Academic journal article High School Journal

The Challenges of Political Instruction in a Post-9/11 United States

Academic journal article High School Journal

The Challenges of Political Instruction in a Post-9/11 United States

Article excerpt

In the decade since the attacks of September 11th, the political climate in the United States has become increasingly intolerant of opposing viewpoints. This climate, made nearly ubiquitous by 24-hour news cycles and increased exposure to political media, poses quite a challenge to teachers wishing to broach political topics as part of their curriculum. This article highlights a few of the issues secondary educators will face when engaging in political instruction and offers practical, research-based solutions to these issues.


Much has been written about the challenges teachers faced in the days, weeks, and months following the September 11th attacks (e.g., Apple, 2002; Berson, 2002; Berson & Berson, 2001; Cook, 2006; Levesque, 2003; Ray & Pemberton, 2010; Verma, 2005). However, ten years removed from the attacks we know relatively little about how teachers are responding to teaching in a society that has changed dramatically because of that day. September 11th has faded into Americans' collective memory to the point that textbooks report about the attacks dispassionately (Romanowski, 2009; Stoddard, Hess, & Hammer, 2011) and current high school students are too young to truly remember what occurred on that day; however, the fallout from 9/11 has shaped our society, both directly and indirectly, over the past decade and poses continued challenges to teachers in the United States.

The focus of this article is how teachers have responded to the political discourse that has defined American society in the decade since the attacks, particularly with respect to attempts at integrating current social and political issues into their classrooms. After a brief few months of national unity following the attacks, the nation soon became politically divided over the government's response to the War on Terror, and this polarization spread to nearly all elements of American foreign and domestic policy (Mayer, Koizumi, & LaPorte, 2006). Even when terrorism ceased to be the central issue that divided Republicans and Democrats, the animosity that seemed to peak after American troops invaded Iraq remained (Sinclair, 2003). Pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle not only defended their views, but simultaneously denounced the other side as ideologically and morally "wrong," a label that now stands for unpatriotic, bigoted, xenophobic, or indecisive depending on the context in which it is being used (Jackson, 2007; Mutz, 2007).

Of course, political conflict existed in the United States well before the attacks of September 11th (Farwell & Weiner, 2000). Any student of American history can trace divisive political rhetoric as far back as the founding of the republic; for example, one of the earliest political documents in our nation's history, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, used an "us" versus "them" framework in an attempt to encourage rebellion from England. However, what makes the polarizing political discourse that has occurred since September 11th different from that of the American Revolution or the New Deal or even Vietnam is the fact that it has coincided with the greatest communication era in history (Altheide, 2009). The rise of cable news networks, the Internet, wireless technologies, and social networking has made the dissemination and consumption of political opinion nearly ubiquitous. Although political discourse is generally considered productive among political scientists, the political rhetoric found in these new technologies, as well as the old standbys of television and radio, is often inflammatory which causes Americans to become both guarded from and disenchanted with politics (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002; Mutz, 2007).

For many teachers, this political climate has created uneasy classroom environments in which discussing politics or political issues can have negative consequences. For example, since September 11th, there have been multiple reports of teachers being dismissed from their jobs because they voiced opinions about the Iraq War or other political issues that were not consistent with the political climate of their school or surrounding community (Westheimer, 2006). …

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