“Just teach the facts”

Apparently, at public meetings about social studies curricula, some people are saying: “Just teach facts.” Insofar as this call is coming from people incensed about Critical Race Theory in our k-12 schools, the irony is hard to ignore. CRT is very rarely, if ever, taught, and some of the ideas being attributed to it are factual. Yet I think there is also something else going on. Across many issues and in many political subcultures, it’s common to demand facts instead of opinions, as if the facts are all on our side and the other side is the opinionated one. I have encountered liberals who make versions of this argument, whether about COVID-19 or about history and politics.

In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that about 70% of Americans are drawn to the idea that gives their book its title. These people basically see disagreement as a sign of corruption. It should not be necessary to disagree about matters of political or moral importance. People who express contrasting opinions must have bad motives or be sadly misguided. Since disagreement is rife, it would be “better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts.”

In a great 2010 paper, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey showed that fewer people probably held the stealth democracy position than Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had found, and Americans were more tolerant of disagreement. However, Neblo and colleagues didn’t find zero support for stealth democracy, and I think it pops up fairly often.

It may reflect frustration about opinions that one strongly dislikes: Why can’t those misguided people just acknowledge the facts? But it may also reflect a deeper problem.

In an era when science (as popularly defined) has enormous prestige and purports to distinguish facts sharply from values, people don’t know what to make of value-laden disagreements. Justin McBrayer found this sign hanging in his son’s second-grade classroom:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

McBrayer attributes this distinction to the Common Core. I think the text of the Common Core is actually a bit subtler, and the sign reflects a widespread view. In any case, the distinction is untenable.

First of all, we must select which facts to investigate. We could teach George Washington’s achievements or slavery in colonial America–or neither, or both–but the facts themselves can’t tell us which of those things to study.

Second, the information we possess always reflects other people’s interests and concerns. American historians, for example, study marginalized and oppressed people more than they did a half century ago. This shift reflects ethical principles. Historians do not, and cannot, pursue all facts indiscriminately. You might dispute their emphasis, but then you’re arguing for different values, not rejecting their facts.

Third, it is very hard to identify a fact that is free of value-judgments or a value-judgment that does not encompass empirical beliefs about the way the world works.

Fourth, many of the most important facts about history are the opinions people held. Lincoln’s response to secession was his opinion, but attributing a position to him is either correct or incorrect. You cannot teach history without teaching–and spending a lot of your time teaching–opinions.

Perhaps most importantly, not all values are just opinions that people happen to hold. Valuing chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream is subjective, in this sense. Believing that genocide is evil is not. It isn’t a fact “that can be tested or proven,” but it also isn’t just something I happen to feel. It is something we are all obliged to feel.

Education inevitably involves choices about what to teach and how to talk about and interpret information. It inevitably conveys values and causes students to make judgments–whether as intended or in reaction to what the school wants them to think. Education is better when it helps students to develop political and intellectual virtues. But adults disagree about virtues, and our disagreements reflect our freedom, our diversity, and our nature as finite, embodied, fallible creatures. Therefore, disagreement about what and how to teach is inevitable, permanent, and a sign that free people care about the future. “Just teach the facts” is a call to stop this debate, when what we need is more and better.

See also: first year college students and moral relativism;  science, democracy, and civic lifeis science republican (with a little r)?some thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.