‘They Learn to Parrot What They Know They’re Supposed to Say’
True inclusion requires viewpoint diversity, the educator Erin McLaughlin argues, and children should be taught how to think—not what to think.
Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic | May 17, 2021
Erin McLaughlin, an educator in Pennsylvania, believes that, in school and in life, people should study what others think and why. But in her estimation, many educational institutions that purport to value diversity and inclusion fail to treat viewpoint diversity—which she defines as “the recognition that nobody’s worldview is complete, and that no one marker of identity actually defines the way we see the world around us”—as a vital part of civic education. Her mission: to persuade educational institutions to put viewpoint diversity at the center of their cultures and curricula.
McLaughlin strives to do just that in her job as a high-school English teacher. While working on a master’s degree in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she began to build a theoretical and practical framework around her ideas. She has developed what she calls the Viewpoint Diversity Curriculum, which poses questions such as “Can I go beyond my personal experience?” and “Can I find a way to constructively connect with the other side?”
I came across the graphic version of her curriculum while reporting about diversity-education initiatives in schools. Earlier this year, I argued that the Black Lives Matter at School initiative in a Chicago suburb offered some valuable instructional material but also crossed from education into advocacy. McLaughlin’s curriculum embraces the goals of diversity and inclusion while insisting that educators should teach children how to think for themselves, not what they should think. “If other people matter,” she argues, “then so do their viewpoints.” I recently spoke with McLaughlin by phone. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Conor Friedersdorf: Everyone grasps why instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic are important. Why does teaching viewpoint diversity in K–12 education matter?
Erin McLaughlin: Teaching kids what to think instead of how to think is dangerous. Advocacy-based teaching deprives them of the skills [they need] to reach their own conclusions. Instead they learn to parrot what they know they’re supposed to say to get a good grade. Kids are really good at that, but it doesn’t translate to actually believing what they are saying or knowing why it’s supposed to be important. When you present students with different viewpoints, they develop critical skills, learn how others think, and understand why they came to a given belief.
Friedersdorf: What’s the toughest part about implementing a viewpoint-diversity curriculum?
It isn’t just an extra class that you can add. Teaching viewpoint diversity is really about embedding that value in a school’s entire curriculum and culture—a shared language and approach seen in all classes and assemblies, adviser meetings, and more.
McLaughlin: It takes teachers who are willing to step away from advocacy, regardless of how passionately they feel about a subject, and let the kids get there on their own. The first objective is for a school to become self-aware enough to know its strengths, its biases, and its relationship to the American political spectrum. A school that improves its overall self-awareness can better help students understand their own viewpoints and the viewpoints of others. The second objective is to cultivate intellectual humility so that students recognize that their worldview is incomplete and biased, and that other people have much to teach them. No matter how smart or moral we are, our worldviews aren’t complete. It’s easy to judge, but it’s better to be curious, because we don’t have all the answers. The third objective is related: to develop actively open-minded thinking skills, so that students can learn from and debate those whose viewpoints differ.
Friedersdorf: Some things are matters of fact: Two plus two equals four. The Holocaust happened. Others are near-consensus moral judgments: Genocide is wrong. If a matter of fact or a moral judgment is as close to settled as anything gets, should kids still debate it or hear dissents?
McLaughlin: You don’t have to debate everything. You only have so much time with students. You have to make judgments. This isn’t about treating all beliefs as if they are equally valid. But let’s take one that’s slightly more nuanced, like global warming. Factually, that’s happening. Yet there are still people who swear that it’s not. You teach the facts, but there’s value in understanding positions lots of people hold.
I’m not saying your institution should debate Holocaust denial, but it can be valuable to have discussions about sensitive moral questions. I was teaching a class called Literature of Success, where students decide for themselves how they’re going to define success, which is not something a lot of kids reflect on. One question I ask to get them thinking is, “Was Hitler a success?” And I let them grapple with it. He could be described as successful. He was a Time Magazine Man of the Year [once].* He succeeded, sadly, in his objectives for a long time before his defeat. And grappling with that nuance can help them learn.
No one ever defends Hitler, by the way. The example works because everyone agrees he’s bad, but also successful by some definitions. I would hate to think that I wouldn’t be able to have that conversation in my classroom.
Friedersdorf: I know teachers who’d be terrified to have that conversation.
McLaughlin: I know that I’m taking a risk as an educator. People get offended easily, and the waters are growing much, much murkier on what is unacceptable, with teachers watching what they’re saying because they’re afraid of being canceled. But we have to be able to have difficult conversations where people disagree and everyone gets their say without feeling pressure to voice a particular opinion. The goal isn’t building consensus for the correct way of thinking; it’s increasing understanding amid different ways of thinking, because consensus doesn’t actually exist.
Friedersdorf: A lot of schools seem to be pushing to build consensus around anti-racism—and particularly a left-progressive understanding of it.
McLaughlin: Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are really big right now, and I’m 100 percent on board with the overall goal. But it’s a mistake to rely so much on the demarcation of a student’s gender or race or religion or political affiliation—or any other specific aspect of identity. No matter who you are, you have a unique way of viewing the world, and it deserves a spot in the school.
Friedersdorf: Obviously, the word diversity dovetails nicely with your work on diversity of viewpoint. So does inclusion. But there’s a hotly contested debate about whether we should aim for equality of opportunity as distinct from equity, insofar as the latter is defined as equality of outcome. Viewpoint diversity would seem to require including multiple perspectives in that debate.
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McLaughlin: Actually, I agree. I don’t think equity should ever be used with diversity and inclusion—equity is an outcome, not a process, and it’s something we can’t promise. But I’m all for diversity and inclusion, and I believe viewpoint diversity is the gateway to a truly inclusive school model. Some schools are also starting to talk about belonging and mattering too. I think that’s great. These all fall under the realm of positive psychology—they have been scientifically shown to make a difference in a culture.
Friedersdorf: When you pitch viewpoint diversity to other educators, what objections or concerns do you hear?
McLaughlin: There are people who worry that viewpoint diversity opens the doors for racism. The thing is, pretending racism isn’t there doesn’t make it disappear. Neither do diversity-training sessions where you get very specific messages about what people are supposed to think and feel. The studies on diversity training lacking efficacy are relevant—they don’t actually achieve their intended outcome. What actually levels the playing field is creating a school culture where everyone knows that their ideas and opinions are worthy of consideration. Viewpoint diversity isn’t about trying to change someone’s mind. But if you can get people to be open to new ideas, having conversations with other people and being able to disagree in a way that is constructive rather than just being judgmental, that’s your best chance to change minds—and regardless, you understand more and coexist better. Right now, we’re in this self-indulgent and self-righteous culture of just ripping other people down. But to what end?
Sadly, I think many initiatives meant to make us more inclusive are actually making us more shut down, leading to more exclusion. So we all nod as if to agree—I'll say what you want me to say. But as soon as I’m with people I really trust, I talk differently, and wind up reinforced in what I already think.
Friedersdorf: Can any amount of shame and stigma ever improve a school’s culture?
McLaughlin: When I was in a Catholic middle school in the late 1980s, I wrote a mean note about a girl in my class. The note was confiscated by a teacher. And I was called to the principal’s office that afternoon, where they had me read the note over the loudspeaker. It was awful, humiliating, and, worst of all—[though] they had blacked out the name of the girl who I had written about—everyone knew who the girl was. It was a punishment that shamed both of us.
I remember feeling small, low. It will stay with me forever. The next day in the cafeteria, this girl walked by, and I knew that what I had done was terrible and wrong. And as she walked by, she punched me in the side of the head. I remember thinking, I deserve that. These are lessons that can be important in life.
In that case, though, the school attempted to shame me and also shamed the victim of my bad behavior in the process. This is actually where I think most diversity training goes wrong: It’s useful to feel guilty when we understand that we violated a value that we believe in and should uphold, but it’s useless and ineffective to shame a person even when they don’t understand what they’ve done wrong. What you can do that is much more effective is to find out what a person does believe in and then appeal to that value. So, do I think that a teacher should shame a student? No. Do I think stigma and shaming should be institutionalized in a curriculum? No.
Friedersdorf: How did that incident at your school affect your viewpoint? Everyone agreed that the note was bad. You felt you’d done wrong and deserved punishment.
McLaughlin: Well, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and certainly what I did was not Christian in any sense. Interestingly, the punishment was not very Christian, either. And in truth, my Catholic schooling was a formative experience in shaping my belief in viewpoint diversity, because the more I learned about Catholicism, the less I agreed with it. But my behavior violated a fundamental value that we all share, which has to do with the question of caring for versus harming others.
And when it comes to schools in general, imposing a viewpoint is different from upholding institutional or even democratic values. A foundation of shared values does matter. And in a democracy, we must understand that shar[ing] values does not always mean we understand or prioritize those values in the same way. For example, while Americans can all agree that liberty is important and oppression is bad, the right and left do not agree about who or what is the oppressor.
Friedersdorf: How has this worked in your classrooms?
McLaughlin: In my classes I try hard to practice what I preach. It’s sometimes difficult—students are cautious right now. So if a student doesn’t have an opinion that is popular, you have to gain their trust before they will voice it. I hate, hate, hate the term safe space as it’s used in educational settings—it implies that some classrooms are safe and others aren’t, and the truth is that every classroom should be a place where students can express themselves freely. When viewpoint diversity is valued, everybody gets to play on equal footing. Everyone gets their say. It doesn’t mean their opinion is right or wrong or good or bad. It just is. It got there via their thoughts and experiences. Including them means including it.
I’ve had really good feedback. Students appreciate the opportunity to speak freely and to look at other sides of arguments that they may not have felt comfortable exploring in a more typical classroom setting. And I see students recognize that they might be wrong, which I think is the most valuable part.
*A quotation in an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Adolf Hitler was named Time Magazine Man of the Year twice.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.