How Liberal Science Helps Us Teach Uncomfortable Topics

It seems undeniable that today’s students, parents, school leaders, and political leaders can be more reactive and sensitive to challenging material, ideas, language, and exercises or activities. Uncomfortable topics that used to be fairly commonplace in classrooms can now be expected to be a trigger to be avoided for fear of controversy and protest. No doubt some of the practices of the past are worthy of such scrutiny, but have we created a culture that disallows productive conversation for fear of causing harm and/or avoiding controversy that might lead to some sort of ‘canceling’? Striving to remain true to the ideals of liberal science and the cascading norms of conversation using an inquiry stance can help tremendously. This is what liberal science is all about.

There are some who will instantly and ignorantly shut down because of the word ‘liberal,’ but liberal science is not to be confused with liberal politics or the American Democratic party. In fact, liberal science is consistent with and incredibly foundational to the ideals and foundations of our democracy that traditionally conservative and Republican people also advocate for. Just like patriotism doesn’t belong to the ‘right,’ neither does liberal science belong to the ‘left.’ Sadly, our recent cultural shift away from these ideals is putting that democracy at great risk.

In short, liberal science is an open-ended and continual process of depersonalized checks of truth by anyone and everyone searching for errors. What follows is the recognition that no one person or group gets the final say on what is true or is protected from criticism. For a deeper dive into liberal science, I urge you to read the work of Jonathan Rauch. His 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors and 2021 The Constitution of Knowledge masterfully detailed the concept.

A culture of conversation, especially in our schools, helps us navigate the complexities of difficult and often divisive topics. It leverages inquiry teaching and learning with contextually relevant content and knowledge that helps discover truth more than it reinforces ideology and beliefs.

The Culture of Conversation that is consistent with liberal science includes features like:

  • Respect for dissent and epistemic humility
  • Fostering comfort with discomfort by leaning into curiosity
  • Fostering autonomy, especially in resolution of disagreements
  • Being aware of cognitive distortions in order to avoid them
  • Building resilience and rejecting victimhood
  • Resisting labels and smaller circles, instead draws larger, more inclusive circles
  • Practicing steel-manning and even star-manning of arguments
  • Recognition of the “3 Great Untruths”
  • What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  • Always trust your feelings
  • Life is a battle between good people and evil people

K-12 education serves many purposes and one of them is to help develop children into productive and happy adults. Part of that includes being the kind of active and informed citizen that our democracy demands. Far from perfect, our country’s system relies on good faith actors and the possibility of dissent. In order to counteract the threats of indoctrination and recognize and reckon with the ugliest breaches of our democratic ideals our schools must engage in liberal science through cultures of conversation. Anything different brings us closer to orthodoxy and authoritarianism which know no partisan bounds. We can not afford to bury our heads in the sand and avoid contentious topics. Instead our schools and educators need to redouble our efforts to engage in those democratic ideals that bring out our best and marginalize any who seek to indoctrinate and shut down ideas and thinking that doesn’t fall in line with their orthodoxy.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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