Neutrality in Education – Part I of III

Enabling and Empowering Ignorance

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2019

The Neutrality Commandment: “Thou shall remain impartial and not take one side over another. Remain absent of views, opinions, expressions and strong feelings. Do not take sides. Do not support one position over another. Regardless the subject you teach, remain detached, objective and fair-minded to all sides, at all times and ways.”

This was but one of the many commandments that professors provided novices in the 1960’s as we began our ‘student teaching’ for the year. Yes, in those days some colleges of education required a full year of student teaching with two critic teachers, one at the designated school and one at the college. All grades were doubled each semester for the entire year. It was make it or break it – with Principal, Department Chairs and colleagues with say as to we were worthy of entering the Nobel Profession.

In hindsight, it was an incredibly wonderful experience that provided affirmation that the teaching profession was what I was destined to do. It affirmed the love for the teaching<> learning process, dedicated to making content comprehensible, mentoring students and respect for the profession. The educational process that had been so personally cruel, had become my endearing passion. Every day walking into that space, that temple of learning, was a declaration of meaning and purpose. It still is, even as a visitor.

Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.” Kurt Vonnegut

But let’s get back to the ‘neutrality commandment.’ It was not a suggestion but a dictum. It was more than a causal warning. It was a core value. It was meant to keep teachers from taking sides. All subjects and departments could fall into the “non-neutrality trap” of approaching content that was deemed to be “controversial.” No subject was safe from its snares and therefore, no teacher was safe. Objectivity and fairness redefined.

Basically we were told to avoid creating problems by taking sides that peers, administration, district and/or parents could determine to be “controversial.” Avoid it. Teach around it. Don’t ask controversial questions that can lead to controversial answers. Scan and cleanse syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, movies, field trips, homework assignments and methods. Use the “Status Quo” lens and sanitize content and methodology. Textbooks had already done an excellent job of “neutralizing” what would be read with suggestions on how to stay clear of controversial mine fields.

For some of us, the commandment began to smell. You know, when your gut tells you that, ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ (by the way – a country that remained neutral during the 2nd world war until Hitler decided to invade it anyway).  For some of us, the dictum became a conflict of interest. During the school year, student teachers across the state gathered at the college to share their experiences, methods and concerns.

It was during such times that we discovered similar ethical issues regarding the “neutrality commandment.” We could see concern on the critic teacher’s face when the subject was approached and quickly sidestepped the questions, “Let’s keep the focus on your teaching, your classroom management, grading and development of your bag of tricks!” The critical questions being asked by the novices were determined to be too “controversial.”

But avoidance, denial and pretense does not make controversy go away. Most of the tenured teachers, administrators and novice student teachers were white, with a few of us characterized as minorities. African American novice teachers were growing in numbers. Not many Latinas/os were in the field nor in graduate or doctoral programs. The point being that the “neutrality commandment” was well insulated. All walls well constructed and white-washed.

But to my surprise, there were novice student teachers who were just as uncomfortable, wanted to know why teachers had to remain silent when presenting highly controversial realities such as racism, colonialism, genocide and slavery. Also to my surprise, the majority of the novice white teachers who were demonstrably disturbed were women. A fact that no longer is a surprise given the historical vertical – horizontal civil rights journey of the women’s movement. They had been at the head of the line waiting for others to catch up.

I remember their position, “All this neutrality and avoidance may work for us and keep us safe – but what about the students?! Why are they in school? To learn to be neutral citizens?”

This critical question became the center of attention and discussion. It became the thesis of our papers, presentations and reports. We were breaking ties with the dictum and its intention to silence.