I don’t hear much talk any more in education about “values clarification,” in which teachers are supposed to facilitate discussions around personal ethics, keeping strict neutrality and never advocating for any particular point of view. One can, however, still obtain plans for classroom activities which “emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions” (a direct quote, including emphasis, from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org). Thank divinity or non-divinity there are only opinions, and that although majority opinion rules, majority opinion can easily be manipulated so we can have some sort of progress, which is all we really need. And opinion can’t really hurt anyone, again thank divinity or non-divinity, or economic progress, or whatever.
So in Civics class, for example, we can teach kids how many reps and senators there are and how municipal, state and federal election campaigns and voting work, and encourage everyone to vote (whether they are informed or thoughtful or not). But if we see kids blindly following the voting preferences of their parents, or of their culturally accepted talk radio or news station, and bringing strong opinions into the classroom, we will make sure that “no one will be put down for having (by inheritance or cultural osmosis or guess-and-check, or whatever) a different value than others have.” Not put down, as in “You are stupid/ a redneck/ a flaming liberal” such phrases being always off the table in our schools, but also not, “You are wrong/ misguided/ misinformed/ short sighted,” etc. Who can say who’s wrong, when there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions?
Fortunately, history, social studies, sociology and civics teachers who as college students used to argue late into the night their political, social, ethical viewpoints have been transformed through a process of becoming paid a tax-derived salary into objective, impartial, value-free adults able to fairly facilitate the values clarification process in their students, if indeed they wish to touch on values at all. Leanings, if any, are toward the restoration of balance, which in our town involves emphasizing the contributions of indigenous, Arab and Muslim cultures, female perspectives, the LGBTQ community, and so on. Thank goodness for the big, benevolent edifice of curriculum designers, on whom we can rely to create learning materials that are values-free (other than a a value for domination of the market, which is tough when you can offend anyone but have an economy of scale. All the helpful advice from all the interest groups who indicate their objections to this or that type of angle or literary selections of images reminds these publishers on which side their bread is buttered.
I recently read a treatise by educational historian Diane Ravitch called The Language Police in which she traces the growth of self-censorship by curriculum and standardized test companies because of pressure from interest groups from all over the spectrum. Each of which have very valid points: Don’t portray women mainly in subservient positions. Don’t teach using texts that include violent or destructive behaviors. Don’t show the disabled as lacking abilities or needing assistance. No portrayal of people of color in prison or disadvantaged conditions. Equal numbers of able and disabled, whites and non-whites, males and females, and secular and religious dress in illustrations of extreme sports, professions, and all other situations (but go light on the LGBTQ for now, as the corporate cost outweighs the benefit still. Except nurses should mainly be male, doctors female and preferably of color, machine operators likewise. No lewd language, no stories in which parents and other authority figures are shown disrespect (or excessive respect, unless they are veterans or progressive-minded elders), no criticism of the American government or its actions throughout history, or portrayal of any attitude that may undermine American patriotism or a belief in the capitalist market economy. When it comes to literature, this essentially boils down to: no literature from before 1970 without revision and/or heavy commentary. And when it comes to appeasing groups with mostly irreconcilable differences, the resulting literary passages and historical accounts are so bland as to be ineffective for igniting any real interest or sense of identification with the characters of the story.
All districts, I believe, have some sort of policy relating to what constitutes acceptable curriculum. Our district commits to:
I’m not sure we came up with this after thorough discussion of our community’s needs, and vision, and the implications to the “elimination” clause–does “instructional materials” include literature from before 1970, for example, and will we be taking out our black markers on the rest, or just having a book sale and buying the specially selected and abridged color textbook versions from Pearson? No, the guideline is borrowed language—a web search makes that clear enough. But I suppose one is entitled to use one’s own interpretation of “bias,” and that professional discretion by teachers allows for the use of “biased” materials in an “unbiased” way.
One could argue that local districts have a right to define that according to local values, arrived at not merely by conservation of past values, but dynamically, face to face, in community as communities evolve. The top-down, paternalistic approach whereby government dictates, beyond the dictates of the Constitution, that is, does not serve a valuing of diversity but opposes it.
I’m not trying to reawaken the complaint against “political correctness” we raised in the eighties and nineties, crying foul when we were called to tolerate all except the intolerant (those who don’t tolerate all), to ostracize and marginalize those who have standards (a.k.a. discrimination).
There are only opinions, but apparently there are also “ground rules.” And if not, “it might be useful to spend a few minutes getting [discussion group participants] to set some,” says the Advocates for Youth website, and the “Creating Group Agreement” lesson helpfully suggests ten, based apparently on natural law, though as a biologist I have not observed nature really supporting such tolerance and inclusiveness. Any decent teacher of course being able to facilitate the adoption of these rules and making the youth feel that they have developed them by their own consensus. Subtly handling student proposals to choose champions to duke it out on the playground to determine outcomes, to roll dice, or to ask someone in authority so the group remains “on track” (a track they do not even sense their wagon wheels are attached to).
With younger children educators are more honest. These are our rules, they say, in order to have a safe place of learning, and they train the children to obey them. Obedience to rules is indeed necessary for any sort of group to accomplish set objectives. It’s not/should not be the teacher’s desire to perpetuate control of the masses that leads to the teaching of raising one’s hand, asking to go to the bathroom, and lining up to wash hands and go to lunch. I accept these rules as appropriate for group management. I’m glad elementary teachers know how to train their kids in behaviors that enable crowds of kids to learn together safely. But I also expect that by the time students have reached middle school, they are well along are in the process of self-governance and taking reasonable consequences for their choices. I have only a few rules: 1) Be kind. 2) Do quality work. I try to teach them , when necessary, in an organic, personalized, collaborative way, and try to avoid the usual clamping down on everyone when a few make irresponsible choices. When I ask older students to raise their hands and wait to be called on, I explain why, and hope that a more natural pattern of courtesy will evolve. I’m a little embarrassed when a student asks is he or she can go to the bathroom, even though I know it can be important to keep an accurate running tally of those present or missed instruction time. I’d much rather teach the principle of choosing appropriate times to move around and talk than always requiring permission.
The other day, I asked one of my classes what usually happens when a few people take advantage of their freedom to be destructive, irresponsible, or hurtful. They knew–the leaders get more controlling. At least in our small school, with small classes full of students from families who understand interpersonal responsibility, I am very hopeful it will never need to come to that. Even more, I hope that we as a whole community can restore harmony if their’s disruption–not mere conformity, standardization, obedience, but dynamic harmony. That’s a value worth standing up for, in my opinion.