The Two Battlelines of Teaching: Which One Are You On?

So I’ve finished re-reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and I still cannot recommend it enough. He writes in a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell and masterfully curates easy-read summaries of psychological and political research.

Thankfully Haidt also summarises the main principles of his book. They are:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second  – i.e. we decided what we think by gut feel and then we cast about to find the reasons and evidence to support it
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness – Left-wingers tend to think only in terms of these two things, right-wingers tend also to add in ‘loyalty, authority and sanctity’.
  3. Morality binds and blinds – We like people who think like us and we stick to them. This is not necessarily a good thing as we then develop huge blind spots. Whether the Left wants to admit it or not there is loyalty and authority can be beneficial – we probably all just need to realise that.

These three ideas struck me hard given many conversations of late about curriculum and classroom behaviour. Both conform beautifully to Haidt’s principles:

Curriculum – ‘Traditionalists’ tend to talk about the ‘sanctity’ of the classics and a belief that a single traditional core will bind the nation together. Haidt argues such beliefs are typically held by people who see humans as naturally tending towards evil unless steered away. On the other hand ‘Progressives’ worry less about this authority, tradition and sanctity and instead concentrate on ‘fairness’, particularly the ‘fairness’ of teaching a canon – i.e. whose voice will it reflect, what messages will it send – or they worry about the ‘harm’ to teacher autonomy or student identity if the only things read reflect a ‘dominant patriarchal’ voice.

Behaviour – Again, traditionalists prefer a deference for authority, a strict approach without deviation for any kind of behaviour they would not agree with and demand absolute loyalty from students (i.e. “it doesn’t matter that you think the lesson is boring, you must behave anyway if you wish to get on”). Progressives, however, tend to promote ideas of ‘fairness’ rather than a hardline equitable approach – e.g. should a student who is undergoing traumatic issues at home be reprimanded severely if misbehaving when compared to a student who is having expectations positively modeled in a firm and loving home environment?

The fear then is that having decided which principles we feel matter most all we do next is cast about finding evidence to shore up our own side. If that happens then as @oldandrewuk has often said, all we have is a never -ending educational battleground from which any government, institution, policy is only going to work for the purpose of supporting its own inbuilt biases.

2 thoughts on “The Two Battlelines of Teaching: Which One Are You On?

  1. I don’t think it’s quite as bleak as this. You say that the fear is that all we can do is to search for evidence to shore up our own biases. In fact, there is an alternative: being aware that there is no hard and fast evidence that proves we are right and accepting that we are behaving delusionally to assert otherwise, we can look to understand our opponents and seek elements of their biases that we can incorporate into our own practice/ideology.

    I realise that this makes me sound like a Liberal Democrat and can only assure you that this is not the case. But then neither do I have the time, anymore, for left and right categories.

    A wonderful book to help explain this idea much more lucidly is “the invisible gorilla”.

    1. To be somewhat meta here, I actually agree with what you are saying and think it blends in with what I was saying rather than going against it. The ‘fear’ is that we simply shore up our own biases, but of course the ‘hope’ is that we get beyond that and with knowledge of our inbuilt biases we push against them – trying to disconfirm our views as much as confirm them. This is something I take very seriously. And I, too, am not a Liberal Democrat.

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