Novelist William Faulkner had it right.
For all of those nay-sayers about the value of knowing the past, the events that took place in Charlottesville recently in protests and counter-protests over the taking down of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee got an object lesson in how the past is never dead. Moreover, views of what happened in the past, informed and uninformed, have consequences. History matters.
Understanding that iconic symbols (e.g., flags, statues) do not have one history but multiple histories dependent upon the beliefs and experiences of ethnic and racial groups is a flash of insight that seldom occurs in classrooms. If anything, Charlottesville is a “teachable moment” for elementary and secondary students returning to school in August and September. Will teachers take advantage of the opportunity? Some will and some won’t. How many of each I surely do not know.
What I do know is that using the Charlottesville violence over the removal of a statue is controversial. The history of teachers dealing with disputed issues has been pock-marked with incidents of teacher firings, censorship, and fear of school board and community retaliation for lessons that take up contentious questions (see here,here, here, and here). Historically, there are teachers who skirt such questions and censor themselves for fear of blow-back from administrators and groups of parents who do not want their sons and daughters to take up, read, or discuss topics that conflict with their values. So teachers are often stuck.
Here’s the dilemma.
Teachers know they are obligated to have students–who are compelled to attend school–think and talk through contemporary issues roiling the community that go to the very core of schooling in a democracy where diverse opinions and values are debated and decided. After all, young children and teenagers will ask teachers about what they see on TV and hear in the home when such events occur.
Teachers know that learning the rules of evidence and distinguishing between facts, opinions, and untruths are required tools for children and youth to navigate daily life. Such knowledge and action is non-partisan. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” said Daniel Moynihan, “but not to his own facts.” Knowing that distinction goes to the very core of schooling in a democracy.
Yet, teachers also prize their autonomy. They relish the simple and powerful fact that they can close their classroom door and choose what to teach for the next hour as long as it is consistent with district and state curricula.
Managing controversial topics in elementary and secondary classrooms, then, in a polarized political climate is hardly a walk in the park. Especially, at a time when top political and business leaders state unequivocally that white nationalists and neo-Nazis spout hatred that leads to violence (see here and here).
So how do teachers having their own red-to-blue political beliefs and personal/religious values yet honoring their professional commitment to getting their students to think through volatile issues manage this dilemma?
University of Wisconsin (Madison) scholar Diana Hess has laid out choices that teachers can make to manage this dilemma in coming to grips with controversial issues in their classrooms such as Charlottesville.
Four Approaches to Controversial Issues in the Curriculum
It is not a controversial political issue: “Some people may say it is controversial, but I think they are wrong. There is a right answer to this question. So I will teach as if it were not controversial to ensure that students develop that answer.”
Teach toward a particular perspective on the controversial political issue: “It is controversial, but I think there is a clearly right answer and will try to get my students to adopt that position.”
Avoid the controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial, but my personal views are so strong that I do not think I can teach it fairly, or I do not want to do so.”
Teach the matter as genuine controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial and I will aim toward balance and try to ensure that various positions get a best case, fair hearing.”
Clearly, President Trump–the teacher-in-chief in our democracy– flip-flopped in his statements on who and what caused violence at the protest (see here). He aimed for “balance” but offered “denial.”
He would, I believe, urge teachers to treat “Alt-right” and “Alt-left” groups as both being responsible for the violence. Yet, most teachers would see the President’s “balance” as much a “fake” as it is to teach “creationism” and evolution side-by-side. “Balance” means to get at the assumptions and values, distasteful as they may be, driving the protesters and anti-protesters and analyzing both within the context of current American values. That is not what the flip-flopping of the President’s position over four days encouraged among the nation’s teachers.
Top political and business leaders, however, took a strong moral stance on white supremacists and nationalists protests and violence. They urged teachers, I believe, to use the approaches of either “privilege” or “avoidance.” And there are teachers who would take that moral stance with their students (see here and here).
Educators have produced statements and lessons that cover these various approaches (see here, here, here, and here). So individual teachers at all levels of schooling have to decide whether or not they will deal with this controversial issue. If they decide to explore the Charlottesville statue controversy, continuing strife over Confederate symbols, First Amendment freedom of speech, and the like, they at least have the autonomy to make such a decision once they close their classroom door. And they do have to decide because the dilemma they face in dealing with controversial issues in their classrooms will not go away.