Truth...It's a Little Complicated

Posted by JZucker on January 15, 2014

A friend of mine recently sent me an interesting article on the philosophy of education. The article argued that the current pedagogy in schools is based more in process than teaching virtue. Sounds a little complicated, I know. But here is how the argument went.

Today’s educational philosophy does not try to instill one absolute and objective Truth for students. Educational institutions only teach students how to develop critical thinking skills. There are several disadvantages to this. First, students reject that some ideas are simply better than other ideas. Second, students lose an appreciation for the complexity of insight from the masters of the past. And, third, students leave schools without an understanding of the virtues underlying citizenship in both the United States and for the global community.

This actually raises a central problem in both education and in the larger American tradition coming from our Liberal tradition stretching back to the Enlightenment. Ethics in society can either stress the “good” or the “Right.” The good is the belief that we can seek out consequences that are beneficial to individuals and society. The “Right” is the belief that there are certain absolute goods, virtues, or transcendent values that all people must accept as being necessary to human dignity.

Teachers today tend to believe that society has many individuals and communities who develop their own sense of the “good” or the “Right.” Since we don’t want to be intolerant or shut down discussions, we try to be tolerant in our pluralistic communities and classrooms. So, we substitute rules and procedures for absolutist thinking. We don’t try to impose answers to tough questions.

But, for those of us involved with Facing History, this creates its own problem. If we only teach students the process of thinking critically, how do we provide students with the ethical awareness that would prevent some of the worst inhumanities that have occurred in human history? In fact, an emphasis only on fair procedures violates the Facing History belief in preparing students to advocate for the protection of universal human dignity.

I think there is a resolution to this problem. And, it fits with the Facing History goal of teaching students to advocate for human dignity on a universal basis while being both tolerant and accepting of individual differences.

The resolution is to accept that there is a consensus of communal beliefs that students need to know, regardless of their particular traditions and communities. And, we accept these traditions because they have both created the fair procedures that protect the individual and minority groups while obligating all of us to certain social responsibilities that promote the well being of all citizens.

There is a model for how to do this. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University who uses this model.

  • Open the class with a difficult but realistic problem in the world that creates a conflict between commonly held principles
  • Have the students engage in a debate in the classroom between two different positions
  • Debrief the discussion/debate by asking which values the students prioritize and why
  • Finish the class by lecturing on the principles that we as a community have come to respect due to their power for protecting minorities and providing engaged citizens

So now we are back to the beginning of this blog. I think my friend from Facebook raised an important criticism about the current “constructivist” context of teaching that we teachers do focus too much on process over ends. We can bridge our desire to provide acceptance for individuals while also teaching the virtues needed for preventing the atrocities that we study in Facing History. These values include the protection of civil liberties, the autonomy of the individual, the need for a common good, and the belief in a set of democratic procedures that both allow for critical thinking and enhance an active and engaged citizenry.

For an exploration of the struggle to define a "universal" set of rights, click here to read Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Consider the ethical questions raised in the role of "reporting" (whether professionally or in the course of a regular day on social media) with these Facing History resources:

Topics: A View from the Classroom

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