To Disclose or Not to Disclose; That is the Question

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

The #CivicsIsBack Campaign completes its Southern Illinois swing today with a stop in Edwardsville. The city sits across the Mississippi River from Ferguson, MO, and its district forbade teachers from discussing the racial unrest that gripped the entire St. Louis region two years ago.

It’s fair to say that this knee-jerk decision was nothing short of educational malpractice, because social studies classrooms are actually the ideal venues for these critical conversations across difference in our democracy.

In embracing the “Political Classroom,” teachers must also weigh the extent to which they should disclose their personal views to students on current and controversial issues.

Early in my career, I promised my students that I would reveal my candidate choice in the 2000 Presidential Election after I voted. Little did I know that the election wouldn’t be officially decided for another 36 days, and I felt that all future classroom conversations about its historic aftermath were tainted once my secret was revealed.

I later subscribed to a position of strict non-disclosure, at the same time asking my students to declare their own party affiliations. Thereafter, I would be perpetually peppered with questions from them about my own political identity. While I kept them guessing, I did play “devil’s advocate” when class discussions appeared one-sided. That said, I found that when I allowed their conversations to flow that diverse perspectives would ultimately surface on their own.

My critical role as a teacher was to create a safe environment where students could shape and articulate their own political beliefs. Research suggests that teachers are free to make the disclosure/ non-disclosure decision based on their personal epistemology. However, in the case of the former, they need to ensure that students are empowered to disagree with them and their peers.

We must “face Ferguson” and teach the 2016 Election, but it takes more than rolling out the proverbial ball. Controversial issues discussions should be based on sound pedagogy, and the decision of whether or not to disclose, and later, how to implement it, is an important starting point.

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