I recently had a conversation with colleagues about objectivity in schools. At one point, my friend said, “Look, I don’t present both sides of every situation. I’m reading Omnivore’s Dilemma with students, and I’m not brining in a guest speaker from Cargill to present the other side.”
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When I was a classroom teacher, I was the same way. I would present ideas that I found compelling and be transparent that I was presenting these ideas from a particular point of view. For example, I taught one unit about how the Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to a flurry of mergers among media companies, and was explicit in my belief that it was bad for democracy. One student accused me of being biased because I presented data illustrating the sharp decline in hard news reporting and a dramatic increase in celebrity gossip and crime stories. “You’re not showing us the other side!” he cried.
“I can’t show you the ‘other side’ with data showing that journalistic integrity is on the rise,” I said to the student, “because that data doesn’t exist.”
After that, I would build into my curriculum a day early in the semester in which I would share information about my background, education, values, and political views so that students could get a better sense of the inherent biases in any lesson I would deliver. I would explicitly tell them that seeking out multiple perspectives was the only way to get a well-rounded education.
He remained skeptical of me. This would have made me quite pleased except for the fact that the student remained un-skeptical of his other teachers who simply taught straight from the textbook.
This attitude is part of the myth of objectivity that pervades traditional schooling. The curriculum is presented as objective, comprehensive, and factual. Sit in the chair, follow directions, and you will receive an objective, comprehensive, and factual education. A friend was teaching in his first year in an urban school, and an African American young man challenged him: “How come we don’t learn any black history in this class?”
“It’s American history,” my friend shot back.
Translation: Sit in your chair, follow directions, and you’ll receive a comprehensive, standardized, unbiased education.
Education is a highly personal process. Every decision that teachers make, whether we’re conscious that we’re making it or not, is loaded with bias. History, for example, contains a seemingly infinite set of people, events, and stories; the bias comes not necessarily in how the teacher presents selected events, but in the process of selecting which stories to tell.