Controversial topics will inevitably come up during class. Our natural inclination is often to shy away from these topics or to approach them from a superficial or half-hearted standpoint. However, having productive conversations about these topics is crucial to students’ awareness of social, moral, and political foundations.
This holds true particularly for Participation in Government (Gov), a half-year course required for IHS seniors. It is designed to encourage political discourse, as it does not separate students into Regents, Honors, and AP levels, as many other high schools do. This allows students from a variety of backgrounds and political standings to expose themselves to conversations with other students with whom they fundamentally disagree.
“It really is one of the goals, and it has gotten more and more urgent,” said Sara Shenk, a Gov teacher. “Our nation’s political process and its lack of civil conversations and cooperation make it even more important that we help our students understand that you really can disagree politically, work together, and have conversations with each other.”
However, it has been challenging to facilitate productive conversations. “Say we’re talking about border security,” Shenk said. “Often, students use inflammatory language like ‘You are anti-immigrant, so you are racist.’”
It is easy to attribute negative motives to opposing viewpoints because students have deeply held values and are unwilling to let go of them. Students grow up in echo chambers in which their values are constantly validated by relatives and peers, which makes it difficult to consider points of view that clash with their worldview. In a school such as IHS, which has a student body with an overwhelming liberal majority, this poses an even greater problem. IHS students with more conservative views often feel discouraged to speak up for fear of being ridiculed and belittled.
The media is to blame for a significant portion of these challenges. Its tendency to demonize opposing sides further pushes apart groups of people that are already severely in disagreement. The excessive use of catch-phrase rhetoric and dehumanization achieves little to nothing at all. If anything, those strategies only exponentiate the polarization of political ideologies.
These challenges, however, apply to virtually any course given at the high school, not just Gov. Touchy subjects can emerge in any class. Take the 2016 elections, for instance. Many teachers across disciplines openly discussed their reactions to the results, even though classroom discussions may not necessarily have been included in their course’s curriculum. The facilitation of productive political discussions is relevant to any classroom setting.
Effective discussions demand a break from the confined agree-or-disagree formula that constitutes so much of the discourse students have seen, experienced, and internalized. Students should instead approach the conversation by expanding their idea of what a productive political conversation achieves. A student’s goal should not be to convince someone to think one way or another, but to gain an understanding of their view—not in order to prove them wrong but to entertain the idea that they also want good things for their community and that they believe in a different way of getting there.
Students should also connect policies to their underlying moral values because people tend to be more open to considering opposing viewpoints when policies are tied to the moral values they possess. Stanford Sociology professor Robb Willer spoke about this in a recent TED Talk called “How to Have Better Political Conversations.” He justifiably claimed that liberals tend to move to the right on conservative policy issues like military spending if those issues are tied to liberal moral values like equality and fairness. The same goes with conservatives: conservatives tend to move to the left on liberal policy issues like environmentalism if those issues are tied to conservative moral values like patriotism and moral purity. He coined this “moral reframing.”
Moral reframing can be taken slightly out of context to be applied to political discussions in the classroom. In lieu of trying to convince someone to support a policy, moral reframing can be used to better understand another’s political beliefs, which is a far more productive way of approaching a political discussion.
This can be achieved by having students discuss an issue after assigning them to opposing sides. In an AP Statistics class, math teacher Benjamin Kirk had students debate the ethicality of the Stanford Prison Experiment (While not necessarily political, this topic was controversial to the same extent as any political issue.) and assigned them to argue for either side. Before the debate, it was clear to students which side they were on—most believed that the experiment was unethical. However, as the debate progressed, flaws in each side’s argument became clear and students started questioning their previous beliefs.
Kirk’s debate also functioned as a Socratic Seminar, a teaching method commonly used in high-school English classes in which the teacher remains almost entirely hands-off while students themselves facilitate a discussion. In a class with students of varying academic dedication, though, Socratic Seminars may not be the most effective discussion strategy. Students should learn to start discussions with sincere, evaluative questions such as: “Why do you believe Planned Parenthood should receive more funding?” and “What do you think we can do to restrain gun violence in America?” instead of “Why are Trump’s policies racist?” and “Don’t we have an ethical and moral responsibility to act on the fact that drugs are flowing into our country from the southern border?” Students will break down the argument and think critically about fundamental values that underlie the arguments presented by each side.
Both students and teachers should give feedback on other students’ views and be unafraid of starting heated discussions. Phillip Jordan does this especially well in his AP U.S. History classes. Jordan often moderates classroom discussions about past and present philosophical, moral, and political topics and challenges everything students say. Sure, the conversations get heated and students get fired up. Still, students come out of class having been exposed to new ways of viewing different issues. On top of that, Jordan remains neutral in the eyes of the students.
New programs and strategies have already been implemented in Gov. “We did a program with Armin Heurich about identifying fake news and media bias,” Shenk said. “We also showed Gov students the TED Talk by Robb Willer. Ludi Augustine has taken it another step and created an activity in which students write a persuasive paragraph using language that might appeal to a liberal or a conservative and try to convince them to support a policy.”
However, more needs to be done. Both students and teachers have the obligation to take a new approach to facilitating productive political classroom discussions.