Sunday, November 16, 2008

Politics in the Classroom: Not such a bad thing?

Students in most of my literature and cultural courses have probably noted that I do not hide my political identity.  Of course, like most of my colleagues, I think I strive for evenhandedness, fairness and bringing a multiplicity of voices to the classroom.  And, certainly, when grading, I attempt to be extremely sensitive to recognizing my own possible bias.  Indeed, it is quite possible that, in an attempt to be fair when I grade, I allow students certain leaps of logic that I would not in the classroom setting where realtime dialogue is possible.

Unsurprisingly to me, it turns out that American students lack many of the basic skills required to "talk politics."  Anne Colby, at the Carnegie Foundation, exposes the problem at length in a recent AAC&U article:

Although preparing young people for intelligent democratic participation is undeniably important for them and for the country, this goal is not addressed in a direct and systematic way in American higher education. To be sure, higher education does improve political understanding and engagement. Virtually every study of political knowledge, interest, and participation shows a positive relationship of these variables with educational attainment. But, despite this positive effect, many college graduates are not very politically knowledgeable, sophisticated, skilled, or engaged.
Even though the proportion of the U.S. population attending college has increased dramatically in the past fifty years, according to some indicators, political knowledge and engagement have actually decreased. Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996), for example, found that from the 1940s to the 1990s, overall levels of political knowledge did not go up, while the percentage of Americans attending college more than doubled. As they put it, “Today’s college graduates are roughly equivalent [in political knowledge] to the high school graduates of the 1940s.” Likewise, Bennett and Bennett (2003) report that the statistical strength of the relationship between higher education and political knowledge and participation has weakened in recent years. They found, for example, that exposure to higher education had a weaker differential effect on news consumption in 2000 than in 1972. Research my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that this trend could be reversed if higher education would address students’ political learning more directly.
 What is unsurprising too is that Colby underlines the importance of active learning and engaging pedagogies.  Powerpoints on government structure are really courses about politics, but rather organization.  Students need to learn to engage in personal ways that make politics (its structures, its discourses, its history, media, etc.) contextualized and pertinent.  It is about global learning, and tolerance.  It is more about opening minds than "teaching" them things:

In practice, it is not easy to sort out exactly what it means to align efforts to support political development with these core academic values. It does not mean giving equal time to ideas that are without merit, for example. But it does require a real commitment to open-mindedness on the part of faculty and administrative leaders.
In the courses and programs in our study, we saw that it is possible to combine passionate concern and commitment with openness to views different from one’s own. Many of the students reported that they gained a gut-level understanding that those with opposing views are real people, not demonic caricatures. They learned how to find common ground with people whose interests are quite different from their own and saw that both can benefit when they cooperate around shared goals. We were continually impressed by the ways these courses and programs were able to work toward political clarity and conviction combined with human understanding, tolerance, open-mindedness, and a sense of community that transcends ideological difference. [My emphasis]

I am always pleased to read that a good classroom is not necessarily a "neutral" environment but a place to weigh, balance and discard "bad" ideas--without throwing the people who hold them.