The election of Donald Trump in 2016 surprised and frightened many liberal educators. Surprise stemmed from decades of liberal indoctrination in US universities and high schools based in “confirmation bias” and a nefarious resorting to language policing, identity politics, and the triumph of feelings over facts. Fear was rooted in the confirmation that a large percentage of Americans actually shared Trump’s worldview. This surprise and fear has led some liberal teachers to circle their wagons around the belief that they must eradicate Trump’s views and other alternative viewpoints from the classroom rather than engage them, throwing Voltaire’s legendary quip that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” out the window. The most effective place to combat this illiberal trend is the same place where it started: the American classroom.
Liberals who stand ready to rescue the national conversation and engage with uncomfortable ideas and facts need to challenge those who are quick to label competing or unpopular arguments as intolerance. If education is going to rescue itself and the national conversation from the current abyss it will be with the help of liberals who were taught, and actually believe, that republics are best served by advancing the most amount of good for the most amount of people. This would require teachers and students to resist the temptation to focus on what divides us and instead concentrate on what unites us. This is no easy task. In the current toxic environment liberals must wage battle on two fronts. First, they must engage with and counter the nationalist, racist and anti-intellectual rhetoric emanating from some Trump supporters. And second, they must confront the enemy within: radical liberals willing to sacrifice Enlightenment values of free speech, expression, assembly and religion for shallow short-term gains rooted in identify politics and vengeance. All the while, those liberals standing up for the First Amendment rights of those they don’t agree with know that they stand the chance of bogusly being shamed as supporters of racism, intolerance, the white patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, among other pejoratives designed to squash rather than expand debate.
Sadly, American education has turned what the Greeks started as a quest for wisdom into the seeking of retribution, the stifling of critical thinking, and the inability to rationally discuss different viewpoints. In short, the pursuit of knowledge and Truth has been sacrificed on the altar of political and social indoctrination. Thus, in order to bring the national discussion back toward some semblance of reason, the classroom needs to be wrested from the hands of ideologues determined to indoctrinate rather than educate.
The first step in rescuing the conversation is to focus on the power and limitations of language. As the most potent technology available to humans, language needs to be expanded rather than curtailed. No doubt, an open challenge to politically correct speech in classrooms would be uncomfortable, frustrating, and frightening. But the alternative – safe spaces, trigger warnings, counselors to soothe students exposed to ideas they don’t like, and prior restraint on campus – will not help liberals regain the political high ground. In fact, it is almost a certain recipe for the continued ascendency of nativism, populism and authoritarianism in US politics. Consequently, liberals need to turn the classroom into a forum where all ideas are fair game if they are rationally presented and supported by evidence. These forums should take shape in primary and secondary schools to help future university students understand that many ideas, though uncomfortable, need to be addressed rather than silenced. It’s the least we can do for students and parents who deserve much better than what the current system provides.
Another important step would be training teachers and students from all disciplines in the arts, sciences, politics and philosophy of Classical Greece, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It would be essential for teachers and students to examine the political, cultural and economic reasons that put “white men” in positions of power to spread these ideas. In addition, it would be vital to analyze how these ideas shaped the political, economic and educational philosophy that has led to the current clash of viewpoints in America’s “marketplace of ideas”. Intense engagement with the thoughts and writings of Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson would be of great import. Rather than undertake blind hagiographical study of these thinkers, however, teachers and students would look critically at their shortcomings, including the philosophers’ acceptance of slavery, promotion of aristocratic or absolutist political control and the oppression of women. But the aim of this critical approach would not be to tear these philosophers down. It would be to connect students with the political, economic and philosophic foundations of Western civilization while putting these “white men” in historical context and asking what should be disparaged or salvaged from their experience.
Finally, teachers must remind themselves and students that nobody has a monopoly on the Truth. In fact, being open to rationally debating competing Truths would help students develop the critical research, writing and speaking skills needed to become productive citizens. Rather than immediately firing off Twitter rants aimed to defame or shame, students would be taught to engage in reasonable debate and discussion with those harboring different world views. By no means would this search for understanding mean capitulation. Instead, as Voltaire noted, it simply would mean standing up for freedom of expression.
The alternative is to promote ever more divisive and vindictive tactics and watch the national conversation sink lower into the abyss.