Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Place of Teachers in this Mess

Once, about twenty years ago, when I was talking about teaching both sides of the climate change debate in the classroom, a colleague told me, "There's just one side; the right side." I admired her chutzpa, but I silently disagreed. We have to raise both sides and scrutinize them both if we want to adequately address the issue. More recently, a student told me that he had been very alt-right until a supply teacher took him aside and explained to him the errors of his ways. That discussion left me remorseful for the number of times a student said something leaning that way, and I pussy-footed around the issue, trying to subtly sway their view, and typically failing. If a neo-Nazi happened to be in my class, I'd likely call his ideas interesting and question some premises, but never outright condemn them. That might harm their self-esteem!

Some teachers won't share an opinion on any politician, even Trump, because that's not our place.

I taught with the foundational concepts of balance and inclusivity as my guide, with my biggest concern being seen as biased. I'm beginning to think that's a mistake.

Teachers aren't journalists, though, but what is our place?

The stakes are too high. Teachers have an obligation to teach the right path to take out of this mess.

A few people complain about all the leftists in the education system, warping young minds. I seem to have missed that phenomenon. But maybe it's not such a bad idea.


Marie Snyder said...

A comment by email: I also regret the years of biting my tongue so I could appear reasonable I had an epiphany when my sister passed away and had to field all the cruel and downright silly ideas people had about cancer. She had to tolerate suggested cures that had been firmly debunked for years...everything from being told to drink bleach to culoid silver and crystals. No I do not tolerate any form of misinformation and always take the perpetrators to task- I am less popular but at least I'm now more sane.

My response: I experienced the same thing with "helpful" tips about cancer cures, and I regularly get these kinds of claims in class about the benefits of naturopathy over meds since of course all doctors are sucked into a Big Pharma scam (but naturopaths apparently are all flawless in their intentions). They love a good conspiracy! As a teacher, I don't want to crush them, but I'm done protecting them from their own weakly supported claims. We have to develop firm solidarity on climate change reality if we hope to eek out a few more generations!

Lorne said...

I think one of the most important skills a teacher can impart, or at least help to develop, is critical-thinking. Within that context, one has to include the other side of an argument, no matter how fatuous that might be, and then help the students analyse it for its inherent weaknesses and offences to logic.

Owen Gray said...

I left Montreal to get my education degree in North Carolina, Marie. There were a few patron saints at the School of Education at UNC. One of them was Thomas Jefferson -- who was never nuetral -- but who believed deeply in public debate as an instrument of public education.

Marie Snyder said...

@ Lorne,
Absolutely we need to teach critical thinking and acknowledge the stacks of evidence of anthropogenic climate change weighed against a few corporate-sponsored studies on the other, and we need to show the problem with scapegoating one group of people for the benefit of the whole, but I don't think we need to acknowledge a right to hold beliefs that are 'just my opinion' yet horribly mistaken or harmful under the guise of intellectual skepticism or protection of a student's burgeoning sense of self. I've often let claims go in my class around, to use the example offered by email above, homeopathic remedies to cure cancer. I just say nothing, or, at most, ask for some sources, and then move on rather than stop and correct the line of reasoning. It often feels oddly impolite to destroy a 15-year-old's worldview. And it's a bigger issue when parents are also of that mindset and don't want teachers saying otherwise. And it's really hard to justify having that conversation when it's not in the curriculum and we don't really have the time to get into this (because the curriculum is packed). I have been erring on the side of saving their image in the classroom at the expense of the class's collective knowledge, and I'm left to wonder how many have been led astray by my refusal to refute a claim?

Marie Snyder said...

We easily debate the issues that have less to do with our current lives. We have a lively debate on the ethics of incest, for example. It's harder to debate issues that are going to affect us so dramatically. I think it was just a year ago that a student demanded that I don't speak of climate change because it's too upsetting to him. I've had others say I can't talk about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for the same reason. Since neither are directly in my curriculum documents, students could take it higher to make sure I don't discuss them in class. At this point in the educational climate, it sometimes feels like an act of activism to discuss world issue! And then it's yet another step to express an open opinion on them.