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December 18, 2020+Samantha Hedges
+Open Inquiry+Campus Policy

Is Virtual Schooling Narrowing the Space for Open Inquiry?

The May-June 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine highlighted a controversial article about homeschooling by Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet. Bartholet called for a presumptive ban on homeschooling, raising the question: "Do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18?" The Harvard Magazine article was published in the midst of the unplanned and unprecedented shift from in-school to virtual learning, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bartholet’s article brought to light a tension between the role of schools and parents in the education of children, which has been playing out in the absence of physical school boundaries. Much of this tension, couched in a politically liberal society, is centered around two questions: How to respect children as individuals with a private home life, and how to respect, but keep in check, the role of teachers as part of children's public life.

Recently, the line between the public and private lives of students has been blurred in the name of student safety. Schools are using in-school policies to take disciplinary action against the in-home behaviors and expressions of students. For example, a student in Washington was removed from his Zoom class due to a pro-Trump flag hanging on the wall behind him. A student in Louisiana was recommended for expulsion—later reduced to a suspension—for having a BB gun within eyesight during his virtual class. A student in Colorado was paid a visit by the police and suspended from school for lifting his Nerf gun in front of the camera during a virtual class. All of these schools cited school policy as justification for their disciplinary action. Indeed, had the student in Washington brought the pro-Trump flag, which included profanity, to school, for example, the administration might have been justified in taking action. But these kids were not in school and nothing that they were punished for was illegal.

Schools are also using online surveillance tools, like Gaggle, to police their students' online activity. Mark Keierleber, of The 74, reported that Gaggle uses artificial intelligence to scan students’ emails, chat messages, and other materials for specific words and phrases that may indicate harm perpetrated in the homes of students or by students against other students. Gaggle moderators evaluate flagged content and notify school officials about references to self-harm, depression, drug use, violent threats, and trigger words, such as “bomb,” “drunk,” “gun,” and “kill me,” and words like “gay” and “lesbian,” which are flagged as potential bullying.

In a liberal society, school is thought of as preparation for citizenship in a free, democratic society. But if schools are punishing legal behavior and monitoring student expression, which may be well-meaning and healthy, such as asking difficult questions, children are instead preparing for participation in an oppressive, authoritarian society.

Gaggle not only provides schools and teachers access to the private lives of students that, if students were learning within the walls of school, they would not have, it also raises questions about parental consent and free speech. As does a Twitter exchange in which teachers expressed concern about parents overhearing how they were talking to students about sexuality, gender, and race. Matthew R. Kay, founding teacher at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, who posted the original, then-public tweet, worried about how spectators (parents, siblings, etc.) during virtual classes would impact the school’s "diversity/equity work." He noted: "[W]hile 'conservative' parents are my chief concern—I know that the damage can come from the left too. If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids [sic] racism or homophobia or transphobia—how much do we want their classmates' parents piling on."

The teaching of social, political, and cultural issues in schools without parent knowledge or consent highlights the blurred line between the public and private lives of students, especially given that children are attending school from their homes. Political liberalism suggests that "any publicly provided (or mandated) schooling should respect the private lives of children and families by leaving their private lives and commitments essentially untouched—or at least unchallenged—if possible." Beyond teaching academic content, a purpose of public school is to uphold democratic values concerning the demands of public life, such as tolerance, mutual respect, and critical reflection, which stem from discussion of social, political, and cultural issues. But in a liberal society, the rights and liberties of children and families must also be respected, and discussion of race and gender present a scenario in which the ideological commitments of teachers and parents may diverge, necessitating a dialogue between schools and parents regarding how these issues should be presented.

Both the conversation on Twitter and Gaggle’s policing of online behavior raise the broader questions of how virtual learning is constraining the space for free and open inquiry as well as access to new ideas. Public schools in a liberal society expose children to worldviews that differ from their own, and the constant monitoring of student-to-student dialogue by teachers, parents, and the moderators of online platforms limits the open exchange of ideas among students. To develop critical thinking skills, students need access to spaces that allow them to express themselves and discuss issues, including those that are controversial, without fear of negative repercussions from parents, schools, or the police.

Understandably, teachers may be concerned about their students during these uncertain times. But they—and schools more generally—should think holistically about the practices they adopt that stem from those concerns. There are costs to punishing children for legal behavior in their homes, monitoring their social media, and excluding parents from their child’s education. Children will have an inaccurate understanding of the rule of law that governs the society they are learning how to participate in; the censoring of accurate information will distort learning and fail to teach the values of open inquiry; and not including parents in their child’s education will affect relationships between parents and children and hinder a child’s ability to conceive of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.

The policies of virtual classrooms need to recognize that all of the work that traditionally happens in the school building is now happening at home. As a result, schools should reassess their boundaries and adjust policies as needed, while consulting parents regarding the online platforms they use and the practices that go beyond delivering educational content. Parents serve as an important form of checks and balances for the schools that educate their children. Schools should not only ensure they are respecting the division between public and private life while children are learning from home, they should embrace the shift to virtual learning as an avenue for developing strong relationships with families and creating a learning environment that is mutually beneficial to families and teachers. Teachers should strive to make the most of the situation by providing a supportive environment in which students can express themselves and talk about societal issues without having to worry about what they say being recorded or for fear of punishment. This space to engage in open inquiry is crucial for the healthy development of intellectual curiosity and growth.


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