Is It Time to Be Impolite?

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I have two teenagers who sort of share leadership with my wife and me as we manage our little family. I’m not sure that they share everything with us that’s going on in their lives (actually, I’m quite sure they don’t), but we talk about many things. One of them is politics.

My children talk politics, too, when they are with their friends. But they never talk politics during their classes at school. In fact, they’re discouraged from doing so. This is not because their views are much different from many other students’ (they’re pretty sure they aren’t), but because their teachers have made it clear that these topics are divisive, may make some students uncomfortable, and are hence taboo. This is a problem.

You and I know, of course, that another reason for the silence is that so many teachers don’t know how to handle these types of discussions and are afraid of repercussions from parents, peers, principals, and policymakers. This is our problem.

Let’s never forget that democracy is renewed in debate by those in each generation who skillfully challenge those who came before them.

As Americans all but give up on finding objective journalism on radio and TV, and as more and more of our children learn the “facts” of world events filtered through ideological blogs and online news sources, it is the responsibility of educators—from K through 20—to lay the groundwork, build the skills, and cultivate the dispositions needed for students to gather data, interpret information, separate fact from bias, analyze the news they receive, and challenge prevailing thought when they see it as flawed.

Do our preservice programs prepare future K-12 teachers with the confidence and classroom-management, communications, and peer-relations skills they will need to integrate these lessons into their lesson plans; set the stage for them with their students, parents, and colleagues; and manage the questions, concerns, and challenges that will predictably flow during these polarized times? Have we prepared our own teacher-candidates with the skills they will need to bravely question, probe, seek objectivity, and reach independent interpretations? Or have we, too, taken the easy way out in our teacher-preparation programs and left our graduates to fend for themselves? The repercussions of such inaction may be multigenerational.

The drumbeat for war is fueled by anti-intellectualism. It is not inviting of data-sharing, open analysis, and debate. It is sustained by rejection of—even hostility toward—those who ask for information, press for open debate, and challenge policy decisions that are being made. But preparing the teachers of each generation of Americans is our business—my fellow teacher-educators’ and mine—and preparing generations of students to seek data, analyze and debate, and press for ever-better public policy is theirs. Let’s never forget that democracy is renewed in debate by those in each generation who skillfully challenge those who came before them.

It will require mustering all our diplomatic skills, and I’m sure it will be uncomfortable, but isn’t it time we looked at every syllabus and made the changes that will ensure that our education school graduates are encouraged and prepared to be democracy’s midwives for the new generation of Americans they will teach?

Vol. 25, Issue 21, Page 33

Published in Print: February 1, 2006, as Is It Time to Be Impolite?
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