Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NYU professor says public schools should open up political discourse to students

On Monday afternoon, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, responded to comments and ideas surrounding the recent shootings in Arizona with his reflections on the state of political discourse in America's public schools.

His article is entitled "Arizona shooting: Don't blame Sarah Palin -- get public schools to discuss politics," and was published in Christian Science Monitor on Jan. 10, 2010 (online at 3:01 p.m. ET).

Many have been arguing that outbursts of violence like the one we witnessed a few days ago are traceable to heated political rhetoric; Zimmerman, however, believes that the real problem runs deeper than that. His basic argument is that our public schools are sheltering students too much from controversial issues.

"We’ve stripped the schools of almost anything that’s divisive, contentious, or controversial," Zimmerman says. "Is it any wonder that many of our citizens can’t engage in reasonable political dialogue?"

He doesn't seem to be placing the blame on teachers so much as on the system by which they are employed. Educators are not only not trained to engage the students in civilized, reasonable discussion on "hot-button contemporary issue(s)," they are actually told not to do so. Teachers can even -- and have even -- been fired for bringing these issues up in the classroom. In effect, they are restricted to instructing students in the memorization of mere facts.

As a result of this state of affairs, according to Zimmerman, American public schools "have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics."

What do people think of this? I certainly think Zimmerman has a good point. With the recent bullying epidemic and with outbreaks of school violence in the last decade, there is a strong need in general to teach kids how to resolve and/or deal with their differences peacefully and rationally. As far as what Zimmerman is talking about goes, I think we just need to approach this sort of thing with due caution. Whether or not discussions about controversial issues can be successfully carried out in a classroom is going to depend on various factors such as the age and impressionability of the students, etc.

Click here to read Zimmerman's article. Comments welcome.

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