The Political Classroom

by Harry on August 11, 2015

Steve Drummond has a great interview with Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy about their brilliant book [1], The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The study explores the way high school social studies teach controversial issues in the classroom, and uses extensive survey and interview data both to examine the ethical issues that teachers feel that they face. They look at how teachers decide which topics count as controversial, how teachers think about dealing with topics that are sensitive within the classroom (eg, how do you discuss the morality of same-sex marriage in a way that does not shut down debate, when you know that some students are closeted homosexuals?); and how do teachers decide whether they disclose their own views — and what do students think about those decisions? The empirical findings are fascinating: for example, students believe that teacher disclosure has no effect on their own beliefs, but think it has effects on the beliefs of their peers; and students in the same classroom disagree about whether their teacher discloses, but tend to approve of what they believe their teacher does with respect to disclosure (I’ve heard the authors refer to this phenomenon as “I like what my like-able teacher does”). The most fascinating case study is of a (brilliant, it seems to me) (conservative) evangelical teacher who works in a (conservative) evangelical Christian school, and really, deeply, challenges his students in ways that, for example, I doubt that many of the secular liberal students are challenged at my own institutions. But it is not just an empirical study — they deal subtly with the difficult philosophical issues of what the aims should be of teaching controversial issues and the ethics of disclosure, without being unduly prescriptive or judgmental. Although the book is about high school teaching, I think it is an invaluable resource for everyone at the college level who teaches about controversial issues, and would recommend colleagues who, like me, teach ethics and applied ethics classes, developing reading groups using the book. Here is my discussion from last year of whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their opinions to students. Anyway, this book is essential reading for anybody, at any level, who teachers controversial issues.

[1] Pretty full disclosure: As of a week ago Hess is Dean of the School of Education with which I am affiliated, and was previously Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, where I was, for most of that time, a Senior Program Advisor; McAvoy also worked at Spencer while I was an SPA there, and is now Program Director of the Center for Ethics and Education, of which I am Co-Director. I helped pull together deliberations about the content when the book was in progress, and read several draft. Also, I wrote the Afterword. Strangely, I recently attended the wedding of a recent UW graduate who was, when in high school, one of the 1001 students in the study (McAvoy presented about the study in one of my classes, and the said student, mentioned here, realised that she was a subject).

It looks like I’m going to be out 100 quid — when the first poll came out I bet my dad (a Labour Party member of much less long standing than lots of people assume, but, still, long enough that it would be entirely decent for him to vote in the election) that Corbyn would not win — that, once faced with the actual decision, people who say they would vote for him, would pull back. The latest yougov poll shows Corbyn winning on the first round, and Peter Kellner says “I would personally be astonished if Mr Corbyn does not end up Labour’s leader.”

Personally, I have found the newspaper reporting and media commentary about the leadership election entirely unenlightening. The frequent comparisons with the 1980s are idiotic: Corbyn does not represent, as Benn (who never stood for the leadership) did, a massive socialist movement within and outside the party that had been building for 2 decades. He also lacks any, let alone extensive, leadership experience in government or opposition: many of the people who will, apparently, vote for him, did not know who he was 3 months ago. Only 5 years ago the (more impressive than Corbyn) leftwing candidate was eliminated almost immediately in what was, effectively, a two-horse race between two candidates who shared a last name and were — in terms of the political views (though certainly not their political or leadership experience or abilities) — almost identically right of the center of where the party has traditionally been. I agree with the frequently made point that it is hard to see a Labour Party led by Corbyn winning a general election outright (though it might have a chance of increasing the number of seats, by eating into the SNP bloc in Scotland): but whereas in the 1980s plenty of people believed that if only it were left wing enough Labour could win the next general election, I don’t think anyone believes that this time. Brian Eno can plausibly say that “unelectability” is not an issue in this leadership race because, absent developments over which the Labour Party has no control (eg (an unlikely) further surge of UKIP support splitting the right-wing vote enough to deprive Tories of massive numbers of seats) it is so difficult to see any of the candidates (or, frankly, almost anyone in the Parliamentary party) leading Labour to outright victory, and not difficult to see at least two of the candidates being worse.

So. I’m not telling you who I would vote for (its many years since I was, briefly, a member of the party, and although the distinctly odd voting system seems to allow anyone in the world to vote, I’m not going to), and I’m certainly not telling you who my dad and step-mum will be voting for: but I am curious what it looks like on the ground, why people are voting for Corbyn, what people think will happen in the next 2 to 3 years, etc. Please be polite to one another in this forum — I don’t mind how rude you are to each other in party meetings, because I don’t believe for a second you will be as rude as people were in the 80’s).

BY the way: without gooogling, can you name the last time the the candidate who was unambiguously the most left-wing became leader? Its been a very rare event.