Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Neutrality in Schools: Ending the Pretense

For most anyone paying attention to the public education system in the last four decades, one has seen a more or less continuous erosion of the concept of neutrality in social views. From a practical standpoint, this represents little change. Since the government took over the education of children, and even before, some viewpoints have been favored over others. What distinguished the time of the 1960’s was that there was a brief period when neutrality was publicly agreed upon as an ideal worthy of pursuit.

It was not generally approached using that term. Rather than neutrality, there were phrases bandied about such as “color-blind,” “equal opportunity,” and “equal protection under law.” I was in the middle grades during that time, and my understanding was limited. It certainly sounded like an ideal that matched up with my concepts of what America “should” strive for.

For all of the high sounding catch-words, the implementation broke down almost immediately. “Equal opportunity” degraded rapidly into a game of semantics involving how best to assure different minority groups preferences. Though giving lip service to respect for all cultures, what had been thought of as “traditional” in America rapidly was singled out for scorn, derision, and a new breed of institutionalized discrimination. As the practice broke down further, it became inevitable that even the thought of government not supporting some non-traditional group was considered intolerable.

The latest example of this shift was observed recently in the Minnesota Board of Education. The policy regarding student and teacher conduct has been changed from one of neutrality, with educators steering clear of opinions about controversial groups and issues, to one labeled “Respectful Learning Environment.” At least one reason for the change is legal troubles resulting in several lawsuits alleging that neutrality has created an environment where gay students are subject to bullying.

The shift prompts me to consider two very important questions: First, what was it about the policy of remaining neutral as teachers that would encourage bullying to any specific group? Surely the school had the same authority under the past policy to administer discipline against any students that acted in a bullying fashion? If the message that the school is trying to send is that all students are worthy of respect, at least with regard to their physical and emotional well-being, then what could possibly serve better than a values-neutral protection of every last student?

The second question, to me, is even more relevant to the issue of bullying: If it has already been observed that there is animosity to particular groups at the school, how does the school intended to reduce that by showing favoritism to the group involved? Isn’t that a near-certain recipe for setting current resentments in concrete, and then setting up an entirely new layer? Haven’t the people in charge learned anything from how affirmative action has placed many achievements by women and African-Americans vulnerable to suspicion?

True neutrality in any system is nearly impossible. I think most people who spend any time considering the difficulties will agree on that. However, it’s only by aiming for the impossible, the ideal, that we have any hope of achieving a moderately equitable reality. By aiming directly at the imperfect, we take the first step toward achieving the intolerable.

No comments: