We need to fix K-12 education. These 10 principles are a path for reform.

By Greg Lukianoff

When Jonathan Haidt and I handed in the final draft of our bookThe Coddling of the American Mind, in 2018, I was already hearing some discussion of heavy-handed ideology in K-12 teaching here and there, but it wasn’t consistent or documented well enough for us to include in the book. However, since then—and, most notably, since COVID-19—we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have heard from literally hundreds of parents all over the country talking about ideological teaching being introduced to kids as young as preschool. I want to offer a positive vision of what K-12 education could look like in a free and small-“l” liberal society, based on insights taken from U.S. jurisprudence, ancient wisdom, and modern psychology.

I introduced these principles on my blog in April and solicited comments and received responses from all over the country. Here I’m presenting the principles in what I think is their final form after incorporating the advice, suggestions, and edits I received.

Principle 1: No compelled speech, thought, or belief.  

It is usually bad to tell someone what they cannot say. It is usually far worse to tell someone what they must say, and it is always wrong to tell people what they must think or believe.

Yes, K-12 education is expected to impart some amount of “moral education” to students, far more than is expected in higher education. As Chief Justice Warren E. Burger described it in 1986, “schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order.” However, if we are educating a generation to live as citizens in a free society, we must not teach them that those in authority are allowed to—let alone encouraged to—tell citizens what political beliefs they must hold, endorse, or profess.

Religious schools, which accounted for about one in five K-12 institutions in 2015, may well seek to inculcate values beyond those that a public or secular private school might consider. Yet such schools can still benefit from respecting freedom of conscience. On questions unrelated to faith, the religious character of the school should be irrelevant. On questions of faith, the decision to be faithful can only have meaning if an alternative exists. For most private religious schools, which are Catholic, that respect is doctrinally endorsed. Indeed, the Pope himself has defended freedom of conscience on moral questions. (On a personal note, I attended Catholic high school as a loudmouthed atheist, and only later did it fully dawn on me how respectful my teachers were of my lack of belief.) 

If you believe that K-12 schools should inculcate specific political beliefs, you must consider how differently you would feel if those beliefs were, for example, the imposition of the belief that America is—and has always been—a utopia, that all must express unrelenting patriotism, and that to question American exceptionalism is a punishable offense. I oppose any of these attempts to enforce specific political beliefs, and I hope that parents and educators will agree.

Principle 2: Respect for individuality, dissent, and the sanctity of conscience. 

For all of my life until recently, individuality was not just a positive word, but also a revered value. Discovering your own individuality was regarded as part of a fulfilling life. Maybe, as my Russian father would argue, Americans really do focus too much on individuality. But in the process of course-correcting, we have gone too far in the direction of letting our individuality be subsumed by group identity. 

It may come as a surprise to some that, as the physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis points out, respect for individuality can be a key part of group cohesion. Seeing yourself as an autonomous individual with inalienable rights, free to think and speak as you choose, can be empowering. One must never forget that individual rights, by protecting freedom of association, protect group rights—but it doesn’t go the other way around. A system that focuses on group rights will not protect individual rights.

U.S. First Amendment law is replete with powerful statements about individual uniqueness, and respect for such uniqueness. Two representative examples:

  • “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.” Cohen v. California, 1971
  • “First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 2002 

If K-12 education is to include moral education, it must allow students to question or dissent from the moral education it provides without fear of punishment. Otherwise, it is indoctrination and thought reform, not education. When students disagree with moral instruction, they should be graded on how well they argue their counterpoints; they should not be treated as if they had committed a sacrilege. 

There is a realm of personal conscience that those in authority have no right to invade. If we are to have a truly free, diverse, pluralistic society, the most K-12 educators should do is to try to persuade; they should not force adherence to any ideology. [For more on this point, I highly recommend my colleague Bonnie Snyder’s forthcoming book, “Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools—and What We Can Do About It.”]

Principle 3: Foster the broadest possible curiosity, critical thinking skills, and discomfort with certainty.

Our collective knowledge is nowhere near complete, yet it vastly surpasses the competence of any one individual, field, or even community to know. If we want to educate citizens to navigate this limitless ocean of information, we should cultivate a thirst for knowledge and the intellectual habits that transform information into knowledge. 

As the great jurist Learned Hand said in 1944, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” And, of course, a dogmatic moral certainty among teenagers entering both college and full voting citizenship undermines free speech, freedom of inquiry, and democratic compromise. After all, if you’re already certain that you know the complex moral truths about the world, what use would you have for discussion, debate, or research?

Principle 4: Demonstrate epistemic humility at all levels of teaching and policymaking.

Curiosity should not be merely taught: It is most effectively learned by example. Demonstrating epistemic humility is one of the best ways to do that. A teacher being willing to say truthfully, “I don’t know—let’s find out,” does not undermine that teacher’s authority in the classroom, and it can bring appreciation for how massive the world of knowledge is.

As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1957:

No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes…. Teachers and studentsmust always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” (emphasis added). 

This was true then, and there is no reason to thinkthat we have anything close to perfect knowledge today.

Heavy-handed ideological programs always show epistemic arrogance. To believe that students must be inculcated with specific political or ideological beliefs is to assume the infallibility of those beliefs and the omniscience of the instructors or of the curriculum designers. 

This is not the way we educate people to become critical thinkers. Our collective knowledge is incomplete, no ideology has a monopoly on truth, and to tell young people otherwise leaves them ill-equipped to live in a society in which questions are always open, debates are always to be had, and new discoveries are always to be made.

Principle 5: Foster independence, not moral dependency.

Parents, educators, administrators, and employees in K-12 today are constantly told to defer to power and authority to stop interpersonal conflicts. This comes from a noble goal to, for example, reduce discrimination, end bullying, or promote tranquility. But it comes at a tremendous cost: Teaching young people that conflicts should be resolved solely by appeals to power—whether that be their high school staff, their college’s bias response team, or their company’s human resources department—encourages habits of moral dependency. 

Free societies must include some element of individual responsibility and encouragement to handle conflicts on one’s own. It is hard to overstate the dangers of training a generation of people in a democratic society to always look to authority figures to resolve life’s difficulties. This does not mean that K-12 faculty and administrators should never intervene, but it means they should not be too eager to intervene in interpersonal conflicts among students. 

To cultivate independence, resilience, and initiative, educators need to take off students’ metaphorical training wheels.

Principle 6: Do not teach children to think in cognitive distortions. 

As I initially observed in 2015, we as a society seem to be teaching a generation of students the mental habits of anxious and depressed people. I mean this quite literally: Cognitive distortions are exaggerated patterns of thought that are out of line with reality. All people engage in cognitive distortions to some degree, but if you engage in too many, too often, you may become anxious, depressed, or both. Not coincidentally, learning to avoid cognitive distortions is also a good way to learn critical thinking. Indeed, some of the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can just as easily be applied to the rules of productive debate between two people as to the habits of healthy thinking within one’s own mind.

You can see a full list of cognitive distortions here; I have left out full definitions in the interest of space. Cognitive distortions include:

  • Emotional reasoning
  • Catastrophizing
  • Overgeneralizing
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • Mind-reading
  • Labeling
  • Negative filtering
  • Discounting positives 
  • Blaming

The antidote to cognitive distortions is practiced disputation, which means examining and engaging with competing ideas in order to correct distortions and arrive at a nearer approximation to the truth. Shielding students from competing ideas, therefore, does them no favors. Schools are tasked with instructing developing minds on the importance of sound, logical reasoning. They should not allow—or worse, promote—what are, effectively, logical fallacies. 

Principle 7: Do not teach the “Three Great Untruths.”

As a society, we are teaching a generation three manifestly bad overarching “untruths”—ideas that contradict both ancient wisdom and modern psychology:

  • The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  • The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people. 

The Untruth of Fragility leads us to avoid the challenges that lead to personal growth. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning encourages us to prioritize our feelings over our reason. The Untruth of Us Versus Them urges us to view every slight, however minor or unintentional, as evidence of malice that must originate in a person who must be punished. 

Each untruth is harmful by itself; together, they are a recipe for anxiety, helplessness, and victimization in response to every encounter in life that contains some level of adversity. They are also a formula for a dysfunctional society. Students who practice the opposite of these untruths—who develop resilience, learn to contextualize their emotional responses, and offer others the benefit of the doubt—will be prepared for life and citizenship in a pluralistic democracy.

Principle 8: Take student mental health more seriously.  

The mental health of young people isn’t taken seriously enough, either in K-12 or in higher education.

The movement towards trigger warnings on campus has achieved great (and probably excessive) symbolic significance among both critics of and advocates for a more therapeutic approach to higher education. Nevertheless, the story of trigger warnings does demonstrate some of the ways in which thinking about students’ mental health and education are inadequate. 

The movement for trigger warnings starts from the premise that some students in a given lecture will be suffering from such severe PTSD that the mere mention of the topic in a classroom setting can lead to a psychological break. Therefore, it is thought, trigger warnings are not just helpful, but critical for those students’ wellbeing. 

However, for students who suffer that level of psychological distress, a trigger warning is inadequate. These students need medical professionals who provide focused therapy, not professors who decide to apply a Band-Aid. If mere discussion of a course topic evokes severe psychological distress, that is a sign that the student needs professional help.  

The same concern about inadequate responses would apply to students who might be suicidal. No adjustment of educational expectations is sufficient to deal with such a serious problem. It is another situation in which teachers need the help of parents, psychologists, and mental health professionals.

Generalizing bad ideas on how to protect students with mental illness to all students can have some serious negative side effects.

For example, we’ve learned since the book came out that parental accommodation or avoidance of anything that might cause their children anxiety can, somewhat unsurprisingly, actually cause anxieties to snowball. We all remember experiences we had as kids or even adults where we avoided a person, topic, or confrontation, but when we finally went ahead and did it, the situation ended up not being nearly as horrible as we expected. 

Some of the worst ideas from higher education are those that ask people who have suffered difficult lifetime events or traumas to make those experiences central to who they are, and thus a permanent part of their psyche. This can transform something that was once simply an aversion into something more like a phobia and, worst of all, a defining characteristic of one’s identity (part of one’s “schema”). 

This brings me to the most frustrating thing I’ve seen since publishing the original “Coddling” article. We know anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are up among young people, and up dramatically. In light of this fact, it is cruel to nevertheless advocate political philosophies that assume:

  • The majority of students are both oppressors and oppressed due to the color of their skin, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and/or national origin, and that therefore not only is life rigged against such students, they are also active participants in harming other students;
  • Words, arguments, and images can be so harmful that students must be shielded from many of them in order to prevent serious psychological harm;
  • Some students are in a war against oppression, where they don’t have friends but rather “allies”—which implies a conditional, utilitarian arrangement, not a deep and personal bond;
  • Students must always be on the lookout for slights, as these always mean something much more pernicious than a simple faux pas; and
  • A single bad joke, dumb comment, or unwise tweet at any moment could, and even should, derail future academic or professional careers.

If we sincerely care about students’ mental health, we should not be teaching them to internalize guilt, shame, hopelessness, lack of individual identity, and the impossibility of love and friendship across lines of difference. We should be fostering their anti-fragility, their resilience, and their confidence so they can face higher education as empowered, hopeful, and creative thinkers.

Principle 9: Don’t reduce complex students to limiting labels. 

Sorting students into politically useful categories that involve assigning them character attributes or destinies based on immutable traits circumscribes their potential and hampers their growth. Self-determination is foundational to the American promise and central to our unique national identity. Students must be permitted to decide for themselves how much, or how little, emphasis they wish to place on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, or economic background. 

Americans form a sense of “us” based on a relatively small number of uniting factors like citizenship, pop culture, and, hopefully, appreciation and respect for the Constitution and democracy—our shared operating system. Under this “thin” identity tent, all are welcome. Other countries have much deeper or“thicker” ideas regarding what makes them a first-person-plural “us.” The thin model is better for a truly pluralistic diverse society. The thick identity is exclusive, inflexible, and deals poorly with genuine diversity.

A disturbing trend of my 20 years of watching higher education has been the breaking down of students into different racial groups for the purpose of everything from separate orientations to separate graduations. These groupings, while intended to improve a sense of community belonging, necessarily impede the forming of early friendships among people from different backgrounds. Doubtless, there will be some conflict when students who come from very different backgrounds meet each other. However, allowing students to resolve those differences amongst themselves will prepare them to navigate the diverse world they will inhabit outside of their school environments. 

Principle 10: If it’s broke, fix it

Be willing to form new institutions that empower students and educate them with the principles of a free, diverse, and pluralistic society. Is this a formula for peace and quiet? No. But free societies aren’t supposed to be particularly quiet. As Justice Robert Jackson gravely warned in 1943, attempts to coerce unanimity of opinion have only resulted in “the unanimity of the graveyard.” 

We must not become so wedded to an ideology, an institutional organizational structure, or a method of interacting that we become impervious to legitimate criticism or meaningful reform. 

It is time for serious changes in K-12 education. We need a renewed focus on cultivating our liberal tools for discovering knowledge, fostering independence, and respecting individuality—all the while encouraging a diversity of thought among students and their families.

Greg Lukianoff is a First Amendment lawyer and president and chief executive of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.