This is just a quick reflection as I prepare for the new school year thinking about lessons, about students, and about the rage that would drive a man barely out of his teens to step on a gas pedal with enough deliberate force to kill and wound other humans.
It’s difficult to overstate how important it is for middle and high school students to be actively working toward an understanding of the historical roots of modern political issues and of the culture within which we live. And not just the raw content of historical fact, but its interpretive nature and historiographical context along with a critical approach to authorial perspective.
And yet, this is a difficult time for teachers, especially history teachers, to help students understand the origins of groups like the Alt-Right, the rise of neo-Nazism in America, and the events that just unfolded in Charlottesville. It sometimes feels nearly impossible to address these issues in the classroom in any substantive way without fear that a (usually conservative) parent will complain about a teacher showing “bias.” If that happens, the teacher may fall under a tense scrutiny that will consume massive amounts of time and energy, and more crucially will have a chilling long-term impact on what issues are addressed in the classroom.
And when the opportunity to deeply and critically examine important current issues isn’t provided in the classroom, that leaves students on their own to grapple with ways to make sense of complex issues absent the sort of context and critical guidance that a teacher can provide.
To be clear, I do not proselytize in my classroom, nor do I condone teachers who do. My lessons are structured around examination of mostly primary and some secondary texts and the classroom format is a seminar, sometimes formal, sometimes informal, sometimes run by students themselves and sometimes guided by the teacher. Even when I provide direct instruction, the class is document-based and more Socratic than lecture in format. I constantly play devil’s advocate and ask students to respond to and engage with the ideas we’re addressing. In turn, they ask questions and raise wide-ranging examples and comparisons. Our focus is on sophisticated, critical examination of evidence and historiography, and the classroom is a welcoming and respectful space for student voices.
And yet, there are issues that I simply won’t raise, and questions that I sometimes deflect with a sort of rhetorical pabulum. (“That’s an interesting question; let’s come back to that.” Translation: I will not likely address that issue in front of a roomful of students except in the most contrived, scripted manner). One extremely toxic issue in my classroom at the moment happens to be the President of the United States. The mere mention of his name causes almost palpable intellectual defenses to slam into place as students across the political spectrum furiously stockpile rhetorical projectiles and brace for argument. Our president is so politically divisive that it is extremely difficult to manage any sort of ad hoc discussion of an issue in which his name may emerge.
There is much talk in education, as well there should be, about making the classroom and the school community as a whole a safe space for students. I’m increasingly struck by how often the classroom can become an unsafe space for teachers.
I can easily and productively work with students on issues such as neo-Nazism, anti-immigration sentiment, political demagoguery, racism, economic exploitation or inequality, gender theory, and all sorts of difficult issues, as long as those issues take place somewhere other than in America, or in a time at least a century in the past. It is an oft-repeated truism that one of the most important functions of education in the humanities is to challenge students’ preconceived ideas and thereby broaden their worldviews. The student sporting the furrowed brow of intrigue, chin resting contemplatively on fist, is an idealized staple of college prospective-student brochures. And yet younger adolescents can be especially prickly about having their emerging sense of themselves and their place in the world challenged. If you barge in through the front door with issues such as privilege, equity, or structural discrimination, the result is often a backlash that serves to entrench rather than broaden existing worldviews.
There are certainly many ways to craft intentional lessons on divisive issues. But even inquiry-based lessons firmly grounded in textual evidence and absent direct instruction can be dangerous waters for the teacher. When ideas seem to threaten the understanding that students have of themselves or the framework of understanding created for them by their parents, they can misinterpret the intent of a lesson or perceive bias or malice where none exists.
Students are generally deeply curious about politics and current issues, but they don’t always enjoy talking about political issues amongst their friends, because the conversations are often shouty and counterproductive. And more troubling, very few students seem to want to pursue careers in politics, which they find to be undignified and pointless. They look to teachers to provide a moderated, informative space in which to explore and make sense of the big issues in their world. Without an ability to create that space for difficult and divergent ideas, we risk graduating students who possess only the most tenuous grasp of the political system in which they live, who lack empathy for those whose worldviews are different from their own, and who have no interest whatsoever in becoming political leaders.
So, what can schools do to support teachers in promoting respectful, informative, balanced discussions of hot-button topics?
I’d be grateful for feedback and critiques of the following little list, which is just a start; a collection of quick thoughts while watching the footage from Charlottesville and thinking about my students. It’s far from comprehensive and not as fully articulated as it should be. But here’s a first step to perhaps defining what sort of context would best support teachers:
- An administration that understands their classrooms and courses. That knows what students are reading, how teachers approach texts, and the essential understandings that courses are aiming for.
- Administrators who are good mediators between parents and teachers; who can foster productive discussion and help both sides see that they want the same positive things for the child.
- Administrators willing to discuss current issues with teachers informally, and support and encourage them in creating effective lessons on those issues.
- Assuming the teacher’s work has been appropriate in the sense that it wasn’t disrespectful of student voices or proselytizing, an administrator ought to be able to articulate that teacher’s class as being consistent with the school’s mission and philosophy in a way that creates “buy-in” by the parent.