Few areas of American life have experienced more conflict of late than public education. The conflict has largely revolved around how public schools should tackle the difficult topics of race and racism. The situation has become so dire that a national school board group called on the federal government to step in and protect school officials and teachers, following a growing number of attacks from angry citizens.
As a historian who specializes in education policy, I believe it is worth asking: is the United States the only place where debates take place about what should and should not be taught in public schools?
My experience studying school systems around the world tells me that America can learn a lot from how other countries handle divisive issues.
Simply put, other countries studying different ideas are not necessarily being forced to believe them. That is to say, they do not link exposure to endocrination.
Exposure vs Endocrine
Preaching occurs when one set of claims about the world are presented to the exclusion of others. An example would be Marxist presenting a historical event as if it were the only perspective without naming it as a Marxist point of view and without providing an alternative understanding.
It is easy for Americans to associate indoctrination with religious fundamentalism in America, but the doctrine can also be secular and tacit. A school that avoids discussing religious beliefs in human history, or engages with the thorny topics of bioethics, for example, is teaching youth anything: that such questions are either unimportant or too divisive to discuss Huh.
Exposure, in contrast, occurs when students are faced with competing ideas about the world and have the opportunity to discuss them together. Exposure works against theory, by opening up new concepts and experiences to thought. It builds on students’ civic capacity and their participation in what University of Virginia education professor Ed Hirsch calls a democratic “speech community”—a community in which a common body of knowledge is widely shared.
Students need to learn to reason and respond to reasoned arguments. This ability does not come naturally. Yet the habit of respectfully disagreeing supports participation in democratic life into adulthood – a finding that has held steady for 40 years.
How other countries handle divisive issues
Some high-performing school systems, such as the Netherlands, Singapore and Alberta, in Canada promote exposure through a mandatory curriculum framework. They require a content-rich curriculum that all students must learn, regardless of the type of school they attend. This means that they separate the ethos of schools – which differ significantly – from the curriculum framework that all schools must teach.
For example, England has funded religious schools since 1834 and secular schools since 1870. But all students in all English schools should learn about diverse religions and philosophies.
Simply put, an English mother may enroll her child in a secular school, but that child still needs to understand the principles and practices of Islam and Judaism.
The legal requirements for “religious education”, as it is known, have not diminished despite the increasing secularization of the English population. Learning what people deeply believe in, and why, is seen as fundamental to exercising responsible democratic citizenship.
Most countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – an international association that supports economic development – follow suit and over the past two decades the requirements for learning about different religions and philosophies have increased.
Here is a more pointed example.
The Netherlands Ministry of Education funds 36 different types of schools, including Creationist schools. Yet students in creationist schools must still demonstrate an understanding of evolutionary theory on national examinations. They cannot be forced to believe that evolution is true, but they must master what evolutionary theory tells about the natural world. Other examples abound.
This widely used approach to curriculum and assessment can work well for students’ academic and civic success. But it raises the question: How much risk? at what age?
While the precise limits of exposure will need to rest on national and local contexts, some broad principles can help clarify the “what” and “when”.
First, there should be a limit of exposure according to the age and developmental concerns of the children. For example, very young children may not be emotionally prepared to handle the details of the Holocaust or to see graphic images of the 14th-century Black Death, which engulfed a third of Europe. Smashed.
Second, teachers should not debate what Diana Hess of the University of Wisconsin calls a “resolved issue.” Whether human slavery and racial discrimination is ever needed, whether the Holocaust really happened, or whether climate change is happening should not be brought to the classroom table.
Rather, the debate should focus on why particular events happened or are happening. For example, what factors contributed to Hitler’s rise to power? What should governments do to address social and economic inequality? What are the economic trade-offs of different policy responses to climate change?
learn to disagree
Beyond these railings, school and board policies go a long way in setting the expectation that students will confront ideas they and their parents disagree with – even deeply. The Miami-Dade School Board puts it this way:
“Students are encouraged to participate in discussions, speeches and other expressions in which a range of perspectives, including controversial ones, are freely explored. A controversial issue is a topic on which opposing viewpoints have been promulgated by responsible opinion. is or is likely to spark both support and opposition in the community.”
Miami-Dade policy specifies that controversial conversations must serve an instructional purpose, and that teachers may not promote personal ideas in the classroom.
Another example comes from an independent school in Baltimore, McDonagh School. Its freedom of expression and civil discourse policy approach accepts a clear democratic argument for diversity, even when it leads to inconvenience:
“[Preparation for democratic participation] …requires hard work of analysis, perspective-taking, debate, reflection and application. Through approaches like these, we respect the diversity of thought in a pluralistic culture as we work towards sound, evidence-based positions and conclusions. Members of our community may find some ideas come up when wrestling with sensitive topics—even offensive ones—from time to time; However, in such moments of friction, we can help our students learn to resolve conflict, reason well, and communicate their position.”
Both these policies ask a lot of teachers, students and parents – patience among them. But they at the same time defend teachers’ efforts to teach young people to disagree reasonably. They also signal to parents that their children will be exposed to many ideas – and that’s a good thing for the next generation.
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