Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part II: Discussion

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


I first weighed in on the “teachable moment” that Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s campaign presents shortly after his canceled rally in Chicago two months ago. Since then, civics teachers have grappled with the challenge of embracing “the political classroom” in an election year laden with vitriol.

A recent article in The Atlantic claims that “…schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences.”

This is far from a universal truth, but teachers face many barriers to bringing controversy in the classroom in spite of its proven benefits to students’ civic development (see pages 118-133). They include a lack of administrative and/ or parental support (or fears of backlash), lack of time, and reservations about their preparation in leading these delicate discussions.

We simply must overcome these barriers because the perils of failing to hold dialogue across difference have led directly to the scorched earth status quo. According to Teaching Tolerance, the current campaign has raised fears and anxieties among students of color and inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.

Thankfully, civics teachers are taking a stand, none more powerful than this “Open Letter to Donald Trump.”

The truth is that even with persistent residential segregation, public schools are among the most heterogeneous institutions any of us will ever affiliate with. Moreover, students’ ideological views are still forming and not as entrenched as their deeply polarized adult counterparts. Finally, teachers have (or can develop) the capacity to lead structured discussions of controversial issues. Schools are thus the ideal venues for these conversations.

While I encourage you to review our complete list of current and controversial discussions indicators, I’ll highlight two points in particular.

One, teachers need not refrain from disclosing their political views and/ or candidate preferences with students. However, they must make it clear that students are welcome to disagree with them, nurturing a “…climate of respect and civility in which all responsible perspectives are taken seriously.”

Two, issue selection is critical. Issues include “…meaningful and timely questions about public problems that deserve both students’ and the public’s attention.”

Presidential elections and the candidate platforms they elevate certainly register, as does the real work of government that follows.

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