Want To Teach The Truth? Use Objective Pluralism
by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education
As our tribal and partisan battles rage, education remains a significant theater in which both ‘left’ and ‘right’ fight to gain ground. In higher education, this has played out with the highest of drama including Congressional hearings and prestigious university presidents stepping down. PreK-12 has largely been spared those ‘made for TV’ moments, but I doubt many would be surprised to see something similar.
While there are hot-button issues like school choice, high-stakes testing, student discipline, and SEL, it seems to me the biggest battlefront in PreK-12 involves how teachers should ‘teach the truth’ and how to navigate interactions with students, parents, and others with strong ideological or partisan positions. Some say we should teach with neutrality or something similar. Others say teachers shouldn’t be neutral but should push back on ideas they deem offensive. I’d like to assert that we should teach objective plurality because it opens the classroom to a diversity of ideas while reinforcing the democratic ideals upon which our country was founded.
What is Objective Pluralism?
Pluralism promotes the idea that diversity is not only inevitable but also valuable, contributing to a richer and more dynamic community. The goal of pluralism is often to foster tolerance, understanding, and cooperation among different groups, facilitating peaceful coexistence despite differences. In a pluralistic society, different individuals and groups can maintain their distinct identities and contribute to the overall social fabric.
Being objective means approaching a situation, issue, or information without being influenced by personal feelings, biases, or opinions. It involves the ability to analyze and evaluate based on facts, evidence, and a neutral perspective.
In various contexts, objectivity can be crucial. For example, in journalism, reporters, not to be confused with opinion journalists, often strive to present news stories objectively, providing an unbiased account of events. In scientific research, objectivity is essential to maintain the integrity of experiments and draw accurate conclusions as scientists should follow the evidence regardless of how it might conflict with their desired outcomes.
Of course, achieving complete objectivity can be challenging, as individuals may carry unconscious biases or be influenced by personal experiences. Regardless, the pursuit of objectivity involves working to consciously minimize these influences and prioritizing a rational and evidence-based approach.
Objective pluralism then, in the context of teaching and learning, is an approach that recognizes the existence and value of a variety of viewpoints, perspectives, ideas, and opinions but also acknowledges and advocates for accepted knowledge and truth as determined through the process of liberal science.
“If we care about knowledge, freedom, and peace, then we need to stake a strong claim: anyone can believe anything, but liberal science—open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network—is the only legitimate validator of knowledge, at least in the reality-based community.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge, 2021
Why Objective Pluralism is Important
The founding ideals of the United States are deeply rooted in classical liberal principles. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers and the ideas of thinkers like John Stuart Mill. While the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights ensures our freedom of speech and expression, the legal protections are necessary but not sufficient.
Democracy requires good-faith participation and a culture that honors the practices and norms that encourage dissent and viewpoint diversity even if it is an eternally radical idea. Objective pluralism is an approach to teaching and learning that reinforces the enculturation of the concepts that undergird the promise of our founding ideals.
How To Teach Objective Pluralism
When I taught, high school government especially, my students routinely asked me to reveal my political and voting preferences and my approach was to not share that information. I took it as a source of pride that they were unable to accurately discern my leanings. Today’s educators are often encouraged to question that stance, claiming the stakes are too high to remain neutral.
I don’t think ‘neutral’ is the most useful term or approach. But there’s an important gap between teacher activism that insists we should view most everything through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed, critical race theory, and Marxist theory and one that engages students in the complexity and nuance that includes those perspectives as only one of the ways to think about important issues.
With the creep of authoritarian illiberalism from both left and right, educators must understand the distinctions of liberalism and the important lines of demarcation of actors and movements that threaten and erode our democratic principles. In the context of ideology and opinion, this is characterized by those who claim they possess ‘the truth’ and only they have the moral authority to speak. Objective pluralism allows them a seat at the table of ideas and discourse but they cannot insist on being the only ones at the table.
In our Teaching Objective Pluralism Workshop, we help educators better understand these distinctions, In my experience, teachers are largely unaware of the illiberal authoritarian thinking and actions of those associated with causes they favor. Why would they be? As a 2021 Heritage Foundation report found,
“While teachers tend to the left of average Americans, they are not ideologues—and could be allies, not opponents, of parents worried about divisive ideologies.”
When presented with evidence and examples of these dynamics at play nearly all educators recognize the problems and see the value of objective pluralism as the preferred approach.
Objective pluralism shows up in the ‘intentional’ planning of educators where they make sure students are provided opportunities to encounter a variety of perspectives and ideas where appropriate. As I wrote in We Should Teach About Uncomfortable Ideas, Here’s How, we shouldn’t shy away from controversial questions like the ones posed by the 1619 Project. With these structures in place, teachers can demonstrate the ‘intuitive’ lesson delivery where they’re helping students to make their thinking visible and finding teachable moments that arise from intellectually provocative inquiry teaching and learning.
Of course, not everything falls into the buckets of lesson planning and delivery. How should we handle extemporaneous student speech and expression with teachers and/or their peers that might be perceived as offensive or morally questionable using objective pluralism? As a general principle, I suggest challenging them to think more deeply with facilitative questions like “What makes you say that?” or “How do you think ‘X’ might think about that?”.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t hold students accountable for offensive speech and behavior but we should be keenly aware of how our perspective and thinking might be missing something or misunderstanding. The process of liberal science, The Constitution of Knowledge as Jonathan Rauch puts it, is meant to help us come to collective truths about knowledge and understandings. Recognizing and leveraging diversity of thought doesn’t mean everyone’s perspective equals truth.
Just like there are accepted facts in our content standards that we expect students to learn, so are there accepted realities validated by consensus. Some educators and students may want those realities to be different but just claiming them to be so without empirical evidence checking creates a destabilizing epistemic crisis.
Activist teaching can easily cross this line and teachers pushing an agenda are doing their students a disservice. Instead, educators should consider how they push students to think critically and deeply about the ideas and opinions they favor AND the ones they find offensive. That doesn’t preclude them from keeping their opinions but helps them realize the lessons of Mill’s trident, “We are rarely 100% correct, and no one is anywhere near 100% correct with everything they believe”.