Near the end of his life, British philosopher Stuart Hampshire developed an underappreciated defense of pluralism. Hampshire argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between an individual’s ability to reason well and the way one manages conflict. To put it another way, if robust forms of disagreement exist in a society and these don’t devolve into violence and bitter polarization, then individuals will have models they can use to manage conflicting ideals and arguments that exist within their minds. And if individuals learn to weigh conflicting ideals and arguments in their head, then they will also be more able to tolerate this robust type of conflictual reasoning in their society. It is a virtuous cycle that is beneficial to individuals and the wider society.
Hampshire’s perspective is particularly useful at this point in history because we aren’t reasoning well as a society. At the same time, growing numbers of people are experiencing mental health troubles. If there is a symbiotic relationship between how we manage social conflict and how we manage ourselves, and if we are interested in making progress on the mental health crisis and our crisis of polarization, then we must find ways to manage conflict effectively. To do this, according to Hampshire, we must learn to love pluralism. And when I say love, I mean love. We must not just tolerate pluralism, but embrace it as a precondition for individual and social flourishing.
As a philosopher of education committed to pluralism, it has been distressing to watch the discourse around schooling devolve into debates about what cannot be taught. For years, people on the left have argued that certain books must be excluded from the curriculum because they cause harm to individuals from marginalized groups. More recently, parents on the right have asserted their right over what is taught and even what children might be exposed to in their schools and public libraries.
While we should assume good faith from both sides, and while we also have to accept that it is worth weighing the educational value of teaching certain books, we also have to see that the race to prohibit and cancel has devolved into shouting matches that do not model the type of reasoning that leads to individual or societal flourishing.
It is especially important to see how the rush to cancel and prohibit affects a student’s mental health and ability to reason well. In the wider culture, parents aren’t suggesting that some titles are better educational tools than others and so deserve a place in the curriculum. They are arguing for full prohibition, suggesting that some books and some viewpoints have no value and are only harmful. The model of individual reasoning that this establishes is one where individuals are made to fear freedom of thought. If some viewpoints are so negative that they must be banned, then individuals become hesitant to think, fearing that freedom of thought might lead them to think things that no decent person would or should think. They become their own harsh taskmasters, policing their own thoughts instead of thinking freely and widely and looking for the most sincere and accurate ways to express what they believe.
Sadly, there are partisans on the left and right who are pushing for just this type of outcome. They are willing to limit freedom so that individuals only think “correct” thoughts. Instead of seeing new and different viewpoints as occasions for growth and development, they see them as threats to be extinguished and excised at all costs. Young people are being taught to conform to the norms of whichever partisan community they are born into or aspire to belong to. The outcome is negative for their well-being and for the prosperity of a free society.
In a 1991 essay “Self-Constraint Versus Self-Liberation,” Tyler Cowen develops the linkage between individual freedom and social prosperity, arguing: “Successful self-management programs are no more based upon command than successful economies or firms are. Instead, good self-management involves the unleashing of forces in such a way as to create a complex but coordinated process of personality growth.” By attempting to limit what children are taught and exposed to in schools, we are using command and control mechanisms that ultimately stifle personal and social growth.
Instead of fearing freedom, we should fear the increased centralized power we are asking schools to take on. Instead of spending so much time fighting over what schools and public libraries shouldn’t teach us, why aren’t we debating ways to promote prosperity and flourishing?
The best way to bring this outcome about would be to spend more time making suggestions about what young people should read, rather than excluding material and ideas from the curriculum. Instead of working to constrain how people with different views make their case, spend the time making yours. If we lived in a healthy culture, then we’d be creating educational materials that showcase the best arguments for every position out there. Students in high school would get in the habit of engaging with the best of both sides instead of pretending that the other side has nothing good to offer.
As Yale University psychologist Michael Strambler has argued recently in Discourse, we also need to see social and emotional learning (SEL) as the useful tool it can be. As Strambler suggests, there are indeed SEL proponents and programs that aim to force students into the “correct” views. But what SEL is meant to do is to allow young people to sit with complexity and not feel the need to cancel or expel ways of thinking that initially prove challenging. Rather, young people need the fortitude it takes to consider views that upend their assumptions and the assumptions of the communities they most associate with.
This is absolutely necessary for an education committed to promoting freedom and pluralism. Engaging with viewpoints we initially disagree with is not easy. SEL—regardless of what we call it—should be used to unleash our capacity to manage conflict, so that we become freer and more prosperous because we are better able to seek out and engage with the best in our culture instead of spending so much time seeking to prohibit what we take to be the worst.
Finally, fights over what kids shouldn’t be exposed to also cause us to forget the power and importance of free play for children. Ball State University economist Steven Horwitz’s excellent essay “Cooperation Over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism” is a poignant reminder that parents who seek to exert full control over a child rob him or her of the skills and habits of mind essential to democracy and freedom. The spontaneous ordering of children playing games gives them models for how they might spontaneously order their own competing internal impulses and ideals. As Cowen suggests, this spontaneously ordered self offers tremendous advantages over the self that is acting under conformity and prohibition.
Young people need models for how to effectively manage conflicting views. It is only by wrestling with new, unsettling and difficult ideas that individuals and societies develop the types of resilience and forms of thought that lead to lasting prosperity. Unleashing talent, not cancellation and prohibition, is what we should want from our schools. And to get there, we must learn to love freedom and pluralism and pass this love onto our children.