An Ethics of Teaching

I’m reading a short book that reviews what one might call the virtues of teaching: learning, authority, ethics, order, imagination, compassion, patience, character, and pleasure. Each virtue (which might be though of as an aspect of the character of an ideal teacher) is reviewed in its own chapter. The ethics chapter suggested an interesting question to me: Is there an LDS ethics of teaching that differs in any particulars from a Christian or secular ethics of teaching?

Ethics falls somewhere between considerations of morality and criminality, and concerns primarily duties and conduct. The authors glossed it as “consideration of our moral duties and behavior toward other in a complex and imperfect world.” For teaching, “ethics means putting the satisfaction of the needs and goods of students before those of anyone else.” From these general considerations, the authors then move on to several rules of ethical teaching. For example, do no harm to students is the first rule, listing prejudice, favoritism, and intimacy as examples of conduct that does harm students. The tricky part comes when the institutional context of teaching intrudes. Here are a couple of quotes that highlight the problem.

“Teachers are therefore obliged, as professionals, to defend their students’ interests — among the chief of which is a search for truth — against intrusion, sometimes even against school and community authorities who have it in their power to endanger teachers’ employment.” The problem I see here is that some LDS professional teachers (those employed by the CES, which includes the several BYU campuses) would say that their primary responsibility is to their employer, not to their students. On the other hand, one should also recall Dallin Oaks, as President of BYU, defending the teaching of evolution at BYU (in the interest of both the students and the institution) against the desire of some members of the Board of Trustees to eliminate it from the curriculum.

Here’s a longer quote:

[Teachers] must distinguish facts from fiction, hypotheses from theories, the possible from the probable …. [T]hey must not offer their own opinions or beliefs as established facts or as truth. … Teachers must present a wide range of possible interpretations and viewpoints while scrupulously refraining from introducing their own preferences and views.

And later: “It is the duty of all teachers to encourage the flowering and strengthening of their students’ thoughts, not to proselytize for their own.” The point here is not to encourage anecdotes of bad teaching examples in the comments, but to consider whether there is an argument that an LDS ethics of teaching would take a different view. I don’t know that it would have teachers blur these distinctions or advocate the teaching of opinions and beliefs as facts or truths, but some LDS teaching almost requires proselyting, which is necessarily in tension with encouraging the independent ideas or arguments of students.

I think a starting point for considering whether there is a distinct LDS ethics of teaching might consider whether teaching religion raises moral duties not present in teaching secular subjects, and whether teaching adults or college students modifies duties that might apply to teaching younger students.

26 comments for “An Ethics of Teaching

  1. “…but some LDS teaching almost requires proselyting…”

    Examples, please, for illumination? And what’s the distinction between “requires proselyting” and “almost requires proselyting”?

  2. Of course, in the vein of Packer we see a more aggressive approach that underscores the teacher\’s loyalty to the organization, as you noted in LDS circles. His \”Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council\”–tough doctrine (or policy) to swallow.

  3. If I understand you, I think there *is* a difference between religious and secular teaching. I’m less sure whether there is a difference between Mormon and wider Christianity’s teaching, except in the details.

    A secular teacher should *not* generally advocate his own beliefs as established facts when there are multiple beliefs entitled to respectful consideration — should not, for example, advocate either the Republican or Democratic party platform as the only one that can save the nation from political and economic collapse. He should help students understand and evaluate a variety of partisan ideas (without necessarily being obligated to give equal time to whatever is the political equivalent of the Flat Earth Society). Even teachers of secular subjects in the LDS system should do that, although I can see them going farther than their secular counterparts in bringing in issues that might be illuminated by the gospel.

    But when it comes to religious teaching in a religious system, I think the rules are very different. An LDS teacher’s stewardship is not at all served by guiding students to decide for themselves whether God has a role in their lives. He should help his students understand, not just ape behavior, and he may help his students recognize the alternatives and doubts that might have led others to different conclusions, but his task is to teach them to understand HOW and not WHETHER God has a role in their lives. (Is that what you meant by LDS teaching requiring proselyting?)


  4. I think you need to refine this to classroom teachers and classroom students. Otherwise, where do we place Bobby Knight? The Nun? The Di?, West Point instructors, My wood shop teacher? Etc. All good teachers of their crafts.

    I think the teacher needs to teach his subject the best he can. The good students will reach for the highest level, he must be cared for. If the teacher still has additional time, he can work with the weak student.

    I think teaching religion should be at a higher moral level, But I don’t see that in LDS Sunday Schools. I think you are more likely to hear a half truth on Sunday, than in a Secular school on Tuesday.

  5. I can’t think of anything that would be distinctly LDS about a teaching ethics.

    Making “do no harm” to students the standard seems to lead into the morass of utilitarianism, trying to weigh an infinitude of potential harms being as hopeless as weighing an infinitude of competing goods.

    I think teaching is about truth in somewhat the way medicine is about health, and this has led me to think the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers would be “First, tell no fibs.”

    I can’t always be sure what is true but I can know when I’m fibbing and I ought never do it.. Usually.

    Weighing the many, varied and unusual ways individual and institutional commitments can come into conflict in large institutions by using the standard of doing no harm to students seems a bit hopeless to me. One student might find a particular fact bracing and useful while another finds it emotional hurtful. How do I weigh the potential harm of not saying something I think is true that my boss has asked me not to say against the potential harm of undermining an institution that in general is a powerful force for good?

    I’d say be honest, be kind, and obey authority. When those come into conflict, think carefully, be humble, and do the best you can, but don’t fib. Don’t disobey church authorities unless the Lord shows and very clearly instructs you otherwise.

    The challenges to LDS don’t seem different than to others, to me.

  6. #4:
    “I think you are more likely to hear a half truth on Sunday, than in a Secular school on Tuesday.”

    Wow! I think that deserves some examples, because I just do not believe it. Having attended many secular classes and many Sunday School classes, I find that observation completely foreign to my experience.

  7. I like mlu’s admonition: “First, tell no fibs.” I would add, however, that in most classroom teaching (perhaps in other kinds of teaching, as well–I don’t know) teaching is more a question of helping students to think than it is of telling them anything, fibs or otherwise. There are resources galore from which students can learn facts. Why should I repeat for them what they can find for themselves relatively easily. Instead, I need to help them find those places, and I need to help them learn how to think carefully about what they find. Those are not always as easy to do as it sometimes seems like they should be, but that is the ideal.

    That isn’t different for LDS teachers than for others. However, teaching also requires that one take into account who one is and who one’s audience is. The differences in how I teach in an LDS institution and how I have taught in non-LDS institutions have more to do with who I am and who my audience was than with the ethical questions.

  8. First, there is a difference between compulsory education such as public schools, and voluntary education such as Sunday School.

    One is mandated by law, and that burdens the teacher with a duty to be objective and even handed towards ideas that they do not agree with themselves. They must be respectful of the many various beliefs that students will bring to the table.

    The same standard does not apply to education that has been voluntarily chosen by the student (or the parent). Obviously if students chose to attend seminary or institute, then they expect to be taught official church doctrine- they have no right to expect that these institutions will entertain heretical doctrine as an appropriate topic.

    On the topic of public school teachers, I would argue that their primary responsibility is to the parents of their students. Too often I have found that talk of a “responsibility to the students” is really a justification for indoctrinating students with the teacher’s own world view in opposition to the parent’s world view. This is not to say that a teacher should not encourage students to study things out for themselves and form their own conclusions- but teachers must be careful not to send signals to students about what the desired results are.

    I know I ran into this all the time with my teachers when I attend public school.

    Specifically I remember a time I was doing a presentation on the state of the rain forest in S. America. I was reading about about it- about the devastation and destruction of the rainforest. (A big topic back in the early 90’s). I then decided I should read some of the counter points. One of these counter points pointed out that environmentalists had been claiming forest the size of Texas was being cut down every year. This claim had been repeatedly made for the last twenty years- but the Rainforest was only something like 12 times the size of Texas, which means it should already be gone!

    Now I didn’t just accept this, I already had a modern comment making this assertion, so I went back to environmentalist literature dating 20 years ago, and low and behold I found it there too! So then I decided to look up the size of the rain forest twenty years ago and compare it to the size of the rainforest at the time.

    I discovered that the interior rainforest was essentially unchanged in size.

    I also discovered that the coastal rainforests were disappearing at an alarming rate.

    So I gave my presentation presenting all these facts, and argued that the environmentalist focus on slash and burn farming in the interior rainforest was distracting us from the real environmental problem which was the replacement of the coastal rainforest with human cities.

    I talked about how these rainforests were different and how we ought to be advocating the preservation of the remaining coastal rainforests in National Forests and such instead of spending the energy worrying about the interior which was doing just fine.

    I could tell that the teacher was very displeased with me.

    Now I didn’t care, but most children want to please their teachers, and when teachers steer them in a certain direction away from their parents beliefs you have the recipe for major conflict.

  9. #6: For my Sunday example, I will use Kevin Barney BCC 1-6-08: “Biting one’s tongue in church.” For my Tuesday example: I do not recall hearing half truths in my Math class, nor Gym, nor Art, nor Music, nor English, nor Spanish. nor Wood Shop, nor Accounting. Maybe History.

  10. Bob: that is fair. Maybe I am used to half-truths in school because I majored in History. :) With those examples, I see your point much more clearly.

  11. Bob and jrl, let me chime in on the whole \”half truth/whole truth\” thing with some examples from my current calling—teacher in the Elder\’s Quorum. First, the JS manual talks about polygamy in the church in just one sentence. The manual\’s description of polygamy is certainly not the whole truth. Calling it a half-truth would be generous. It says that JS, as commanded by God, taught polygamy in Nauvoo. Fair enough. But he also practiced polygamy. A lot. Should I bring this up when talking about the prophet? (I decided not to.)

    Second, the chapter on the Book of Mormon talks about JS needing to overcome some sins and weaknesses before he could have the plates. I think that some of these were JS\’s involvement in magic and the like. Should I bring magic up in the lesson? (I did, a bit, because I think that magic is pretty well known and because JS, mostly, jettisoned his involvement in magic).

    Third (this is a future lesson), the lesson on priesthood talks about JS receiving the Higher Priesthood from Peter James and John shortly after he got the Lower Priesthood. Should I point out that JS doesn\’t seem to have told anyone about the visitation until 1832 or 1833 (and maybe later)? Should I talk about how it took years to get the offices as they are now and that there was no quick restoration of our current priesthood offices? (I\’m probably not going to).

    When I decide to bring in more of the facts (making the truth more \”whole\”, I usually think of a few things:
    1) I accepted this calling and I feel that the people who gave me the calling have made it clear that they want you to stick to what\’s in the manual. So even if the manual is boring or misleading, that\’s what I signed up to teach.
    2) I understand that, while I like to have reasons for acting and believing the way I do, lots of people don\’t really need this. Why should some know-it-all, intellectual punk ruin their experience?

    Generally, I try and bring in something that is slightly controversial or not in the manual to spice things up. Mostly for selfish reasons: I think its fun, I don\’t want to teach a completely whitewashed history that I don\’t completely agree with, and I want to get people talking. I also think it helps us to be humble realize that there are some things that are hard to explain. But I do feel that, when I am teaching, I should keep the controversial stuff down and the goal should be to strengthen testimonies in the Mormon church and its teachings.

    I\’d love to hear from other teachers who have struck a healthy balance in teaching in church.

  12. With respect to half-truths in public school classes: Mathematics, Accounting, Wood Shop, and Music deal with stubborn, independent realities that cannot be manipulated to conform to personal opinion (I was a math major, hated accounting in my MBA program, had wood shop in 7th Grade, and played French Horn from Jr. High into college).

    Back in the 1960s there were lots of half-truths being pedaled about human physiology and health. My wife’s junior high gym teacher told them that one of the exercises would make them more busty.

    A Spanish class will concentrate on communication skills, again an objective test. English classes, on the other hand, focus on much more subjective issues of interpretation of literature. Beyond basic facts about the lives of authors, the meaning of their works is not an objective matter. If it were, the process of time would gradually zero in on the correct interpretation, but we constantly get new interpretations of literature in the Bible and the Greek plays. No one knows what “truth” is in that arena.

    History, since it has to be measured against the recorded residue of real events, has some objective components, but again, interpreting intent and the relative influence of vartious factors on events are highly subjective exercises. The assumptions one brings to the table obviously affect those judgments.

    Then we come to Art. Since many art “movements” in the past century have been aimed at destroying or deconstructing conventional interpretation as to the value of or values in art, how does one say what is “true” in art that argues there is no such thing as truth? One can seek to understand what artists THOUGHT was true about art at various times and places. But since art generally is an exercise in framing an experience within a boundary, it can at most represent only part of any truth in reality.

    On the basic question: The guidelines seem to be consistent with what teachers in public schools and universities SAY they are doing. But the fact is that many of the things that teachers in those schools are required to teach have polemical content. As of January 2008, Teachers in California cannot bring into the classroom facts that might make any student think less of themselves or another student who has minority sexual proclivities, including homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, and gender identity disfunction. The fact that they are facts is not a defense. The fact that anyone perceives that they MIGHT make anyone in those protected categories feel less worthy or accepted, EVEN IF NO ONE IN A PROTECTED CLASS COMPLAINS, is enough to have the teacher disciplined. I believe some Gay Advocacy groups would assert that teaching the fact that married heterosexuals are on average happier, healthier and longer lived than other groups in the population would fall under the ban.

    The teaching of biology is often done in just such a polemical fashion. If a biology teacher voiced criticism of the inability of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis to explain fully the creation of life, or the creation of new species and phyla, many school principals and superintendants would sanction her, even if she is quoting practicing biologists, like the criticism of Darwinian gradualism that was voiced by Stephen Jay Gould as the reason for his proposed modification entitled Punctuated Equilibrium.

    The evening news programs constantly feature teachers who have mobilized their classes to become involved in polemical exercises, writing to Congress about global warming or some other environmental concern, or going out of the classroom in an exercise meant to raise public awareness of these issues.

    I propose that the primary duty of the teacher is to help the students learn to think for themselves concerning the subject matter he is presenting. This is carried to the extreme in the classic law school “socratic method”, in which the instructor simply asks questions of students, probing their reasons for supporting one view or another of a court decision, customarily until the student cannot beat back the blows. One occasion when I managed to defend myself for five minutes in my Contracts class was viewed as an accomplishment by my classmates. But Professor Oberer (at the time Dean of the University of Utah Law School) was also happy to sit down with us after class and tell us his own views on things.

    Being able to think for yourself first means obtaining a mastery of basic facts and rules. Once the student has enough of a vocabulary, he or she can then start forming value judgments about the objects being discussed.

    There is nothing wrong with a teacher expressing his or her own views on these questions, so long as it is clear that students are free to have differing opinions, and that they will be tested with respect to these nonobjective issues on the basis of their ability to articulate their reasoning, not on the conclusion itself.

    When it comes to Church related education, the reason people take themselves and their children to such places is to get a specific product that is not available elsewhere: The LDS viewpoint on the Bible, the Book of Mormon, LDS history, science, ethics, and so forth. That is what BYU can offer that the University of Utah cannot. The great value of BYU is that it is an environment where people who are hopefully fully qualifiued in their ordinary specialties can add the insights that a lifetime of examining their profession in the light of the Restored Gospel can confer. Most biology professors at Utah or elsewhere have no idea how to reconcile LDS beliefs with Evolution, but we expect that biology professors at BYU will have a better answer to that question than simply “This question is left as an exercise for the reader.” This is the value added that makes BYU education desirable. Through the Institute program, and through publications such as BYU Studies and those from FARMS, those insights and answers get distributed elsewhere in the Church, and even filter into Gospel Doctrine classes (at least mine).

    This is nothing for which BYU should apologize. People go to the Air Force Academy because they seek an education that will lead to a potential career in military service, with its excitement, exotic locales, and significance for the nation. If Academy instructors failed to integrate the military experience with their subject matter, they would not be fulfilling their commitment to give these students what they expected and would need in their lives. One of the reasons BYU’s business school is praised it that ethics are integrated into and emphasized in the curriculum.

    Pope John Paul issued direction that those colleges which purported to be Catholic institutions should support the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It is apparent that many such institutions, such as Georgetown University, do not follow that guidance in any uniform fashion. Other schools that support that approach have stepped forward to offer a “Catholic” education to those who desire it.

    There are lots of different markets for teachers in various categories. The students who seek religious insight in their study of scriptures, as well as physics, have a right to get it from the schools they choose. (The restrictions on religious speech in public institutions is a separate complex question.)

  13. Fwiw, teaching social studies is an exercise in deciding what to teach and what to ignore – whether you are talking about religious history in a church class or any other type of history in a school classroom. **In the practical reality of actual classrooms, there is no such thing as “the whole truth”.** If not, there would be no need for theses and dissertations and college-level courses. The only legitimate argument is over what specific part of the “whole truth” to present.

    For example, why would I speculate about exactly which sins Joseph had to overcome to translate? He lists various weaknesses and sins in the JSH; he is chastised repeatedly in the D&C; why is it of any value to start listing specific sins when the lesson isn’t about that – and when the portrayals we have of him do not come close to presenting him as infallible and sinless?

    As to the Priesthood restoration question, his announcement of the event really has no relevance to the lesson, but the evolution of the offices certainly does. I can’t imagine a reason to mention the first in that context, but I often make the second point in various lessons about the Priesthood. It flows perfectly, for example, into a good discussion of modern changes (local seventies, increasing quorums of the seventy, Area Authorities, elimination of Stake Missions and Stake Mission Presidencies, etc.).

    I have a hard time biting my tongue when the Church is accused of teaching “half-truths” and not teaching “the whole truth”. That simply can’t be done.

  14. “I do not recall hearing half truths in my Math class, nor Gym, nor Art, nor Music, nor English, nor Spanish. nor Wood Shop, nor Accounting. Maybe History”.

    Perhaps then you hadn’t yet learned enough about these subjects to recognize a half truth. Math I am told is truly creative. Music is not exact and no two teachers of either musicology, theory or application will tell you exactly the same thing unless it is prescribed. Some teachers are abysmal while others are very good. Wouldn’t it be silly if a person were obligated to teach every possible way of playing the oboe for example so the student could decide for himself whether he likes the European sound better than the American sound or vise verse. And I might suggests that a teacher who takes money has an obligation to be the best teacher she can be or she is cheating her students. That is unethical. I submit that being the best one is capable of being while continuing to learn is the essence of ethical teaching in general.

    I think LDS subject matter is no different than any other. Teachers have the title teacher because it is there job to teach. They are not facilitators unless one is talking about education aiming for an advanced degree and even then that is not true in all cases. Too often teachers in Sunday School and other religious settings are afraid to take a stand and actually teach something. How many college professors would be afraid to do that? Hardly any.

  15. Excellent quote in Ray’s first paragraph. I think the point of the original post was to list factors that we might consider when we decide which parts of the whole truth to present in a church setting, i.e. should we represent all positions and let the students decide what to think, or are we obligated to teach a certain viewpoint to the exclusion of others?

    I think that Ray’s second question gets to this dilemma: why bring up something that’s not in the manual and the scriptures? The first reason I can think of is that discussions flow in interesting directions and, as a teacher, I can chime in and bring things up. The magic thing, for example, stemmed from the (very broad) question in the manual: how did JS’s experiences (including asking forgiveness for follies and having a 4-year waiting period) prepare him to translate? It seemed fairly organic to wonder what kind of spiritual preparation he needed. I was debating bringing up magic and then someone asked about it (saving me from making the decision). So I talked about it a bit. The second reason is that that thing is part of the “whole truth.” It’s out there, it’s a fact, and people have heard about it. So should I discuss it as a teacher?

    As for the priesthood-restoration date thing, I think it gets to the core of the ethics question. Should I bring up research that sheds light on an obscure statement in the manual? If the manual is somewhat misleading, should I bring up a counterpoint and then let the students decide what to think? Or is that sort of thing out of line at church/institute? I personally feel that contradicting the manual is out of line at church, some outside sources are OK, and that the overall goal should be to teach what’s in the manual, with a few (tame) tidbits in for fun.

  16. Ryan, there is a big difference between clarifying something that might be misleading and bringing something up simply because it isn’t mentioned. I will never be opposed to clearing up a mis-perception; I actually think that is a duty and obligation of church leadership, including teaching. (For example, I will correct anyone in Gospel Doctrine who says, “The Church rejects evolution.” That just isn’t true, even if it is a fairly common mis-conception.) [Please, no threadjack on that topic.] I just don’t think it’s necessary to anticipate every possible mis-perception and spend a large percentage of time in a lesson focusing on those potential mis-perceptions. That’s a priority choice, not an obligation.

    Again, realizing it is impossible to teach the “whole truth”, each teacher needs to teach the concept or principle that is the heart of the lesson the best way possible. Using the polygamy sentence, it might be appropriate when reading it to add something like, “which includes practicing it” – then moving on. To discuss it or elaborate on it means taking time from the lesson focus – literally prioritizing the polygamy discussion over the intended lesson. The manual clearly says it doesn’t address polygamy. Why insert it into a lesson in any way that takes time from the intended discussion?

    Just to make this clear: I have no problem “bring(ing) up something that’s not in the manual and the scriptures”. I agreed with discussing the evolution of priesthood offices. I interject comments and insights from the Bloggernacle, Bushman, outside experts, etc. regularly when I speak in various wards and teach lessons – at all levels. I just try to make sure it contributes to a better understanding of the main principle of the lesson and won’t turn the lesson into a contentious debate among the members in the class.

  17. #15: Ray, to say the Church only speaks in ‘half-truths’ because of lack of time, is a half-truth. It has had over a hundred years to clarify some issues, and has not.

    It is true, we can never reach Full Truth, but that is still is the goal we seek.

    #13: Raymond, you just went to a better school than I did, In Art, we never got passed Rockwell. I am a Swede, which means I tell the truth, the whole truth, and sometimes even MORE that the whole truth.

  18. Bob, don’t misrepresent my comments. Your critique in #18 doesn’t address what I actually wrote in the slightest.

  19. #19: Then I apologize. I will stay with quotes. “I just don’t think it’s necessary…(to) spend a large percentage of time in a lesson focusing on those potential mis-perceptions.” and “Why insert it into a lesson in any way that takes time from the intended discussion?”.

  20. I think the idea of teaching kids to think for themselves is somewhat overrated. I think the ability to think develops without much ado, if the learner is fed lots of information. I would say 90% of the useless teaching that goes on in public education is done in the name of teaching kids to think. Okay, I made up that number.

    We use knowledge to think and until we know an awful lot about something, we won’t think about it critically or intelligently. I favor a teaching heavy with knowledge and facts, usually. It’s true these are readily available but it’s not true lots of student readily look them up, and facts organized for particular purposes can have the force of revelation.

    I do think we can help students think better–with more complexity–by drawing their attention to anomalies in their thinking, but the best way to do this is usually just to present yet another fact that their theory doesn’t adequately account for. It’s an abundance of information that makes better thinking necessary and that also makes it possible.

    People who know an awful lot about a topic, whether that’s global warming or early church history or the mechanics of an internal combustion engine, tend to think about those topics quite skillfully. People who lack the facts usually do an abysmal job.

    I think this works the same for Mormons and others.

    I do think when we are teaching religious beliefs where so much of the knowledge is subjective, we sometimes start by telling young people not how to think but what to think. Hopefully, they will be through some of the worst crises before their innate tendency for critical thinking kicks in. I know lots of critical thinkers, for example, who did their own thinking about marriage and the meaning of their sexuality, who’ve made quite a botch of things. It would have been better if they had followed the wise counsel of teachers who thought it mattered that they thought correctly more than it mattered whether their thinking was original.

    People who believe that they know truths that arise from revelation will often teach about those truths differently than will people who believe truth has different origins. Ethically, I think a bearer of revealed truth has a higher obligation to those truths than to students, or, at least, it would be a harm to those students not to stand first for those truths.

    The most important teaching is a love of truth which is taught by loving truth, even when it hurts.

  21. “Loving truth, even when it hurts.” Nice image, mlu. I agree a good supply of facts should be part of teaching. For LDS teaching, would this be historical facts? Doctrinal facts (whatever that is)? Institutional facts about the Church and how it works or is supposed to work? Experiential facts drawn from the experience of class members, of other living individuals, or of historical individuals as represented by their writings or other source documents?

    LDS manuals seem to regard LDS scripture and LDS historical documents (like the History of the Church) as facts to use and GA commentary as the only allowable interpretive commentary for those facts. Quotation of or even citation to any scholarship (even BYU profs or FARMS materials) to extend those facts or provide enlightening interpretive commentary seems verboten in manuals. This seems like an unduly restrictive way to prepare a curriculum. Correlation doesn’t have to be this way.

  22. #22: Wallace Stegner taught Writing at Stanford for decades and was considered a top teacher, but also a self admitted authoritarian. He said something like: ‘A classroom doesn’t need 31 students. It needs 30 students and a teacher. The teacher should know his subject, and teach it. The students should know they don’t know the subject, or they are wasting time being in the class. The role of the teacher, is to get the students to think/or know like him. Not to become one of them.’

  23. I think there is a dilemma in that it is not possible to tell the ‘whole story’ at one time. The ethical problems (to me) are: 1) what parts of the story will be held back. 2) Who decides what is held back (the institution or the instructor). 3) Will there be an effort at some point to tell the whole story. 4) Should the whole story never to be told because it will cause contention within the community.

  24. I think LDS might have a distinctive perspective on the role of student freedom/agency in teaching. I’m not sure exactly how to spell it out theoretically, but I’ll give an example that is suggestive.

    You don’t have to be a Mormon to disagree with the idea that you should never insert your own point of view. I’m afraid that teachers who scrupulously avoid taking a position are likely to teach their students to do the same thing: avoid taking a position! This is, of course, the exact opposite of the intended result, but I see a lot of evidence that this is what most students actually learn. There is a big difference between taking a position in class, though, and expecting your students to accept that position. In philosophy (which I teach), I don’t grade students on the conclusions they come to; I grade them on the quality of their reasoning, and the understanding of the ideas we have studied that they display in expressing and supporting their own conclusions. So they certainly don’t have to agree with me to get a good grade. But while I usually take the standard, “hands-off” approach, there are times when I think I need to take a position and defend it.

    For example, I think my students have been pretty thoroughly taught not to have any ethical convictions. I have had some really unnerving discussions in class. One day we were reading Plato, and one of the characters, Callicles, had said that the strong have the moral right to take what they want. I asked my students what they thought of this idea, just to see if they were awake. Many of them said they thought Callicles was right. I asked them about some concrete instances to see if they were serious. I asked about slavery. No one was ready to say with confidence that slavery is wrong! To bring it into the present, I asked about child sex slavery (a problem, for example, in contemporary Thailand, but probably also in this country in a different form). One student was bold enough to say, slowly, as though it was a tough call, “Well, I think child sex slavery is wrong, but that’s just my personal opinion.” !@#%!!

    Students need their teachers to model what it is to hold a well-reasoned opinion–for that matter to hold an opinion at all on some subjects!

    I think Mormons, though, for theological reasons, may have special resources for striking the right balance between the extremes of authoritarian teaching (which either leaves the students unpersuaded, or damages their ability to hold their own opinion), and “hands-off” teaching that is so “hands-off” that it teaches students to be indifferent, think everything is just opinion anyway, take no position, etc. In reality students need a more subtle cultivation of their ability to think. With most young students, at least, their ability to think well needs to be actively cultivated, and since broadly the same process of cultivating agency is (as I interpret it) what we believe God is doing with us, I think we may have a particularly good basis for (or at least reasons to try) understanding how this should work.

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