Political Classroom Workshop

Scenes from the protest outside the Supreme Court in May of 2022 after the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.

What happens when politics enters a Harkness discussion? In this workshop, you will share your struggles and strategies for dealing with politics in discussion-based classes. Please bring your Discussion Dynamics notebook.

Read one of the two case studies in the Discussion Dynamics book: "Just Give Me the Facts" or "Let Me Set the Record Straight."

Questions about the case studies:

What, if anything, went wrong in these two cases? Assess the teacher's response. What, if anything, should the teacher have done differently? Are the two situations more similar or different? What role did the students' previous experiences at the school contribute to the tensions that came to the surface in these incidents? How did race complicate Sherie's case? How should the teacher follow-up afterwards? Should students be encouraged or discouraged from expressing strong feelings about political issues like these?

Broader Questions:

What if any should be the political goals of education?

How do we prepare our students to be engaged citizens in a political community that is increasingly polarized?

What do teachers do with our own political views? (Note: "one recent study reported that 50% of Americans think that social studies teachers use their classrooms as political soapboxes," Hess and McAvoy, 205).

How do we protect students with unpopular views?

What does a successful Harkness discussion of politics look like?


My goals for political teaching:

Make classrooms sites of political discussion, but not indoctrination. Teaching how to think, but not what to think.

“Advance democratic values and create engaged citizens.”

Foster intellectually autonomous individuals: who are able to reflect independently and critically on values and principles.

See the concept of “bounded autonomy” (Hess and McAvoy, chapter 7). Is there a limit to autonomy we are willing to grant our students? What are the limits beyond which we would not tolerate independence? E.g., racist science, holocaust denial.

Foster a sophisticated ability to evaluate evidence and separate fact from opinion or interpretation.

Teach verification skills. Foster immunity to propaganda and questioning of the stories handed down to us (see Myung-Ok Lee, History Classes are our Best Hope for Teaching Americans to Question Fake News and Donald Trump: Historian James Grossman is quoted as saying that “One of the many lessons that the current [2016] campaign has been teaching us is that historical thinking and historical understanding is imperative to civic culture.”

Develop empathy for and understanding of those who are different from ourselves, including those who think differently and have different values and interests. Democracy (resolving differences without resorting to violence) depends on seeing our opponents as legitimate. Teaching via the Harkness method promotes the development of this skill.

Get students to see themselves as a part of history, with agency (see my blog entry on this).

Content knowledge. Have a reasonable basis of knowledge so you can recognize historically dubious claims, and develop informed political positions.

Instill a sense of national pride: See Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement” (3). See also, Mark Weiner, Rule of the Clan, 159:

“For a society to overcome the rule of the clan, it must forge, and it must maintain, a common identity that rises above the particular clan groups of which it is composed. Affiliations with craft and professional guilds, religious organizations, and all the varied voluntary institutions of civil society can contribute to a sense of belonging to a larger community. A robust public identity draws upon these affiliations to construct a sense of citizenship. Patriotic nationalism provides the widest cultural framework through which radically different people can understand themselves as part of an integrated public.”

Instill a sense of shame over the shameful elements of our national past. See Brian Stevenson interview with Ezra Klein:

"There is no redemption without acknowledgement of sin. It’s not bad to repent. It's cleansing. It's necessary. It's ultimately liberating to acknowledge where we were and where we want to go. We haven't done that collectively."

Some recommended readings:

Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom, Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. A document with excerpts is attached, below.

Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, et al., Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement.

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education.

Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

David A. Moss, Democracy: A Case Study.

John Palfrey, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education.

Gerald Graff, "Teaching Politically Without Political Correctness," The Radical Teacher (Fall 2000), 26-30.

David Weber, "Political Teaching in a Contentious Time," Independent School (Winter 2007), 50-56.

I have a blog, "Thinking While Teaching," at www.billjordan.net, focused on history, teaching, politics, and the politicization of education. Here's a list, with summaries, of essays I've written that reflect my evolving thinking about how to teach students in ways that prepare them for citizenship and political engagement without imposing a political agenda. One of those essays considers what Hess and McAvoy's approach might have to say about teaching "anti-racism." Another is a summary of their chapter on selecting appropriate political topics.

Above, Don Folden, in front of the Supreme Court Building during protests over the leaked decision overturning Roe v. Wade. "We're fighting each other like cats and dogs on a sinking ship. The water's up to our knees and the rich got all the life boats. If my half of the ship goes down, your half doesn't stay afloat. We all are doomed." Mr. Folden works as a tour guide in Washington DC, specializing in the history of African Americans in the city.