Pluralism As An Academic Good

**I begin with the caveat that the following concepts are not equally important or applicable to every subject taught. But they are relevant in some ways for all, and particularly relevant in the humanities.**

I pretty frequently have something like the following scenario play out in my classroom. Perhaps in this particular case we are discussing the extent to which government entities ought to be able to exhibit religious symbols or texts on government property. And then the students try to lay their trap. They casually approach me as though nothing is going on, and then the conversation proceeds as follows-

Student (raising hand): Sam, I have a question.

Me (thinking the student wants to know a detail about the situation we are discussing): Ok, go ahead.

Student (thinking they are very clever): So…… should the city be able to keep up the statue of the Ten Commandments in the park?

Me (realizing what is really going on): Great question. Let me just go ahead and reverse my long standing policy and start sharing my personal political opinions with the class.

If you couldn’t tell, the last statement is sarcastic. It usually gets a few laughs. Everyone knows the policy- I don’t share my personal political opinions with the class. But still, every once in a while, they try to catch me off guard. It’s my pleasure to continually disappoint in that department.

The policy of not sharing my personal political opinions with the class has served me well over the years for many reasons. It allows me to credibly argue from a variety of perspectives within the classroom. It ensures that students don’t just accept my answer to the controversial issues we discuss and then turn off their thinking. It models intellectual humility for students. It also demonstrates respect for the role of parents in promoting their values to their students. But, just as importantly as any of these, it also works toward a classroom fulfillment of one of the core values I hold as a teacher and that we hold in the Independent Education Program: pluralism.

Pluralism has many definitions in many contexts, so I’ll explain what I mean when I use the term here. When I say pluralism I am referencing a philosophy and practice based on the idea that people of differing perspectives can and should find ways to share society and its institutions peaceably. More than that, it is a belief that societies are made better when differing perspectives challenge each others’ ideas through civil discourse. Looking at pluralism from a societal lens, it is easy to see that pluralism is one of the core tenets of democratic society. If we view democracy as the product of a social contract in which the people of society agree to

  • share a society
  • recognize each member of society as an equal member of the society
  • give each member the opportunity to participate in the governance of the society
  • abide by the laws produced by the society,

then pluralism in a democratic society isn’t just beneficial, it is central to democratic identity. Inherent to the agreement laid out above is the idea that no single person or group of people, no matter how certain they are of their rightness, owns the society. In a democratic society (or in our case a democratic republic), “We the people” means all of the people. It doesn’t mean the people who are “right”. It means everyone. And in that society everyone has to deal with the fact that others will disagree with them, that those who disagree have free will and cannot be forced to agree, and that sometimes you win votes and sometimes you lose.

Some of the most deeply pluralist elements of our society are encoded in the U.S. constitution. Freedom of speech ensures that all people in society may share their opinions, no matter how much others in the society think that their opinions are [insert negative adjective here]. Freedom of religion and the prohibition against religious establishment dictates that there is no religious group in society that gets to claim ownership of the society. The guarantee of equal protection under the law promises that no person or group within society, no matter how much they are disliked by others in society, can be made society’s whipping boy by the law. The great compromise between large and small states demonstrates an effort to find common ground among competing interests at the inception of the nation. The overall message is that society is not owned by any person or set of persons. It is owned by all. This philosophical stance is generally not mutually exclusive to political viewpoints. One can be a Republican, a Democrat, or many other political things and still be a pluralist. One can be those political things and not a pluralist as well. The question is whether one views it as an indignity or reasonable and beneficial that one has to share society with those who disagree.

Up to this point we have discussed pluralism at a societal level, but zooming in, we can now take a look at the forms pluralism can take in educational institutions and in the classroom.

To begin that endeavor, I’ll examine some of the philosophical underpinnings of pluralism as applied to the classroom. Or, in other words, the why of pluralism.

The World Is Complex

I want to ask a favor. I would like you to imagine someone that you respect with whom you also disagree on some very important issue (perhaps political, religious, philosophical, etc.) Presumably, no one is so insulated that the only people they respect agree with them in every particular. And now a question- what do you think is the source of your disagreement with this person? Is the reason that you disagree because one of you is good (certainly this must be you) and one of you is bad (certainly this must be them)? Perhaps this person is just very stupid or uneducated (definitely them not you)? Or maybe they are very ill-intentioned and just want bad things (again, definitely them not you)? This is one theory we could adopt- that the basic source of disagreement is that some people are smart and/or good and others are stupid and/or evil. And perhaps this does explain some disagreements. Some people are inhumane, haven’t done adequate research to understand a subject well, etc. But, do you think this theory adequately describes the source of disagreement between you and this person that you respect?

If not, perhaps you might consider an alternate theory. Perhaps we could theorize that the source of disagreement among people might be complexity. For example, there is often a wealth of evidence of all sorts that one might consider and different evidence might lead us to different conclusions. In other circumstances there is not a great deal of evidence on a given subject and everyone is making their best estimation about the nature of the subject, how people might act in context of the subject, etc. Again, within a given question there are often a variety of values that we might pursue, and though humans often share the same basic values, they also can prioritize them differently. In addition, each person has a unique set of experiences that inform their decision making that is entirely different from anyone else’s set of experiences I could go on, but the overall theory is this: what if humans disagree because the world is a complex place and getting the right answers isn’t always a clean and easy process?

Every once in a while I have the same conversation with a different student. It happens when the student is starting to get a suspicion that the answers aren’t as easy as they had thought, that not all the smart/good people agree, and there are no big questions that they may have to struggle with for many years. It’s unsettling. They don’t know how to handle it. They want comfort. The comfort I give is that this is what entering the adult world looks like. It means that life as an adult is going to be more complex than they were hoping, but it also means that life as an adult is more fulfilling than they knew. It means that learning is a lifelong endeavor and that respect and love can be shared with all sorts of people.

The point of pluralism in the classroom is that the teacher declines to present a flattened out and simplified version of the world for student consumption. The teacher, instead, tries to enrich students by helping them deal with the complex nature of the subjects that they learn.

There Is Ample Room For Disagreement Among Reasonable People

I remember some years ago in a class we were discussing the proper limits of government power. I identified that the members of the class generally were in favor of some form of public education, and then asked them if they were in favor of universal healthcare. They generally said no. I asked them to please tell me the difference that they saw. As a note, I think there are meaningful distinctions that could be drawn, but I certainly wasn’t going to provide those for the students. The students flailed around with the question for some time trying to draw distinctions that didn’t stand up all that well. Eventually I could see the tension building and building and building in one student until finally she burst out, “well… well….. well…. YOU’RE JUST A SOCIALIST!!” And clearly, in her mind, that was it. The conversation was over. I was a socialist, end of argument. It was a good teaching moment and remains a fond memory. The point here is that I think the student thought the conversation was over because a socialist (so called) could say no reasonable thing and therefore had no meaningful contribution to make to the discourse of the classroom.

However, if we accept the idea that the world is complex, from thence proceeds the idea that there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on a range of topics. Furthermore, we can also draw out the idea that we don’t have to agree with another person to learn from their perspective and enjoy a rich discourse. This is not to say that every perspective that a student may have is reasonable or humane or decent. But it does mean that many perspectives a student may have can be reasonably supported. It also means that letting those discussions play out in the classroom can be of immense educational benefit to the student, particularly if that discussion is not burdened by an overwhelming narrative supplied by the teacher or the curriculum. However, this is too often not the case in many classroom settings. Instead, the teacher or curriculum promotes their own opinion as the official answer at which all students are to eventually meet. Even worse, the teacher or curriculum may present the idea in such a way as to convince the students that no reasonable person could disagree.

All Students Need And Deserve A Good Education

I recall a conversation I had with someone who was considering debate as an option for her co-op some time ago. She loved the idea of the critical examination of ideas, the academics, the introduction to important philosophies, etc. But she felt a significant reservation about the idea that the class would be pluralistic in nature. “But what if the students start believing something wrong?” Upon further questioning, she explained that if a student in the class were to start to convince other students of a political opinion which she perceived (or in this case I think it would be more accurate to say “knew”) was wrong, then it would be wrong to not correct the student, tell the rest of the students that that student was wrong, make sure they believed what was right, and then move on from there. In response, one could say many things, but one possible response is to wonder where the corrected student is to go for his/her education. The student or at least the student’s perspective is clearly not to have opportunity to be aired in the classroom. So shall the student go find an educational institution that has adopted his/her perspective as the official narrative and go where he/she is welcome? And then shall all the world divide into schools that cater only to a specific narrative: libertarian schools, progressive schools, creationist schools, communist schools, pacifist schools, moderate conservative schools, schools for social progressives but economic conservatives, schools for classical utilitarian adherents to just war theory but who think that there is an exception for nuclear war because when things get really extreme they think that just war theory no longer serves the ultimate utilitarian good? And shall all of these children grow up believing that theirs is the only perspective that can be held by a reasonable person and everyone else is stupid or ill intentioned?

Or perhaps, on the other hand, we can cultivate classrooms where students and their perspectives are generally welcomed because all of them are deserving of the opportunity to have a good classroom and all of them deserve the opportunity to think critically from their perspective.

This is not to say that every educational institution is or ought to be built exactly the same. Religious schools, for example, have a long and rich history of great education in our country. Some schools emphasize the arts or technology. But the best of them still strive for academic freedom, make room for disagreement, and don’t convince students that those who disagree are unreasonable, idiotic, ill intentioned, etc.

Exposure To A Variety Of (Age Appropriate) Ideas Is An Educational Good

One of my favorite fake Aristotle quotes (of which there are many online) is “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Is this quote frequently attributed to Aristotle? Yes. Did he actually write it? No. But, should he have written it? Definitely!

All joking aside, if the world is a complex enough place that intellectual humility is an academic good, and that learning is destined to be a lifelong endeavor, then we should see it as an academic good to give students plenty of exposure to many ways of seeing the world. It not only gives students plenty of intellectual material to draw from in future life, but it also teaches the core skill of being able to listen to and examine many perspectives without feeling obligated to buy into them to any given amount. And this isn’t just so that the student can know what the “enemy” thinks, because that “enemy” is likely a fellow-citizen, a colleague, a classmate, a friend, or even a family member. It is so that the student can learn to operate in a world where understanding others’ ideas can enrich our own, make us more humane, and make us more willing to peacefully share society with others.

The Result

In my classroom I generally don’t share my personal political opinions as a way to cultivate pluralism as an institutional value. That’s one potential application and it has worked well for me but I don’t think it has to be that way. In many contexts that policy would be difficult to follow. In every context it is difficult to follow that policy to its furthest extent. And parents can certainly teach the value of pluralism to their children along with their political and many other values. This is because pluralism as a philosophical stance isn’t mutually exclusive to most other ideas. One can be a pluralist and be conservative or liberal, focused on the arts or the sciences, etc. The biggest question isn’t whether or not the teacher shares their opinions with their class. The biggest question is whether the teacher presents it as either an indignity or reasonable and beneficial that people disagree. Does the teacher present to students a simplified version of ideas and people, or does the teacher work to help students see the world through the eyes of others?

The result of a pluralist perspective in the classroom is a classroom where teachers frequently ask open ended questions that facilitate meaningful discussion, preserve room for students to try to answer those questions, and are willing to challenge student thinking from a variety of perspectives. It is a classroom where critical thinking can flourish. It is also a classroom where teachers are careful about creating overwhelming classroom narratives which burden the opportunity for academic inquiry.

I encourage all of our teachers and creators of curriculum in the homeschooling community to thoughtfully consider the benefits in critical thinking, civil discourse, and future benefit to society to be reaped in adopting pluralism as an educational value.