Speaking with modesty and restraint doesn’t mean avoiding debate or controversy.
Thank you for this article. As an educator, I've come to recognize humility as the most important quality in a teacher. Humility to recognize that every book you assign is, in some way, incomplete, wrong, or imperfect. We all have the ability to learn from the great philosophical conversation that is the legacy of all humans, as it stretches across our entire written history. We can witness big shifts, such as the one brought to us by Copernicus, and subtle refinements in highly technical fields. And, we can approach those who came before us with the humility that comes from knowing that our ideas too will be refined and improved upon by those not yet born.
Your article really gets to the notion that educators should maintain that humility, and act as guides for students as they explore our great human conversation.
I think one of the strongest values or techniques we can use to help us do that is to remember the difference between teaching students that, for example, "Marx critiqued capitalism in the following ways," and "you should accept Marx's critiques of capitalism." If teachers can allow themselves to confine instruction to the former method, all sorts of exciting ideas, good, bad, and otherwise, can be explored in the classroom.
Want to teach Critical Race Theory? Sure, teach Cornel West, read Roy L. Brooks! Want to think about gender? Read Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir. Want to think about political economy? Read Marx and Adam Smith and JS Mill.
What we mustn't do is insist that any of these thinkers have it right, that the matter they have concerned themselves with is settled. We also mustn't set about implementing the conclusions of a particular theory. We must avoid "discovering" that it is a moral imperative to be a Kantian, or Butlerian, or Marxist. In fact, we should help students discover there is weakness in deciding that any one person has it all figured out. Openness isn't just a value, it is a technology that facilitates human progress. It is a technology that we must keep alive in our students.
The title: "Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality" really says it all.
It begs the question: what is an educator's role? One would well expect the response to be: to teach, of course. Fair enough, but teach what?
Today, too many teachers (just like journalists) see their role as "Op-Educators". They want to be opinion-makers - not teachers. We have seen this in journalism where there are no longer 'beat reporters' -- there are only Op-Ed writers with some specifically designated as such and others labeled as 'news analysts'. A teacher's role should be to help students think critically so the student can work their way through life's difficult questions. It is not to teach students to parrot back pat answers and dogma. When that happens, the casualty is the ability to think critically in the pursuit of truth. But, in my opinion, too many of today's teachers believe they 'own' the truth, so they very much believe that their job is to ensure that students absorb the teacher's ready-made answers to life's complex questions and only see things this one way. Everything else is to be regarded as repulsive and not to be touched lest one become intellectually 'unclean.'
Dr. Austin's approach is definitely an important acknowledgement of that and a step in the right direction, but unless and until more people like Dr. Austin hold teachers, professors, counselors, etc. accountable for instructing students in critical thinking (vs. installing crying rooms where they can listen to their feelings, or spout dogma, or chant catchy slogans with fists clenched) the ability of students to make their own way in the world will continue to atrophy.
Yet my greatest fear is that disabling every student's critical thinking so they face a lifetime of dependence on others to form their opinions for them is the intended result.
Thank you so much for this, Dr. Austin. As a graduate of Deerfield, I'm pleased both to see you associating yourself with Persuasion and with your philosophy as head of school. We need more educators and administrators with your perspective.
Excellent. Reason lives.
As a graduate of Loomis Chaffee it pains me deeply to have to say that I really enjoyed this article and found much to agree with. I ceryainly hope the faculty and staff at LC adopt a similar attitude.
I think it is extremely important to have students see both sides of an argument or theory. Take CRT for instance. In what altered universe would we ever consider that a whole race of people, by virtue of their DNA, be considered morally defective? In a country that values equality of all, why would we then pursue preferred treatment over a specific group of people because either now or at one time they are considered as "oppressed". Who defines who is oppressed and why?
Why is it racist to question these theories?
The same can be said of the 1619 project. Even someone who is not an academic scholar of history can see that while slavery was certainly a presence in the early development and antebellum period of this country, it was not the over-riding theme of our desire to be freed from British rule.
Teaching students how to think, not what to think should be the goal of a good educator.
Since my comments at Persuasion tend to be critical (though always civil, or so I like to think), I'd like to echo all the other comments here in support of this essay.
I was very pleased to read this article by Dr. Austin!
What students need above all is to acquire the intellectual tools that will be useful to them throughout their lives so they can form their own opinions. The difficult process of acquiring these tools comes from the hard work of considering multiple sides of issues, learning how to walk in the shoes of others, all the while acknowledging the many biases to which all human beings are subject.
This concept of "Principled Neutrality" is a much appreciated position by those who desire the above described education for their children.
I am a parent of a current Deerfield student and an alum.