I’ve been thinking all week about justice. Over and over, I keep having one conversation in the faculty room: as teachers who believe deeply in respecting every student’s individual beliefs, as teachers with students in our classrooms who come from many different backgrounds and who are hearing many different things from the adults they love, as teachers committed to academic objectivity and fairness, what do we do when things are happening in the world about which we cannot, in good conscience be neutral? When does balance start to look like collaboration? Where is the space between giving students the room they deserve to draw their own conclusions and keeping silent in the face of injustice? And–this is the form the question usually takes in reality–what are we supposed to do now?
I think, though, that this is a false dichotomy. Objectivity is not the same as passivity. Trusting our students is not the same as taking no action. And taking a stand is not necessarily a top-down process.
This question runs head-long into two of my most fundamental, bedrock beliefs about teaching: that each student’s inner voice is sacred and deserves respect, and that we are teaching social justice every time we step into the classroom, whether we plan to or not, by what we do or what we don’t do.
I do not believe that these two things are in conflict; I believe they go hand in hand. I do not believe that we should all suddenly start lecturing our students about the evils of our country’s racist policy on immigration, for example, but that’s not just out of concern for the preservation of a neutral classroom but because it’s bad teaching. I don’t cut straight to the answers, even when the question is a low-stakes one such as the reason for the success of Alexander the Great. Why should I take short cuts now that the future of my country is at stake?
At the same time, I do not believe that our hands are tied or that the fact that our country has embraced alternative facts means that we have to accept that level of (un)critical thinking for our students. Belief in our students and belief in the academic process means that we have to talk about the things that matter more, not less.
So here are my fundamental beliefs on the issue: 1) We cannot make students believe anything by telling them to, however urgent the need. Nor should we. 2) Mutual respect does not require silence; silence about disagreements is not, in fact, a respectful thing. 3) When we are confronting injustice, objectivity is on our side. If we trust the facts, trust the process of honest discourse, and trust our students, we will get there.
In other words, if we want to address injustice with our students, we don’t have to stop teaching and start doing something else. We need to teach even better.
Here is my list of 5 things that teachers can do right now, without giving up on either justice or objectivity.
- Stand for facts. Give students the facts–lots of them. Hold them accountable for taking all the available facts into account and addressing counter-evidence as they formulate their ideas. Hold them accountable for supporting anything they say in the classroom with evidence. One cannot have an academic process without facts. One cannot have a democracy without them, either.
- Stand for rigor. Hold students responsible–whatever their views–for examining the assumptions behind their thinking, for making the logic behind their arguments conscious and transparent, and for engaging with others’ ideas on the level of logic and critical thinking, rather than emotion and prejudgments. We should not be dictating what students think, but setting standards for how they think is the essence of our job.
- Stand for empathy. Understanding the experience and viewpoints of other people is an essential skill for a historian (and for a human being). An essential part of being educated is understanding–intellectually and emotionally–the perspectives of people with whom one might disagree. It is absolutely our job to insist that students practice this skill in every classroom.
- Stand for respect. Respect doesn’t just happen: it has to be modeled and taught. And respecting student voices does not mean that you are free to say anything in any way in my classroom. When respectful approaches–challenging ideas rather than attacking people, seeking to understand rather than win, assuming that everyone’s needs are important and everyone’s experiences have value–are taken for granted and insisted upon every time, they become a way of thinking. We need that way of thinking in this country, and if we can’t insist on it in our classrooms, we can’t insist on it anywhere.
- Stand for morality. This is the one that makes some teachers feel squirmy. It is also, I would argue, the most important point in this whole list. I think the squirm factor is based on a fundamental confusion between insisting that students be moral people and insisting that students adopt our own morals. I do not believe that the latter is appropriate–I’m not here to indoctrinate anyone, though I may try to nudge them–but I do believe that not asking students to think about what their own morals are and act on them is a fundamental abdication of our authority. In other words, your definition of justice and mine may be very different, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay to dismiss the issue of justice altogether in my classroom. If we feel that the whole idea of morality, any morality, is too controversial to talk about, then we have bigger problems as a society. Concretely, that means that we as history teachers should routinely be asking students to think about questions like “What would be a just outcome in this situation?” “Whose voices are not being heard here?” “What was the human cost of that decision? Is that okay with you? Why or why not?” That’s not soft, biased, or off topic; it’s the essential core of what we should be doing as teachers.
Even if I successfully teach these 5 things, I can’t guarantee that my students will agree with me, even on the issues that are most deeply important to be. But if they reach their opinions critically, taking into account all the facts and prioritizing empathy, justice, and respect, I think we will all be okay. If they can do those things, I can trust them to do better for the world than we have done so far.