The Political Classroom

As a follow-up to our roundtable from March on dealing with politics in the classroom, here’s some additional material, provided by Mike Laser.

Mike suggested the book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (by Diana E. Hess & Paua McAvoy; Routledge, 2014) as a good source for those interested in this subject. He also kindly collected these notes on the book and what it says:

[An observation: the book refers to classes in which discussion of political issues is a central part of teaching. These are mainly high school history/government classes. Freshman comp classes can adapt these ideas—but, for the teachers portrayed in the book, training students to deliberate together on these issues is the primary goal.]

  • The goal: teach students to talk across political/ideological differences – by training them to:
    • weigh evidence
    • consider competing views
    • form an opinion
    • articulate that opinion
    • respond to those who disagree
  • “Deliberative democracy”: a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives) justify decisions… by giving reasons that are mutually acceptable…
  • Another goal: teach students to see each other as political equals.
    • Also: teach them to give reasons…
    • …and to consider how their views and behavior affect others.
  • Discussion vs. deliberation: discussion means expressing & considering diverse views; deliberation aims at deciding a plan of action to resolve a problem. For example…
    • Discuss: the meaning of the 2nd Amendment
    • Deliberate: “Should there be laws against the private ownership of assault weapons?”
    • [another way to look at it: you’re simulating the work of a legislature]
  • Best Practice Discussion: students prepare in advance; they talk to each other in class (a.o.t. addressing the teacher); most students participate.
  • Students who take classes like these end up talking about political issues outside school more than they did before. They feel more capable of having these conversations.
  • A skilled teacher’s commitment to political tolerance (Mr. Kushner): Important to make sure that every point of view on an issue gets a fair hearing – even if no one in the room holds that belief.
    • teach students that reasonable people can hold different views.
    • this is essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.
      • [BUT: it seems to be a thing of the past, doesn’t it? our gov’t seems to be a winner-take-all duel to the death.]
    • One goal: getting students to understand power differences: race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity.
    • Another: get students to think about policy issues within a framework of what’s fair, not just self-interest. Consider how other citizens will be affected by policies…because policy decisions affect everyone, not just you.
      • Ways to get there: moot court, or mock legislative debate
    • An attitude that needs to be taught: “political friendship”: openness to other people’s views and willingness to find fair solutions.
      • complication: there may be status hierarchies, and differences in academic preparedness, social class, and race. But the teacher must artificially create a climate of trust & mutual respect.
    • Preparing for a discussion/deliberation, e.g., of a Supreme Court case about affirmative action: the teacher has the students read materials in advance:
      • a 3-page overview by Street Law, a non-profit that produces curricula re law & human rights [http://streetlaw.org/en/resource_library ]
      • a reading about the facts of the case
      • precedents and pro/con arguments re affirmative action
      • a textbook excerpt (college level)
      • and more
    • Teachers need to go over the elements of a successful discussion with students beforehand:
      • importance of active listening
      • build on other people’s points, or ask for clarification
    • A danger of candid discussion: some students may express opinions that are offensive to others (minorities, LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.).
      • Another danger: a discussion in which mainly white students debate issues affecting minorities (or similar situations).
        • possible remedy: redirect the conversation: refer to the readings, and what the experience is like for people who don’t belong to the more privileged group.
      • Student reactions to discussions like this: if a minority student expresses discomfort or anger, white students may feel surprised/guilty/uncomfortable/confused. Some will blame the minority student for oversensitivity.
        • [as I’m typing this, I can imagine some teachers saying, “Great! An opportunity to teach and make progress!” – but if you’re unprepared for this, it can feel like a crisis.]
      • No matter how well teachers prepare students for respectful discussion, students will make comments that make other students very uncomfortable. And you have to ask yourself, a) How will I handle that? and b) Is it right to burden students with this kind of experience? [e.g., a gay student having to hear others say that homosexuality is a sin, because it says so in the Bible.]
        • You can tell students to stick to the facts, but emotions, prejudices, and self-interest tend to surface anyway.
      • Some topics that bring these reactions to the surface: affirmative action, welfare, taxes, undocumented immigrants.
    • It’s important to hear the views of people who think differently than you do. A competent citizen should be able to explain the opposite point of view in a fair way. That skill doesn’t develop if you never hear people who think differently.
      • ML: A problem not covered by the book: what if you hear the other side often, but you only hear emotional/belligerent arguments, which seem unreasonable and wrong? (This describes a common experience from the point of view of people at both ends of the political spectrum.) In other words, unless students hear well-reasoned statements on behalf of different points of view, mere discussion doesn’t accomplish the goal.
      • ML: An underlying problem: Our political loyalties are like religious beliefs. We can say why we believe in them, but it’s rare that anyone can pry us loose from our core beliefs, no matter what they say.
      • ML: Also, to some extent, although we can talk about political discussion as a rational evaluation of different positions, in the real world, what’s often going on is a battle of competing interests. Who gets the money? Who gets to have their way with the environment (drilling/building/setting up pipelines)? Who gets to have clean air and water?
    • Aims of a political classroom:
      • students should recognize each other as political equals
      • they should recognize that all members of society have equal claims to life, liberty, and happiness.
      • they should recognize that citizens should not use the coercive power of the state to unjustly outlaw or persecute individuals or groups for adhering to values that some find objectionable.
      • students should approach political deliberations with the intention of finding a solution that promotes the common good.
      • students should get in the habit of weighing self-interest against the interests of others. When considering each policy option, they should ask, Who is being asked to sacrifice?
    • A problem: in the real world, some factions deliberately confuse the facts in order to prevail. Example: climate change denial. If you set out to give a fair hearing to all sides of an issue, does that mean you should present the climate change deniers’ point of view as having an equal claim on our consideration?
      • The authors’ answer: one solution is to rely on actual experts, scholars, and scientists. If there is a generally agreed-on “right” answer to a question, then teachers shouldn’t give equal weight to fringe beliefs.
      • Similarly, there are certain issues that most Americans consider settled: the legality of interracial marriage and the voting rights of women, for example. Because there are a few people who may still refuse to accept these things, that doesn’t mean we should treat these issues as open to debate. We shouldn’t give students the impression that fringe views are more common or more credible than they really are.
    • What about questions to which many believe there is one right answer? Depending on your political orientation, these could include: gay marriage; abortion; etc. A teacher may believe it would be offensive to hold debate on these issues.
      • But, in states where these issues are still being debated, it serves a valid purpose to expose students to that debate. When students are exposed to actual views in the public sphere, that increases their political literacy.
      • And students need to learn to respond to views that may appear unreasonable to them.

An often overlooked component of successful teaching in this area: teachers’ content knowledge. You need to know a lot about all sides of these debates, because the issues are full of landmines. You should know how to respond to students who use questionable evidence to defend offensive views.

The book’s website also has a large number of useful resources. Here are three websites Mike found that could be handy:

ProCon.org (lays out both sides of many controversial issues, ranging from abortion and gun control to vaccinations and voting)

Morningside Center (lesson plans on current issues, which is regularly updated)

Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (searchable database of teaching materials on various issues)

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