This is just a quick reflection as I prepare for the new school year by thinking about lessons, students, and 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 actively work 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 as well.
And yet, this is a difficult time for teachers, especially history teachers, to endeavor 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 current issues in the classroom in any substantive way without fear that a student or parent will complain about a teacher showing bias.
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 the examination of mostly primary and some secondary texts and the classroom format is discussion-based, sometimes run by students themselves and sometimes guided by the teacher. I constantly play devil’s advocate and ask students to respond to and engage with all facets of the ideas we address. Our focus is on a sophisticated, critical examination of evidence and an understanding of historiography.
And yet, there are issues that give me pause when designing lessons. The mere mention of certain names or phrases seems to cause intellectual defenses to slam into place as students across the political spectrum stockpile rhetorical projectiles and brace for argument.
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? Here are some ideas:
- Administrators could strive to better understand their classrooms and courses; to know what students are reading, how teachers approach texts and the essential understandings that courses are aiming for.
- Developing a school culture in which students are encouraged to discuss current issues both formally and informally, and are provided with ongoing guidance on how to promote respectful and productive discussions.
- Promote programs such as debate, model congress, and model United Nations. The ability to sustain a reasoned argument based on sound and well-interpreted data is an excellent skill set to have. It will serve students well whatever their academic and career-based plans.