Machiavellian Student Voice

“It is necessary for the prince to have the friendship of the people; otherwise, he has no resources in time of adversity.” – Machiavelli in The Prince



Picket signs held high into the glimmering sunshine shouted, “Fair pay, fewer hours!” and “Teachers work for YOUR kids!” Lined up in rows, the protesters chanted, “Our voice, our schools, teachers are no fools!” However, instead of seasoned older educators out walking the lines, these were middle and high school students working the rows.

One of the most popular ways I have heard teachers rebuke student voice is by saying they have no voice of their own, and that they cannot share with students what they don’t have themselves. Faced with deepening standardization throughout K-12 learning, they aren’t wrong, either. Much of the autonomy and innovation teachers had through the 1980s and 90s has been choked out of schools in the name of accountability, and teachers have routinely lost their abilities to make a difference in the curriculum they teach students everyday.

However, this does not mean that teachers have surrendered their ability and control within the average student’s learning experience. Instead, their locus of control has shifted from being in charge of learning and teaching to being classroom managers and teaching facilitators. Working from much more scripted curricula than any previous generation of educators, teachers today must focus on delivering those lesson plans. But they can do that through successful classroom management, effective teaching practices, and by establishing classroom cultures that are substantially different from their predecessors’ experiences.

Those cultures, that teaching, and that management is what can allow every classroom teacher the ability to foster Meaningful Student Involvement for every learner in their purview. While that might not equate to students being allowed to write curriculum or teach courses, that doesn’t mean that students should have to sit passively and simply receive the course of education without contributing to it themselves. It actually means the opposite: Since teachers must teach material they don’t feel responsible for, students themselves must have more opportunities to use their innate capacities to meet their own needs, the needs of their peers, and the needs of younger learners. That can happen through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Which brings me back to the teacher protest. I spoke with an educator recently who suggested that student voice is best heard on behalf of teachers, much like the protests where their teacher union had recently bused in students to picket. While a hundred teachers stood to the sides to watch, students overwhelmed the media with their chanting and flashy signs, and soon the union won new negotiations with the legislators who were threatening their livelihood.

This is an inherently tokenistic and belittling experience for all students, no matter who they are. This is because students:

  • Participate in classes where their voices are not part of the curricula
  • Experience “school improvement” that routinely neglects their capacity to contribute to change-making throughout education
  • Get measured according to standards they had no role in selecting
  • Attend buildings their taxes helped build without them having any role in choosing how to spend them
  • Are subjected to decision-making by elected officials who they couldn’t vote for
  • and so-forth

I fully support unions and advocate for their role in our democratic economy. I believe teacher unions serve a vital function within the education arena, and stand with them frequently. 


However, that does not give unions or teachers (or anyone else for that matter) the right to tokenize students and call that tokenism meaningful involvement. That is plainly corrupt. This Machiavellian approach to student voice is demeaning and dehumanizing, and ultimately serves to reinforce the ideology of education administrators and politicians who would label teachers and unfair, inept, or unsuitable for their jobs in order to undercut the hard-earned stature of their profession. Worst still, there are teachers who routinely cull favor among students not because they actually like or support them, but simply for the possibility they’ll “need to use them given the occasion arises.” (An actual anonymous quote from a teacher evaluation of a recent workshop I facilitated.)

Ethical educators are bound to resist any attempt to demean, belittle, or betray students, much as they are to do the same when their positions are attacked. Upholding the tenets of Meaningful Student Involvement will do nothing but strengthen the roles of teachers throughout education as we radically re-envision the possibilities, functions, and operations of public schools in our democratic society. Anything less is giving into the hegemonic approach of authoritariansim, adultism, and corporatism that is destroying our schools today.

2 comments

  1. Wow, that's a pretty *interesting* use of 'student voice'. I haven't heard of students being bused in to protest on behalf of teachers before. There are an increasing number of cases in the UK where students, parents and teachers are protesting together against changes to school structures, but from what I know of these student involvement has been voluntary and genuine.

    We have a similar issue with teachers feeling disempowered here in the UK and using that as an explanation or reason for not supporting meaningful student voice. It's a very difficult one to overcome, but it goes to the heart of how you create genuine student voice, which is by changing the culture of the school, so the whole place is more collaborative and less hierarchical. Projects which are an add-on to the core business of the school will always struggle to make an impact.

    To attempt to overcome this we encourage those staff and students involved in these add-on projects to take a different view of 'Machiavellian student voice': we help them to apply upward pressure to change the culture of the school. From what I've seen of your work, Adam, I'm sure you do something similar. We make it very public who is doing what, the impact it's having and implying what the blockages are. All of this is done in a positive way, but it creates a gentle pressure on those staff not getting involved (and those actively blocking).

    1. If "interesting" is a code word for "that sucks", then I'll agree. Its a discouraging usage Asher, that I'll say. I'm afraid I have to elaborate on these misuses more though…

      And yes, upward pressure is the ally point for maintaining the success of this work within the system, I agree with that. Especially if by "pressure" we're alluding to the pressure of efficacy. The shear successes of meaningful involvement, when true to form, are almost irrefutable, if we're actually talking about effectiveness in terms of academic achievement.

      Unfortunately, its my experience in schools that the "effectiveness" that an influential minority of educators seek isn't academic insomuch as its control. Which leads us back to this unfortunate pattern of Machiavellianism.

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