No-neutrality teaching

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train” is the title of radical historian Howard Zinn’s autobiography. It’s a reminder that if we stand still as the world moves, we move in the same direction as the world, even though we experience ourselves as stationary.

It’s the same when we teach in the classroom and feign neutrality. The world is moving, and if we profess neutrality, we move with it. That’s a dereliction of the duty to be critical thinkers and to model critical thinking for our students. It’s a privilege that our most vulnerable students do not have, because being inattentive or ignorant or not being alert or staking a claim can get them killed. Or, as Edith, a black character in the recent film Enola Holmes says to a white male character who professes no interest in politics: “Politics doesn’t interest you because you have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well.” You can only be neutral about politics if you are safe with the status quo.

File:Edvard Munch - Train Smoke - Google Art Project.jpg
Above, Edvard Munch’s 1900 Train Smoke shows smoke rising from a train passing between trees and a lake.

Education demands that we stake claims on the issues of importance to us and, importantly, to the lives of our students. (You can be neutral about which pizza toppings to order but not on immigration, colonization, the white supremacy of Columbus Day, the rights of farm workers, the environmental impact of our agricultural system, the injustice of low-wages in food service, or the gig economy of companies like Uber Eats). This doesn’t mean that you have to have a solution to every problem or that there is only one solution to these problems. It doesn’t mean you have to be an expert on all issues or to address them all explicitly in your work (None of us can address every injustice, and we all have times in our lives where we have more and less energy for this work.) But to the extent that they contribute to human suffering, if you claim neutrality, you contribute to human suffering, and that’s unethical.

How do you do that in a classroom in a way that also invites vulnerability, fosters discussion, incorporates a diversity of experiences, and is rooted in the practices of your discipline (whatever they may be)? It’s a huge question, and this is just one about the topic, which I’ll explore in more depth over the coming weeks.

But, at the heart of our work here is a commit to not being neutral when human suffering is involved.

To start that work, be clear about what are settled issues, closed issues, and non-issues.

Settled issues are ones that we can study through our disciplinary lenses and that are held in such consensus that debating them is a poor use of resources, including time. We don’t have endless time in a college course, and we aren’t going to use it debating what has been established through the practices of our discipline. You might offer students the chance to do this one-on-one, or, of course, they can do it on their own time, without the support of community resources. But just as we wouldn’t use campuses resources to host Wrestlemania, we don’t use them to debate creationism v. evolution. It’s not that students can’t care about Wrestlemania or watch it on their own time; however, hosting it would be a misuse of campus resources.

Here are settled issues:

  • Climate change is happening due to human behavior.
  • Structural racism drives inequality in the US.
  • America was built by enslaved Africans and their descendants on land taken from indigenous people.
  • Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews in concentration camps, plus 3 million other people they targeted because of sexuality, disabilities, religion, and political positions. 
  • Around the globe, women work more than men. 

These are claims that are supported by measurable, observable facts. Whether your discipline is climate science, ecology, economics, sociology, history, politics, or anthropology, these claims are backed up by data. The facts can be gathered multiple ways (quantitatively, qualitatively), but they consistently yield these conclusions. We may share these facts with students, but we aren’t debating them. For example, I present ample data that shows my Social Problems students that structural racism leads to greater social problems for people of color (for example, environmental racism leads to shortened life spans for people of color; racism within medicine leads to higher rates of maternal death for Black women), but I present this information as settled. I cite it; I may explain how it was gathered; I may explain how multiple ways of gathering this data have yielded the same conclusion. But it’s just that: concluded. Once they have done the work of learning the facts, they have earned the right to debate they mean and what we should do about them. 

In contrast, open issues are ones about which there can be genuine debate informed by the conventions of our disciplines. There are multiple sides to open issues that are valid (if to greater and lesser degrees) and can be weighed against each other. With open issues, we can disagree about the conclusions we draw, but we agree that our arguments should follow some rules (disciplinary conventions, including what counts as evidence, how it is evaluated, and how it is used). Here are some open questions:

  • What is the best way to combat climate change? Do wealthier nations have a different obligation than poorer ones to this work? 
  • Is structural racism better rectified through federal mandates to dismantle it or through direct compensation to people who have been hurt by it?
  • How has our national history of slavery and colonization shaped our international relationships, including our decisions to go to war?
  • What should we do to prevent genocide? 
  • Why does sexism persist? 

These begin on the assumptions that these issues are settled. The price of getting to debate them is being informed about them. If you can’t be bothered to know the facts about the Holocaust, then you don’t get to debate how we prevent another one. 

Then there are non-issues: topics that cannot be addressed through our disciplinary practices. For example, in the sciences and social sciences, the question Does God exist? is a non-issue. These disciplines do not have the tools to investigate this question; it cannot, through the scientific methods used in these fields, be falsified. In fields that use direct observation, it’s a nonissue. Perhaps in theology or philosophy it’s a meaningful question, but bringing it up in a science or social science class is like bringing a bottle of shampoo to a potluck: irrelevant, and your “contribution” takes up space and opportunity for that help meet the purpose of the gathering.

You might have noted now that I’m relying a lot on disciplinary practices to guide this conversation. That’s because we have an obligation to be on-topic when we teach–for the same reason why we don’t address settled topics: it’s not a good use of our time. But what is a settled issue, an open issue, or a nonissue is dependent on discipline.

Even here, though, we have wide latitude about what is relevant to our discipline and teaching. If something affects students, its relevant to our work and appropriate for our classroom. And since our students are people with genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, disabilities, etc., all of these topics are relevant.

And we must be on guard against being too wedded to our disciplinary limits. Canons are for busting.

But this is a good place to start and an easy test to apply when considering if students should even have space in your classroom, right now, to address any issue of concern to them. Not necessarily. Devil’s advocate and sea lioning are thefts from students who have done the work of understanding what is settled and who are ready to move on to more robust engagement.

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