Teachers, don’t play it safe and duck the dicey debates in your classrooms

I teach a journalism class at a small, private university near my home. Disappointing but true: teachers can’t speak of freedom of the press and the responsibilities of professional journalists without knowing that at least a few students – or maybe their parents, who pay the tuition– will be offended.

Some instructors recommend staying silent. Not discussing dicey matters is the easiest way, they believe, to maintain an amicable learning environment. I see their point, but I’m teaching “writing for mass media” and part of the objective is to discuss the media, including issues like the first amendment, freedom of the press, implicit bias and such. Staying silent would be a formidable challenge.

Instead, I’ve taken inspiration from my son’s middle school English teacher. Lately when I volunteer in class he’s been incorporating more debate and discussion – not less–about sometimes polarizing issues. I watch middle schoolers figure out which side of an argument they’re on and then learn how to talk to one another about their opinions using research, personal experience, logic and emotion – essentially how to debate in a civil, purposeful manner.

I was roundly put in my place, though, when I sat in on a session of students practicing their persuasive techniques. The exercise was supposed to be this: standing across from one another, they’d present their cases to me. If the arguments were any good, I’d take a step toward them. Before one boy started his anti-gun control argument, I flat-out told him he was wasting his breath.

I’d spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserves, and I was even put on active duty briefly. As a writer and magazine editor in the Army, I was more likely to wield pen and paper than a gun, but hey, I’d gone to basic training and I knew what it was like to shoot an M16. My feet would not move on the gun control issue. The teacher piped up and said, “Oh, yes, what do we call someone who won’t even listen to an argument?” The class answered: Prejudiced. Biased. Closed minded. Me!? Okay, I listened. He made a couple of points. I took a step—albeit tiny–­toward him.

Raising hot button issues only way to challenge assumptions

So, in my college classroom I also decided to spend a lot more time delving into certain hot button issues instead of shying away from them. Where does the idea that there’s a “liberal bias” in journalism come from? We looked at the professional credo that journalism schools teach. We looked at something called moral foundations theory, where we see that the journalistic credo (for example, giving voice to the voiceless, a desire for truth and fairness) does match up nicely with what researchers call progressive moral foundations versus what they deem conservative moral foundations (i.e. a respect for authority and loyalty).

So, yes, it makes some sense that people believe journalists tend to be liberal (though, of course, we debate if having a more liberal personal bent and reporting unfairly are one and the same). We talk about immigration issues in the news, knowing full well that there are some students with anti-immigration views sitting next to immigrants. Though I’m a new teacher, so far we’ve been able to do this. We’ve been able to have open, civil discussions and the world didn’t end.

Last month, my son and I heard a man on the radio recounting his family’s experience defending their furniture store in the ‘92 Los Angeles riots. The family’s presence on the rooftop with guns, he said, was enough to scare off looters in a life-threatening and surreal scenario. I felt myself move again–just a fraction of a step. By listening first to my son’s classmate and then to this man on NPR, I still believe in gun control but I can now at least imagine the other perspective. Whoa. I felt myself move. And it was surprising. In some small way I respectfully engaged with the points of view of people who didn’t share my political and social beliefs. I need to practice more, but this is what I’m hoping to teach my students and my own kids to do.

The education researcher Richard Weissbourd says the more we can do this, the better off our democracy will be. He says that the capacity to respectfully engage in opposing views is fundamental to the preservation of democracy itself. “Many of us also need this capacity to be good neighbors, colleagues, family members, and friends,” says Weissbourd.

And, I would add, good parents and teachers. So now when a teacher suggests staying silent on polarizing issues in the classroom, I have only one reply: You can do that, but it’s not the right thing to do.

What do you think?
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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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