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Education Opinion

What Can Schools Do to Promote Civil Dialogue?

By Meira Levinson — January 19, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Meira Levinson, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guest-posting this week.

In his speech in Tucson on January 12, following the tragic shootings at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greet, President Obama called for Americans to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” He cautioned that “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [those who were injured and killed] proud.” A number of other public officials and media commentators have also called upon Americans to tone down the violent rhetoric and symbolism that infuses what passes for political discourse today.

These are desperately worthwhile goals. But they can’t be achieved just by our resolving to do things differently. It takes real skill and practice to listen empathetically to others who make claims with which we profoundly disagree. Expanding “our moral imaginations” requires strength of character. It’s not the kind of thing anyone--let alone children--can simply start doing overnight. After all, empathetic, honest, and civil discourse still require discernment and the willingness to render judgment, including condemnation of positions that one views as factually wrong, unethical, and/or dangerous.

What role might--or must--schools play in helping young people develop and habitually enact these capacities? What would it take for kids to learn how to integrate empathy and discernment while engaging in meaningful, often partisan, civil political discourse and action?

First off, we should teach more civics. In the 1960s, students regularly took as many as three civics courses in high school, including civics, democracy, and government. Now students tend to take only one--government--and that only in the twelfth grade. There is a reason that we require students to take English and math every semester of every year of elementary and secondary school: mastery takes time and practice. If we want students to become masterful citizens, then the same expectations should apply. Students at all grade levels should be given regular opportunities to acquire civic knowledge and skills, as well as to investigate and talk about current events, including controversial topics that matter to them.

Second, we should teach more meaningful civics. There needs to be space in the curriculum for students to be taught explicitly how to listen and respond to ideas with which they disagree, look for common ground in apparently opposing positions, distinguish fact from opinion, evaluate a variety of sources of evidence, present their own opinions in ways that are respectful and promote mutual dialogue, and take effective and appropriate civic action. To teach these skills and habits well requires time, as well as teachers who are both confident and skilled themselves in taking on “difficult” topics. Teachers also have to have the assurance that they won’t be disciplined or even fired for opening up such dialogue and enabling students to engage in civic/political action--a real fear especially for many public school teachers. Diana Hess published a great book last year that describes the challenges and teaches the techniques teachers need to do this well. Terrific resources for educators, policymakers, and researchers are also available from the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, CIRCLE, and the Civic and Moral Education Initiative at Harvard. As ESEA reauthorization continues to grind forward, I hope that support gets built in for educators to get the time, resources, and meaningful professional development to support significant, high-quality, and consistent civic instruction in schools.

It may seem overwhelming to ask schools to take this on as they are being held accountable for so many other important tasks, too, but it’s frankly irresponsible in a democracy to demand anything less. We take it virtually as a given that youth who want to become good baseball players, say, will practice for hours every week throughout the season--to say nothing of the pre- and post-season practices now becoming standard even for quite young children--and play multiple games every week, all under the guidance of attentive and disciplined coaches. But what coaching, practice, and “Little League” games do young people get for citizenship? Is it truly unreasonable to ask that schools and other public institutions provide students as much coaching in the rules, skills, and norms of citizenship as in baseball? Christina Taylor Green seems to have been a rare and wonderful kid who sought out opportunities in both fields as an avid Little Leaguer and student council member. One way in which we might live up to Obama’s challenge that we make “our democracy...as good as Christina imagined it” is to extend such opportunities for civic learning and civic action to all students across America.

--Meira Levinson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.