A parent, Ndona Muboyayi, recently told Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic the following story about her son:
“My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, ‘But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.’ That’s what they’re teaching Black kids: that all of this time for the past 400 years, this is what [white people have] done to you and your people. The narrative is, ‘You can’t get ahead.’”
Such stories are becoming more prevalent today, with the rise of what are often referred to as “social-justice educators” in the classroom. These teachers are typically concerned with equity in education — how to reckon with the unequal distribution of resources and services to achieve equal educational outcomes across students. Many believe that education is intersectional: “We cannot talk about schools, without addressing race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and politics, because education is a political act,” wrote Crystal Belle, a teacher-education director at Rutgers University–Newark. Their goal, as Belle put it, is to use “curriculum as a primary mechanism for making the world a more equitable place.”
This goal sounds nice. But too often in practice the perspectives of these teachers regarding race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and politics take precedence in teaching and learning over eliciting and developing the worldviews of their students. Such teachers shield students from practices, ideas, or words that they perceive as harmful, and punish students who inflict harm.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their article and subsequent book The Coddling of the American Mind, call this “vindictive protectiveness.” According to Lukianoff and Haidt, vindictive protectiveness creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” Critical thinking encourages “students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them,” which sometimes leads to discomfort on the way to understanding but ultimately prepares them for civic engagement and professional life. Vindictive protectiveness, on the other hand, prepares young people “poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.”
The #DisruptTexts movement is one such example of vindictive protectiveness by social-justice educators. #DisruptTexts is a grassroots movement that aims to “challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” The movement advocates for “curriculum and instructional practices that are culturally responsive and antiracist.” In practice, this involves curriculum changes to replace the traditional canon, books such as The Odyssey, with non-traditional books that are believed to better represent the lives of their non-white students, such as Before the Ever After. Or, if the traditional texts are taught, teachers are to do so through a social-justice framework, asking their students questions such as: “How does this text support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice? How does this text perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies?”
These questions impose a particular perspective about the text and leave little room for student interpretation. This approach restricts student understanding of the text to that of their teacher, which is more about indoctrination than teaching. Perhaps elements of the text do make students uncomfortable. However, if this discomfort arises, teachers should aid their students in understanding the context and questioning their discomfort, rather than “disrupting” the text so that they feel no discomfort.
By disrupting potential discomfort, educators are perpetuating what Lukianoff and Haidt call the “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” Assuming that students will be harmed by a text, then subsequently protecting them from this perceived harm by telling them how to interpret the text, will make them more fragile, less resilient, and less capable of engaging in critical thinking.
As Lukianoff and Haidt stressed in their book, humans are antifragile: “They require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow.” If students are not given the opportunity to challenge their own perspectives and assumptions and understand the perspectives and assumptions of others, their thinking will become “rigid, weak, and inefficient.” They will be unable to cope with intellectual challenges that cause discomfort when they leave the protective umbrella of school.
And, it turns out, students may be more capable than teachers of discussing difficult ideas.
In her book Controversy in the Classroom, Diana Hess, professor of curriculum and instruction at University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education, describes a scenario in which adults become more emotional when discussing controversial topics than high school students. When a high-school teacher gathered parents, community members, and students to discuss whether physician-assisted suicide should be legal, students used more factual evidence to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the policy, while the adults used personal experiences to express support or dissent for the policy. Certainly, both adults and children often use emotional reasoning instead of evidence to evaluate and make claims, but like the adults in Hess’s study, teachers come to the classroom with more life experiences than their students, which colors their worldview.
Young people are capable of interrogating ideas, even those that may cause some discomfort. They need adults to provide them with the skills to discuss ideas, but they don’t need teachers to police what ideas are up for discussion, nor how they should be understood and discussed. Educators must try to present information and react to students in a way that promotes critical thinking in their students, rather than unnecessarily protecting and imposing views on their students.
This can be done by teaching the stages of analytic reading and encouraging students to follow these stages while reading and engaging in dialogue. Analytic reading requires students to understand a written work’s arguments, the terms on which they are made, and whether they are true in whole or part before making any criticism of the book. By following these stages, students will engage in the self-guided process of discovery to either agree or disagree with arguments based on facts and reason, not opinion. This process is better suited to build the resiliency necessary to be intellectually anti-fragile than is disrupting a text to avoid the rigorous task of analyzing and grappling with the big, potentially uncomfortable, ideas that the text presents.