Monday, April 11, 2016

My classroom, my values, of course. - a discussion of the safe schools program.

The furor over the safe schools program has died down. The Victorian Government is retaining it in my home state with absolutely no changes. The Federal government is proscribing changes that will lower its profile and independence, depoliticize the program and restrict some parts of its information to the discretion of counselors. These are matters of concern for the programs supporters. Likewise conservative Christians in Victoria are resenting the complete lack of changes in this state. Oddly the effect of these two polar opposite positions in an area of overlapping jurisdiction is something like a local truce. The chatter and protests over the program are dying down. I doubt very many people will even be switching their votes over these Federal Liberal and State Labor positions that play to each of the parties bases.

This abatement of political rhetoric is a welcome relief as much as the settlement leaves nobody happy. The climax of the Australian Christian Lobby’s attack on the program became an attempt to trip up Malcolm Turnbull by the disgruntled conservatives in his party. Their victory may not have even been as substantial as was crowed for the cameras but LGBTI people saw in this that their lives were still legitimate political footballs. For same-sex attracted and gender diverse adults the campaign raised angry memories of powerlessness that many just want to put behind them. This is admittedly selfish given the ongoing nature of the issue for today’s queer high school students. It also reflects that possibly safe schools isn’t the program everyone would choose to fight for.

For one thing the safe schools program took a position on gender and sexuality that was hardly Marxist despite that characterization being thrown at it. Marxist views on gender and sexuality wouldn’t describe identity as totally self-knowable and primarily about individual expression. Marxist views on sexuality and gender would emphasis how these identities are manufactured by our material circumstances – the means of production we are engaged in, class interests and so on. At best Marxists would say that dominant views of gender and sexuality can be subverted by individuals and communities but that not even our “rebellions” are entirely free or natural.

To give some examples of what I mean; Under the safe schools program it feels very much like if almost every boy in class preferred sports to dolls each boy would be able to conclude this is a natural expression of themselves. The advance made by the program would be that boys who felt differently would also see their feelings as a natural expression of themselves. Some queer theorists would prefer to talk about socialization and market forces involved not only in shaping our preferences but in framing our choices as dolls vs sports or as buy vs buy in most cases. Likewise if someone said they preferred blondes to brunettes a typical Marxist position would be to find this an unsurprising product of racism. A Marxist analysis might also note that the importance of hair colour revolves around the importance of a relationship as a status symbol and therefore want to look into how sexuality in late stage capitalism is often about displaying itself and its “success” to others. The safe schools program could silence criticism of a preference for blondes under a banner of “you can be and like anything you want.” Marxists are just much more dour predictors of how society shapes choices than this.

There was very little space in the heat of the safe schools program debate to make these comments or any other criticisms without feeling like a betrayer of gay rights. In my last post I discussed how overwhelming history was in deciding people’s positions in support of safe schools. I’m not the first to argue we humans are too comfortable moving with our intellectual tribes and listening to what leaders tell us to think. However rather than simply decry this as foolish I hope my last post tried to explain some of why this is the case. Tribalism exists and is rationalized when people feel under attack and that barricades need to be maintained. Trust between LGBTI people and conservative Christians has never been spectacularly high and the safe schools “debate” mired in half truths and distortions thrived on that distrust. I still wonder if any criticism I make of the program will simply be seized upon by people who want to make all mention of non-heterosexuality taboo in high school. That isn’t my position, in case I need to say so.

This Queer/Christian battle line isn’t the only fault line that the safe schools program sat upon. It was simply the most easy one for the media to portray. The Marxist/individualist clash of paradigms I described was never going to lead the nightly news. One other point of conflict over safe schools did gain a small public hearing however; the safe schools program asked us to consider what if any role public schools have in adopting moral or political positions around sexuality. Bizarrely evangelical Christians argued against the program with the language of liberal philosophy; that education should be largely value neutral by avoiding any mention of what is or isn’t normal/healthy/right or wrong. Meanwhile it was the other side who seemed to tolerate explicit teaching of values in order to normalize same-sex attraction and gender diversity. This reflects a wider trend of conservatives casting themselves as champions of pluralism around sexuality – religious freedom fighters – which remains at odds with their defence of school chaplains and heterosexual only marriage. Likewise LGBTI politics embrace of the state to promote health outcomes is a willingness to wield cultural power that usually only a conservative philosophy can justify.

I find this fault line between teaching values and supporting pluralism fascinating as a philosopher and a teacher. The challenge of teaching lies right across it. We are not supposed to use our classrooms as a platform for our moral and political beliefs. I have personally helped students prepare speeches or write essays that argue directly across my own views in line with this. It is ludicrous to suggest that any teacher presents “all the facts” however. I had less than one class to discuss all the politics of genetically modified food with my year nines last year. What would “all the facts” look like on that issue? I chose the story of Golden Rice in the Philippines to humanize the issues for them. There are a hundred alternatives I could have chosen instead but this one struck me as picking up on the most important issues based, frankly, on my values.

A teacher who has no values at all simply couldn’t teach. This is why we don’t simply sit kids in front of the internet in classrooms. We very deliberately provide twenty to thirty of them at a time with a person who hopefully cares deeply about the world, about truth and about human suffering. Our discussion about genetically modified food was in the context of looking at food shortages and food security. Do you want someone teaching kids about those issues who doesn’t have an opinion on whether worldwide hunger matters? Do you want  someone who doesn’t feel a loss over the replacement of the majestic Amazon with soya plantations and who can’t also empathize with poor locals motivation to clear jungle to farm?

Teaching is only superficially valueless. Often I instruct kids to identify stakeholders –a core skill in the humanities. If a student ranks the views of the animal rights activist, or even the chicken themselves, to be unimportant in comparison to the chicken farmer looking to increase sales or the consumer looking for cheap eggs then I have still done my job as a teacher . I have done my job as a teacher if they draw a different conclusion. In this way I can seem to have no values. However on a deeper level by placing the recognition of stakeholders at the core of my teaching, I am promoting what I consider to be a geographers value set – consideration of others, a sensitivity to complexity and the integration of multiple layers of meaning over the same event or location. At the heart of what is good or bad high school geography is not the possession of a set of unchanging facts but a value based relationship to the facts. You could even say that any given set of facts are a product of having a value based approach to the question at hand.

This illustration of the value based heart to teaching in geography describes a scenario in which the victims –Amazonian farmers and damaged chickens  - may not be in the room, although indeed some hungry families may well be represented. The expectation that teachers hold values increases when the subjects of discussions are actually sitting in the class. This isn’t an expectation I see particularly coming from parents or even the school system. Instead it is students themselves who expect their teachers have a moral interest in what they are teaching and even more so when it directly relates to who they are teaching.

This expectation was readily apparent when we looked at groups in Australia who experienced food insecurity. Students were asked to hypothesize why this might be the case for Aboriginal people, young people and the homeless in particular. In doing so they needed to demonstrate an awareness of what are the elements of food security. At the start of this class I spent considerable time talking through the level of maturity and sensitivity people were expected to bring to this topic. Food insecurity is not foreign to every students life and I relayed that some teachers had cautioned me against opening up this discussion because of the relationship between poverty and stigma and thus the opportunity for abuse. I mentioned briefly my own experiences of unemployment and poverty, low paid jobs and housing insecurity so as to destigmatise these conditions.

Some students felt that poverty was connected to laziness and that people without food and on benefits just needed to work harder. They shared these views with me however not to seize some barbed advantage in class but because this seemed plausible to them and they felt I had missed this in my introduction to the task. I didn’t need to correct them The final task was to see whether their hypothesis was reflected in the research. In a way it didn’t matter whether they left class feeling that people were choosing to go hungry due to a character flaw. I would have still taught them about speculation from correlation in the social sciences and introduced them to professional and rigorous explanations of causality. But, and this is a very important but, I don’t think anyone could have accused this class of being valueless or even not having any prejudice. Humility, empathy, generosity, caution and respect were values that informed how the class undertook some basic social science.

Would I have challenged a student if they made a statement that was blatantly racist or included racist generalizations? While that is a question which I thankfully didn’t have to face, I probably would have challenged this. I could have done so in many different ways including inviting another student to provide a different perspective. If a racist comment was made in order to grandstand and treat the classroom as an platform to indirectly bully I would have shut the student down forcefully. I don’t put up with that kind of garbage in my class. If the comment was put forward as genuine opinion, especially with some thoughtfulness about how it might offend others, I could have simply encouraged the student to interrogate their conclusion with further questions. My awareness of the broader reality of racism and the presence of affected students would require me to be more pro-active in challenging racist ideas in class than just any idea I disagreed with.

Returning to the matter of same-sex attraction and gender diversity I don’t think there is an easy answer to say what values a teacher should bring into the classroom and what they should keep to themselves or how biased  a discussion on these matters should be. If a student wanted to grandstand their homophobia in my classroom that is unacceptable but if a student is sensitively critical of same-sex attraction or transgender identity that is not the same thing. The latter student might seem to me to be as misinformed as the first but I would handle it differently because of the core values the latter student is adhering to. I may challenge them gently or not at all even. I don’t see that nuance in the safe schools material.

I disagree philosophically with the idea that I can ever teach without values. This doesn’t mean I have to see every student leave class parroting what I think however. In fact the very best questions I have ever asked a class – “Should Bendigonians have a say in what happens to the Barrier reef?” for example– have been questions where barely any two students have agreed but where all students have considered each others point of view. There seem too few of those sorts of open questions in the safe-schools materials.

There are also other perspectives –that a bit of bullying is just a lark for example – that I would strictly control any discussion over and where students would know my opinion strongly. And there are other ideas - that anglo-australians are superior to others – that I just laugh down if  I heard them. The opinion that same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people should keep their feelings and relationships to themselves is something safe schools materials is and should be biased against.  A proud public position of acceptance of same-sex attraction and gender diversity by schools strikes me as a good thing. Not every opinion is equally tolerable. But I do wonder if the safe schools approach is insufficiently grounded in core values of empathy and respect and too worried about the surface value of the opinions students express. That isn’t where I think teaching values should be at.

1 comment:

  1. Good article: I think the educational approach to all these issues, in fact to anything, is the crucial point because young people are very much in the forming and storming stages of their values. Teachers should not be valuing conformity to opinions as an educational stance (basically a didactic, not educative, approach).

    Makes me wonder about the insistence on public conformity by both Safe Schools Coalition and ACL. Why insist on it? It betrays a fear of conversation and education while at the same time appearing to care about these things.