(Second in a series: Could I Be Wrong? Believe Science? 11 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens)
Diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice. Who could be against any of these things?
Protest movements for social justice are undeniably an essential element of democracy. My book looks at African American social justice advocacy during World War I and my US history courses spend a lot of time on how social movements improved American democracy. From time to time, I’ve joined campaigns for contemporary causes.
In the absence of protest, modern representative democracies act almost exclusively in the interest of the classes that control the levers of government—at best about 20 percent of the population. Only under pressure from protest movements do they sometimes throw the bottom 80 a bone. The history of American democracy is unthinkable without the abolition, women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights movements.
But while I want my students to understand the role those movements played in history, I think it would run counter to my role as a teacher to recruit them into a movement that I support or to embrace one particular vision of social justice. I know that many of my colleagues disagree with me about this. And it has often seemed that my school does too.
But we don’t all agree on the same vision of social justice. If teachers can promote a particular partisan agenda, half the nation’s schools will cultivate right-wing crusaders, and the other half will produce left-wingers, and the electorate will become ever more polarized.
And the dispositions, inclinations and tactics of citizens are the opposite of those required for a political campaign. Where citizens should be open minded, aware of the likely flaws in their thinking and open to compromise, activists and campaigners must suppress their doubts as they crusade for the cause.
I do think it’s possible to play the role of citizen in a spirit of “political friendship” with rivals and still campaign for certain partisan outcomes—but it’s essential to understand the difference between the two and to be able to make the shift into the different roles as appropriate.*
As a teacher at Exeter I try to be as politically neutral as possible in the classroom. When students try to guess my politics, they are wrong more than half the time. But in my free time, I helped students canvass for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 New Hampshire primaries. These students came to support Sanders on their own. I just gave them rides in my car—which still has a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, I make a special effort to support conservative students because they are in such a small minority at the school and I value their presence because it makes for a more realistic political environment in my classroom. They also improve the thinking of liberal students by forcing them to defend their positions.
But we are increasingly living in ideological bubbles. The US is “more geographically polarized today” by party affiliation “than at any point since 1860.” Which means that public schools have less ideological diversity, and students encounter fewer people with different viewpoints than their parents. Private—especially boarding—schools might offer more diversity, since they can bring students together from different communities, yet they seem to be getting more polarized as well, as Michael Powell showed in his reporting on liberal, elite New York City independent schools and as the recent 12% rise in enrollments in conservative Christian schools suggests.
Teachers can open students’ minds to opposing views by playing the devil’s advocate. But that’s less useful in helping students develop cognitive empathy than encountering real people with sincerely held views (Hess and McAvoy, 117). But in a school where the devil’s advocate is seen as an actual devil, teachers may be wary of making his case.
For example, during a DEI faculty workshop I attended, I posed a question to the presenter we had invited to speak. How do we protect the feelings of African-American students in a discussion about Affirmative Action? I was concerned that the conversation might turn to questions about the qualifications of students at our highly selective school who might be perceived as beneficiaries of racial preferences.
His answer: the teacher should intercede in the debate and explain why the student opposing affirmative action is wrong.
I agree that some opinions should not be given serious consideration in any classroom. But an important difference between, say, slavery and affirmative action is that one is a settled question in contemporary national politics, and the other is still open and subject to debate. A majority of the US population and the Supreme Court and a significant minority of African Americans oppose affirmative action according to some polls, and opponents raise legitimate questions about its effectiveness.
If we shut off debate on unresolved questions, how will we resolve them if not through violence and intimidation, or the suppression of basic political rights? And if they can be discussed in Congress and the courts and the nation’s press, to shut them down in schools is to prepare students for a political fantasy world.
Things to read in relation to the above.
I wrote on this topic back in 2022. See "On Teaching Social Justice." Here's a passage: "To advance any version of social justice in a democracy (or republic, if that’s your preferred term), we need to be willing and able to deliberate, compromise and form coalitions with fellow citizens and that requires mutual respect even between rivals. The best contribution teachers can make to advancing social justice is to graduate citizens with that sort of democratic disposition."
*In The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson argue that in a representative democracy elected leaders need to be able to shift back and forth between campaign mode and governing mode if they want to govern effectively. One cause of polarization, they argue, is that US election seasons—especially for the presidency—last so long.
For a more useful answer to my question about affirmative action, see Hess and McAvoy, Chapter 5, “A case of Political Friendship,” which looks at the methods that a masterful teacher of politics, Joel Kushner, employed to “mitigate negative costs” in discussions of controversial topics. Also relevant to teaching affirmative action is chapter 8, “Ethics of Framing and Selecting Issues” which makes a helpful distinction between open and closed political debates and how to deal with them differently. I wrote a summary of the chapter here.
Public opinion on affirmative action varies according to how the question is asked and who is doing the polling. This June, 2023 poll by Pew says 50% of Americans (including 29% of African Americans) oppose affirmative action in selective college admissions, while only 33% approve. Like so many issues, if you search hard enough, you can find a poll to support many different positions on affirmative action, but you will never find one that suggests it is not still a matter of controversy. On the other hand, no one even bothers to run polls on whether slavery is a legitimate system of labor.
For an example of an essay that raises legitimate questions about the effectiveness of race-based affirmative action by an Exeter Latina student, see Nataly Delcid, “At private school, my family’s income sets me apart more than ethnicity,” Washington Post, July 12, 2023. She agrees with the 60% of surveyed Americans who told Rice University pollsters in 2019 that affirmative action should be based on family income not race or ethnicity.
Quite understandably, DEI training like the session I mentioned, often backfires. See “Is Your Company’s Diversity Training Making You More Biased?” Psychology Today, June 7, 2017.
According to a recent paper by the economists Ethan Kaplan, Jörg Spenkuch, and Rebecca Sullivan, the U.S. is more geographically polarized today than at any point since 1860, when a geographic cleavage in political preferences was about to send the nation into the Civil War. See: “The Real Culprit Behind Geographic Polarization,” Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2018.
The term social justice is associated with left-wing causes, but conservatives have their own version of what is socially just—they just call it something different. Efforts in New Hampshire and Florida by conservative politicians to insert content from the conservative online propaganda website PragerU into public school curricula are no better than liberal teachers basing their history courses on content from the Howard Zinn Education Project. See Steven Porter, “Top education official in NH recommends unaccredited PragerU course for academic credit,” Boston Globe, Aug. 9, 2023. See also my thoughts about the NYT 1619 project as a source for US history educators.
This series: Part 1: Could I Be Wrong? (civics education and epistemic humility); Part 2: Social Justice? (Teaching citizenship to students with different values) and Part 3: Believe Science? (curbing meritocratic hubris in tomorrow's leaders); Part 4: 11 Strategies for Depolarizing Tomorrow's Citizens.