Accepting the Status Quo: Teaching Without Bias

Chris McNutt
September 3, 2018
Frankly, to remain neutral is a single-sided story. One can’t teach without bias.

“Best practice” is defined as keeping politics separate from teaching: avoiding personal viewpoints, remaining neutral, and listening to all sides. It is ironic that the place most adverse to political influence is a cornerstone to literal constant discourse and indoctrination. The majority of educators — especially those who teach Humanities where these discussions tend to take hold — firmly believe they shouldn’t showcase their beliefs nor let students have any inkling to what they are.

It is my view that we should do the exact opposite. That isn’t to say that teachers should brainwash students to single-sided stories, rather it is irrational to teach from neutral footing. Frankly, to remain neutral is a single-sided story. One can’t teach without bias. In every curriculum, choices exist which fundamentally form a biased viewpoint: book selections, discussion questions, test prompts, project ideas. Indeed, the choices encouraged by the state (how many standards reflect certain perspectives over others, which selections are “best” for children) are heavily invested in by political voices.

To remain neutral is to accept the status quo. As a history teacher — if I quietly take my state mandated medicine and remain neutral — I am explicitly defining the historical narrative as an event-to-event story with little pushback, a few (hand-selected, safe) minority voices, and a series of wars with their benefits. Little attention is paid to those who fought against corporations and the military (socialists(!)) nor really any voice discrepant to the annals of the victors.

It’s saddening and more so, frightening that bringing up feminism, understanding Wallace Fard Muhammad, or analyzing our current political situations to those of the past is “taking a stance.” Perhaps I misunderstood the entire point of learning our history, but I would assume that the application of our knowledge — recognizing historiography and the debates it entails — while simultaneously providing a view to the historically oppressed — would be the point of history class. Taking a “stance” by presenting more of the story is just good teaching, not politicizing.

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Pictured: Wallace Fard Muhammad.

Furthermore, in the same way most news media accepts all positions — a teacher who “remains neutral” in a class discussion suggests that all student opinions are factually the same. However, some positions are more correct than others. This is not rejecting student voice or promoting a political stance — it’s educating. Isn’t the purpose of education to inform? Facts, figures, and data is valuable and we must ensure that students can not only have informed opinions, but recognize that some issues aren’t debatable — for example: institutionalized racism is a problem in the United States, undocumented laborers are people often fleeing horrific situations, and there is a violent gun problem. None of these topics are political — but the fear of bringing up something serious, something that matters, is so foreign to the milquetoast education system. It fractures the “safety” of the “neutral”, perfectly laid out curriculum that assumes little is wrong, no problems are still present, in society.

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Pictured: The cover of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Likewise, we shouldn’t accept prevailing notions of “safe teaching” as politically uncharged. In English, consistently teaching “classics” (the vast majority written by white males) exacerbates an often disregard for reading among those disillusioned with this hidden narrative and refuses to acknowledge current literary works discussing problems today. A simple note of this is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas being banned in multiple school districts. Cited as “inciting sexual behavior” and its “rampant” use of curse words, these same districts are fine with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It seems likely the concern is on the book’s critical viewpoint of racist police violence. Again, this is inherently political — but by ignoring The Hate U Give and staying safe, we are being political by blindly passing off the work.

This carries into STEM fields as well. Science classes are weary of tackling environmental justice such as climate change or overbearing, under regulated pesticide producers. Instead, we’ll just “remain neutral” by talking about how climate works. And math classes are dumbing down the purpose of mathematical thinking by never applying any content learned to what it could be used for (prisons, poverty, immigration, public health, “IQ testing.”)

These stances are often deemed “radical.” To recognize actual problems in the world and talk about them is somehow “far out” while making bland, single-sided trivia lessons “engaging” through over-the-top lessons is “being a passionate educator.” In no way is this implying that all schools should take a liberal stance, although it is noteworthy to recognize many of these issues have a liberal slant — but just introducing critical discourse to any topic makes automatic relevance and importance.

Much of this is a fight against the hidden curriculum — a rejection of the assumption that what we’ve always done is neutral, correct, and historically upstanding whereas any new idea is outlandish. Authority and conformity is easily trained when learning is passionless and, for most of the time, pointless. If students never see relevancy — e.g. have any foray to why what they learn matters in the real world — then how can we expect them to apply it? A “good citizen” is one who readily accepts what they’re given — someone who rigorously plays the game of school to function happily as an ignorant “academic”. Therefore, we can’t assume that when one introduces a problem to the classroom that they’re a “radical” — they’re just doing their job well. Students are questioning the world around them, they’re questioning authority, and they’re engaged. What else could we want?

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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