21 February 2011

Cairo, Bahrain, Wisconsin: Teaching Democracy

How do you bring the controversies of the world into your classroom?

And why is it important to do so?

Democracy can only survive if citizens can successfully interact with each other and if they are able to successfully interact with information. And both things need to be practiced.

Different cultures have different forms of debate, and different comfort levels with debate. And so different students begin in different places. My child, raised in a family and culture where "political combat" is both art and game will enter this differently than the children of parents in Zeeland, Michigan who would not let their kids trick or treat at houses with Democratic Party campaign signs.

But wherever the starting point is, we need to carefully support listening skills, research skills, crap detecting, and a level of discourse that may find ideas repugnant, but not people.

That is, we must hear each other, we must research our positions widely, we must refuse to accept emotion or nonsense as facts, and we must respect our fellow citizens.

A vital resource on this is Teaching on Controversial Issues by Alan Shapiro.  Shapiro's opening advice, "A good citizen questions, informs himself or herself, thinks issues through, reaches conclusions, and participates in public life. A good teacher helps students to understand that controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, to learn how to inquire into past and current controversial issues that are meaningful to them, and to participate in public life," lies at the heart of the citizenship education we hear so much about.

Shapiro's last article, on the WikiLeaks controversy, provides a great model.

If we do not practice, we will end up with, well, the absurd level of debate we have currently in the United States, where up to two million people a night watch Glenn Beck uncritically and every politician we don't like is "Hitler" or "Stalin."

So step one: Prepare: We don't just begin the discussion, we ask students both what they think and why they think that.  When we do this it enables us to ask them to search both for information which supports their beliefs and information which challenges those ideas. You can't just say, Unions have rights, you need to explain why (yes, the United States has agreed to the right to collective bargaining by international treaty) and you need to understand the controversy. You can't just say, "Wisconsin can't afford it," or, "taxes are too high," you have to explain what that means, and what Wisconsin can afford, and what taxes are.

Step two is discuss and listen: We need to model an important behavior here. Argument can be impassioned without becoming abusive. If your student's father or mother is in Afghanistan, the military base in Bahrain might seem, might be, more important to you than Bahrainis voting. That does not make you evil, it means you are making a self-interested decision, which, we all tend to do in certain political situations. If you believe that Bahraini democracy is more important than potential disruptions to US military operations, that does not make you anti-American - rather suggests a different understanding on "American interests." Here, your role, your behavior, your actions within the classroom, as the teacher, truly make a difference. You have to decide how opinions you express, how reactions you have, will impact the conversation. If you say, "I worry about how a different Egyptian government might treat Israel..." or "I could lose 10% of my salary..." or "My son is a Marine in Afghanistan..." will that fundamentally change how your students debate this?

And as we discuss, Step three, is to challenge: It is essential that we raise a generation of doubters. Just tonight on Twitter I responded to a statement about the evil of Mao's regime in China by wondering if the "industrial revolution" Mao presided over was more deadly - proportionately - than the equivalent industrial revolutions in the United Kingdom 1700-1900? After all, in just one decade 12% of the population of British ruled Ireland died and a third fled. I don't bring that up because moral equivalency is an argument, but because perspective is. In another Twitter moment I asked why a teacher badmouthing her students on Facebook was worse than what New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie or US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said about teachers? "Are you defending [the teacher]?" I was asked. "No," I said, but I wonder how we apply rules only from the bottom up.

So it is vital that students challenge statements. In fact, the more "accepted" a statement is, the more important it is for the doubt, the challenge, to be welcome. I don't care if the statement is, "the deficit is huge" (I don't know, is it? historically? internationally?) or "democracy is good" (let's define democracy, first, then, really? does it always work out?), it should require defense based on "real" information.

And when challenged, we need to expect better than we get from many of our current "leaders." We need to raise a next generation of leaders who can handle disagreement intelligently, and can provide workable defenses for their positions, or even, gosh, show an ability to change their minds based on new information.

If we can't raise the next generation to be better than this
angry, sarcastic, no facts form of argument, we're doomed

The politics of controversy in the classroom are complex, but if we are to continue to succeed as a society we better get better at it. And we need to convince our students that they can do a much better job than "we," or their parents, have done as generations.

- Ira Socol


Nathan Ogle said...

After poking around at your other blog posts and paying attention to the examples that you use here, I have to wonder if you are capable of teaching a class on controversial issues without projecting your obviously very strong biases into the debate. Do you feel you could? Have you done this?

irasocol said...


A blog and a classroom discussion are very different media. In a blog you are an advocacy voice. In a classroom you are a learning advisor. Like many in the world, being in those two places requires code-switching, just as a teacher from Madison, WI shifts from "demonstrator mode" to "teacher mode" and back again.

So, depending on age/level of student, I either do not discuss my point of view, or make it very clear at the start. But if I make it clear at the start I have to do so in an environment I have created in which I am not an "instructor," and in which I expect that everything I say will be doubted and challenged.

So if I say, "the US has accepted collective bargaining rights by treaty" I would expect students to go find the relevant section in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and I would expect that they understand the legal force of treaties in the United States. And if students did not bring those questions up, I would.

So when I teach we wander through all kinds of controversies, and we rarely achieve any consensus, because this is education, and agreement on issues is not the goal.

- Ira Socol

irasocol said...

As I get older, I wish there were people teaching philosophy in junior high. Kids would be old enough to handle abstract reasoning and maybe see it's real application.

And, of course, teaching philosophy becomes subversive (since Socrates), in that you have to break down the classroom hierarchy in just the ways you describe. Students would have to question teachers, in order to demonstrate that they learned the skills.

Of course, you tell parents that you're teaching philosophy and they don't want it, because then their kid will come home questioning authority and whether a mother has an intrinsic authority to demand that you clean up your room.

But all that aside, Michael Moore is setting up a new section of his web site called High School Newspaper, which might dovetail with your agenda.