Arizona shooting: Don't blame Sarah Palin -- get public schools to discuss politics
Ever since Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona Saturday, critics have been pointing fingers at Republicans for their nasty anti-government rhetoric. They have a point. But the real problem is in our public schools, which have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics.
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And there’s only one way to solve it: via our public schools. If Americans can’t evaluate different points of view – or conduct a dialogue across them – then our schools need to teach these skills.Skip to next paragraph
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Classroom discussion: nearly extinct
For the most part, they’re not. We’ve stripped the schools of almost anything that’s divisive, contentious, or controversial. Is it any wonder that many of our citizens can’t engage in reasonable political dialogue?
Open up a typical history or civics textbook, and you’ll see what I mean. At the end of each chapter, students are told to recall certain names and dates or to identify different aspects of government. But rarely are they asked to take a position on a hot-button contemporary issue.
Ditto for classroom discussions, which typically skirt such questions. In a 2003 year-long survey of 100 middle and high school social studies classes, Martin Nystrand and his colleagues found almost no actual dialogue about controversial issues. Ditto for a 2007 study by Diana Hess and Louis Ganzler, involving more than 1,000 students in 21 high schools.
Part of the reason has to do with restrictions on teachers, who have been disciplined or even fired for raising controversial questions in the classroom – or for expressing an opinion on them. Most recently, a federal court upheld the dismissal of an Indiana teacher after she told her students that she honked her horn while driving past a “Honk for Peace” sign at a peace march before the US invasion of Iraq.
Another problem concerns the training of teachers, who are rarely prepared to handle such issues. Instead, they’re warned against raising anything controversial, which might in turn raise the hackles of parents and school board members.
The cost of keeping controversy out of classrooms
To be sure, teachers should not indoctrinate their own views in schools. But there’s a big difference between sharing an opinion and requiring your students to accept it. Skilled teachers can lead a group discussion without leading it to a given conclusion.
Do we want them to do it? That’s the biggest question of all. By insulating our classrooms from political controversy, we have raised a generation of Americans who often don’t know how to think or act politically. And if you think Jared Loughner is the only one, you haven’t been listening.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”