“Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem,” writes Nicole Truesdell, concluding: “Now is not the time to side with neutrality.”
Mainstream and rightwing pundits have long promoted the idea that K-12 and higher education in the U.S. are rife with liberal indoctrination. One of my long-time colleagues often told the story of his own father periodically lamenting that he had allowed my colleague to go to college because the experience had turned him into a liberal.
Evidence, however, is another thing when framed against these standard railings against a Left in the US that simply does not exist.
As the country stumbles toward its first year in Trumplandia, a new but also misleading mantra is lamenting fake news in post-truth America. The misleading part is that these phenomena are somehow new or spawned by Trump and his serial lies, as well as his ability to avoiding any consequences for his outlandish racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
The U.S. has a long and disappointing history with choosing ideology over evidence, and public discourse has often been grounded in framing opinion in a cloak of false equivalence.
The term “opinion” itself has worked throughout modern history to suggest that no person has any more credibility than another since “both sides” are simply sharing their opinion. How often do we listen as debate is resolved with “Let’s just agree to disagree”?
So as 2017 comes to an end, and the Trumplandia nightmare of the unreasonable continues, I want to take this opportunity to state clearly: This is not my opinion.
While socializing with good friends just yesterday, I was reminded once again that to be informed places anyone in a stressful situation throughout our day-to-day life, since the vast majority of people are uninformed about the many things they nonetheless feel compelled and justified to weigh in on.
I, on the other hand, have the annoying habit of reserving comments unless I am well informed and being disturbingly honest and blunt when I do weigh in myself.
Yes, I do hold my tongue often in social situations, but that is quite challenging since most people spend their lives in the actual realm of “opinion,” as it is commonly used to suggest that no evidence exists to confirm if that “opinion” is valid or not.
Formal schooling traditionally reinforces this lazy approach to how we explore ideas by plodding students through overly simplistic “fact v. opinion” worksheets.
What we should be teaching instead is that all of us make claims (not that everyone has an opinion) and that we are all ethically responsible for making claims that are credible, supported by evidence or solid logic.
As two examples, I often contribute to public discussions about the so-called “word gap” and corporal punishment, both of which are illustrative of the problems inherent with seeing the world as awash in “opinion.”
The “word gap” represents an interesting phenomenon since those who appeal to the term and the idea that social class is strongly correlated to literacy (wealthy children are exposed to and know more words than poor children) do take the initiative to cite evidence, almost always one study by Hart and Risley.
This appeal to the “word gap,” however, has two critical flaws: it is driven by a social class and racist bias hiding beneath a flawed view of literacy (number of words in any person’s vocabulary is not a valid single proxy for literacy), and since the “word gap” appeals to a common-sense view of how to support better children in poverty, the average person and journalist have failed to investigate Hart and Risley, whose study has itself been discredited.
Understanding the complex relationship between social class/race and literacy and then how to educate better vulnerable populations of students are not served well by a culture of “opinions.” Here is an important context for why expertise (making claims grounded in evidence) is important—and how all discourse is political.
Journalists perpetuating the “word gap” without critically unpacking the concept or confronting Hart and Risley are themselves being political—even as they hide behind the veneer of “just reporting” and “both sides” journalism.
As a literacy professor, I cannot avoid being political ― there is no neutral pose ― when I teach literacy courses. But I have an ethical obligation to be well informed on the topics I teach. And thus, just as when I blog or weigh in on topics in public spaces, when I teach, this is not my opinion.
While the “word gap” continually is reanimated as a fact that isn’t true, the corporal punishment debate is a disturbing example of how “both sides” discourse and “just an opinion” have real and negative consequences—especially for the powerless (such as children).
As I have explained before, public debate about domestic violence is quite distinct from public debate about corporal punishment—the former is always examined as something no one can support or defend, but the latter is always framed as a “both sides” argument.
If we consider the rush to cite Hart and Risley when promoting the “word gap,” we must wonder how domestic violence is universally rejected in mainstream discussions (and with no need to cite research) but corporal punishment remains a debate—despite decades of research and virtually all medical and psychological professional organizations clearly showing there is no acceptable amount of physical punishment.
This often ignored distinction between how we frame domestic violence and corporal punishment again highlights that all human discourse is political.
In her rejecting calls for classrooms that are somehow not political, Truedell offers the words of James Baldwin so here I want to make my case by merging their ideas myself:
While Truesdell argues, “Now is not the time to side with neutrality,” Baldwin admonished us: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
A democracy cannot afford teachers, professors, journalists, or public intellectuals who choose the veneer of neutrality as long as inequity and injustice rule the day.
This is not my opinion.
 Note that discussions of domestic violence often do include statistics about who is involved and how many women suffer domestic violence, corporal punishment debates may note how may states allow it in schools, but rarely identify the number of actual children impacted; thus, domestic violence is more humanized than corporal punishment even in the numbers. This is political; this is about power.