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Principled Neutrality, (Really?) Pt. 2, by Jabali Stewart

Updated: Apr 19

Using one’s experience in writing as a function of context setting is a very useful tool. It can help leave the reader with the sense of human possibility, as well as an example of how the author actually used the insights they are sharing in their writing.  Austin’s article is a call to action, ‘*Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality*’. He even offers a four point frame to ‘encourage students to engage with complicating views and to consider alternative arguments.’

Incorporate Rival Thinkers

Remove Bias

Teach and Model Norms of Civility

Create the Conditions for Intellectual Adventurousness

I personally do not think the story Austin offers at the beginning of his piece exemplifies this frame. He writes:

“Over my relatively short time as head of school at Deerfield Academy, a position I have held since July of 2019,  I've been asked to comment on any number of national and global events: mass shootings, the killing of George Floyd, protests against police violence, immigration policy, racist incidents at other schools and colleges, the 2020 election, and the storming of the Capitol on January 6, among others. Yet, with few exceptions, I have refrained from comment. Sometimes, I have come to believe, a studied, principled restraint is the best, and most appropriate, stance to take…Some students may be disappointed that their head of school has recused himself from commenting on issues of such profound importance. And I don’t like disappointing students. But in doing so, I hope I am empowering them—encouraging their independence of thought, creating a space of inquiry where they can discover their own views, and, most importantly, protecting their civic agency.”

What I see is a story of silence, silence as a response to complex questions. Austin makes it clear that his “view is that school leaders should speak with modesty and restraint on matters of public concern and assume a position of principled neutrality, recognizing that the public stands we take as educational leaders can inadvertently chill expression and narrow the range of conversation on campus.” He also believes that, ‘These assumptions should inform not only school administrators but teachers as well.’  Thus the article. Should one also make the assumption that his story of silence serves as an example of what he thinks teachers how he thinks teachers should respond in similar situations?

I also see the story of a missed opportunity, the opportunity to Teach and Model Norms of Civility. An age old saying I am very fond of is, as the head goes, so goes the body. In Austin’s case, as the head of school he goes to silence, which is what will be inspired in the body - which includes the students. Austin not only misses the opportunity to do this most important work with students, but he also misses the chance of modeling norms of civility amongst his staff. A modeling that could serve as a frame of reference to assist teachers in the classroom. I wonder too if the questions the students are asking are processed by the adults in the building. It seems like that would be the space in which the adults get a chance to practice what they are called to model for the students. I have a sneaking suspicion these conversations are not happening. This leaves me feeling like Austin’s call to Create the Conditions for Intellectual Adventurousness fell flat and is insincere.

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