Censorship and Civics Education: It’s a Touchy Subject
by Denise Dávila & Meghan Barnes - October 19, 2016
This commentary responds to the ways public school teachers have become the scapegoats for young Americans’ civic disengagement. Despite states’ curriculum standards that could support teens’ civic engagement, there are inherent and pervasive social norms related to top-down politics that govern school communities. Some public school teachers are forced to choose between censoring political topics from discussion or potentially diminishing their job security.
We are on the precipice of one of the most important U.S. election cycles where millennial voters (currently age 18 to 35) could influence the outcomes (Fry, 2016). Nevertheless, less than 50% of millennials anticipate voting in the imminent 2016 elections according to a new ABC News / Washington Post poll (Bump, 2016). Also, less than 20% of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 actually voted in the midterm elections of November 2014, which significantly influenced the current composition of the House and Senate (File, 2015). Given that most young millennials have only recently left high school, some have questioned whether their apathy is associated with the type of civics education they received as K12 students (Wong, 2015). Others have pointed to public schools failure to teach youth how to engage in respectful discussions about divergent political perspectives, which aligns with the uncivil quality of todays mainstream political discourse (Zimmerman, 2016).
We are two literacy researchers and teacher educators who are troubled by these propositions. We are also especially concerned about the ways public school teachers, including millennial teachers who represent up to 28% of the high school teaching force (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016), have become the scapegoats for young Americans civic disengagement. We believe that civics education should be a non-partisan priority for U.S. public schools. However, we also see that politicians reluctance to address civics education, which some describe as a very politically touchy issue (Wong, 2015, para. 11), is just one of the many tacit factors that disenfranchise youth from civic activities and spur routine censorship in some public school classrooms (Dávila & Barnes, forthcoming).
Although habitual censorship is incongruent with most states English Language Arts and civics education curriculum standards, public schools have shifted away from fostering students civic and community identities and instead focused on facilitating efficiency and assessment policies (Greene, Burke, & McKenna, 2016). As a result, unless they receive targeted training on guiding discussions about politics, some millennial teachers are unlikely to possess adequate models, apprenticeships of observation (Lortie, 1975), and/or pools of school memories (Le Fevre, 2011) for cultivating a culture of fairness that (a) provides equal space for divergent perspectives and (b) inhibits partisan-based humor, sarcasm, and/or judgment during conversations related to civic issues (Hess & McAvoy, 2014).
Models of civil and equitable civic discourse are likewise difficult to find as political candidates increasingly use media to salaciously denigrate their opponents on local, state, and national public stages. Todays heightened level of political rancor is embraced as entertainment and has been dividing the public similar to the case of diehard fans of rivaling sports teams (Lane, 2015; Miller & Conover, 2015). However, this division was not always so antagonistic. Twelve to twenty years ago, long before most of our nations younger millennial teachers were even enrolled in high school, the country was considerably less polarized as Republicans and Democrats values were more ideologically aligned according to a Pew Research report (Dimock, Doherty, Kiley, & Oates, 2014). As described in the report,
In 1994 . . . the median Democrat was to the left of 64% of Republicans, while the median Republican was to the right of 70% of Democrats. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 4% and 5%, respectively. (Dimock, Doherty, Kiley, & Oates, 2014, pp. 1920)
At the same time that Republicans and Democrats ideologies were becoming more divergent and partisan-driven than they were in 1994, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002 was passed. Similar to todays Common Core State Standards, NCLB did not address students civic knowledge and prompted test preparation in other disciplines instead. Perhaps it was due to a combination of the growing partisan discord, rivalry, and increased testing in other subjects that some millennials did not experience the kind of public school education that would cultivate their voting habits for the 21st century.
Other factors have similarly contributed to the forms of school censorship that undermine the civic education of American youth. Some school districts tendencies to fire a teacher entirely based on a students, parents, and/or an observers complaint that s/he appeared to endorse certain forms of civic activism, political partisanship, and/or unpatriotic behavior have been dramatized in national news headlines (Algar, 2016; Blume, 2008; Huffington Post, 2012; Stroud, 2015). Correspondingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, 2015) advises that teachers, exercise caution so as not to give the appearance [of] . . . advocating a particular religious or political view in the classroom (p. 2) because, legally speaking, what a public school teacher communicates to students is usually regarded as speech on behalf of the school district where the teacher is employed (ACLU, 2015, p. 1). Avoiding the risk of appearing to misrepresent ones school district and offending students, parents, and/or other members of school communities in relatively homogeneous environments has led to the censorship of curriculum materials and literature inclusive of perspectives that differ from those of the dominant local group (Dávila, 2015). Some states even boast of high profile legacies of censorship designed to privilege the prevailing religious ideologies of their voting constituents by rejecting science textbooks that promoted evolution (Schafersman, 1982; Weaver, 2011). In short, there are clear indicators that the act of censoring divergent perspectives related to polemical topics like religion and politics is far more acceptable for some teachers than becoming the subjects of a complaint that could terminate their employment. Consequently, we acknowledge the inherent social norms that govern school communities, which lead some teachers to censor discussions related to politics despite states' curriculum standards that could support teens' civic engagement.
Using a sports analogy by extension, there are tacit rules of etiquette for teaching in a school community that is deeply loyal to a major league political team. Aside from possible trash talk outside of school, it is risky for a teacher to allocate time to the communitys rival because s/he might appear to be a traitor to the team. Should the local team lose the championship game, nobody wants to be reminded of this loss. Some communities even go into a period of mourning since the loss could have (or be perceived to have) serious long-term impacts on the community (e.g., reduced services, tax increases, policy changes, and shifts in social, civil, and environmental protections). Providing space to discuss the winning teams initiatives could be perceived as rubbing salt into wounds. Unlike sports fans who wait a few months between seasons, partisan loyalists must endure a few years until their next contest. Therefore, it is not surprising that some teachers attempt to avoid upsetting local team morale.
In some communities, the corresponding social norms limiting the likelihood that teachers will broach political discussions with students are reinforced by top-down politics. By making students civics education and engagement a top priority, some politicians run the risk that youth might affiliate with their partys rival team (Jones, 2014). The competition for governing power has not only stoked conflict, but also fueled new partisan voter identification laws and district reconfigurations that inhibit even eligible citizens from going to the voting polls (Berman & Kim, 2016). It is within this context that many state and locally elected officials make public policy and funding decisions to advance their partys objectives.
In the right-to-work state where we conducted a study with young millennial teacher candidates (Dávila & Barnes, forthcoming), elected officials have adopted incongruent policies that influence civics education. On one hand, the state has endorsed the robust examination of political parties ideologies, the election process, and the critical interrogation of campaign texts, finances, and political media coverage related to elections for high school students. These curricular standards could support the kind of social justice education that cultivates a more civically engaged society. On the other hand, the state has also enacted employment policies where new teachers enter public schools on multi-year probationary contracts and non-probationary teachers can be fired with little or no recourse for receiving low ratings on a single performance evaluation regardless of their years of service. Anecdotally, we are aware of firsthand stories of single evaluation dismissals that have quietly circulated within some local school districts. Hence, it could be extremely risky for teachers who are worried about their job security to introduce divergent perspectives on the analyses of campaign texts and media coverage that could be construed as challenging the regions dominant political affiliation. Many teacher candidates in our study were fearful of enacting such curricula because they did not want to appear to deviate from the unspoken social norms of partisan conformity in their school communities.
We are not suggesting that if some states' trickle down politics undermine students access to civics education then public school teachers (e.g., civil servants) should be alleviated of their responsibility to nurture the next generations political literacy and civic engagement. To the contrary, we believe that all public servants (e.g., elected officials) should support comprehensive civics education initiatives providing school faculty the kinds of non-partisan training, materials, and public relations resources necessary to help young adults develop into civically-minded habitual voters, which has far less to do with learning government facts than engaging with political processes (Plutzer, 2002).
We also acknowledge the role that teacher educators play in developing a political- and civic-minded teaching force. Teacher education programs have historically evaded the political nature of teaching and education (Picower, 2012) and potentially fostered a pool of educators who sidestep polemical discussions once they are employed. However, as we have highlighted in this essay, civics education neither occurs in a vacuum nor should be a risky proposition for political- and civic-minded teachers. As civil servants, all K12 public school teachers should cultivate youth civic engagement through the critical discussion of diverse text and materials that represent varying views and perspectives. As for politicians, it is high time that they reject the partisan rancor and censorship that fuels their rivalry. Instead, they should embody their jobs as public servants to help American youth engage in, transform, and foster a more equitable democratic society for future generations.
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