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The Empowering of the American Mind (Beta Version): 10 Principles for Opposing Thought Reform in K-12
Since co-authoring “The Coddling of the American Mind” (the article in 2015, then the book in 2018) I have heard disturbing reports of K-12 programming that shows little respect for the principles of a liberal society, for the individuality of young people, or for the diverse points of view of students and their families. These programs also show a fundamental misunderstanding of the paths towards mental health, and a lack of interest in measuring their psychological effects on students.
There is a realm of personal conscience that those in authority have no right to invade.
In the following list of recommendations, I draw from several sources, including the 1943 opinion of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the wisdom of Learned Hand, and other Supreme Court cases to guide what education in a liberal society is supposed to look like. I will also draw from my work with Jonathan Haidt about wise habits for cultivating a happier, healthier, more empowered K-12 education.
I consider this a beta version or rough draft, and would very much appreciate any feedback from readers. Please send any such feedback to our “email@example.com” email address.
Principle 1: No compelled speech, thought, or belief.
It is usually bad to tell someone what they cannot say. It is usually far worse to tell someone what they must say, and it is always wrong to tell people what they must think or believe.
Yes, K-12 education is expected to impart some amount of “moral education” to students, far more than is expected in higher education. As former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger described it, “schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order.” However, if we are educating a generation to live as citizens in a free society, we must not teach them that those in authority are allowed to — let alone encouraged to — tell citizens what political beliefs they must hold, endorse, or profess.
Religious schools, which accounted for about 1 in 5 K-12 institutions in 2015, may well seek to inculcate values beyond those that a public or secular private school might consider. Yet such schools can still benefit from respecting freedom of conscience. On questions unrelated to faith, the religious character of the school should be irrelevant. On questions of faith, the decision to be faithful can only have meaning if an alternative exists. For most private religious schools, which are Catholic, that respect is doctrinally endorsed. Indeed, the Pope himself has defended freedom of conscience on moral questions. (On a personal note, I attended Catholic high school as a loudmouth atheist, and only later did it fully dawn on me how respectful my teachers were of my lack of belief.)
All advocates of programs that seek to enforce compliance with specific political beliefs should read the 1943 opinion in Barnette that, even in a time of war, said that the United States was not supposed to be the kind of country that forces children to show fealty to specific ideological beliefs:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
While today’s advocates of K-12 indoctrination believe they are doing something of paramount importance by trying to implant specific ideas (in 2021, largely about diversity, inclusion, and race), so did the architects of every previous effort to enforce ideological conformity. As Justice Robert Jackson warned in Barnette, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
If you believe that K-12 schools should inculcate specific political beliefs, you must consider how differently you would feel if those beliefs were, for example, the imposition of the belief that America is (and has always been) a utopia, that all must express unrelenting patriotism, and that to question American exceptionalism is a punishable offense. I oppose any of these attempts to enforce specific political beliefs, and I hope that parents and educators will agree.
Principle 2: Respect for individuality, dissent, and the sanctity of conscience.
American First Amendment law is replete with powerful statements about individual uniqueness, and respect for such uniqueness. For example:
- “[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) (Jackson, J.).
- “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.” Cohen v. California (1971) (Harlan, J.).
- “First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002) (Kennedy, J.).
If K-12 education is to include moral education, it must allow students to question or dissent from the moral education it provides, without fear of punishment. Otherwise, it is indoctrination and thought reform, not education. When students disagree with moral instruction, they should be graded on how well they argue their counterpoints; they should not be treated as if they had committed a sacrilege. There is a realm of personal conscience that those in authority have no right to invade. If we are to have a truly free, diverse, pluralistic society, the most K-12 educators should do is to try to persuade; they should not force adherence to any ideology.
Principle 3: Teachers & administrators must demonstrate epistemic humility.
“No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes…. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) (Warren, C.J.) (emphasis added). This was true in 1957, and there is no reason to think that we have anything close to perfect knowledge in 2021.
Heavy-handed ideological programs always show epistemic arrogance. To believe that students must be inculcated with specific political or ideological beliefs is to assume the infallibility of those beliefs and the omniscience of the instructors or the curriculum designers. This is not the way we educate people to become critical thinkers. Our collective knowledge is incomplete, no ideology has a monopoly on truth, and to tell young people otherwise leaves them ill-equipped to live in a society in which questions are always open, debates are always to be had, and new discoveries are always to be made.
Principle 4: Foster the broadest possible curiosity, critical thinking skills, and discomfort with certainty.
Our collective knowledge is nowhere near complete, yet it vastly surpasses the competence of any one individual, field, or even community to know. If we want to educate citizens to navigate this limitless ocean of information, we should cultivate a thirst for knowledge, the intellectual habits that transform information into knowledge, and the awareness that one should never be too certain. As the great jurist Learned Hand said in 1944 (emphasis added), “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right...” And, of course, a dogmatic moral certainty among teenagers entering both college and full voting citizenship undermines free speech, freedom of inquiry, and democratic compromise. After all, if you’re already certain that you know the complex moral truths about the world, what use would you have for discussion, debate, or research?
Any ideology that cannot be questioned is indistinguishable from fundamentalist religion.
When a community enforces ideological conformity and retaliates against those who merely ask questions or raise doubts, that community is more similar to a fundamentalist religion than it is to a community of truth seekers. A school educating young people for life in a pluralistic democracy should no more require them to profess belief in any particular ideology than it should require atheist students to profess Christianity, or, for that matter, to make them salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Principle 5: Foster independence, not moral dependency.
Parents, educators, administrators, and employees in K-12 today are constantly given examples of the propriety of deferring to power and authority to stop interpersonal conflicts. This comes from a noble goal to, for example, reduce discrimination, end bullying, or promote tranquility, but it comes at a tremendous cost. Teaching young people that conflicts should be resolved by appeals to power, whether that be their high school staff, their college’s bias response team, or their company’s human resources department, encourages habits of moral dependency.
Free societies must include some element of individual responsibility and encouragement to handle conflicts on one’s own. It is hard to overstate the dangers of training a generation of people in a democratic society to always look to authority figures to resolve life’s difficulties. This does not mean that K-12 faculty and administrators should never intervene, but it means they should not be too eager to intervene in interpersonal conflicts among students. The line between bullying and disputes among equals can sometimes be hard to see, but K-12 educators would once again do well to practice epistemic humility, realize that students are smart, and acknowledge that any system developed by authority to intercede in interpersonal conflicts will very quickly be gamed by highly socially intelligent students. To cultivate independence, resilience, and initiative, educators need to take off students’ metaphorical training wheels.
Principle 6: Do not teach children to think in cognitive distortions.
My initial observation that led to the 2015 essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” was that we as a society seem to be teaching a generation of students the mental habits of anxious and depressed people. I mean this quite literally: cognitive distortions are what people engage in when they are anxious and depressed. Not coincidentally, learning to avoid cognitive distortions is also a good way to learn critical thinking. Indeed, some of the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can just as easily be applied to the rules of productive debate between two people as to the habits of healthy thinking within one’s own mind.
You can see a full list of cognitive distortions here, and I have left out full definitions here in the interest of space. Cognitive distortions include:
- Emotional reasoning
- Dichotomous thinking
- Negative filtering
- Discounting positives
The antidote to cognitive distortions is practiced disputation, which means examining and engaging with competing ideas in order to correct distortions and arrive at a nearer approximation to truth. Shielding students from competing ideas, therefore, does them no favors. Schools are tasked with instructing developing minds on the important disciplines of sound, careful logical reasoning and should not allow — or worse, promote — what are, effectively, logical fallacies.
Principle 7: Do not teach the ‘Three Great Untruths.’
In our book, Jonathan Haidt and I also argue that it’s as though we as a society are teaching a generation three manifestly bad overarching ideas — ideas that contradict both ancient wisdom and modern psychology:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.
The Untruth of Fragility leads us to avoid the challenges that lead to personal growth. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning encourages us to prioritize our feelings over our reason. The Untruth of Us Versus Them urges us to view every slight, however minor or unintentional, as evidence of malice that must originate in a person who must be punished.
Each untruth is harmful by itself; together, they are a recipe for anxiety, helplessness, and victimization in response to every encounter in life that contains some level of adversity. They are also a formula for a dysfunctional society. Students who practice the opposite of the untruths — who develop resilience, learn to contextualize their emotional responses, and offer others the benefit of the doubt — will be prepared for life and citizenship in a pluralistic democracy.
Principle 8: Take student mental health more seriously.
One thing that people who haven’t read “The Coddling of the American Mind” often misunderstand is that we actually believe the mental health of young people isn’t taken seriously enough, either in K-12 or in higher education.
Attempts to accommodate what might simply be topics that make students anxious can transform them into functioning more like phobias.
The movement towards trigger warnings on campus has achieved great (and probably excessive) symbolic significance among both critics of and advocates for a more therapeutic approach to higher education. Nevertheless, the story of trigger warnings does demonstrate some of the ways in which thinking about students’ mental health and education are inadequate. The movement for trigger warnings starts from the premise that some students in a given lecture will be suffering from such severe PTSD that the mere mention of the topic in a classroom setting can lead to a psychological break. Therefore, trigger warnings are not just helpful, but critical. However, for students who suffer that level of psychological distress, a trigger warning is less than inadequate. These students need medical professionals who provide focused therapy, not professors who decide to apply a Band-Aid by avoiding related topics in class.. If mere discussion of a course topic evokes severe psychological distress, that is a sign that the student needs professional help.
Furthermore, trigger warnings show how resistant educators have been to what science actually says. So far, all the studies done about trigger warnings fail to show any benefit, with some showing minor harms and at least one indicating that, among students who do not have PTSD, they might increase anxiety, both in general and, more specifically, about the harm of words. And that’s all without considering that this can persuade teachers to avoid uncomfortable topics entirely. Nevertheless, some educators continue to characterize trigger or content warnings as essential to inclusive pedagogy.
The same concern about inadequate responses would apply to students who might be suicidal. No adjustment of educational expectations is sufficient to deal with such a serious problem. It is another situation in which teachers need the help of parents, psychologists, and mental health professionals.
While the Band-Aid approach for students with mental illness is inadequate, generalizing bad ideas on how to protect students with mental illness to ALL students can have some serious negative side effects.
For example, we’ve learned since the book came out that parental accommodation or avoidance of anything that might cause their children anxiety can, somewhat unsurprisingly, actually cause anxieties to snowball. We all may remember experiences we had as kids or even adults where we avoided a person, topic, or confrontation, but when we finally went ahead and did it ended up not being nearly as horrible as we expected. We often notice we actually suffered far more from the anxiety about the confrontation than from the confrontation itself. In this way, attempts to accommodate what might simply be topics that make students anxious can transform them into functioning more like phobias.
Some of the worst ideas from higher education are those that ask people who have suffered difficult lifetime events or traumas to make those experiences central to who they are, and thus a permanent part of their psyches. This can transform something that was once simply an aversion into something more like a phobia and, worst of all, a defining characteristic of one’s identity (part of one’s “schema”). To encourage young people to see themselves damaged by society, or some other external ever-looming force, for the rest of their lives is the precise opposite of the growth and empowerment education should provide.
This brings me to the most frustrating thing I’ve seen since publishing the original article. We know anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are up among young people, and up dramatically. It is cruel, knowing that today’s students are already anxious, depressed, and at risk, to nevertheless advocate political philosophies that assume:
- The majority of students at many schools are both oppressors and oppressed due to the color of their skin, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and/or national origin, and that therefore not only is life rigged against such students but that they are also active participants in harming other students;
- Words, arguments, and images can be so harmful that students must be shielded from many of them in order to prevent serious psychological harm;
- Some students are in a war against oppression, where they don’t have friends but rather “allies” — which implies a conditional, utilitarian arrangement, not a deep and personal bond;
- Students must always be on the lookout for slights, as these always mean something much more pernicious than a simple faux pas; and
- A single bad joke, a dumb comment, or an unwise tweet at any moment could, and even should, derail future academic or professional careers.
If we sincerely care about students’ mental health, we should not be teaching them to internalize guilt, shame, hopelessness, lack of individual identity, and the impossibility of love and friendship across lines of difference. We should be fostering their anti-fragility, their resilience, and their confidence so they can face higher education as empowered, hopeful, and creative thinkers.
Principle 9: Resist the temptation to reduce complex students to limiting labels.
Sorting students into politically useful categories that involve assigning them character attributes or destinies based on immutable traits circumscribes their potential and hampers their growth. Self-determination is foundational to the American promise and central to our unique national identity. Students must be permitted to decide for themselves how much — or how little — emphasis they wish to place on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, economic background, etc.
Is this a formula for peace and quiet? No. But free societies aren’t supposed to be particularly quiet.
Unlike in other countries, Americans form a sense of “us” based on a relatively small number of uniting factors like citizenship, pop-culture, and hopefully appreciation and respect for the constitution and democracy — our shared operating system. Under this “thin” identity tent, all are welcome. Other countries have much deeper or “thicker” ideas regarding what makes them a first-person plural “us.” The thin model is better for a truly pluralistic diverse society. The thick identity is exclusive, inflexible, and deals poorly with genuine diversity.
A disturbing trend of my 20 years of watching higher education has been the breaking down of students into different ethnic groups for the purpose of everything from separate orientations to separate graduations. This grouping, while intended to improve a sense of community belonging, necessarily impedes the forming of early friendships among people from different backgrounds. Doubtless, there will be some conflict when students who come from very different backgrounds meet each other. However, allowing students to navigate those differences amongst themselves will prepare them to navigate the diverse world they will inhabit outside of their school environments.
A school that allows and encourages students to get to know other students as individuals serves the values of training grounds for future citizens in a pluralist technocracy. Listening and forging friendships across lines of difference is not achieved by intervening in all potentially fraught interactions between students. In fact, such efforts have encouraged students to group together in ways that are unhealthy for a pluralistic democracy.
Principle 10: If it’s broke, fix it. Be willing to form new institutions that empower students and educate them with principles of free, diverse, and pluralistic society.
We must not become so wedded to an ideology, an institutional organizational structure, or a method of interacting that we become impervious to legitimate criticism and insensible to emerging opportunities for improvement and innovation.
The principles I’ve outlined should not be controversial. They are standard ideas about liberal values in a free society. Unfortunately, from the reports I’m hearing, the arguments I’ve presented will not be received favorably by many educators in either public or private schools. The problem, it seems, is that modern graduate schools of education are overly sure of themselves morally, comfortable with indoctrination, and more focused on what they see as long-term political goals rather than individual student success or mental health. This is why parents should strongly consider founding new institutions, opposing state mandates that all K-12 teachers need to have education degrees, and applying some competitive pressure to existing K-12 institutions.
Somewhere along the lines we got something dramatically wrong with the way we think about educating people for a free society. Our educators have sometimes moved so far in the direction of teaching young people not just how to think but what to think that reform at this point seems impossible. But anything that can’t continue the way it’s going eventually will not. It is time for serious changes in K-12 education with a renewed focus on cultivating our liberal tools for discovering knowledge, fostering independence, and respecting individuality, all the while encouraging a diversity of thought among students and their families.
Is this a formula for peace and quiet? No. But free societies aren’t supposed to be particularly quiet. Once again, “attempts to coerce unanimity of opinion have only resulted in unanimity of the graveyard.”
Finally, I’d like to address what I think will be two common responses to my calls for less thought reform, ideology, and politics in K-12 education.
- “K-12 education has always included some amount of inculcation of values. Why is this any different?” First, I believe that in a pluralistic, democratic society, inculcation of values by educators should be minimal, as morality and norms are decisions best left up to a child’s family until the child is of the age and ability to begin to think for themselves. When moral values are inculcated, they should be the ones that are most relevant to education, should be general, and arguably of universal (or near-universal) support. I do not object to schools advocating for general behavioral values like being honest, courteous, or kind, for example. However, there is a distinction between advocating for some general behavioral values as opposed to telling students, “You should believe in your heart of hearts that kindness is the paramount value in society.” Students can, of course, be asked to act in a kind and honest way. But the realm of personal belief, even for young children, should be considered an area outside of coercive control.
- “Everything is political, so how can you argue that K-12 education can separate the inculcation of political ideas from education?” First, the idea that everything is political is a very academic argument that would seem foreign to most Americans. It is true that in making such decisions there may be gray areas and tough calls, but in general, the more specific the political belief you are trying to inculcate in a student, the more suspect it should be. As a practical matter, this is often not a very hard call. Coercing students to make statements affirming approved political stances, for example, is not a close call. That is training a student for an authoritarian ideology. A teacher expressing some of his or her own political views is acceptable, while a school requiring students to participate in approved activism that advocates for a particular viewpoint is not okay.
This post is part 17 of the online series Catching up with Coddling. You can see the full content of that series so far here.
For more tools to fight bias in K-12 education and help foster independent thinking in students, preorder "Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools — and What We Can Do About It" by FIRE's Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, with a foreword by John McWhorter.
10 Principles for Opposing Thought Reform in K-12
- No compelled speech, thought, or belief.
- Respect for individuality, dissent, and the sanctity of conscience.
- K-12 teachers & administrators must demonstrate epistemic humility.
- Foster the broadest possible curiosity, critical thinking skills, and discomfort with certainty.
- Foster independence, not moral dependency.
- Do not teach children to think in cognitive distortions.
- Do not teach the ‘Three Great Untruths.’
- Take student mental health more seriously.
- Resist the temptation to reduce complex students to limiting labels.
- If it’s broke, fix it. Be willing to form new institutions that empower students and educate them with principles of free, diverse, and pluralistic society.
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