There has been an interesting convergence recently of two worlds that rarely intersect: political journalism and classroom pedagogy. In the first category, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked on his blog a few weeks ago whether it ought to be journalists’ responsibility to identify what they suspect to be outright lies voiced by political figures–whether they should be, in his words, "truth vigilantes." In the latter category, my colleague Peter Boghossian has asked whether it ought to be a teacher’s responsibility to correct fallacious, i.e. faith-based, reasoning voiced by students.
The fascinating part is that both Brisbane’s and Boghossian’s contributions have generated hubbub, but largely in opposite directions. Hordes of commentators pounced on Brisbane as being doltish for wondering, even for a nanosecond, whether perhaps, possibly, journalists should report the objective truth. For example, Clay Shirky at The Guardian:
[Brisbane] is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.
In Boghossian’s case, although many students have rushed to his defense, many teachers, especially those self-identified as secular liberals, have attacked. One common opinion in that latter camp is that a professor’s responsibility is to preserve epistemological neutrality, in part because there is a power gap and teachers need to take pains to avoid oppressing their students. Also, on the opposition view, a teacher’s coming out on just one side of the “how do we know what we know” question contravenes widespread expectations, and indeed institutional mandates, of tolerance of diverse religious views. In that case, it seems that educators must betray absolutely no favor when it comes to different "ways of knowing"–something James Fallows of The Atlantic identified, in reference to Brisbane, as the false equivalence problem.
I find very interesting the parallels and anti-parallels between these situations: reader-journalist, on the one hand, student-teacher on the other. What role for the messenger? With respect to truth-telling, journalistic ambivalence is widely seen as an atavism: the raison-d’etre of the messenger is to guide readers to the best available understanding of reality. When it comes to a teacher’s role in the classroom, however, it would appear that no such consensus has been reached.