is there such a thing as a neutral education system?

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I love it when similar or related ideas appear in several parts of my life at once. There’s been a number of things that come together to make me think again about education and the question of whether an education system can be neutral. I write about this as someone whose children are not in school. I pick and choose between different curriculum resources and from the library, choosing what resources I believe match my educational goals for my children, and those goals include, to an extent, a desire to pass on to my children my belief systems.

Yet I am not homeschooling because of my belief system. I believe there can and should be a public education system teaching a basic curriculum for all people – a sort of lowest common denominator on top of which individual families and cultures can promote their ideas. Still the idea that education can be at all neutral gets challenged for me, regularly.  For one thing, teachers are people. They have opinions one way or another. Do we limit or restrict what they say so that they can represent a neutral viewpoint? What point would that be?

The book Talking Radical: Gender & Sexuality by Scott Neigh’s references to colonial leaders in Virgina in 1744 offering to take responsibility for the education of young Iroquois men, and Chief Red Jacket responding “You, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and therefore you will not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours.” To drive the point home he then offered that if the gentlemen of Virginia want they would be welcome to send a dozen of their young men to be educated by the Iroquois. (31) The education offered by the Iroquois was undoubtedly thought unsuitable by the gentlemen of Virginia.

What amazing ideas have been lost to time from cultures that have not been able to pass on their way of thinking and understanding the world. I don’t know enough to know what portion of Iroquois teachings have been passed on, but I think also of the picts and the jutes and all the other variations of tribes long lost. Even those cultures from which we have reasonably extensive written records, the ideas end up recorded on paper and in the minds of a few scholars but not considered as anything but historical relics, not potentials ways of understanding the world. Can we see the world in different ways? Can we step outside the fishbowls we live in?

The difference between the choices offered in educational debates today are not necessarily as glaring as the two educational options in 1744. It is easy to imagine the 1744 setting as a choice between being educated in two totally different cultures with totally different economies. Through a variety of means one culture has become the dominant one. Today we assume everyone needs to be able to operate within the same economy. It is tempting to imagine that what cultural differences remain are lifestyle choices and issues of taste rather than wholly different worldviews, yet there are different worldviews, not just between different ethnicities but based on different religious or political backgrounds as well.

Another of the books I’ve read in the past month was called Talking Right. The subtitle is the incredibly unwieldy: How Conservatives turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-loving, Left-wing Freak Show. The book talked about how certain ideas have been taken over. A few examples from the book include:

  • Patriot ends up referring to a style of toughness, a support for Republican political policies and American imperialism.
  • Values refers to positions on a handful of specific issues and is almost always paired with conservative rather than liberal.
  • Elite is used as a derogatory term for liberal elite or media elite rather as a complimentary thing, and the term is less often applied to military or business elite, as it used to be. 
  • Entrepreneur used to refer to someone who had capital to invest in a new business enterprise but now it means anyone who starts their own business and it includes involuntary entrepreneurs who start their own businesses (such as home daycare) because they have no other options. (“By the right’s definition, in fact, there’s an upsurge in entrepreneurship whenever the economy heads south, as people are forced to take on piecework and odd jobs to make ends meet.” (57))

When choices of words take on such political meaning, how do we create and maintain a neutral education system? Is such a thing possible?

Or is the goal not to try to teach a neutral position but an enlightened one? Is the goal to teach respect for human beings, compassion and progressiveness? If so, how do we do so in a way that does not simply become partisan fighting? One that does not make children into pawns or education into wedge issues?

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