Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality
Speaking with modesty and restraint doesn’t mean avoiding debate or controversy.
By John P. N. Austin
Across the country, schools are seeing increasing levels of strife on campus. Frustration with responses to the pandemic has combined with rising levels of partisan rancor and political polarization to divide and fracture school communities. From independent organizations demanding overhauls to history, social studies, and language arts curricula, to proposed state and federal legislation banning the teaching of “divisive topics,” to well-organized parent groups mobilizing to combat what they view as political “indoctrination” in the classroom, there seems almost no aspect of schooling that has not become the subject of furious controversy.
With intensified conflict and attention on schools have come increasingly frequent calls for educational leaders to speak on issues of public concern. And not simply speak, but take forceful, unambiguous, and public stands, using the full weight of their position and authority. Over my relatively short time as head of school at Deerfield Academy, a position I have held since July of 2019, I've been asked to comment on any number of national and global events: mass shootings, the killing of George Floyd, protests against police violence, immigration policy, racist incidents at other schools and colleges, the 2020 election, and the storming of the Capitol on January 6, among others. Yet, with few exceptions, I have refrained from comment. Sometimes, I have come to believe, a studied, principled restraint is the best, and most appropriate, stance to take.
Deerfield is a diverse school with students from 36 states and 45 countries, and I recognize that many events beyond the boundaries of campus touch the lives of our students and their families—from protests for democratic reform in Hong Kong to calls for racial and economic justice here in the United States to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some students may be disappointed that their head of school has recused himself from commenting on issues of such profound importance. And I don’t like disappointing students. But in doing so, I hope I am empowering them—encouraging their independence of thought, creating a space of inquiry where they can discover their own views, and, most importantly, protecting their civic agency.
In the end, it's not my voice that really matters, it's theirs. In fact, my voice—and the platform I can claim as a head of school—can inhibit and constrain student agency. My view is that school leaders should speak with modesty and restraint on matters of public concern and assume a position of principled neutrality, recognizing that the public stands we take as educational leaders can inadvertently chill expression and narrow the range of conversation on campus.
This kind of political neutrality does not mean educational leaders must remain neutral when it comes to values. In fact, when I speak as head of school, I do so in a way that affirms our school’s most important principles: civility, a commitment to disciplined inquiry, human dignity, kindness, and respect. But I believe schools can uphold values that support a kind, curious, and inclusive community free from attitudinal racism, harassment, and discrimination, without endorsing a particular political program or philosophy.
These assumptions should inform not only school administrators but teachers as well. K-12 students are just beginning their journey as scholars and are uniquely susceptible to what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” For that reason, teachers need to recognize their influence and power over students. To cultivate exploration, intellectual agency, and independent thought among students, teachers should also strive for pedagogical neutrality.
Such neutrality, however, does not mean that teachers need to avoid controversy or debate. To the contrary, just as we strive for pedagogical neutrality, so too should we embrace controversy in the classroom, and practice what I would call “argument-inclusiveness.” This means avoiding, as much as possible, simplistic and singular curricular narratives. Rather, teachers should approach teaching and learning as a great conversation—a conversation that both stages and supports student debate and contestation.
Important conversations should be presented to our students as such. Here are four ways that teachers can approach classroom conversations in ways that support and encourage the practice of argument-inclusiveness:
Incorporate Rival Thinkers
In his essay “Pluralism in the Classroom,” the scholar and critic Wayne Booth describes what he calls a “rival thinkers” approach. He advises teachers to include texts and positions that rival or even reject their own particular perspective. This means including debate in the very design of school curricula so students can see how scholars, philosophers, and public intellectuals disagree with one another and why. Does the 1619 Project have a place in our classrooms? Of course. But we should also teach the arguments of those who have questioned its evidence and reasoning. Should “anti-racism” be taught? Absolutely. But teach that body of thought inclusively for what it is—a rich interplay of argument and counter-argument about the quest for racial justice—by placing disparate and divergent thinkers into conversation with one another.
Students can, for example, learn a great deal about racism, systemic oppression, and the search for identity, among other important themes, from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ widely assigned and National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me; they can also learn from thoughtful critics such as author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who coordinated the now-infamous Harper’s Magazine Letter on Justice and Open Debate, and Columbia University Professor John McWhorter, who just last year published Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. So, too, can students learn from the organic conversations that follow these assignments.
Psychologists have increased our awareness of the many forms of cognitive biases—motivated reasoning, in-group/out-group favoritism, and identity-protective cognition, among others—that obstruct clear thinking and judgment. Journalists have developed and employ practices that mitigate bias, such as fact-checking, the use of multiple sources, and a commitment to non-partisanship. Similarly, teachers and researchers have identified and utilize effective instructional practices to support open, pluralistic classrooms. These include how to sort live questions from settled ones and thereby avoid the trap of “both-siderism;” how to “debate-ify” and “academicize” static curriculum and thoughtfully include controversy by highlighting different perspectives; and when, if ever, it is appropriate for teachers to share with students their own political positions.
The award-winning book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, co-authored by Diana Hess, Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, and her colleague and educational researcher Paula McAvoy, offers helpful and engaging protocols for selecting and framing political issues—including recommendations for how teachers might even begin to think about creating a “political classroom.” These protocols are particularly insightful given the very real challenges presented by political polarization and social inequality—with topics and examples as varied as torture, immigration, and same-sex marriage, and recommended approaches to each.
Teach and Model Norms of Civility
In an age when so much public argument is ugly, toxic, and disparaging, we need to cultivate standards of discussion that elevate classroom conversation beyond the sloganizing of social media, the 280-character limit of Twitter, and the noise of the digital news cycle. To that end, we should seek to establish school-wide norms for civility and discussion; provide students with the philosophical depth and historical context necessary for the discussion of contemporary issues; and model thoughtful, responsible, open debate. Our classroom practices should be countercultural—embracing civility, rigor, complexity of thought, and intellectual humility.
Create the Conditions for Intellectual Adventurousness
And finally, our students should be intellectually adventurous and bold. We should remain appropriately skeptical of well-intentioned but illiberal practices that inhibit the asking of questions, discourage intellectual mistake-making, and chill inquiry. We should discourage the framing of the classroom as a therapeutic space or, as the president of Northwestern University recently warned, as a venue for “identifying and exposing intellectual heretics;” the over-privileging of emotion and personal experience at the expense of the common languages of analysis, reason, and argument; and administrative overreach in the policing of everyday mistakes in speech.
By following these principles, we can encourage students to engage with complicating views and to consider alternative arguments. We can foster their willingness to change their minds as evidence dictates and to recognize the limits of their own knowledge. These qualities of mind are the proper goal of a high school education. And they remain the mark of a mature intellect.
In my experience, students crave intellectually-inclusive classrooms because they provide the most exciting and engaging way to learn. And an intellectually-inclusive education is the best preparation we can provide students for university, for the intellectual flexibility required for professional success, and for a life of deep and sustained civic engagement.
Dr. John P.N. Austin is head of school at Deerfield Academy, an independent school founded in 1797 in Deerfield, Massachusetts.