How Do Teachers' Political Views Influence Teaching about Controversial Issues?

By Hess, Diana E. | Social Education, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview
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How Do Teachers' Political Views Influence Teaching about Controversial Issues?


Hess, Diana E., Social Education


MANY TEACHERS advocate teaching students to deliberate on controversial political issues as a powerful way of preparing them for political participation. Support for this approach recently came from a Civic Mission of the Schools report, which endorsed including political controversies in the curriculum. Specifically, it recommends that schools:

   Incorporate discussion of current local,
   national, and international issues and
   events into the classroom, particularly
   those that young people view as
   important to their lives. When young
   people have opportunities to discuss
   current issues in a classroom setting,
   they tend to have greater interest in
   politics, improved critical thinking
   and communications skills, more civic
   knowledge, and more interest in discussing
   public affairs out of school.'

The literature on democracy education abounds with varying approaches to teaching controversial issues. Embedded in most approaches is a focus on encouraging the analysis and critique of multiple perspectives on how the issue should be resolved. Such an orientation has been the object of harsh critiques, though, as being naive and wrongheaded. For example, when introducing their resource text on teaching about globalization, William Bigelow and Robert Peterson state that for educators to feign neutrality is irresponsible. The pedagogical aim in this social context needs to be truth rather than balance--if by balance we mean giving equal credence to claims that we know to be false and that, in any event, enjoy wide dispersal in the dominant culture. (2)

For some time I have been interested in questions and controversies about how teachers' political views influence what and how they teach and what their students learn as a consequence. I used to believe that the most important decision teachers had to make about teaching controversial issues was whether (and, if so, in what ways) they should disclose their personal views on the issue to their students. The "disclosure question" is prevalent in the literature, causes heated debates among teachers I worked with in a variety of professional development seminars and graduate courses, and is one with which I have personally wrestled since the beginning of my teaching career.

When I started teaching, one of the most controversial political issues facing the body politic was whether the Equal Rights Amendment should be added to the Constitution. I remember searching for good pro/con articles for my students to read and then moderating heated and often exciting discussions about the issue in the social studies courses I taught. As a new teacher, I was unsure about how to respond to students' queries about my own views on the issue, but I remember feeling vaguely pleased when I heard two students debating what I thought about the issue as they left the classroom. Their debate was a signal to me that my strongly held personal views on the issue were not readily apparent to my students. It was evidence, I thought, that I was not a biased teacher.

At lunch, I shared the students' conversation I had overheard with other teachers, which sparked an intense debate. Some of my colleagues thought I had wasted an opportunity to demonstrate to my students how adults think through political issues. One said I was acting like a "political eunuch" and knowing of my own intense interest in politics, asked, "Why do you want to be a non-political political role model?" Other teachers at the lunch table disagreed. "It's our job," said one, "to help our students think through these issues, not to impress upon them our own views." Another added, "The longer I teach the more I understand about how much power teachers have over students. I don't want to abuse that power--and I don't want kids to agree with my views just because I am the teacher."

I remember leaving the lunch table feeling ambivalent about what I now call the "disclosure dilemma" and have subsequently listened carefully when others teachers discuss their views about it.

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