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On Extremism, Inconsistency, and Uncertainty

This is Alfie Kohn's final post with Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences. A new blogger joins Deborah next week.

Dear Debbie,
I'm tempted to continue talking about competition with you, trying to hash out whether it (like conflict) is really inevitable, and asking what message we send to kids when we permit or even endorse activities that pit them against one another. But I was intrigued by your more general comments about consistency and other features of holding, discussing, and acting on one's beliefs. Before I yield the floor to your next conversational partner, then, I thought it might be interesting if, for my final contribution to this blog, I joined you in going "meta."

I may be wrong, Deb, but there occasionally seems to be a subtext to our conversations in which a moderate or reasonable position on a given issue (yours) is contrasted with one that's more extreme (mine). I'm not sure that's an accurate description of most of our disagreements, but clearly a lot of disputes are framed that way. In fact, your views, too, are sometimes regarded as pretty far out there. I think this way of describing positions that people hold is actually more complicated than it seems, however, and certain distinctions come into view only when we squint hard.

Can we start by agreeing that our culture is skeptical of anything that seems radical or immoderate? A middle-of-the-road view, a triangulated compromise between outlying values on either side, offers substantial rhetorical advantages. By definition, centrists appear to be reasonable and realistic, such as when they insist that something (competition or punishment, to take two examples) becomes a problem only when it's implemented harshly or excessively or prematurely.

I argue, by contrast, that there's always— in fact, inherently—something undesirable about an arrangement in which one person can succeed only if others fail, or in which children are deliberately made unhappy by adults to teach them a lesson. "Always" sounds extreme. But my point of view follows from a more general conviction that might be summarized as follows: Not everything that's bad when done to excess is harmless when done in moderation. Everyone will concede that's true in certain cases—with sexual molestation, say. But it's radical to apply this formulation to practices that are widely accepted. While it's true that the ideal course of action sometimes lies midway between two poles, it doesn't always. And I think it's a serious mistake to assume, a priori, that moderation is preferable.

As I say, you, too, have taken positions that could be classified as extreme. But that fact about our views isn't a reason to reject them. Nor do I think that holding them makes us "extremists" in the usual, pejorative sense of that word. That's because—and this is the first distinction I'd like to propose—holding a view that's extreme compared to what others believe is not the same thing as thinking inflexibly or being intolerant of people who sometimes act inconsistently.

Speaking of which: My point of departure isn't to demand consistency, per se. Rather, I begin by asking, "Is x a good idea?" And if it isn't, then I think one should try to reduce or eliminate x as completely and quickly—and in as many different arenas of our lives—as circumstances permit. That can be challenging, even exhausting, particularly in light of the inevitable opposition one encounters. But to say that it's understandable sometimes to throw up one's hands doesn't mean that doing so is desirable. (Let's call that Distinction #2.) We can forgive our inconsistencies and imperfections, provisionally make our peace with the fact that our actions sometimes fall short. But we shouldn't shrug and claim that this is perfectly OK.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, it's really hard to create an entirely nonpunitive school, and we may need to phase out the practice gradually or even reluctantly live with some use of punishment if the costs of abolishing it are too high. But there's a big difference between making that statement and endorsing punishment. Similarly, we can say that it's better to do what makes sense in one arena rather than nowhere, or to some extent rather than not at all—while maintaining a commitment to try to make more progress next year. I don't like all-or-nothing purism, but it's also true that, as someone once said, "Realism corrupts. Absolute realism corrupts absolutely."

I worry when the struggle is abandoned too readily, perhaps based on the assumption that no one could get away with subversive tactics. Pioneers like you have shown that all kinds of subversion are possible, even when top-down demands for data and rigor threaten to smother meaningful learning. (You recently wrote, "It's only secretly rebellious teachers who have ever done right by our least advantaged kids.") I also worry when we're too quick to attribute something like competitiveness to "human nature." That's a very difficult position to defend empirically and a very easy excuse for failing to challenge destructive practices.

We let ourselves off the hook too quickly when we fail to see our convictions through to their logical conclusions. For example, if we really believed that schools should be judged by how much they support and extend kids' desire to play with ideas, their intrinsic motivation to learn, then how can we in good conscience continue to hand out grades and homework, both of which clearly damage that disposition?

I think all of us need to take the time to introspect, to hold ourselves to high standards with respect to our beliefs. I have little patience for the self-serving invocation of Walt Whitman's glib line, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself." If we continue to act in a way that's inconsistent with our core values, or if we profess loyalty to two beliefs that are mutually exclusive, then we ought to give ourselves a bit of a hard time, or at least be open to a challenge from others, don't you think?

Having said of all of that, I'll add that some apparent inconsistencies don't trouble me because a closer look reveals that they're not really inconsistencies at all. In some cases, what's going on is better described as a deliberate attempt to strike a balance between opposing objectives. For example, progressive education is all about process (with the learning itself seen as valuable) but it's also about helping students to come up with a product that's authentic. Similarly, we want to honor the uniqueness, and teach to the interests, of each student, but we also want to create a community of learners so that each child comes to think in terms of "us" and not just "me." Skillful educators struggle to resolve these and many other tensions between seemingly incommensurate goals. But that doesn't mean they're being inconsistent.

Another example of apparent inconsistency is a situation where we put up with some things we don't like because of our commitment to a larger value. You may not favor drill-and-skill math, Deb, but you think local communities should be able to choose that form of instruction. You've challenged and inspired many of us with your motto: "Better to have some lousy curriculums than one perfect one—including my own." (Are you listening, Common Core apologists?) Similarly, you may not approve of everything a teacher in your school is doing, but you don't want to micromanage her. And the same goes for our students and our own children: Often we grit our teeth about their choices but only sometimes do we step in to say, "Uh-uh." That's because kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. So our commitment to supporting autonomy trumps many of the specific objections we have to what people do with that autonomy. And I don't think that situation counts as inconsistency.

What does count as inconsistency, though, seems to trouble me a little more than it does you. But—and here's my last distinction—neither consistency nor radicalism implies absolute certainty. We have to try to love the questions themselves, as Ranier Maria Rilke put it, and to question ourselves as well as others. That you and I enjoy doing just that is obvious (to me, at least) from our public exchanges like this one as well as from our private discussions over dinner (of which I hope for many more).


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