Truth and Free Speech: A Classroom Paradox

Conscientious teachers tend to feel the weight of our responsibilities heavily. We are keenly aware that teaching is not just the casual sharing of facts, but really the intersection of our lives with our students’ lives, hopefully in a way which brings only good to them. In the end, we hope that they leave our classrooms knowing and loving the truth more than when they entered.

Our desire for our students to love the truth leads us to wrestle with one of the most fundamental paradoxes of truth and true liberty. If, in our desire for our students to love truth, we forbid our students from disagreeing with us, we will have taken away something which is fundamentally human: liberty of thought. Therefore, if we say we love truth on the one hand, but on the other, we deny the truth of God-give human liberty, we are living a lie.

Naturally, this paradox leads to some difficult questions. To what extent should we teach our own views in the classroom? To what extent should we make absolute statements? To what extent should we leave the door open to inquiry?

Conversely, at what point, if we do leave things open-ended, are we neglecting our responsibility to be truth-tellers?

In short, where does conviction stop and censorship begin? How can we be voices of truth and defenders of liberty?

I think every teacher must wrestle through these questions on his own, and each teacher may find his position changing over time. The first wrong answer is simply not to ask the questions at all.

My own reflections on the matter have led me to several insights.

First, we should approach all our truth-telling with humility and deference to sources of truth. Though we as teachers are right to realize the weight of responsibility in our jobs, we needn’t take ourselves too seriously. After all, we are not the students’ parents, and we are asked to teach our subject, not tell our students what to do or how to live. We must respect these limits on our jobs, though of course we should take care that, in as much as our lives are examples for our students’ lives, we do our very best to lead well.

Additionally, though we have our own firmly held convictions—and rightly so—we must be willing to defer to sources of truth.

This point is best explained by an example. Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast about the Fathers of the Christian church. The podcaster highlighted the incredible commitment to truth by one of the church Fathers. That church Father told his students not to accept anything he said about God’s Word without understanding and seeing where it came from in the Bible. He was completely open to challenges, as long as those challenges came from the source of Truth.

Though we may not all be teaching the Bible, we teachers have something to learn here: should students be able to demonstrate our error on any subject, we must be willing to hear the truth. And, in order to be open to listening to such challenges, we must allow students to speak their own convictions in our classrooms.

Second, teachers should primarily stick to truths which are pertinent to their subject matter. Like most adults, I have political views, but, since I teach English, I find no need to instruct my students in what I believe to be the truth about the political world. I actually try conscientiously to avoid expressing my opinions on such issues in class, not because of any doubt that my positions are based on truth, but because that is not my job nor my place.

I do teach students about topics which are raised through literature. For example, we discuss integrity at length with To Kill a Mockingbird. And, certainly, one of my political beliefs is that elected officials should be people of integrity. In this way, my English instruction overlaps with areas such as politics, but it is no more than an overlap, and that only when necessary.

In high school, one of my teachers put an Obama poster on his wall. I found it inappropriate then, and still do. Regardless of whether I supported Obama, it was not the time nor the place for such statements. I look back on that teacher with what I hope is generosity: I think he was trying to do what he thought was right. He probably misunderstood his responsibility toward us and thought it extended into all realms of life; he probably felt he should instruct us to believe in the things that he thought were true. I am afraid he was mistaken, however, and failed to realize the limits on his profession.

I do make one exception to my personal rule of avoiding non-English topics, and that is when students ask me directly what I think. I find no issue with sharing my convictions with curious students, particularly when I can do so after class, and when I can do so without telling the students what they must think.

Third, teachers should encourage free discussion, as long as that discussion is oriented toward truth-seeking. Free and open discussion does not threaten truth but actually supports it. After all, the only people who get nervous when challenged are the people who are weak in their positions. If our positions are strong, students will also discover that strength upon honest investigation.

However, an easy pitfall that tends to come with a love of free conversation is discussion for discussion’s sake. We must walk the tight-rope of leading entirely open discussions which are entirely oriented toward truth-seeking. Students may express differing views, but no one should receive the impression from us that sharing thoughts is the goal. We share thoughts so that we all may come to a better understanding of the truth, whether that is truth about what literature means, or about how we should live, or about the nature of the world.

Fourth, respectful disagreement should always be permitted, but the teacher certainly may—and often should—kindly point out logical or factual errors. Opening our rooms to free discussion does not mean opening our classrooms to intellectual dishonesty or academic error. It is right to hold students to high standards of logical thought, whether they agree with us or not. Deducting points from a student’s work which shows error in reasoning is not punishing that student for holding a wrong view; it is doing a kindness to that student in helping him learn how to think more clearly. We must be careful here, however, that we do not conveniently see intellectual error only in students who disagree with us, and we should always be willing to grant the benefit of the doubt in grey areas.

I will end with two thoughts.

One, in college, I wished some of my professors would speak more from their own convictions and allow less time for the class to wallow in our own ignorance. Though some will say that older students need more intellectual freedom—and I agree to some extent—I posit as well that older students are more comfortable disagreeing with their instructors, and so “I believe” statements from professors are perhaps less likely to squash productive discourse than those professors might fear. I think the biggest risk comes when “I believe” lectures become “you must believe” lectures. That is when conviction has crossed the line into censorship.

Two, I recently encountered this perhaps too-often quoted line from St. Augustine: “Truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.” I found it a striking reminder that when we believe in things which are actually true, we needn’t fear any challenges, for the truth is incredibly strong. It is only lies which are weak.