08/06/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

Where's the Answer Bubble for 'It Depends'?

Decades ago James Baldwin observed, "It is very nearly impossible ... to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind." That was then. It's worse now.

Most of the apt criticisms of educational practice and policy these days are limited to empirical assessment of its measurable efficacy. There is scant evidence that testing and accountability have achieved even this sterile goal. Much more grave is the collateral damage done by classroom practices that present and test everything in stark contrasts of right and wrong. Children are being systematically denied the opportunity to develop independent minds. Our society will suffer the consequences.

In school and life things are seldom black and white, right and wrong. I suppose this is why the word "certain" is sometimes paired with the word "dead." It is at great peril that we allow our understanding of life's complexities to develop in a stark, binary way. That leads to trouble.

In every discipline, the most powerful learning comes when students are invited to inhabit someone else's perspective as a means to deeper understanding. This is the stuff of really important education. Curriculum should be built around learning for understanding, which requires and develops the human capacity for empathy and critical thought.

Although the concept can be stretched too far (see: Bill Clinton and the meaning of "is"), one of my favorite phrases is, "It depends." Nearly every assertion, whether historical, political, artistic, emotional or scientific, requires context in order to have meaning. Ask too simplistic a question and the proper answer may be, "It depends."

Seeing the world in black and white is the source of much human misery, injustice and ignorance.

Take (please!) the current state of partisan political rhetoric. It's black and white (too literally) and deeply dysfunctional. Complex humans and ideas are rendered in black and white caricatures that distract and detract from social progress. Barack Obama is a Socialist who wasn't born here! Mitt Romney is a Mormon fundamentalist and evil Capitalist! Neither characterization is accurate, and this deep black and bright white nonsense puts Americans at such great poles that social progress is blocked at every juncture. The media and political campaigns are to blame, of course, but Americans' lack of perspective and critical thinking capacity makes the citizenry guilty too.

In all realms of human life, learning to see shades of gray advances civilization.

Great scientists don't selectively choose the observations and information that support their theses. They work mightily to disprove their own hypotheses and discover their own biases. Perhaps peace would break out all over the Middle East if Palestians tried hard to understand the painful history of the Jewish experience and Israeli politicians walked a few miles in the shoes of the opposition. The best political and pragmatic compromises come when people of good will listen and learn from those who experience the issue from a different perspective.

And all of us know, sometimes through painful experience, that our personal relationships sometimes require swallowing hard, letting go our of our own stubborn emotions, and considering that our life partners or colleagues may see, feel or know something that is out of our reach. That's the only way to live, love and work together effectively.

Of course students should learn "facts" and develop skills. But as they gain knowledge and ability, they also learn that "it depends" -- that seeing things through a different lens might change everything you thought you knew, and that "dead certainty" can be fatal.