Teaching Opinion

Putting the People Back in Politics

By Harry C. Boyte — February 09, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

You point out that schools are ideal places for people to learn how to engage in debate, especially if they are diverse in race and ethnic history. I’d add partisanship. In much of education, Republicans are the “other.” And for all the gestures toward weighing of evidence and the importance of diverse ideas, the politics of educators (especially in higher education) is often highly moralized, dividing the world between the righteous and the damned, the latter usually described as ignorant bigots. Of course this is part of a broader pattern as well.

Today people think “politics” is a kind of warfare, funded by the superrich, revolving around parties, politicians, and professionals. Citizens need to reclaim politics as the way to negotiate differences to get something done and work out how to live together. This was politics descending from the Greeks, revolving around the people in their role as citizens. I like Wynton Marsalis’ description of democracy as like jazz, “an argument with the intent to work something out.” It is also a description of citizen-centered politics.

How can we introduce children to citizen politics and its skills in our divided and demonizing world? And how can schools and classrooms be free spaces, sites for political education that builds democratic habits and democracy as a way of life?

One method is teaching and spreading what are called “deliberative practices.” There is a growing movement to teach deliberation and its political skills- learning to cool the heat, listen to other people with different perspectives, and incorporate different ideas in “public judgment” not only “private opinion.” The Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums have been leaders here. A forthcoming study by Stacey Molnar Main has shown striking increases in both teacher and student civic interests and skills among those who use deliberation.

At the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, Dennis, whom I mentioned last week, and Elaine Eschenbacher have been training students to moderate deliberative discussions and also to organize such discussions in communities.

A third example: Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy have a new book, The Political Classroom, which shows that many teachers, even the most partisan, are eager for students to hear radically different viewpoints. Teachers also experience pressure to “scrub” any controversy from their curriculum, so they need support in enacting this. Here’s a YouTube video of Diana Hess, Dean of the School of Education at UW-Madison, on their findings //www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQs55CqFSKs

In my experience, low income and minority students often deliberate more effectively than upper middle class professionals. Two recent experiences illustrate.

The first was a forum on “the legacy of slavery” several weeks ago that involved about 40 people. Almost all were upper middle class professionals from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Person after person took the floor to denounce the racism they perceived among working class supporters of Donald Trump and other Republicans and assert their own lack of prejudice. “We’re all of the same view in this room,” several said. Then I dissented strongly, describing my organizing days in a poor white mill community in Durham, on assignment from Martin Luther King. The movement leaders who mentored me didn’t divide the world into good guys versus evil doers.

So I disagreed with the faculty and others at Duke who derided the people I was working with as “racist rednecks.” Like everyone, people in the community were complex and certainly had some prejudices. But when they got organized they made many more connections with the black communities in Durham than did faculty.

Ever since my community organizing days I’ve been skeptical of the politics around “white skin privilege.” It’s not because I don’t care about prejudices - I’m glad for prophetic voices like Black Lives Matter which shine the spotlight on racial injustices. But the politics of what is called “white privilege” strikes me as a key way that professionals mark their class differences from working class whites. This is ideological politics, revolving around professionals, not citizen politics.

And it’s not a way to deal effectively with prejudice.

Another story was a forum that a Public Achievement team in a mostly African American high school, Fairview Academy, organized on gun violence. They invited four community members, including a white policeman. About 70 people were there. The discussion quickly turned to racism, and it was a striking contrast with the forum on the legacy of slavery.

Students were nuanced, not self-righteous. They noted prejudices within themselves and within the black community, and also the existence of many different kinds of prejudices. And they responded enthusiastically to my story of community organizing among poor whites in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today we hear a lot of righteous rhetoric but not many stories about down to earth citizen politics - civic organizing -- to complement prophetic statements. Denunciations of racism -- or any other major problem -- without grassroots organizing are like one hand clapping.

I see a strong appetite for citizen politics among young people today. So your question, how can schools be sites of political education?, is extremely timely.

I’d add, we need to put the people back in politics.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.