• Jonathan

Talking Politics - 4

Continuing from where we left off, given how much I instinctively disagree with the idea of legislating what can be discussed in the classroom, it would have been easy to simply dismiss the whole idea out of hand, possibly expressing my contempt for the person who proposed such legislation in the first place. Given how many people with whom I interact personally and professionally are equally opposed to limiting what teachers are allowed to do, such a dismissal would very likely have been met with normative approval by those around me.

But by engaging with the proposal to limit classroom discussion, rather than dismissing it, I ended up with reasons to reject the argument behind that proposal (in this case, that the proposed ban was based on anecdotal information that might not represent a problem big enough to require such a drastic “solution”).

The search for reasons allowed me to discover things I might not have learned had I simply followed my instincts to dismiss the entire debate as ludicrous or cast the person who started it as a reactionary with no idea of what teachers do or need. For example, I might have missed the fact that the person behind the proposed legislation has served on a local school committee, a position that likely provided him perspective on schools, teachers, parents and students that most of us (including critics who have never volunteered to work on such a committee) lack.

The quest for reasons also opened up further avenues of inquiry, some of them potentially leading to solutions to genuine problems. For example, the politicization of the classroom might actually be a problem, even if there is not enough evidence to indicate it is widespread. But controversy surrounding discussion of charged issues might come from more than one source.

For example, teachers might not be adequately trained to lead classroom discussions, especially ones that involve heated current affairs. This could lead to a problem that is the opposite of what we have been discussing (teachers avoiding discussing of important matters out of fear of generating controversy).

At the same time, given that America’s teaching force includes over three million men and women, it is not far fetched to assume that many of them have beliefs they hold dear, that a subset of this group might not know where to draw the line between teaching kids how to think vs. what to think, and that a small subset of that subset might intentionally abuse their position of authority to indoctrinate the young.

If this is the case (and further research would have to be done to confirm these suppositions), solutions might include better training for all teachers on how to facilitate productive conversations, as well as specific training for teachers in subjects like social studies whose subject matter intersects with politics. In situations where teachers cross the line into proselytizing vs. educating, administrative remedies or appeals to professional standards might be a better solution than blanket banning of classroom conversation about certain topics.

The intellectual virtue of keeping an open mind to opposing ideas is frequently criticized based on some ideas being so ridiculous or odious that they do not deserve to be engaged with (summed up in the phrase that “you shouldn’t be so open minded that your brain falls out”). But open mindedness does not require you to treat all ideas as having equal merit and even provides room to reject some ideas (like crank race theories or proposals for perpetual motion machines) without further reflection. That said, open mindedness also requires you to not lump every idea you disagree with into the same realm as fanciful conspiracy theories.

Notice also that in this particular case study, I ended up rejecting the argument that I instinctively disagreed with but did so based on more than just my emotional dislike of it. Taking the argument seriously provided me an opportunity to take it apart more effectively, providing stronger support for others to reject it as well.

More importantly, the process of thinking critically about difficult issues in education provides a pathway towards identifying actual (vs. imagined or overblown) problems and finding effective ways to make things better in the future, rather than just complain about how they are in the present.