Education Without Controversy? What’s the Point?

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Howard University announced plans last month to dismantle its classics department. More recently, several states including Texas, Tennessee and Arizona have advanced bills that would effectively ban the teaching of “controversial” subjects, such as racism and sexism; some of the laws would exact financial penalties.

While seemingly unrelated and championed by opposing political camps, these events have the same unfortunate effect. They narrow the range of ideas students are exposed to just when social polarization calls for the opposite: education that helps people understand and evaluate divergent points of view.

The new state laws passed by Republican-dominated legislatures are designed instead to muzzle debate by advocating a simplistic approach to current and historical events.

The decision by Howard, which was met with criticism by defenders of the classics, as well as by students and alumni at the historic Black university, was probably driven by budget pressures, and some courses will be picked up by other departments. However, the classics have been under attack for years as the province of “dead White males,” even though they were prized by great African-American thinkers from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. (Moreover, Greek and Roman society was highly multi-cultural, and many of its greatest exponents were probably non-White — we don’t know for sure because these societies did not tend to make racial distinctions, according to the Tufts University philosopher Peter Levine.)

These latest culture-war skirmishes also are part of a decades-old effort to downsize the liberal arts, which are seen as less practical than the sciences, even though the lifetime earnings of liberal arts majors are comparable to those who hold science degrees. Equally important, as Carlos Rotella, a Boston College professor, puts it: To “dismiss ‘liberal arts degrees’ as impractical because there’s no job called ‘English’ or ‘history’ is to misunderstand how education shapes a life.”

As social media companies wrestle with serial liars and Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney is ousted from GOP leadership for her vocal opposition to the party’s election-fraud fantasies, could there be a greater reminder of the importance of pursuing truth than Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” about the role of education in guiding students to enlightenment?

Classics have endured, and deserve to be taught, because they help make sense of the great themes of human history and struggle. They also help us “appreciate how difficult it is to be a decent human being,” said Paula Berggren, who created the Great Works Program at Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York. That doesn’t mean adhering to any particular canon. After all, colonialism, brutality towards women and family disintegration are central themes in an array of classical and modern literature.

Everything old is new again, and art and literature help make the connections between today and yesterday. Hip Hop has made Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution, as well as Shakespeare, fresh and relatable. Zoom helped reinterpret the classics during, and for, the pandemic. Grappling with difficult truths in a world of ambiguity also requires teaching a set of intellectual skills, beginning no later than high school and on through college, for weighing conflicting narratives and perspectives.

One way to do that would be to embrace Nicholas Lemann’s proposed methods-based core by arming students with the skills and habits of mind needed to wrestle with hard questions. Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University journalism school, begins, rightly, with the need to teach “information acquisition,” which goes beyond learning to locate texts to analyzing how information is created and determining the relative quality of sources found on social media or via a Google search. (Recently, some universities have embraced information or news literacy as part of a core curriculum.)

Another core academic skill would be identifying what Lemann calls “perspectival thinking” — the idea that everyone has points of view with inherent limitations, and that other people experience the world in ways that “ought to be understood rather than dismissed.”

While Lemann’s approach is emphatically content-neutral, it offers a means of probing controversial books and subjects.

Consider the battle over how to teach America’s fraught racial history, most recently fought over the 1619 Project on the legacy of slavery, which began as a series of articles in the New York Times. A class assignment designed to prepare students to develop their own arguments might include a close reading of the 1619 Project itself along with the scathing critique of it by the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz. Throw in chapters from Harvard University professor Jill Lepore’s “These Truths,” a sweeping one-volume history that chronicles the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward the great ideals of America’s founding while giving voice to those who did not benefit equally from the promise of the American project.

Then, have students practice their information-gathering skills to select a few top historical texts, which will, among other things, show that the 1619 Project dispute is a tiny blip in raging battles over race that have informed American scholarship for generations. A search of “slavery” and “the U.S. [or American] economy,” the focus of the 1619 Project, produced close to 50,000 scholarly articles and books — 90% of them published after 1963.

Teaching a suite of tools for analyzing the humanities and social sciences also could serve the vital purpose — an animating goal for Lemann’s core — of helping students who struggle to make the transition from high school to college and to increase graduation rates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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