the risks of controversy in schools

I’m in Denver, at the Education Commission

of the States, talking about state standards in civics and social

studies. The topic is what students should know, think, feel, and

do about politics and civil society. The group is very well informed and

represents all the relevant disciplines and professions. So far, there

have been few (if any) broad and systematic disagreements. Most experts

feel some tension about standards, accountability, and testing. They ask

themselves: are these things inherently harmful, since they reduce schools’

capacity to operate democratically, or do we need good standards and tests

to encourage civics? There was also a very interesting discussion that

pitted academics (including me) against a school superintendent of a fairly

major school system. The academics worry that schools are suppressing

discussion of controversial political issues. The superintendent told

horror stories about teachers who proselytize for various fringe political

causes. I certainly could see his point about the risks—both moral

and political—of encouraging teachers to bring politics into the

classroom. On the other hand, if we prevent teachers from advocating for

political causes, then there is a risk that students will never meet any

adults who are politically active and articulate.