroom culture, instruction, and assessment. When we allow students to help set the norms, rules, and procedures, we model democracy for our students. When we empower them with voice and choice, we reinforce the values of personal liberty and free speech.


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Ricardo Abad says:

    Fantastic essay, Mr. Spencer! I know many teachers feel the same and do the best they can but need more courage and support to shape their teaching life.

  • Carol says:

    Love this article John. Would only change one word but respect that you placed it there for a reason. This is difficult, nuanced work friend. Keep at it.

  • Amy says:

    Great podcast episode! I really enjoyed it. I made some connections to Ted Dintersmith’s work, too.

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