The political classroom

Joel Westheimer

Let the students ask questions. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Much has been written about how schools in democratic societies should function, but here is one characteristic that I believe is essential: schools in democratic societies must engage students with contemporary social and political controversies. They must not be afraid to be political.

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 experiences with the kinds of skills in critical analysis and debate on which democracy depends.

Yet the education reform rhetoric employed by politicians and policy makers worldwide 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 a 21st century back-to the basics movement
In many countries, a great deal of discussion has been focused recently on so-called 21st century competencies built on the “foundations” of literacy and numeracy. Math and literacy testing now drives the curriculum in many schools, often to the exclusion of teaching critical thinking, creativity, imagination, and civic engagement. 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. Smart phones 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 bias 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 the students’ experience. Ironically, excluding politically contentious material from the curriculum greatly diminishes 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 more narrow goals of career preparation and individual economic gain. Pressures from policymakers, business groups, philanthropic foundations, and parents, and a broad cultural shift in educational priorities have resulted in schools being seen primarily as conduits for individual success and economic growth only. As a result, 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 the 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 and consumers, rather than better citizens.

To make matters worse, politics outside of schools is increasingly seen 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 mud-slinging candidate running for political office for self-aggrandizement or for their own enrichment or power. 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. What is the role of castes in contemporary society? Should men and women participate in their communities in different ways? How should leaders seek to diminish economic inequality? What kind of health care should be available? Is there corruption in politics? Do you fear raising these questions with students? If you do, you’re not alone.

There’s a saying among teachers: everybody likes to teach critical thinking, but nobody wants a classroom full of critical thinkers. When I think of current education reform in many countries around the world, I might adapt the saying as follows: policymakers like to say they support critical thinking, but when it comes to actual classroom practice, they mostly want students to follow the rules and not ask too many questions. 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 and because school officials fear controversy, it is becoming more and more difficult to make time for deep consideration of important ideas and contentious issues. 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.

In my most recent book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good (Teachers College Press, 2015), 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 to 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. One such myth is that schools in democratic societies should avoid discussion of politically contentious issues. The evidence from research on civic engagement says otherwise. Engaging with politically contentious issues in the classroom prepares students to participate in democratic debate later on. That kind of participation is essential for a strong democratic state. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

I have spent time with countless educators who have filled me with awe and a sense of what is possible in our schools. There are a myriad of 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.

The author is University Research Chair in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and education columnist for CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning and Ontario Today shows. His most recent book is What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good (Teachers College Press). You can read more articles and listen to a variety of podcasts on his website www.joelwestheimer.org. He can be reached at joelw@uOttawa.ca.