Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Encouraging democratic values in English class

On July 21 I conducted a workshop with a group of teachers who are students at the Bread Loaf School of English, a Middlebury College program in which they can get a Master's degree in English in the course of 4-5 summers. We'd set as the topic the question of whether and how teachers should bring their own moral and political perspectives into the classroom.

To my surprise we didn't address the question head on. After the session I realized that we'd stepped back from the explicit question to discuss the issues that underlie it and from which it arose. Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to recognize what was happening during the session, so I couldn't connect the discussion we had with the question we'd posed.

In retrospect I believe the question we posed arose from a sense on the part of a number of teachers that self-disclosure was necessary (a) to advance important goals for the class or (b) to counter what the teachers saw as seriously "wrong" student values. The National Conference of Teachers of English (NCTE) statement on Academic Freedom presents fostering democratic values as a central objective for English teachers:
NCTE maintains that students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others. [Academic freedom] not only serves the common good but also enhances academic integrity and the overall quality of education  
But the statement warns teachers and schools against indoctrination:
Educators and educational institutions must not require or coerce students to modify their beliefs or values. Efforts to convince students to modify their beliefs or values must be academically justifiable.
If promoting open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others is a central goal for English class, the question of whether to bring our own moral and political perspectives into the classroom should be judged by whether doing so is needed to promote those underlying goals. What happened in the workshop is that the teachers jumped past the question of self-disclosure to focus on techniques that promote the democratic values. They referred to the Kipp School approach, the Quest to Learn Schools, and others. The implicit message was - if we can develop a classroom environment that encourages the values of democratic deliberation, self-disclosure is not required.

A teacher gave an example of a student who espoused highly discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants. The teacher was tempted to offer his own different values as a "corrective" to the student's views, but over time the student came to recognize that some painful experiences of his own had led him to views he could no longer accept. In this way the aim the teacher contemplated pursuing via self-disclosure was achieved without self-disclosure.

A comment made by one of the participants - "I think less about what I’m saying and more about what structures I’m setting up" - reminded me of a key lesson I learned many years ago from Irving Yalom's superb book Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. According to Yalom the most valuable contribution by group therapists was fostering a culture of inquiry, diversity of thought and expression, and respect for others, not their insights into psychodynamics. I took from Yalom's teaching that if a therapy group developed and maintained a constructive therapeutic culture, the healing process would, in effect, take care of itself.

The teachers in the workshop suggested that something similar was true for English class. With regard to the character development goals for the class, a constructive democratic ethos would generally lead to the desired results.

Although we did not discuss the initial question at any length, one participant strongly supported the view that teachers could bring their own moral and political perspectives into class discussion without squelching students in their independent reflection or violating the NCTE guardrail against indoctrination. This is a question I've thought about a lot from the perspective of medical ethics. Perhaps we'll come back to it in another workshop next summer.