Thursday, December 23, 2021

Engaging controversy in the classroom

I recently re-read an important chapter of the excellent book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. I think the issues and dilemmas they address in this chapter speak to the issues and dilemmas my school and many others confront when they seek to diversify the student body and foster an equitable and inclusive culture.

(For a discussion of the whole book, read this post)

Chapter 8: The Ethics of Framing and Selecting Issues.

In this chapter, the authors address two questions. How, they ask, should teachers:

1. Decide which topics to frame as open questions that should be subject to debate; and

2. Balance the goals of teaching authentic political controversies with promoting a classroom environment that is fair and welcoming to all students.

Teaching open v. closed (or settled) public issues.

Students might learn about closed questions in a history or current events class. For example, when we study the history of slavery in American history, students learn the arguments of abolitionists and defenders of slavery, but they are not generally asked to deliberate on the merits of the peculiar institution and to arrive at their own conclusions about it.*

But since the aim of the political classroom is for students to develop intellectual and political autonomy, open questions should be subject to deliberation so that students may arrive at their own conclusions.

Some issues are easy to categorize as closed: should women be allowed to vote? Should people convicted of certain crimes be sterilized? Should it be illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol? Others are certainly open: Should the US increase immigration quotas? Should states require voters to show valid identification? Should it be illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption?

It becomes more complicated when issues are “’in the tip,’ that is, moving from open to settled or settled to open” (171). Should gay marriage be legal? is an example of a question that was moving from open to settled when the book was published in 2015 and has moved further in that direction in the years since.

It also becomes difficult when the teacher has strong ethical views about a question. In his course on “contemporary controversies,” Joel Kushner asked his students to deliberate on the question of whether US military intelligence should use torture as an interrogation technique in the war on terror. But as Kushner reflected on the lesson, he came to the conclusion that his selection of materials ended up “steering” his students toward the conclusion that torture is not an acceptable method of interrogation. The authors conclude that Kushner was wrong to steer the conversation after framing it as open. It amounts to “manipulating the whole process to your own ends” (172).

On the other hand, in crafting the lesson, Kushner had faced a dilemma between two equally legitimate goals of political education: developing an authentic curriculum that deals with issues that are objects of “live political debate”—the Bush administration and its defenders argued that torture could extract confessions about impending strikes and would save innocent lives—and core democratic values like respect for human life and dignity.

An dilemma arises when a question is empirically settled, but politically open. For example, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the climate is warming, that humans are causing it, and that it will have devastating consequences. Yet one political party has resisted these conclusions, citing a minority of scientific opinions.

Hess and McAvoy argue that when teachers treat a settled empirical issue as open, they inhibit the goal of teaching students how to make up their own minds “by suggesting that students should seriously consider evidence known to be false.” They suggest the way to deal with this situation is to “rely on actual experts” like climate scientists. But one party regularly denigrates the authority of experts, not only on climate change, but also in other areas, like vaccines and masks during the COVID pandemic (see note, below, on mask science). And as long as a significant number of people—enough, for example, to carry an election—disagree on an issue, it is politically open, regardless of the conclusiveness of the evidence.

Hess and McAvoy suggest three tests for judging whether teachers should treat it an issue as open to debate.

1. Do some people disagree?

2. Is it possible to hold opposing viewpoints that are not contrary to reason?

3. Does the issue have “traction in the public sphere, appearing on ballots, in courts, within political platforms, in legislative chambers and as part of political movements” (168-169)?

Hess and McAvoy reject test #1—you can always find someone who holds onto a fringe view in opposition to just about any proposition. They conclude that #3 offers the most promising basis for deciding what issues to treat as politically open. It serves the aims of the political classroom: “to develop in students an understanding of the political world in which they live, a willingness to deliberate issues with an eye toward fairness, a capacity to develop their own (reasonable) views, and orientation to and preparation for active engagement in the political debates of their time" (169).

But they recognize limitations to this approach, limitations which have become even more evident in the political climate that has developed since the appearance of their book—the problems of political demagoguery, polarization, denigration of experts, and the strategy of sowing epistemic confusion, characterized by Steve Bannon as “flooding the zone with shit.”

“Consequently, teachers need to use judgement when deciding which issues to introduce to students as authentically political” (169). That brings option #2 into play. But of course in these polarized times, reason seems to be increasingly irrelevant in our political discourse and teachers’ judgements are constantly being called into question, as in the recent controversies over the teaching of CRT and the 1619 project. Even as far back as 2011, 50 percent of Americans thought that social studies teachers use their classrooms as political soapboxes (205).

Balancing political authenticity and inclusivity.

The goal of creating an authentic political experience, in which students have the chance to deliberate on issues that are currently live in the public sphere, can sometimes rub up against the goal of establishing an equitable, inclusive classroom environment that is welcoming to all students and where they can fearlessly express their views.

Surveys conducted by Hess and McAvoy found that English language learners, immigrants and “low-SES” students “were significantly more likely” than their peers to say that they “hesitated to speak in class because classmates would think their ideas were unworthy of consideration.” In case studies of classes that discussed affirmative action and immigration, Anna, a Black student, and Gabe, a Mexican-American student said they were offended by comments made during the lesson. Anna was driven to tears in the discussion.

“We are concerned that it is distressingly easy to predict who will feel silenced in class discussion, and we wonder whether it can possibly be fair that students who are already vulnerable in US society are being asked, once again, to make a sacrifice for others who occupy a more privileged status,” Hess and McAvoy write (173-174).

The last few pages of the chapter are spent exploring the rationale of teachers who simply choose to avoid issues “that are especially sensitive to some students” and those who choose to engage with such issues in their classes in spite of the risks. They conclude with a five-point strategy for mitigating the harm that might occur when those risks are taken.

The avoiders say it is impossible to cover every issue, so why not choose ones that will be least likely to cause emotional distress. Students will learn the skills of civil discourse best by discussing issues that aren’t linked to the social circumstances of students in the class. It will be easier for students to practice detachment in those kinds of situations.

The authors reject these rationales, and suggest that if those discussions don’t take place in a classroom under the supervision of the teacher, they will take place “in the hallways” without guardrails, a point raised by Gabe, the Mexican-American student who was “rightfully offended” by classmates’ “bigoted comments” in an immigration discussion. Gabe’s reflections and the survey data led the authors to conclude that the avoiders over-estimate the sensitivity of their students and underestimate the ability of teenagers to engage in sensitive discussions.

Gabe’s view was common among students who had taken classes in which challenging conversations took place. “You have to force yourself to feel uncomfortable. And you take the best out of it that you can,” said a Puerto Rican student who was enthusiastic about Mr. Kushner’s class. “I think that is society” (175). Even Anna, who was moved to tears by the discussion of affirmative action, said that the benefits of the lesson outweighed the emotional cost (127).

Teachers who challenged their students to deliberate sensitive issues rather than avoid them also assumed that the benefits of deliberation outweighed the consequences and sacrifices that some students would have to make. They reasoned that it is impossible to know how every issue will relate to each student’s experience, and when students do encounter peers with direct relevant experience of an issue it bolsters the learning about fairness and tolerance.

Still, the deliberating teachers were aware that some students would be more likely to be insulted by comments made during discussion of certain issues, so they suggest a variety of mitigation strategies derived from their observations (179-180):

1. Gather information about students through surveys at the start of the term so they can get a better sense of the class dynamics and how to take care of each student.

2. Establish and enforce strong norms of civil discourse in the classroom. Some teachers asked the students to construct the norms at the start of the term as a group project.

3. Put off discussion of the more sensitive issues until later in the term when the norms had been well established and students have gotten to know each other and the teacher and built rapport and trust.

4. Get to know the issues very well so the teacher can anticipate sensitive reactions, more effectively facilitate conversations, and correct students who use questionable evidence.

5. Conduct surveys after the class is over to find out how the students experienced the class.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism) 

*Actually, a history teacher might stage a debate on a now-closed question and ask some students to take the side of the wrong answer. There would be no expectation, however, that anyone would emerge from such an exercise on the wrong side of the debate. Most teachers these days, I assume, would shy away from such an exercise. (Go back to where you were reading in the essay.)

I would be curious to know what Ibram X. Kendi would say about Chapter 8 of the Political Classroom. He asserts that every public policy that’s not anti-racist is racist and that any policy that has a disparate negative impact on Black people is racist. Hess and McAvoy say that voter ID laws should be treated as open (163). In a Kendi-inspired anti-racist school, would students be permitted to argue in favor of—and even end up supporting—voter ID laws that most certainly have a disparate negative impact on Black voters?

I generally agree with Hess and McAvoy that teachers should generally not avoid sensitive subjects, and that our students are more resilient than we might think. But I once decided not to set up a Supreme Court role play on an affirmative action case in my law course because of the demographics and the particular dynamics in that class, which I observed in a preliminary discussion of the topic. For me, this reinforces the difficulty of the questions they raised and the need for teachers to develop and be allowed to exercise their own judgements based on actual circumstances and conditions, rather than simplistic one-size-fits-all mandates imposed from above. 

Controversies over mask mandates in schools illustrate the growing difficulty of judging whether an issue is empirically closed in a polarized electorate.  In this Atlantic piece, David Zweig shows how experts at the CDC based a masking recommendation for schools on a flawed study, undermining their credibility.  My guess is that most people in the liberal bubble will treat this example as an anomaly and continue to trust CDC recommendations and experts generally, while folks on the other side will use it as evidence that experts can't be trusted.  In his book The Quick Fix, journalist Jesse Singal has written about the "replication crisis" in science, undermining the the validity of scientific studies that have not been repeated and confirmed. See also, Ross Douthat's discussion of the inadequacy of medical science in the face of chronic illness like long-term Lyme disease and how it undermines faith in mainstream medicine. The film "Inside Job" suggested that expert economists were paid off by financial institution to exaggerate the safety of investments in housing and helped to inflate the real estate bubble that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008.

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