Viewpoint Diversity For A Better Classroom

Viewpoint Diversity For A Better Classroom

Guest Contribution: Breathing Life Back Into Education Through Viewpoint Diversity

By: Albert Paulson

A few weeks ago, before beginning a lesson, I had my students copy the following sequence of statements that I wrote on a slide presentation: 

If I cannot express my thoughts I cannot share ideas 

If I cannot share ideas I am discouraged from thinking for myself. 

If I cannot think for myself I am dependent on others to think for me. If others think for me I do not know who I truly am. 

If I don’t know who I am I cannot pursue happiness. 

If I cannot pursue happiness I am not free.

After students had written them down, I asked them if they agreed with the statements. Without hesitation, students in each of my classes said that they did. I was pleased with their response and went on with the rest of the lesson on freedom of the press and the Peter Zenger trial with great relief and satisfaction. In my heart, I knew that the sequence of statements I wrote were shared values that should not be controversial. However, many teachers have been convinced that these values may cause trauma if they aren’t controlled with recommended resources, talking points and scripted questions designed to hijack the healthy direction of discussions. It was clear though, that when given the chance to explore the relationship of these values to freedom and human dignity, my students desired to be the captains of their own souls. The class period ended with students discussing the significance of the trial, in the context of Gouverneur Morris’s famous quote on the Zenger case which described it as: “the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty, which subsequently revolutionized America.” 

Looking back on that lesson, in particular the opening statements, I am reminded of the enormous influence and responsibility that every teacher possesses. It is in the classroom where the seeds of enlightenment values such as reason, individualism, equality and human dignity are planted and nurtured. It is in the classroom where people from various backgrounds practice the habits of the heart and the mind which build relationships of trust and bonds of affection through rigorous, honest and sometimes difficult conversations. It is in the classroom where we should be grateful for the nature of things that bring us together in order to chart a course navigated by civil discourse. 

I have been a public school teacher for 25 years in New Jersey and am currently in my first year at Vertex Partnership Academies in New York City. Over that time period, education has become increasingly balkanized by various factions that seek to impose ideological conformity, singular viewpoint fidelity and identity based theories that reject reason and impede the search for truth by admonishing those that ask difficult questions. It is no wonder that the mental health of students and faculty has declined precipitously; the suffocation of the human spirit can only endure so much. 

In a survey that I have had 12th grade students complete anonymously at the beginning of the year, responses to questions on this reality showed strong correlations. While students felt confident sharing their opinions on social media, in the classroom they overwhelmingly did not and felt frustrated when some opinions were openly encouraged by teachers and peers while others were ridiculed. The majority also strongly agreed with the statement that they felt anxious saying something that they thought their teacher or peers would disagree with. Students also believed that it was hard to build relationships with those they disagreed with, felt many students didn’t like others because of different opinions on topics, wished they could talk more openly and authentically about issues in the classroom and that mental health in school would improve if students felt more confident in their ability to express themselves. 

Those who are in education have a duty of care to protect their students from injury or harm. It is clear however, that when honesty is replaced with activism, harm is done. Increasingly, districts have abandoned textbooks and altered the literary canon in order to align student learning with theories that are hostile to viewpoint diversity. Thankfully, schools such as Vertex Partnership Academies, are providing teachers with resources and opportunities that restore integrity, build trust and fill teachers and students alike with the confidence needed for individual agency. 

I have also had the good fortune to work with a number of organizations that are helping to fill the void by creating rigorous materials that challenge thinking and enhance the marketplace of ideas. In an effort to share these materials, I volunteered to develop a professional development workshop on viewpoint diversity in my previous district. It was a great opportunity to present some new ideas but to also hear the angst from colleagues about the suffocation of thought and how the workshop was immensely therapeutic and pedagogically beneficial. I was so encouraged that I next offered a program for students on the district’s SEL day entitled Viewpoint Diversity and Mental Health. The readings, activities and simulations which included Invictus by William Earnest Henly, What is Water by David Foster Wallace, How to Fight Fair, Our Defensive Nature, Locus of Control and Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes were met with great enthusiasm and engagement. It was obvious to me that the students needed to hear some different perspectives and specifically, ones that encouraged positive mindset, independent thought, personal responsibility and resilience. 

It is clear that there are many challenges to be overcome in order to change the trajectory of education. There are people and there are places that are rolling up their sleeves to meet the moment; nothing worth doing is easy. Organizations such as the Mill Center at the University of Austin, the Woodson Center, the Common Sense Society, FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism), Constructive Dialogue Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Jack Miller Center, the National Association of Scholars, the Libre Initiative, Freedom in Education and many others have been game-changers for so many teachers like myself that are seeking solutions to the mindset victimization eroding education. At Vertex Partnership Academies, the four Cardinal Virtues of Courage, Justice, Wisdom and Temperance form the foundation of a character-based, International Baccalaureate program that builds agency, opportunity and individual dignity into its mission. 

While some may curse the darkness, others prefer to light a candle. Viewpoint diversity and virtue focused mission statements are the candles that can light every classroom, the CPR that can save education from suffocation.

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