Why “Neutrality” on Controversial Issues in the Classroom Doesn’t Work

What Women Really Think
Feb. 15 2012 2:39 PM

Why “Neutrality” on Controversial Issues in the Classroom Doesn’t Work

Under threat of two lawsuits and intense public scrutiny, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board—which governs Minnesota’s largest district and the area from which anti-LGBT politician Michele Bachmann hails—decided on Monday to revise its prior policy of teacher “neutrality” on controversial social issues (namely, sexual orientation) to a slightly more open ethos. The Associated Press explains:

"The new policy says when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."


While the new position stops short of encouraging teachers to actually fight homophobia directly, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, especially in a district that has learned through tragedy the grave costs of so-called “neutral” silence. Over the course of less than two years, six students have committed suicide in cases where anti-LGBT bullying (whether the victim identified as gay or not) was almost certainly a factor. Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published a heart-wrenching account by Sabrina Erdely of the suicide epidemic, in which the writer shows how the area’s considerable evangelical presence resists even acknowledging the existence of gay students, much less the establishment of support programs like gay-straight alliances. Caught in the cross-fire between homophobes and grieving parents, the school board chose neutrality.

But of course, saying nothing conveys a message of its own—one that is, unfortunately, open to a wide array of interpretations. To the besieged gay or perceived-to-be-gay student, the teacher’s uncomfortable silence signals at best cowardice and, at worst, complicity with the bully. Meanwhile, the aggressor receives no punishment, so why stop? Silent condemnation teeters perilously close to tacit approval. As Erdely shows in her piece, teachers subject to the yoke of neutrality can’t do any good and actually end up fomenting a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop that, at least in this case, proved disastrous.*

Perhaps the basic ability to discuss homosexuality and other controversial issues will help defuse some of the tension in Minnesota; but let’s be clear, this is not a fair debate between equally matched adults. LGBT youth—especially in such a conservative environment—cannot be expected to go toe to toe against homophobes with nothing more than a supposedly “balanced” framework in place. Teachers should not be activists, but they must be advocates, because one side desperately needs the support—if only to make it out of high school alive.

*Clarification, Feb. 16, 2012:This post previously used the term "negative feedback loop," which, as a reader rightly pointed out, has a specific technical meaning different from what the writer intended.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Dear Prudence
Sept. 16 2014 6:00 AM Can of Worms Prudie offers advice to a letter writer who wants to blackmail a famous ex with tapes of his fetish.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Why Not Just Turn Campus Rape Allegations Over to the Police? Because the Police Don't Investigate.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 8:41 PM You’re Cut, Adrian Peterson Why fantasy football owners should release the Minnesota Vikings star.