Teaching Lessons

Question Authority, Whatever the Cost

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By Richard Just

April 4, 2016


 

I had extremely, perhaps excessively, contrarian instincts as a high school student—and at my school newspaper, I found my home. The paper, with its constant attacks on administrators, teachers, and school board members, took pride in pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable.

This was possible because of our adviser, an English teacher named Joan Goodman, whom everyone called JG. Here’s how JG operated: When, early in my year as editor-in-chief, she found out that the school librarian had reprimanded me for publishing critical articles about the library, she took me to the librarian’s office—and proceeded to turn the tables by reprimanding her for bullying a student editor without the newspaper adviser present. JG’s message was clear: She would always fight for our ability to question authority. And she did so even at the risk of her own relationships with colleagues.

Among all the editors and owners I’ve worked for since, nobody believed in the freedom of the press as purely as she did. It’s easy to promote an ethos of anti-authoritarianism when it aligns with your interests, and much tougher when it doesn’t. In my own stints as a teacher and editor, I’ve often been far from perfect in accepting resistance and dissent. But JG defended and modeled this principle unconditionally. In a world that often suffers—in big ways and small—from a surfeit of power run amok, I wish there were more anti-authoritarian authority figures like JG.

JG and I have remained in touch over the years. Since 2013, she has been battling cancer. As she’s endured chemotherapy, she’s emailed regular dispatches to a list of family and friends. In them, she writes about her treatments but also about the details of her days—everything from spending time with her grandkids to singing at church events. The emails are the chronicle of someone who is making the most of every moment; they have been, for me, reminders that we all have the ability, and the obligation, to live with vigor and with hope. In her own way, JG is still teaching.


Richard Just is the former editor of National Journal magazine and The New Republic.


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