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.

It’s the Republicans’ fault! Listen to their nasty anti-government rhetoric!

That’s been the party line among many of my fellow Democrats, ever since Jared Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others outside an Arizona shopping mall Saturday morning.

The real problem is public schools

They’re wrong. The real problem lies instead in our public schools, which have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics. That makes them suckers for the kind of conspiracies that Mr. Loughner reportedly embraced, as well as for the mistaken idea that one party is to blame for all of this.

Let’s be clear: Some Republicans really have engaged in demagogic bashing of government officials. But it’s equally demagogic to blame them for the Arizona tragedy. Back in the McCarthy era, left-wingers called this line of thinking “guilt by association”: you support civil rights for African-Americans, and so do the Communists, so you must be a Communist! It’s sad – and ironic – to see liberals doing the same thing now.

Or listen to the other popular Democratic line: It’s all about Arizona. The place is crawling with gun nuts and tea party crazies, the story goes, and it’s ground zero for America’s anti-immigration movement. No wonder Loughner lived there!

That’s a shockingly irresponsible stereotype, put forth by the same folks that always tell you they’re fighting stereotypes. As the prayer vigils and other ceremonies in recent days illustrate, Arizona is home to thousands of decent and fair-minded people. By painting them all with the same brush, we echo precisely the kind of irrational invective that we often indict.

Cheap political points

Most of all, we make it impossible to conduct a reasoned conversation across our differences. Instead of using this tragedy to score cheap political points, then, we might pause to ask why so many Americans – across the ideological spectrum – indulge in the politics of hate, fear, and foolishness.

The usual suspects are mass media outlets, starting with the high-decibal shout-fests on talk radio and cable TV. Or we point to the Internet, especially the darker corners where Loughner liked to troll. According to news reports, he thought that American currency was worthless and that the government was brainwashing people by controlling their grammar.

But that doesn’t explain why such unfounded statements find such a friendly audience, not just in Arizona but across the country. As of last May, 14 percent of Americans said President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and another six percent said that was their “best guess.” When one of out five Americans entertains this kind of big lie, we all have a big problem.

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.

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.”

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