Saturday, February 26, 2011

No Dodges

I am always telling the pre-service teachers I teach that good teaching means not shying away from difficult, controversial, morally complex topics, particularly when those topics are interesting and important to one’s students. When my University of Wisconsin Whitewater students asked me to talk about the controversy in Madison, I was forced to take a taste of my own medicine.

My immediate reaction was to tell them that I am not allowed to discuss politics in the classroom. A memorandum from the chancellor reminding us of that came around as soon as the controversy started. Not so easily put off, one of my students said Ok, but Professor Shuffelton, you can teach us about what’s going on. You can educate us.

But I have no expertise on budgets or unions, I stammered. I only know what I’ve read in the newspapers. Well, one of them pointed out, you know more than we do.

I came to the next class a bit more prepared and asked them whether they wanted to spend classtime discussing the assigned reading or what was going on in Madison. Madison, they unanimously agreed. No more dodges.

We ended up having a very good conversation, which left me wondering about politics, education, a teacher’s authority, and the truth. The problem is this: if it is really true that a great deal of political rhetoric has to do with obfuscation and deliberate smokescreens (and perhaps that’s not true, but I suspect it is), surely educating students can include stripping away the layers of falsehood. If the teacher (e.g., me) suspects that one side is obfuscating more than the other, though, that can end up sounding like taking sides. In the Wisconsin budget debate, which isn’t really a budget debate at all it seems (since the unions have pretty much agreed to make all the concessions asked for), it’s hard to sound neutral.

So what is a teacher to do?

The answer I’ve always gone for is to let the students have their say – to keep the playing field neutral so that perspectives and information can battle it out in discussion. Procedural justice, rather than equal results. Even that response failed me this week, though, when a student said something to the effect of the government should just stay out of people’s lives. I bit my tongue and did not say “oh, like in Somalia?” I paused to see if anyone else was going to jump in and point out that we were at a public university, preparing to enter careers in public education. No such luck, so I ducked again and explained libertarianism as well as I could and was relieved when someone asked if Scott Walker’s budget was likely to lead to tuition raises, since that led to issues that outrage my students even more than me. Still, I left the classroom feeling that I’d maintained a little too much neutrality on the topic of government. If I let that student walk out without thinking about the public university at which she was learning, the public schools and highways that got her there, the public police department that kept her safe, the public . . . well, I could go on and on. I didn’t because about that I may not be able to speak without waxing political, but I still feel like I failed in letting everyone walk out of the classroom with that notion unchallenged.

If the class was difficult, it also reinforced my belief that when there are pressing ethical and/or political questions at hand, it is always worth discussing them. My students were bursting to speak. They spoke well. They shared the information they had, and more than usual they spoke with genuine authority, drawing on personal experiences with union jobs, with teachers, with their parents, with real life issues that concern them. In the last few minutes of class, one student asked if he could show a video. After we watched it, I think we all walked out of the room feeling in it together -- democracy and education.

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