No Teacher Neutrality

Why Unbiased Education Is Impossible

With each passing year in the classroom, I become more convinced that there is no such thing as neutral teaching. When I began my teaching career, I tried to be impartial and sit on the fence on controversial issues that arose in my history classes. That is, after all, what most teacher training programs in colleges across the country tell their students to do. Aspiring teachers are encouraged not to be a "sage on the stage," as their own teachers probably were, but instead a "guide on the side." This slogan first appeared in the 1980s and was meant for teachers of gifted students,1 but it is now ubiquitous, being quoted everywhere from professional development meetings to job interviews as a sort of enlightened posturing or postmodern signaling. But in reality, maintaining sideline neutrality is impossible.

Uncovering Constructivist Assumptions

This "on the side" approach to teaching finds its origins in constructivism, the idea that learning takes place as students construct their own knowledge. Maxine Greene, a prominent educational theorist of the last century, put it this way: "[the teacher] must make it possible for his students to create meanings in a cosmos devoid of objective meaning, to find reasons for being."2 From this perspective, truth, meaning, and reality aren't verifiably real, and certainly aren't revealed by God; instead, we construct it all for ourselves, and hopefully end up with something substantially worth living for.

If knowledge is constructed by the self in the classroom, we shouldn't be surprised to find individual identity being self-constructed outside the classroom as well. Everything is merely a creation of the human will; as the current slogan goes, "Live your truth." But if this is the constructivist end-game, why play along in the game of school? If there is no objective meaning, the whole enterprise of education is on shaky ground. If truth and meaning are relative to each individual's construction, why bother with the educational endeavor in the first place? Let's see what happens when education becomes student-directed and the teacher ends up on the side.

Can a Guide Be on the Side?

The move from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" presents an interesting conundrum in positioning the archetypes of sage and guide as opposites. In reality, a good teacher exhibits aspects of both archetypes, knowing when to lead and when to step aside. Parents do the same thing, as we have all experienced—think, for example, of a father deciding when to first let go of the bicycle as his child learns to ride. Anyone who learns a new athletic or academic skill is put through stages of observation, guided practice, and finally, independent implementation. In other words, the teacher or parent begins as "sage on the stage" and ends as "guide on the side."

However, the educational phrase "guide on the side" implies something else besides this commonsense reality. The phrase is usually employed to encourage teacher neutrality—that is, allowing students to take charge of their own education, determining its content and direction, while the teacher stays sidelined as a mere facilitator. Following progressive educational guidelines, many teachers now strive for this form of neutrality in virtually all aspects of the educational process.

But that is not how a guide functions in real life. The very act of guiding requires that one not be on the side. I was struck by this obvious point during our family read-aloud of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series. At one point in the fellowship's dangerous journey through the Mines of Moria, the small band gets stuck at a crossroads deep underground. In this tense moment of group angst, they all look to the wizard Gandalf for guidance, and "even in the gloom and despite all windings of the road," that preeminent sage and guide, Tolkien writes, "knew whither he wished to go, and he did not falter." Then Aragorn, a member of the fellowship, proclaims:

Do not be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales in Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray—if there is any path to find. He has led us here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.

Tolkien then narrates, "It was well for the Company that they had such a guide."

Can you imagine telling Gandalf to move to the side at this moment? What would happen to the fellowship? What would happen to Gandalf himself? In a similar way, what happens to students—and also to teachers—when this classroom shift takes place?

Result #1: Relativism

A teacher striving for neutrality tends to respond to student opinions with bland and blasé replies like, "Thanks for sharing, Jane," or "That's a good point, Johnny." However, such indifferent tiptoeing models the belief that all ideas and opinions are equally valid. Clearly, students have internalized the message, as a 2019 Barna survey shows: 83 percent of surveyed teenagers said moral truth depends on the circumstances, while only 6 percent said moral truth is absolute.3

Teacher silence on matters of truth and morality speaks volumes to students, resounding throughout their years of schooling and beyond. Teachers must not just sit on the fence, but model moral and intellectual commitments. If they don't, it should come as no surprise that students don't either.

Result #2: Narcissism

When relativism reigns in the classroom, narcissism tends to follow. With the teacher diminished as guide on the side and too hesitant to take a stand, the message for students is that they know what is best for themselves. Instead of being directed towards truth, goodness, and beauty, students are left to play in the mud of their baser instincts and shallow entertainment.

Without a guide, students are trapped in a narcissistic cycle of the self, digitally reflected and intensified by the dopamine hits of social media and popular culture. Teachers must not just hold up the mirror for students, but transform the mirror into a window which allows students to see the meaningful world of ideas beyond themselves.

Result #3: Secularism

Attempts at neutral teaching quickly indoctrinate students into a secular worldview. This is because teaching entails countless decisions about what information to include or exclude, which is not an unbiased process. Feigning classroom neutrality is dangerous because the teacher's worldview and presuppositions remain hidden under the cover of referee-ism. Without seeing the teacher's cards on the table, students have no way to evaluate the teacher's point of view.

When teachers purposely avoid ultimate questions or controversial yet vital topics in their classrooms, students absorb the functional atheism contained therein. Conveniently cordoning off religious beliefs and ultimate commitments whispers to students every day that those ideas don't matter and have no impact on everyday life or intellectual endeavors. Students will always imitate someone and internalize something. Do we really want them to imitate the supposedly neutral teacher who in his attempts at amorality leads students into similar nothingness? Or the teacher who, while feigning neutrality, actually favors progressive ideologies? Are there any other options?


Ultimately, teacher neutrality is an illusion. The teacher as "guide on the side" eradicates absolute truth from the curriculum, the very thing that sustains a unified worldview. Students need teachers who embody the truth in all its beauty and complexity, and who are willing to grapple with relativism and its concomitant forces, head on. The hard part is finding them.

Perhaps we can find them—or form them—if we dust off that ancient model of teaching: the teacher with his disciples, who are gathered together to discuss topics and texts under the master's wise tutelage. In such a setting, there is no pretense of neutrality. Teacher and students alike are all in, and their perspective is aligned with a shared worldview and directed toward a common end. Here, the power of imitation is unleashed towards its proper end: students internalizing their master's best dispositions and habits in their development as virtuous human beings.

When meaning is not relativist construction but revealed truth, the sage can return to the stage to share his wisdom, and the guide can emerge from the side to lead freely. Here we rediscover the ancient image of the teacher as an authentic and intelligent expert who models and defends the true, the good, and the beautiful and inspires students to join the chase.

1. In "Gifted Students Classes Offered," Harlan [Kentucky] Daily Enterprise (Aug. 6, 1981), secondary education supervisor Alice Johnson is quoted as saying, "the teacher for the gifted and talented will be more of a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage." This is the earliest reference I have found for the phrase.
2. Maxine Greene, Existential Encounters for Teachers (Random House, 1967), 3.
3. "Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings," The Barna Group, Ltd. (Sept. 18, 2019):

Constructivism's Reach

In her book Total Truth (Crossway Books, 2004, p. 242), Nancy Pearcey recounts a story showing just how pervasive constructivism has become. Pearcey spoke at a Christian educators' conference on the Darwinian and relativistic roots of constructivist educational theory. After her address, a Christian school superintendent said, "All my teachers are constructivists—all of them." Pearcey asked, "But don't they realize what that means for their faith? . . . If knowledge is a social construction, then that applies to Christianity as well—it's just a product of social forces." The superintendent responded, "I know, I know. But constructivism is what they learned at the university under the auspices of the 'experts,' and they don't question it. They just keep their religious beliefs in a separate mental category from their professional studies." Pearcey reflects that, "as a result of this compartmentalization, the teachers had unwittingly embraced a radical postmodernism that reduces all truth claims to merely social constructions." •

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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