Here’s a fact: Justin P. McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., wrote in The New York Times this week that public schools do an insufficient job of teaching the difference between fact and opinion.
“What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun?” he asks.
He bases his opinion on a visit to his son’s 2nd grade classroom, where he “found a troubling pair of signs” hanging up:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
McBrayer takes issue with this differentiation for two reasons:
- Things can be true even if no one can prove them.
- Students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. “But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.” (“I believe George Washington was the first U.S. president.”)
The second item irks McBrayer most, he says, because if every claim is only either opinion or fact, then all moral claims (such as: “Murder is wrong.”) would have to be classified as “opinion.” And that means that there are no moral facts. Because of that, students come to view moral claims “as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”
McBrayer’s eventual conclusion?
[O]ur public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
How does McBrayer argue that the experience with his child’s elementary school allows him to indict the entire K-12 education system? This is the train of thought he uses:
- The Common Core State Standards require that students be able to distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
- The “Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.” This would be a salient point, except that the institute he links to is run by a middle school teacher and has no official connection with the common standards, nor with the actual Common Core Institute, which also has no affiliation with the makers of the common-core standards.
- Some websites offer worksheets that ask students to distinguish between opinion and fact.
- McBrayer cites a discussion with his 2nd grade son in which the young student gets tripped up over the difference between fact and opinion. It’s a valid exercise, arguably, because asking a 2nd grader for his thoughts reflects what that 2nd grader has learned, although it’s possible that his 2nd grader hasn’t yet grasped the underlying concept.
This might be the first time that someone’s tied common core to a potential wave of serial killers.
The standard McBrayer cites asks students to differentiate between “fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment,” but doesn’t preclude teaching about the ambiguities he says exist. I get where McBrayer is coming from, though: None of the materials he links to leave room for debate. And they altogether ignore “reasoned judgment,” treating it as a means to fact or opinion, rather than an end unto itself. (That’s not just reflected in curricula from random websites—it even holds true for the state-approved lesson plan. Just to reinforce that many instructional materials don’t align to common-core standards.)
Let’s say, however, that the choices are only between teaching a moral as a fact or an opinion.
First, again, just because instructional materials don’t always offer nuance doesn’t mean that teachers can’t. (If I were a parent, I don’t know that I’d love my child’s elementary school explaining why murdering for fun is wrong, but at some point in their K-12 career, sure.)
Second, if McBrayer’s son doesn’t understand that murder for sport is immoral, is that a failing of the public school, or McBrayer?
Third, I can imagine that agreement on what constitutes a moral fact starts and ends with being against the kinds of crimes that “Law & Order” episodes are based on. After that, what moral truths are there? Can you get all parents and schools on board with them? People can argue about almost anything. (Have you seen Twitter?)
Perhaps one generation’s moral truth is another’s unwelcome prejudice, too. Think of homosexuality and gay marriage, for example, which used to be commonly viewed as immoral. Millennials are much more accepting than older generations, and commonly view same-sex marriage as a civil right. When a new scientific fact emerges, we stop teaching disproven ideas. (Generally.) But different moral truths can be concurrent; what then?
Fourth, McBrayer doesn’t even offer any proof that younger generations have less morality than past generations, other than observations from “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken.” As a proud Millennial, I’d like to think my generation is actually pretty anti-murder.
Is it moral to use anecdote as a basis for sweeping generalizations?
Maybe new generations aren’t embracing moral relativism, as McBrayer fears; maybe new generations just accept that, while moral truths exist, there aren’t as many as some people might think.
Image: Kids these days. Credit: Rob./Flickr Creative Commons
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.