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What keeps me awake at night: is political correctness damaging learning?

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“My fear is that one day we will become so politically correct that nobody will ever say what they really think.”

This statement, made by my university English professor more than 15 years ago, made me wonder what topics a teacher should and should not discuss in class. As a veteran teacher in good standing, I probably feel more comfortable voicing my opinions than a newer teacher would. Even so, certain topics have become very dodgy in today’s politically correct Western world. 

In 2015, most people would cringe at the blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic statements that were deemed acceptable in past decades. However, the speech has not disappeared but merely moved to a new medium. Cyberspace now affords people the luxury of posting comments anonymously, thereby avoiding accountability.

While any decent teacher understands the need to protect the rights of different groups of people, especially minorities, it is detrimental to all when certain subjects cannot even be mentioned without the fear of unintentionally offending somebody and facing serious repercussions.

The US, where I live and work, is unlike almost any other country; our constitution guarantees the right to free speech. Like any other right, there are limits, but those limits seem to be steadily increasing. Many people are now uncomfortable even mentioning the subject of race, religion or sexual orientation for fear of offending somebody. Penalties for this may include losing one’s career, lawsuits or being publicly lambasted by the media and on social networks.

The ability to discuss important topics freely and rationally is what allows a community to assess its strengths and shortcomings to improve on them. Any subject that cannot be discussed has become stagnant – no further progress can occur. We must find a middle ground where educators treat everybody with respect, and yet feel comfortable in discussing controversial subjects. This is how the students will become informed about different viewpoints and better able to determine where they themselves stand on an issue; to determine what the problems are and how they can be part of the solution.

Seth Robey is a science teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Illinois, US

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