Are all ideas equal? Not in the classroom

We need to stop pretending that all ideas are the same. Flickr/ LiverpoolHopeUniversity

There is a widespread belief amongst teachers that it is part of their duty of care, even a defining aspect of their of professionalism, that all views expressed in the classroom are to be treated equally.

I take it as one of my first duties to challenge this. The right to have a view is indeed equally shared, but this is does not imply the same for the idea itself. If all ideas are equal, then all ideas are worthless.

If we accept this, then we can meaningfully ask questions about how these views might be evaluated – true grist for the educational mill.

A fine line

An American bill, defeated ultimately by the Oklahoma Senate this year, attempted to legislate that students were not to be “penalised in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories”.

Obviously this terrain that must be carefully negotiated in the context of developing minds, but there is a core principle here that requires articulation.

Central to a liberal society is the right to discuss things. Not being able to do this is totalitarianism - the banning of unsanctioned ideas. So where on the continuum of controlling public discourse, if it is to be done at all, can we comfortably sit?

The further we move away from unfettered public speech the murkier the waters become, with calls of and for censorship beginning after the first paddle stroke. Where this boundary lies for and within individuals is highly significant in an educational setting.

Let me make the point in a broader social context, one that involves exploring that most cherished of hurts, the pain of being offended.

The truth hurts

What happens when you are offended by something someone says but no one around you seems outraged? Well, first you’d best establish that you’re deeply offended. Don’t be very offended: be deeply offended, or even offend to the core of your being.

And what could cause such offence? One might imagine a threat to the physical safety of you and your loved ones, but is this where we find it most often?

No, such offence seems the end-point along a path of least resistance for those whose most strongly held beliefs are challenged. They claim for their ideas what rightly belongs to people: respect.

We naturally adopt a respectful attitude to people. At this basic level, people have to work hard to lose our respect, and even then we may choose not to leave them at the last because we value human life and dignity.

We appreciate that they contribute in some way to the social norms we all enjoy, and that they, like us, are creators of society as well as a participants in it.

People and ideas

Ideas have no such empathic traction. Unlike people they cannot suffer, they do not know joy and they do not contribute by themselves to the happiness of others in any social sense. That is not to say there are no really good or really bad ideas, but that they need to stand or fall exclusively on their merits, and often within their own contexts.

They should be subject to critical scrutiny and survive only though articulation and argumentation. The point is, ideas are not people. And people are not just their ideas.

This is certainly true, at least, in that I am not my patented, self-cleaning bathtub, but is it just as true that I am not my political ideology, or that I am not my religious belief? These latter examples may not be quite so neatly teased apart: when does my idea become my creed, and when does my creed become my identity?

For the individual, there is a distinct difference between a casual idea and a core belief. We may claim that without that core belief we would be other than who we are, but that other ideas can be considered just as an intellectual exercise (I am aware that I have simplified the nature of belief, but it will do to serve my point).

Here is where we need to acknowledge the painful fact that what is a core belief to us may be simply an entertaining idea to someone else and, like all ideas in a free society, it must be permissible to subject it to inquiry.

The fallacy of deepest offence

To assume that an idea may not be questioned because it is a part of your identity, and that an attack on it is an attack on you, equivalent to a denial of human respect, is a fallacy, and I name it here the “Fallacy of Deepest Offence” (a variety of the strawman fallacy).

It is a blurring of the line between people and ideas. It is a device by which ideas are rendered immune to critical inquiry.

If you want to believe that the world is made of snow, that women are inferior to men or that homosexuality is morally wrong then go ahead. But the instant you take that belief into the public arena, your ideas will be rightfully tested.

The minute you suggest others should believe it too, you will be challenged. When you ask that the taxes of your fellow citizens support your beliefs, you will be resisted. This is exactly how an open society operates and should operate. You are not immune because you are sincere.

To not recognise this fallacy within us, and to not permit students to learn of it, creates two problems at the very least. The first is that we lose the ability to reflect on our own internal processes. If we do not look inwards and question what we see, we fossilise, led more by our creed than by our critical faculties.

The second is that we become less tolerant of others, less willing to work collaboratively, and less able to comprehend arguments. Both of these diminish our ability to contribute and to co-exist.

To make the claim of offence in this way is to not only commit the fallacy, but is also to utterly disrespect the right of your fellows to engage in honest inquiry, and that is a very deep offence indeed – particularly when it carries over into the classroom.

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