There are Not Always Two Sides to Every Issue

Last month, the comments of a school administrator in Texas made national news in response to a new state law that prohibits critical race theory and requires that both sides are taught on controversial current event issues (a similar law is currently being considered by the South Carolina legislature). In her interpretation of the bill, the administrator stated that if the teachers taught a book on the Holocaust it needed to be balanced out with another perspective.

When I first heard of the incident, I thought this had to be taken out of context or that the administrator had just misspoken. However, believe it or not, the administrator actually made these statements. This action is an extreme example of something much more insidious that has happened not only in our education system but in our society.

How did we get to this point in society? Some would almost say it is a post-truth society where every truth and falsehood is given equal value. The educational roots of this ideology may be a distorted vision of the child-centered learning championed by those like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, which stressed putting the child at the center of their own learning and cautioned against teachers stressing their own ideological perspectives. Of course, Montessori and Dewey added immensely to the field of education and would never endorse the type of absurdity promoted by the Texas administrator, but a distorted view of their ideology sets the groundwork for this. Even at the time, there were some critics of this type of ideology, most notably Dewey’s student, George Counts, who argued that such an education would never lead to social change and that students would just continue with the same views that they had already been given by their social surrounding, instead of being really challenged in their thinking. This is perhaps even more the case now where oftentimes internet research students conduct will be used to just bolster the opinions they already had.

Another culprit is postmodernism, which, in many ways reached its pinnacle in the U.S. in the 1990s with the questioning of our perceptions of truth or reality. Again, most postmodern scholars would not fall into this type of thinking of the administrator in Texas, but the pop postmodernism where all views are equally valid certainly does. The reality is that there are not always two sides to an issue. As Michiko Kakutani states, “postmodernists are hardly to blame for all the free-floating nihilism abroad in the land. But some dumbed-down corollaries of their thinking have seeped into popular culture and been hijacked by (those) who want to use its relativistic arguments to…promote alternative facts.”

Slavery happened, the Holocaust occurred, the earth is round, vaccines work, and Trump lost the 2020 election. Just because there is a political or social movement that is not based in reality does not mean that educators should bow down to that and treat it as an equal perspective. As I tell my students, give greater leeway for discussions about values and ideas. There can be a legitimate debate about many different issues; in fact, it is vital that we have these discussions. What we cannot do is undermine and question reality in the name of being open-minded and fair. When we do so, we set up the framework for the end of our democratic project. If there is anything the attempted coup in 2020 should have taught us, it is the danger of lies and distorted views of reality.

Yes, the example from Texas was an extreme and sloppy implementation of a bad Texas law. However, we also need to critique the broader idea that all views are equally valid and should be given equal space. We should have vibrant debates on our values, but we should also hold on tightly to actual reality. As Historian Timothy Synder has warned, if we do not value truth we cannot have a democratic system of government.

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Will McCorkle

Will McCorkle

I am an education professor in South Carolina with an emphasis in immigrant rights and peace education