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Principled Neutrality, (REALLY?)Pt. 1

Updated: Apr 8


The following is an essay in three different parts. Given all that is unfolding in the world it feels even more pressing to lean into these matters. Thanks for joining me on the journey. While this document has been constructed, organized, and primarily written by me, AI did play a role in the creation of this work.

Part 1

I enjoy ChatGPT, a lot. While it can be useful in retooling verbiage, or tightening up a written piece of work, I find it a very helpful tool in sharpening my thinking about anything. After reading something I usually have my take on the piece, and at times am moved enough to write something either in response, appreciation, or refutation. Using ChatGPT as a tool of co-analysis without fail allows me the chance to see things I would not have seen otherwise. After reading an article called, Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality, written by the head of The Deerfield Academy, John P.N. Austin it was clear that the article stirred me up a bit. So many thoughts fired off as I processed the title, the contents, the arc, the recommendations, and the story of the piece. I found myself asking friends, family, clients, and random people what their thoughts were on the idea of principled neutrality. It has proven to be quite a conversation starter, and the more the conversation unfolds the more I find myself at odds with the article.

I questioned myself deeply as to why the article sparked something in me the way it did. It all started with the words ‘principled neutrality’. My love and revulsion of words was immediately activated by this conjoining of words. How can one be principled and neutral? The very act of being principled implies not being neutral in my mind, because whose principles are universal enough to be seen as neutral? I went down a whole rabbit hole of looking up definitions of principled and neutrality, other articles on principled neutrality, scouring Stanford’s philosophy database for all combinations of the words. Then I remembered dear old ChatGPT. I’m not sure why it took me so long with this particular piece. I suppose I went into my trained academia mode about the article, and that does not include the tool ChatGPT. Until I remembered when I was.

The prompt was this:

summarize this please, also reveal any inaccuracies, assumptions, or errors in logic of the content: Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality, Speaking with modesty and restraint doesn’t mean avoiding debate or controversy. APR 15, 2022 The campus of Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA is pictured on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), By John P. N. Austin

I got a very thorough summarization of the article which was more descriptive in nature. Almost as though ChatGPT did not clue in to much after, “summarize this please”, in my prompt. So I responded with, “what logical issues are present”, and the following was shared:

“While the article provides valuable insights into the importance of promoting open dialogue and critical thinking in education, there are some logical issues that could be identified:

1. Simplification of Stances: The article sometimes simplifies the positions taken by educational leaders and teachers, particularly when discussing political neutrality. It's important to recognize that nuanced situations can arise where taking a principled stance might be necessary for ethical reasons.

2. Assumption of Student Readiness: The article assumes that students are always ready for intellectually inclusive classrooms and that they inherently crave such an environment. However, individual student readiness can vary, and some students might require additional guidance and support in navigating diverse perspectives.

3. Equating Neutrality with Quality: While the article advocates for pedagogical neutrality, it might be overly optimistic to assume that neutrality always guarantees the best quality of education. The effectiveness of teaching methods and approaches should be evaluated based on their outcomes and impact on student learning, rather than solely on the basis of being neutral.

4. Oversimplification of Classroom Dynamics: The article suggests that embracing controversy in the classroom will naturally lead to productive conversations. However, managing classroom dynamics during controversial discussions can be complex, requiring skilled facilitation to ensure that diverse opinions are respected and meaningful learning takes place.

5. Lack of Acknowledgment of Biases: While the article discusses cognitive biases that can obstruct clear thinking, it doesn't explicitly acknowledge that educators themselves might hold biases that could inadvertently influence their implementation of neutrality and inclusion. Addressing educator biases is crucial for creating a truly inclusive learning environment.

6. Overemphasis on Intellectual Boldness: While encouraging intellectual adventurousness is important, the article might understate the potential emotional and psychological challenges that can arise for students when engaging with complicating views or alternative arguments. Striking a balance between challenging students intellectually and providing adequate support for their emotional well-being is essential.

7. Overgeneralization of Student Engagement: The article assumes that all students naturally crave intellectually inclusive classrooms. While many students might find them engaging, some students may prefer different learning approaches, and educators should be mindful of catering to diverse learning preferences.

8. Presumption of Teaching Strategies: The article proposes specific teaching strategies without acknowledging that the effectiveness of these strategies can depend on the context, subject matter, and student population. What works well for one classroom might not be equally effective in another.

Overall, while the article's central message of encouraging open dialogue, critical thinking, and respectful debate in education is important, it's essential to consider the complexities and nuances involved in implementing these ideas in real-world educational settings.”

And that’s when I felt like I had so many more aha’s than previously thought. Numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 8 rang with resonance. Those were threads that I too found to be major issues, but I hadn’t considered 2 and 7. And, they are indeed important ingredients to the larger picture. Enlightening, and validating as that is, ChatGPT failed to capture what to my mind might be perhaps the most damning element in Austin’s article.

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