Myth: We must keep politics out of the classroom

June 1, 2015 Joel Westheimer

Deconstructing a 21st century trend

Much has been written about what schools in democratic societies should do, but here is one characteristic that I believe is essential: schools in democratic societies must engage students with contemporary political controversies.

Students need practice in entertaining multiple perspectives and viewpoints on important issues that affect our lives. These issues can sometimes be controversial. But education in a democratic society requires embracing that kind of controversy so that citizens can engage in dialogue and work together toward understanding and enacting the most sensible policy decisions possible.

Why would we expect adults, even members of Parliament, to be able to intelligently and compassionately discuss different viewpoints in the best interests of their constituents if schoolchildren never or rarely get that opportunity in school? It is only by engaging with political issues of concern that students can gain experience with the kinds of skills in critical analysis and debate on which democracy depends.

Yet the education reform rhetoric employed by politicians and policymakers too often steers the conversation in exactly the wrong direction. We often hear that schools should remain “above politics” or that we should “keep politics out of schools.” I think we should put it back in.

AVOIDING BACK-TO-THE-BASICS

In Alberta, a great deal of discussion has been focused recently on so-called 21st century competencies built on the “foundations” of literacy and numeracy. There is real risk here that this reform effort will simply default into a back-to-the basics movement under the guise of curriculum redesign that once again emphasizes memorization and regurgitation and that runs counter to almost everything we know from education research about how to make teaching and learning meaningful.

We live in a time when facts are at our fingertips in seconds. Smartphones and other electronic devices make the acquisition of information easy. The hard part is teaching students how to sift through that information and think deeply about its origins, potential biases or viewpoints, and its value. Students in the 21st century do not suffer from a lack of information but rather from an overwhelming flood of it!

Of course nobody is against children knowing the basics. I have never encountered a teacher or parent or administrator who boldly proclaimed themselves a member of the group “Teachers Against Kids Learning How to Add” or “School Principals in Support of Illiteracy.” Everybody supports children knowing the basics. But a focus on the basics to the exclusion of all other educational goals makes for a profoundly impoverished view of education. It relegates important issues of debate and concern to the margins of students’ experience. Ironically, excluding politically contentious material from the curriculum greatly diminishes the learning of basic skills as well. We know from research that engaging students with materials that have resonance in social and political life results in deeper and fuller understanding.

The goals of K–12 education have been shifting steadily away from preparing active and engaged public citizens and toward narrower goals of career preparation and individual economic gain. Pressures from policymakers, business groups, philanthropic foundations and parents — along with a broad cultural shift in educational priorities — have resulted in schools being seen primarily as conduits for individual success. The result has been that, increasingly, lessons aimed at exploring democratic responsibilities and politics have been crowded out. Much of current education reform is limiting the kinds of teaching and learning that can develop the attitudes, skills, knowledge and habits necessary for a democratic society to flourish.

In too many schools, ever more narrow curriculum frameworks emphasize preparing students for standardized assessments in math and literacy at the same time that they shortchange social studies, history and even basic citizenship education. Moreover, higher achieving students, generally from wealthier neighbourhoods, are receiving a disproportionate share of the kinds of citizenship education that sharpen students’ thinking about issues of public debate and concern. This demographic divide — what some scholars have called the “civic opportunity gap” — results in unequal distribution of opportunities to practice democratic engagement.

Curricular approaches that spoon feed students to succeed on narrow academic tests teach students that broader critical thinking and questioning is optional. In other words, the challenge to foster thoughtful consideration and analysis of contemporary problems has all too often been replaced by the single-minded drive to make students better test takers rather than better citizens.

To make matters worse, North American culture beyond our schools now sees politics as something unseemly. Being political has become an insult, as if politics were a four-letter word. If someone is accused of being political, it’s like saying that he or she is a mudslinging candidate running for political office for self-aggrandizement. Education, in this way of thinking, should not advance “politics” but rather should reinforce some unified notion of truth that supports — without dissent — officially accepted positions.

TIME TO RE-EMBRACE POLITICS

It is not difficult to understand, then, why we often hear that schools should be “above politics” or that we should keep politics out of school. Although there is no shortage of examples of dirty politics, casting all politics in such a light denies the more noble origins of the concept.

Politics is the way in which people with different values from a variety of backgrounds and interests can come together to negotiate their differences and clarify places where values conflict. Politics is, as Bernard Crick observed in his classic work In Defence of Politics, “a great and civilizing activity.”

To accept the importance of politics is to strive for deliberation and a plurality of views rather than a unified perspective. If we are to educate thoughtful, civically engaged students, we must reclaim the important place for politics in classrooms in schools. Being political means embracing the kind of controversy and ideological sparring that is the engine of progress in a democracy and that gives education social meaning. The idea that “bringing politics into it” (now said disdainfully) is an educationally suspicious act is, perhaps, the biggest threat to engaging students in thoughtful discussion.

 

It is precisely this aspect of politics with which educators wrestle. While many see education as an opportunity to teach the critical and deliberative skills that are consistent with democratic citizenship and enable students to participate effectively in contentious public debates, others are uncomfortable with approaches to teaching that encourage dissent and critique of current policies.

There’s a saying among teachers: everybody likes to teach critical thinking, but nobody wants a school full of critical thinkers. Current education reform indicates that policymakers are taking this tongue-in-cheek dictum far too seriously. Although education rhetoric almost always touts the importance of critical thinking, the policies that actually affect classroom teaching belie a different agenda. Because of a myopic focus on testing in math and literacy, it is becoming more and more difficult to make time for deep consideration of important ideas and controversies.

Social studies scholar Stephen Thornton notes that, by “critical thinking,” school officials too often mean that students should passively absorb as “truth” the critical thinking already completed by someone else. Students are being asked to become proficient in adding numbers, but not at thinking about what those answers add up to — in other words, how their learning connects to broader concerns about the common good.

Next time you hear someone say “keep politics out of the school,” remind them that political discussion and debate is the engine of a democratic society.

Joseph Campbell famously expounded on the role of myths in creating a sense of awe, wonder and gratitude. Myths have the power to uplift and provoke thinking about possibilities that are not yet realized. The myth I describe here, however, has the opposite effect. In fact, our culture is now suffused with so many damaging myths about schools and classroom practice that many of the worst ideas for education reform have grown out of the false beliefs these myths keep alive.

In my most recent book, What Kind of Citizen: Educating Our Children for the Common Good, I take on seven common myths about schools because I believe that all educators have a responsibility to help the public understand the damage these enduring myths cause for schools. It is a truism that myths are based not on evidence but on unproven beliefs. That’s why efforts to demonize teachers, privatize schools and create an ever more restrictive curriculum thrive — not on evidence but on myths.

Yet teachers who work tirelessly in our schools demonstrate the power of evidence to lay damaging myths to rest. I have spent time with countless educators who, in fact, have filled me with awe and a sense of what is possible in our schools. There are myriad ways to teach the skills of democratic thinking and engagement. Schools do not need to avoid controversy and politics, and they can teach students to participate in civic and community life in creative and provocative ways. What we need are strong public commitments to support the kinds of schools that strengthen democratic life and that educate our children for the common good.

Dr. Joel Westheimer is university research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa and author of Educating Our Children for the Common Good (Teachers College Press 2015).

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