Teaching Uncertainty- Cultivating a Heterodox Classroom and Life

To quote someone a lot smarter than me, “I know that I know nothing.” This is the Socratic paradox which states that the only thing I’m certain of is my own uncertainty.

For many, the hubris of blind ideological conviction is hard to shake. I have family members rooted firmly to conservative values who know Trump is good for the country. And I have friends devoted to the progressive cause who know he’s a walking, tweeting hate crime.

They’re all so damned sure.

Too many people seem to be certain of their political opinions. Casual conversations with friends can escalate into overblown arguments. Family dinners must be sanitized of current affairs (unless everyone at the table is in complete agreement). Social media is an incendiary hellscape. Left and right are locked in endless battle, fueled by hate, fear and self-appointed virtue. Books like Amy Chua’s Political Tribes and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how disastrous tribalism can be—and how understanding the other side might be what saves us.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a junior high teacher in my eighth year on the job, I can see the benefits of open-minded discourse. A little intellectual humility goes a long way, and no group needs more of it than eleven to fourteen-year-olds. Their brains are big open basins, ready for the waters of the world to come rushing in. My mother, a veteran teacher herself, says that middle school is like “kindergarten for the rest of your life.” She’s right. It’s when kids start figuring out who they want to be. Things that once seemed foreign begin to make sense. The universe starts taking shape.

But wait, you might be thinking. You said before that you know nothing. Yet you’re a teacher?

Yes. Good educators promote curiosity and critical thinking—they don’t claim to know everything. There’s a common axiom among teachers: you don’t teach kids what to think, but how to think. Those of us teaching the middle years (approximately sixth through ninth grades) have a significant role to play in this. We build upon elementary school foundations and transform general competence into something else. Something more.

In my English class, broad-mindedness is as important as grammar or the Great American Novel. I praise students who listen to others and grapple with their views. Class discussion is indispensable—I always emphasize the importance of debate. Usually, after some initial stumbles, my students are able to handle unpopular opinions by either recognizing their merits or deconstructing them based on available evidence. This takes longer for some kids than for others, but, by the end of the year, my students are more open than before, able to use their intellectual compasses to steer them in better directions.

In an English class, this isn’t necessarily hard to do. When I teach nonfiction, we spend lots of time reading pro and con articles, studying the viewpoints and rhetorical strategies on display. For fiction, I assign texts from a multitude of authors from different backgrounds. We use their work to identify contrasting themes, letting the literature reveal truths about ourselves and the world. As for writing? We bounce from persuasion to creative writing, from analysis to evaluation. The more I change it up, the better. It keeps them on their toes.

Is this a perfect system? Maybe not. Class sometimes devolves into one-off conversations that probably aren’t preparing students to tackle the next round of state testing. Lessons have the tendency to run long, and, in an occupation in which it seems like you’re always playing catch-up, this is stressful. The more rabbit holes we tumble down, the harder it is to find our way out.

But it’s worth it. Every year, my students become more tolerant and more critical. Because of this, I often have great relationships with them. There’s a mutual positivity, a shared culture of inquiry and, hopefully, honesty. Kids learn to question almost everything: themselves, each other, the world.

Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not advocating anarchistic moral relativism, in which there’s no right or wrong, so students should embrace the gray. Nor am I encouraging people to abandon their core principles and pinwheel wildly from opinion to opinion. Values matter, and many are fixed. The chameleon is an apt analogy here. When a chameleon uses its camouflage, the colors vary but the creature itself remains intact. Same animal, different colors.

It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay to question yourself, to show humility, to study other opinions. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff assert in The Coddling of the American Mind, children are antifragile. Exposing them to opposing ideas won’t result in their complete obliteration. Equip kids with the right intellectual tools and you’ll be surprised by what they can do.

Viewpoint diversity is critical to the success of all our students, from adolescence through college. Heterodox Academy is an organization working with professors and graduate students to ensure dedication to open inquiry. They do great work—if you’re involved in higher education, you should check them out. Another important group is Better Angels, who, according to their website, aim to “give all Americans a chance to better understand each other” by “forming red/blue community alliances.” (John R. Wood Jr. of Better Angels was interviewed for this magazine’s Two for Tea podcast here.—The Ed.) This is exactly the kind of optimistic openness we need. Compromise and civility don’t have to be bad words. They keep us grounded, and almost as importantly, they keep us productive. The gridlock of ideological certainty lessens when we listen to others.

I get news from a variety of sources and keep my ears open to mindsets that challenge my own. My news media range from the Atlantic to the National Review. It’s fun to dive into contrasting texts and see how I come out on the other side. Does this make me inconsistent? Sometimes. But does it get me closer to the truth? I believe so. It helps me avoid the shackles of certainty, which affords my mind a certain elasticity and my heart a bit more empathy. I believe instilling similar practices in my students makes them better readers, writers, and thinkers.

It might make them better people, too. At least better citizens. Embracing a heterodox paradigm has improved my life and helped my students. Stepping outside our comfy echo chambers sharpens our minds. Inquiry is preferable to orthodoxy. Civility beats suspicion. Open minds lead to open doors.

by Brad Perry, AeroMagazine.com