I am routinely dismayed by attempts to keep politics separate from pedagogy. Too many of the top books for teachers focus more on ‘hacks’ or tricks to get kids ‘engaged’ than on addressing the deeper structural injustices that shape our society and schools. So, I was at first glad to see Philip Russell write for Cult of Pedagogy about using our classrooms as a place to “foster the respectful civic engagement students can take beyond the walls of our schools.” More importantly, I appreciate that he calls out the idea that teachers should hide their own opinions: “It’s disingenuous and counterproductive to feign neutrality.”

There is, however, no easy way to say the next thing I need to say. In his article, Russell mistakes encouraging civic engagement with having students debate their humanity.

Consider some of the questions he suggests:

  • Should the Confederate flag be flown in public places?
  • Should Syrian refugees be let into the country or banned?
  • Who was at fault in Charlottesville?
  • Does America still have a major issue with racism?
  • Should immigrants protected by Temporary Protected Status (TPS) be sent back to their nation of origin?

These questions make for fireworks and spectacle on nightly news shows, but they are not grounds for civil discourse. Several times, Russell emphasizes that he expects these discussions to be emotionless, for there to be “civil discourse, even when covering the most emotional of topics.” “No heated exchange. No emotional meltdowns. Just good debate.” However, when you put students in the place of having to defend their humanity in a debate, the most appropriate response would be an emotional and heated exchange. Who was at fault in Charlottesville? The NAZIS!! It was the NAZIS!!

On Twitter, Melinda D. Anderson draws attention to the obvious distress of one of the students in response to a debate about H&M putting a young Black man in a hoodie that labels him “The coolest monkey in the jungle.” Russell tells us, “At the beginning of class, I put up the picture H&M used on the advertisement and posed this question, among others: Does H&M deserve the visceral reaction they received?”

By labeling the reaction ‘visceral’ rather than intellectual, Russell implies people oppose racism out of feelings rather than reason, and further, that to have a visceral reaction to racism is somehow a bad thing. Like Marian Dingle, Melinda D. Anderson shares how this kind of ‘debate’ damages Black students and students of color:

The solution is not to avoid these issues, as Jennifer Gonzalez, the editor of Cult of Pedagogy, suggests as one possible option. Any of Russell’s questions can easily be re-framed to foreground rather than threaten the humanity of students who are oppressed:

  • How can we make public places reflective of our commitment to equity?
  • How can we welcome refugees and protected immigrants?
  • How can we mobilize peaceful resistance to white supremacist movements?

Of course, these questions carry a bias in them, but so do the questions that set up two opposing sides. Perhaps nothing is more important than how we frame our questions, what’s up for debate and what isn’t.

On Twitter, many educators offered critical resistance and resources: Christie Nold, Marian Dingle, , , Jennifer Binnis, , , Jonathan Gold, Rusul Alburail, Shannon Carey, & Justin.

In On Cultivating Radical Imagination, or Why I Will Never Teach Debate Again, Shannon Carey argues that “We need to de-center the closed circuitry of either/or thinking and cultivate radical imagination in ourselves, and in our students.”

“Many well-meaning and critical-thinking-valuing teachers (me!) will encourage students to think about difficult issues (should teenagers be allowed to vote? should marijuana be legal? is John Brown a hero or an antihero?) already framing the issue in terms of established, well-trodden paths of thought and action. While allowing students to evaluate ¨two sides¨ of an issue does develop a certain variety of critical thinking, it does not develop divergent thinking or habits of deep, creative inquiry. In fact, this type of thinking — most spectacularly evident in the ever-present high school ¨debate unit¨ — it reifies specific, restrictive ways of thinking about complex issues. It takes, as a given, that there are two ways to think about an issue; two ways that have usually been tried out or advocated for by people with power.”

Shana White articulates a concern that educators might mistake what Carey identifies as “restrictive ways of thinking about complex issues” for “culturally responsive teaching.” We can’t afford that kind of closing of radical imaginations. Perhaps rather than debate, we should start with a basic question: ‘what’s wrong?’ Sherri Spelic writes,

Our students can see inequality. Many of them experience its injustices on a daily basis. Precisely here is where I would like to see us focus our educator energies: on helping students see and identify the faulty designs throughout our society that plague the most vulnerable among us. In order to dismantle and correct these designs and patterns, they must first be able to notice and name them. That’s the kind of design thinking I hope and wish for: Where ‘what’s wrong?’ drives our pursuit of ‘what if?’”



Header image by Cooper Smith

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