'Agree to disagree without being disagreeable'

Are you a liberal or a conservative? Would you favor legislation that would prohibit the sale and ownership of handguns? If yes, why? If no, why not?

Jess Hughston, a seasoned social studies teacher at Blair High School, Pasadena, Calif., grills his students on the handgun question as well as on 16 others, equally as fraught with controversy and opinion.

As he explains, "I believe a teacher in a high school should keep his personal political views to himself. The job is to help students develop their own political views based on their research and conclusions."

Teacher Hughston leaves little to chance. Not only are all 17 topics debated before the class (teacher vs. teacher; teacher vs. PTA president; student vs. teacher; student vs. student, etc.), but students are asked to sit with like-opinioned classmates -- liberals on the left, conservatives on the right.

Mr. Hughston keeps a file, pro and con, on all 17 issues and makes these readily available to the students. A debate is held each week, but before the debate is held, each student is asked to write a paper stating his views on the topic for that week and the results are tallied.

After the debate (not scored), time is given for class members to question the two speakers.

Should a student find that he isn't "comfortable" where he originally seated himself, he is free to move to the other half of the room, but he is expected to explain -- in writing -- why he changed his views.

Mr. Hughston says he wants the students to "agree to disagree without being disagreeable." And great effort is made to have students research the questions in some depth, preparing position papers which state rational (not emotional) positions.

The following is a sampling of some of the other questions with which Mr. Hughston's pupils must wrestle: "Would you favor congressional legislation that would:

* "Provide extra money to certain government agencies to create new jobs?

* "Gradually end controls over domestic oil prices?

* "Kill federal regulations requiring co-ed physical education classes in schools?

* "Set up a new agency to represent consumers in courts and before other agencies?

* "Ban issuing of food stamps to certain workers who are on strike?

* "Reestablish the de ath penalty?"

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