racial pluralism in schools reduces discussion of politics, and what to do about that

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and I have published a new article in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy entitled “Diversity in Classrooms: The Relationship between Deliberative and Associative Opportunities in School and Later Electoral Engagement.”  Using a new survey conducted in 2012, we confirm previous findings that attending racially pluralistic high schools–i.e., schools that enroll substantial numbers of students from several different racial groups–seems to reduce the students’ electoral and civic engagement after they graduate. One explanation appears to be that discussion of current controversial issues boosts students’ interest in politics, but such discussion is less common in pluralistic high schools.  We find that classroom discussion is especially important for students who do not participate in political conversations at home. We also find that joining issue-oriented groups encourages voting.

We say:

Considering that strong arguments can be made in favor of racial diversity in schools, it is important to compensate for the lessened electoral engagement in diverse schools by creating policies and teacher preparation resources that promote high-quality discussion of controversial issues in classrooms, and by encouraging students to participate in extracurricular groups that address political issues.

In my opinion, it’s understandable that teachers and students sometimes shy away from controversial topics when the student body is diverse. For example, they may not want to talk about the Middle East if some of the students are Arab-Americans, some are Jewish-Americans, and some are Christians of other backgrounds. Teachers may simply feel unprepared to deal with an issue that students know from personal experience–whether it is the Israeli occupation or racial profiling by police here in the United States. They may also worry about “micro-aggressions” in the form of comments that fundamentally challenge other students’ worldviews and identities. These concerns can arise with respect to most topics (both domestic and foreign), because racial and ethnic differences and conflicts are ubiquitous.

But it is a highly unfortunate result if we see less political discussion in classrooms that are more diverse. That is a waste of the asset of diversity, and it suppresses the political and civic engagement of students who attend integrated schools.

In the article, we call for “policies and teacher preparation resources” that support the discussion of controversial issues in pluralistic classrooms. I think an important policy is simply to affirm that freedom of speech is a positive good in schools. To be sure, a free discussion of a hot topic can lead to truly offensive remarks that cause psychic harm to participants, and that is something to pay attention to. But not talking about difficult issues is worse. It suppresses political engagement. It sends the message that a public space (of which the school is an example) should be a discussion-free zone. And it leaves any offensive private views unchallenged by other students. Better that a student should say something offensive and get a reply than not be allowed to say it at all.

See also “on religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms,”  “defending free speech in public schools,” and “who is segregated?”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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