Neutrality Won’t Work

A middle school history teacher reflects on how neutrality won’t work in the face of bigotry, xenophobia and fearmongering—and what that means for his classroom practice.  

Two weeks out from Election Day, many teachers continue to grapple with how to help our students—and ourselves—understand the election results through our schools’ values. And for those educators who, like me, are imagining how to continue to teach for social justice, it is clear that we will need to work harder than ever to cultivate values of empathy and inclusion.

At my school, my colleagues and I have continually returned to the idea that the challenge before us is not new. It is certainly different and, in the immediate aftermath of the election, feels graver than ever. The rise of hate crimes across the nation suggests an emboldened extremism; white nationalism is becoming mainstream, and many Americans find themselves stuck in echo chambers and trying to navigate news outlets practicing dangerous false equivalence.

It’s hard not to interpret the election results and the cabinet appointments that followed as a rebuke to the values of respect, inclusion and empathy. Ideas previously considered outside of accepted norms have now been mainstreamed and normalized—and teachers committed to social justice will need to be more willing to take a stand against those ideas. Neutrality won’t work in the face of bigotry, xenophobia and fearmongering; objectivity doesn’t mean abandoning one’s values.

I previously wrote in TT’s magazine about the dangers of adopting a position of neutrality in the classroom. I explained, “My ambition is for students in my class to want to make change and to develop strong moral views—which means we teachers can’t pretend that we don’t have them.” The current political moment calls for a more full-throated defense of the values of tolerance and respect, lest we allow the creeping normalization of intolerance to continue. As John Palfrey, the head of school at Andover Academy in Massachusetts, put it, “[T]here must be a point at which the tolerant are allowed to be intolerant of those who are intolerant.” Palfrey locates that point at the moment when the world makes it challenging to “value all our students and their well-being equally.”

Again, that’s not a new phenomenon, but as countless stories from teachers and students attest, this election has made it even more challenging for many students to feel safe and valued. Our responsibilities to provide a safe environment for learning, growth and moral development have been elevated by the times. I’m not arguing for brainwashing or proselytizing in the classroom, even though some of the less charitable responses to students who publically speak out about safety concerns suggest that educators are guilty of such behaviors. For added irony, some of these same reactions include long lists of things teachers “should tell the students to think” instead. We have an even greater responsibility now for creating the conditions for all students to feel safe to learn and grow and to become better thinkers.

There is a wide space between passive accommodation of all views and policing students’ thinking, and it is in that space that students can forge their moral viewpoints. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t define the boundaries of that space. Indeed, in the current political moment, students need more than ever to know where their teachers stand. They look to us for moral guidance, and they need us to help them understand what is happening in the world. I have long argued that teachers shouldn’t hide our opinions but rather help students practice the kind of thinking, reflection and constant scrutiny that we ourselves have used to determine our understandings of the world. The present moment requires even more of this sort of practice.

Moreover, while developing values is important, cultivating behaviors and habits will be even more vital in meeting the challenges of this new era in U.S. history. Students will need even more guidance in seeing the connections between their thoughts and actions, in grasping the importance of upstanding and activism, and in understanding their civic duties and responsibilities. And despite the results of the election, the shifting demographics of the country will require future citizens to be more skilled at navigating difference and understanding others. The time to forge the values needed to meet this opportunity is now, when those values are most under siege.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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