3-Minute Civics: Teaching the controversy

For the Monitor
Published: 1/24/2021 6:30:04 AM

“Mr. Marcus, what do you think?”

A student occasionally asks me this question when we are deep into a class discussion on a controversial or political topic.

I have my stock answer. “On your graduation day, come find me. I’ll congratulate you on your accomplishment, and if you still want to know anything about my political views, I’d be happy to tell you then.” If I’m asked, “Why not just tell us now?” I explain that my goal is to have them develop their own point of view. I want them to learn how to do that using logic and evidence. My job is not to push them into my world view.

I’ve been teaching Civics for 20 years and, over that time, I feel I have become skilled at running a discussion on almost any topic without putting my thumb on the scale. Whether a student takes a position that I agree with or not, I know the other side (or sides) well enough to challenge them and to make them think deeper and think about aspects that they may have not considered previously. This is the classic “teach the controversy” approach and it has served me well over the years. Honestly, these types of discussions, when kids get a little fired up about a topic, are my favorite thing to do as a teacher. If the kids walk out of the classroom still buzzing about what we were talking about, I feel I’ve done my job that day.

Of course, there are topics when “teaching the controversy” is not appropriate. We will not be having a pro/con debate on the merits of Adolf Hitler’s final solution or slavery in my classroom. If a student makes a racist or sexist argument, I will address it then and there.

So, on Jan. 6, as I watched Trump supporters attack and invade the Capitol building, I started to think about how I should approach this in the classroom.

Before Donald Trump addressed the crowd on Jan. 6, his lawyer, Rudolph Guiliani, spoke and called for “trial by combat.” When Trump took the stage he did not correct this, but instead he told his supporters that they needed to “take back our country” and that this could not be done with weakness. He then encouraged the people assembled before him to march to the Capitol. Once the Capitol was breached, he made no strong statements to stop it for hours.

When Congress was able to reconvene to certify Biden’s electoral vote victory, I watched the speeches being made by the members of Congress. I was struck by something House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. He quoted the former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who said, “Democracy is a substitute for war to resolve differences.”

So, when I spoke to my Civics class the next day, I referenced that quote and I told my class that Trump did not like the results of democracy and so he had chosen war. I said that this is not how we resolve disputes in our school and that it is wrong and dangerous. I pointed out to them that we had worked hard as a class over the last few months to learn about and to develop an understanding of democracy and the rule of law because what makes America great is our collective belief in those ideas.

I don’t think saying this to my class makes me a partisan. In fact, the attack on Jan. 6 was on Republicans and Democrats alike. The crowd that stormed the Capitol shouted “hang Mike Pence” and they breached Nancy Pelosi’s office and left a threatening message on a folder on her desk. Condemnation of Trump and his supporters came from both parties as well.

Our system of government not only provides us with stability, but it is the core expression of our societal values and identity. We teach civics so that students will understand and appreciate this.

I routinely tell my students that I think that Civics is the most important class they will take in high school, and I believe this to be true. If I cannot clearly defend our system of government when it is under attack, how can I expect my students to also believe that it is something worth learning about and defending?

So, if you are sending your kids to my classroom, you can rest assured that I will not push them to be pro-life or pro-choice. I will not try to indoctrinate them to be for or against gun control, and I won’t push them to support one candidate or another. However, if anyone, Democrat, Republican, or other, chooses to attack our democracy, and our rule of law, I will not be waiting until graduation day to talk about it and I won’t be “teaching the controversy.” Those acts go in the Hitler and slavery category and need to be called out for what they are: un-American.

(Dan Marcus teaches Civics at John Stark Regional High School. He lives in Concord.)


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