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).



TM 08.11.15 at 3:49 pm

I wonder, how did the student know she was a subject? Have you confirmed that she was indeed?


oldster 08.11.15 at 5:13 pm

A somewhat specialized instance of this:

That is a review of a new book for Classicists about teaching “difficult topics” in the classroom:

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Fiona McHardy (ed.), From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 303. ISBN 9780814212615. $69.95.

Classical literature is one big minefield of triggers–racism, rape, brutality galore, much of it presented in glorifying light. (That Zeus! What a card he was, “carrying off” Europa, and Io, and Ganymede, and and and….Hilarious, init?)

“More important, however, is James’ attention to how to communicate with students who are ‘triggered’ by the topic of rape and may disclose their own involvement with sexual violence. Taken together, these two chapters form a type of primer for instructors on how to get started teaching rape and sexual assault, yet at the same time encourage instructors not to pretend to be mental health professionals.”

[the reviewer has a bizarre habit of saying “teach X” when they mean “teach about the topic of X”. But otherwise it’s an informative review.]

I probably won’t get around to reading Rabinowitz and McHardy, but it looks interesting, and I hope it’s germane to this conversation.


harry b 08.11.15 at 5:15 pm

She knew because she remembered filling in the surveys (which they were presented with in my class and discussed, with respect to my practice, in my absence) and, worse, that McAvoy was observed her classroom. The authors are such sticklers for procedure that they haven’t even confirmed to me that the student’s school was in the study, let alone that she was. I don’t really have a lot of doubt.


Bloix 08.11.15 at 9:15 pm

Forty years ago, I was a freshman taking the compulsory core curriculum of Columbia College of Columbia University, which was then all-male. The first book in the literature course, the very first thing I read in college, was the Iliad. It begins with a dispute among warriors over the right to rape enslaved women. Our instructor never pointed that out and we students of course understood what a concubine was but we never questioned it past, “well, I suppose we wouldn’t do that now, but they were different then and it’s part of the story.” It was decades before it occurred to me that Chryseis and Briseis – and any number of others, because each warrior is said to have his own “prize” – were raped.

It appears from the Columbia website that the Iliad is still the first book in the core literature course. I wonder how it is taught now?


oldster 08.11.15 at 10:22 pm

You see, Bloix, it was different back when we were in college.

For one thing, the Iliad was only recently published–it was just off the presses, written by an exciting young author, and no one knew what to make of it.

Needless to say, it has not aged well since that time. A bit like Hemingway, really–more interesting now as an historical curiosity than as a piece of literature. One reads Hemingway, and thinks, ‘what did they see in it, in the ‘3os?’. Mutatis mutandis for the Iliad and the ’70s.


Ogden Wernstrom 08.13.15 at 5:32 pm

Harry’s disclosure triggered an awareness that I have failed to disclose which weddings I have attended.

oldster: presses? Didn’t anyone recite it in song for you?


JPL 08.16.15 at 7:41 am

A prerequisite for discussing and writing about controversial issues, at least at the university level, is that the students should learn the effective techniques for arguing with a highly resistant audience, including the ability to express the full claim- support structure for the opposing position, something that some people find, initially at least, very hard to do. The class discussion should then be conducted under these principles (respect for one’s audience, “civility”, etc.), and under these conditions even the most contentious issues can be handled. However, if rigorous adherence to the standards of rational discourse are insisted upon, whatever the views of the instructor, revealed or not, it may soon become evident that right- wing (in the US, Republican Party) arguments and patterns of argument are disfavoured. (Let’s face it, the whole problem here is with the children of right- wing parents (Republican party supporters) who have taken over their parents’ ways of thinking about things without further reflection, and these ways of thinking are inadequate to the task at hand. After learning the skills of critical reflection, listening to other views, empathy and taking seriously the criteria for a logically sound argument, such students can produce absolutely excellent work without “going over to the other side” (they become more self- aware). Left wing kids have different kinds of problems. I’m throwing this possibly provocative parenthetical comment in here because I get the impression that some people are “centrist” and want to be fair and unbiased and so forth. But the main problem in public discourse today is intellectual dishonesty; what constitutes intellectual dishonesty can be clarified, and it can be exposed and should be exposed.) It is also necessary to insist on the standards of discourse and inquiry in academic disciplines, as opposed to those of journalism. The standards of truth- seeking in the university, especially the sciences, can be an alternate model to the fantasy world of corporate journalism. The instructor needn’t express any opinion at all about any particular issue, and if students are curious about the views of the instructor, she can say, “One thing you can be sure of; whatever the position you are arguing for, I’m against it.” (Sort of like 3 AM Magazine.) In short, it’s not so much whether or not the instructor should reveal their personal views on particular issues, but that any issue, even the most controversial, can be analyzed and debated in a productive way, with every view heard (and critiqued), if the rational and ethical ground rules for any discussion have been effectively set. If these standards could be insisted on in the wider public setting, we would have a more effective democratic process; of course I’m not holding my breath.

Comments on this entry are closed.