As with every federal election cycle, educators and administrators are once again engaging in conversations about neutrality in our schools. Should teachers discuss elections? Should they say anything that might seem to agree with one side or the other in major wedge issues? Should they present information that might sway a student to think one thing or another? I’m going to argue for a particular brand of neutrality – called “pluralism” in political philosophy – and will caution against the wrong kind of neutrality. None of this is new, but teachers and administrators don’t seem at present to have access to this language and thinking, and I see it as my job to introduce the lexicon and moral toolset of philosophy to teachers and admins.
First, the basics. We live in a morally and politically pluralistic society. This means that in the case of morality or of politics, any from among a range of opinions is equally acceptable, even if some among these views are unpalatable to some or even many in our society.
The only moral views that aren’t acceptable to a pluralist are those views that threaten the existence of a morally pluralistic world. On this view, an unacceptable position prohibits the expression of disagreeing views and takes action to interfere with those views (think: militant religious groups who use force to restrain or punish behaviors). Any position that is merely a personal commitment to act or refrain from acting in a certain manner is fine, even if the commitments are incompatible with other people’s opinions and commitments.
Similarly, the only political views that aren’t acceptable are those views that threaten the existence of a politically pluralistic world. For example, a far-right or far-left commitment to forcing the country into their worldview, prohibiting dissent – that’s an unacceptable position for a pluralist to accept among the range of acceptable political views. Anything else is A-okay.
Since the view is in vogue, let’s define so as to reject absolute neutrality. Neutrality among views is not to favor or disfavor any among them, and not to show preference for those who favor or disfavor any among them. A commitment to neutrality is distinct from a commitment to pluralism. Commitments to absolute neutrality that make no distinction between existentially compatible and existentially incompatible views – is unacceptable. What true neutrality looks like is a lack of understanding about what pluralism entails. It permits for the destruction of moral and political pluralism, and it threatens general moral and political stability.
If we take the view that teachers are shaping future adult citizens and providing them the tools they need to evaluate their own views and make critically informed decisions of their own, then educators have a responsibility to produce as best we can citizens with self- and other-awareness. For teachers to embrace absolute neutrality – to remain absolutely neutral between views – is literally to endanger the future of the country, given that such neutrality allows for self-destructive anti-pluralism.
Those are just the basics of maintaining a stable and pluralistic society. We should never be, as we cannot – if we are to survive – afford to be, neutral. We must be, at the very minimum, pluralistic.
Whereas many schools must (because of their commitments) remain merely pluralistic, I also think that mere pluralism doesn’t go far enough in other cases. If a school in particular embraces any moral commitments at all, those commitments must be not only permitted but encouraged to play out in the political discussions and expressions occurring in the school.
Take this example because it is a broad one: If a school is committed to teaching the value of “Respect everyone,” for instance – and I believe this is a value that many schools embrace in one form or another – then the teachers and administrators at that school cannot remain strictly pluralistic, even if they’re committed to political pluralism. That school’s teachers have a moral duty to the commitments of their institution. Things probably would play differently out in all the different cases of schools having these basic moral commitments, but the very fact of having that commitment obligates the members of that school community to do something more than being merely natural between pluralistic views. It has a positive commitment to promote and affirm certain values.
Consider an implication of this argument: If it so happens that Candidate A or Party Q aligns with the positive moral commitments an institution holds dear, an observer might draw a clear line of inference from the school and teachers embracing those values to that aligning candidate or that party. Notice that this line of inference is not identical to the school openly embracing that candidate or party. The school can and should remain politically neutral among politically pluralistic views, even as it is far from morally neutral – even among morally pluralistic views.
In sum: The goal for teachers and administrators should be to be neutral among politically and morally pluralistic, and they should avoid absolute neutrality. Additionally, and at the risk of appearing to be politically non-neutral, teachers and administrators should embrace the moral views adopted by their institution, and these commitments may go beyond pluralistic neutrality.
As a closing consideration, I offer a quote from Elie Weisel‘s Nobel Prize speech:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.