We should be taught about uncomfortable ideas, how it is here
How can we identify ideologically ideal principles to help foster a culture of dialogue?
In my 15 years as a K-12 teacher, I seldom ran the risk of getting into trouble for what or how I taught myself. Maybe I was lucky but it wasn’t because I avoided topics and discussions that could be ‘canceled’ today.
Sometimes I wonder how it would play out differently if I could teach it that way today. It seems undeniable that today’s students, parents, school leaders and political leaders may be more responsive and sensitive to challenging material, ideas, language and practice or activity. What used to be fairly common is now expected to be a trigger to avoid fear of controversy and protests.
Undoubtedly some practices of the past are worthy of such scrutiny but have we created a culture that rejects fruitful conversations for fear of harm and / or avoidance of controversy which can somehow be ‘canceled’? I think so but it doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, I think it is our duty to engage our students in topics and conversations that may be uncomfortable, but we must do so in a way that is not driven by norms but guided by liberal science principles that make the United States exceptional. When its the best.
I initially taught regular education, social studies, secondary and then special education at the middle school level, behavior disorder students to be specific before going to high school for the last 11 years. 2012 was the last year in my classroom and I was teaching 9th grade students AP Psychology, General Psychology, and Integrated Social Studies (Gov / Econ / Geography).
Teaching History and Government I regularly invite my students to engage with topics and experiences ranging from the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Holocaust and D-Day, to various wars and revolutions and the civil rights movement known as Justice. It was not uncommon for me to present uncomfortable things in learning about all these things and in reality it was sometimes clearly designed to create discomfort. I believe in the power of learning through inquiry and sometimes a great way to encourage important questions and thoughts is through the elements of cognitive inconsistency.
In U.S. history, we’ve seen scenes from Saving Private Ryan to Omaha Beach, as well as a significant portion of Holocaust documentary footage, Memory of the Camp, in which naked detainees were occasionally thrown alive and others were found dead and bulldozed. The era of civil rights has, of course, brought with it a lot of difficult questions and information about racism, past and present implications, which I have never been ashamed of. I would probably like to use a more ‘controversial’ concept if I could re-teach that content 1619 The central question of the project Or Such is the statement of Abram X CandyNot because I like debate but because it is a powerful way to engage with the content and determine what is true.
In my psychology class, I usually asked students to learn and fight about mental disorders (including cases where homosexuality was once considered one), masculinity, femininity, and sexuality through the lens of sex, and to combat them, and to encourage research. The possibility of historical racism on the field, including being asked to give a chit-chat test. Much of this content challenged my students who live in our rural, politically conservative and significantly Christian cities.
Why am I able to teach these potentially dangerous topics and ideas without much hassle? Of course times were different and this was a factor but I would like to emphasize that the cascading rules of conversation using trying to stay true to the liberal science norms and using the position of investigation helped immensely.
What is liberal science?
Because there are some who will immediately and unknowingly stop because of the word ‘liberal’. I want to find a good word, but liberal science should not be confused with liberal politics or the American Democratic Party. Indeed, liberal science is consistent with and incredibly based on the ideals and foundations of our democracy that traditionally conservative and Republican people also support. Just as patriotism does not belong to the ‘right’, so too liberal science does not belong to the ‘left’. Sadly, our recent cultural shift from this ideology has put that democracy at great risk.
In short, liberal science is an open and continuous process by which the impersonal check of truth is sought by anyone and everyone. The following is an acknowledgment that no individual or group receives a final statement about which is true or protected from criticism. To delve deeper into liberal science, I urge you to read the work of Jonathan Rauch. His 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, and the 2021 The Constitution of Knowledge have skillfully described the concept.
“Just as checks and balances make the US Constitution both stable and adaptable, so does public testing of knowledge make the Constitution both stable and adaptable.” -P93 Constitution of Knowledge
What is a culture of conversation?
A culture of conversation, especially in our school, helps us navigate the complexities of difficult and often divisive topics. It facilitates the teaching and learning of research with relevant content and knowledge that helps to discover the truth rather than strengthening ideologies and beliefs.
A culture of conversation that is consistent with liberal science includes its features:
- Respect for dissent and cognitive humility
- To cultivate comfort with discomfort inclined towards curiosity
- Encouraging autonomy, especially in resolving disputes
- Be aware of cognitive distortions to avoid them
- Creating resilience and rejecting prey
- Prevents labels and small circles, instead drawing large, more inclusive circles
- Practice the arguments of steel-manning and even star-manning
- Recognition of “3 great untruths”
- What doesn’t kill you makes you weak
- Always trust your feelings
- Life is a battle between good people and bad people
K-12 education serves many purposes and one of them is to help children develop into productive and happy adults. Part of that is being an active and conscious citizen that demands our democracy. Far from perfect, our country’s system depends on believing actors and the possibility of dissent.
Our schools need to engage in liberal science through a culture of conversation in order to address the threat of instinct and to recognize and count the ugly violations of our democratic ideals. Something different brings us closer to orthodoxy and authoritarianism that knows no boundaries of bias.
We cannot bury our heads in the sand and avoid controversial issues. Instead our schools and educators need to redouble our efforts to engage in the democratic ideals that bring out the best in us and marginalize anyone who wants to teach and shut down ideas and thoughts that are inconsistent with their orthodoxy.