- Paul Cumbo
“Hey, it’s okay. This is a judgment-free zone.” I heard this the other day in class. It was a tongue-in-cheek remark—the kid who said it was being sarcastic, which is not uncommon in a room full of seniors. And so, through irony, he was, of course, issuing judgment about something fairly ridiculous the other kid had said. Now, the sarcasm wasn’t very nice, but neither was the ridiculous comment that provoked it.
Having overheard this, I first diffused the situation. But then I challenged them. I said, “Guys, actually this is the polar opposite of a judgment free zone.” Because if our classrooms are judgment free zones, we’re in trouble. After all, one of the most vital purposes of education is to develop both the ability and the will to exercise good judgment—not to inculcate the avoidance of judgment.
There’s a distinction between critical feedback issuing from good judgment and inappropriate comments (which issue, incidentally, not from non-judgment, but rather from poor judgment). Helping students develop the tools of discernment to understand that distinction is a big part of our job. We can’t develop good judgment in judgment-free zones. We need to facilitate the confrontation with tough situations and different perspectives. Without this, they won't learn to differentiate between good judgment and prejudicial thinking—that is, premature judgment. Judgment without discernment; without thinking.
It's understandable why people—indeed, teachers—want to avoid this. It's uncomfortable. But it's irresponsible to teach students that they’re too fragile to handle discomfort and conflict. Both are going to figure prominently in their lives.
When I was a younger teacher, I used to tell my students—with genuinely good intentions—that they shouldn’t get so stressed, because even if things don’t go according to their plans, "everything is going to be alright." Well, I always had the sense they didn’t really trust me when I said it. And for good reason: This was profoundly bad advice, and I’ve stopped giving it. One should not mislead his students, any more than a doctor should harm his patients.
What I tell them now is this: Everything is not going to be alright. Terrible, painful things will happen to each of us. But relatively rarely, comparatively speaking. Most things will be alright, most of the time, for most of us. Of course there are outliers and exceptions. But you know what? The data are in: So far, you’ve endured and survived 100% of what life has thrown at you, because here you are. Those are good numbers. They prove that you’re stronger than everything life has thrown at you so far. And that suggests that you’re strong enough, well, to continue to get stronger.
And you know what? They respond really well to that message. I don’t get the skeptical, sidelong glances I used to get when I suggested everything would turn out okay. Because this is a lot more honest, and it doesn’t set off the built in B.S. detectors with which teenagers come equipped.
Fortunately, most of the world is not a judgment-free zone. Most of the world is peaceful most of the time, precisely because of good judgment on the part of most people, most of the time. It’s the judgment-free zones that scare me.