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6 Benefits of Teaching Controversial Political Issues to Students

This is the first in a series of articles on teaching controversial political issues to students.

6 Benefits of Teaching Controversial Political Issues to Students


Political polarization is growing, and schools are not immune. Political divisiveness, which has been simmering in schools for a while now, boiled over during the 2016 presidential election and exposed a major problem: students struggle to talk civilly about controversial political issues. Headlines chronicling this problem are everywhere. Last October, administrators cancelled a mock election at an elementary school because they feared divisive talk. This month, Middlebury College students resorted to violence to block a controversial speaker because his viewpoints differed from their own.

Teachers, facing pressure from parents and school administrators, are now questioning whether they should be teaching controversial political issues, which have long been a part of the curriculum. According to a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center survey, more than half of K-12 teachers reported an increase in uncivil political talk among their students, and over 40 percent said they were reluctant to teach about the 2016 presidential election.

So, we are left with one question: Should teachers cover controversial political issues in the classroom?

Let’s take the long view and turn to facts grounded in research. Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, co-winners of the 2017 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, published The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education in 2014. The book presents findings from their landmark four-year study on the teaching of controversial political issues in the classroom, including observations and interviews of high school teachers and their students. Hess and McAvoy found that students want to indeed learn about controversial political issues. They also found that teaching controversial political issues has real benefits for students, even—or especially—in these politically polarized times.

Here are six benefits of teaching controversial political issues to students:

  1. Engagement. Students participate more, especially when they are encouraged to be a part of class discussions.
  2. Political Literacy. Students stay more informed about controversial political issues.
  3. Tolerance. Students respect and understand other viewpoints.
  4. Confidence. Students grow more confident in holding their own viewpoints and discussing politics in general.
  5. Civil Discourse. Students learn to engage in civil discourse.
  6. Political Participation. Students vote more often later in life.

Of course, teaching controversial political issues does not come without risks. Educators face challenging ethical decisions, along with a partisan political climate. Some students may be sensitive about certain issues because they are affected in their own lives. Students need a safe environment and guidance, and teachers need to be clear about their expectations, including what is acceptable and respectful behavior. These concerns cannot be ignored.

But political divisiveness in schools doesn’t mean educators should stop teaching controversial political issues. It means educators should be teaching them more. Debating controversial political issues civilly isn’t innate. It is learned. If students are not taught to engage civilly in political debates, they cannot be expected to do so as adults. Students in Hess and McAvoy’s study demonstrated a remarkable level of maturity and intellectual growth because it was expected of them. If today’s students learn how to deliberate and discuss, they will become adults capable of civil discourse. Imagine that.

Future posts in this controversial political issues series will address other considerations, including the aims of teaching political issues, ethical issues of teaching political issues, and rules to promote civil discourse.

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The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold.


SIRS Issues Researcher is a pro/con database that helps students understand today’s controversial political issues with editorially selected analysis and opinions that cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.

Don’t have SIRS Issues Researcher? Free trials are available.

Is This the Ugliest Campaign Ever? Not So Fast…

With the presidential election a mere one week away, the debates concluded, and with name-calling such as “Crooked Hillary” and “Deplorables” still being thrown around as often as a post-debate tweet, you might wonder whether this election holds the distinction of being the most contentious and dirtiest campaign ever. For many people living today, that answer would most certainly ring true. But as Lee Corso on College GameDay on ESPN would say, not so fast, my friend!

In the presidential election of 1800, founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were good friends before running against each other, would have made men like Donald Trump gasp in shock at their electioneering tactics. Jefferson’s detractors accused him of being “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia Mulatto father … raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog.” Jefferson was probably the first to hire a hatchet man (James Callendar) to do his dirty work, who characterized John Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” One Adams supporter suggested that if Jefferson was elected president “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”

The negative campaigning didn’t stop there. Equally appalling was the campaign of 1828 when proponents of John Quincy Adams called his opponent Andrew Jackson a cannibal and a murderer, accusing Jackson of summarily executing six militiamen during the Creek War of 1813. Conversely, Jackson supporters called Adams a pimp for Czar Alexander I while Adams was minister of Russia.

In the election of 1884 between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, the mudslinging included an illegitimate child and anti-Catholicism sentiments. Democrats portrayed James Blaine as a liar, exclaiming “Blaine! Blaine! The Continental Liar from the State of Maine!” For their part, Republicans claimed in campaign posters and political cartoons that Cleveland had an illegitimate child. Cleveland later admitted that he was giving child support to a woman in Buffalo, New York.

It’s probably safe to say that after the election is over, whoever has won, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably won’t be best buddies. But it’s well worth noting that after the ruthless campaigning for the presidency in 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson once again became good friends. Both died on July 4th, 1826 within hours of each other, and Adams’ last words were said to be “Thomas Jefferson survives.” In fact, Jefferson had died five hours earlier.

eLibrary has updated its U.S. Presidential Election, 2016 Research Topic with new up-to-date articles on the debates and polls, along with accompanying graphs.

Be sure to check out more of the past U.S. Presidential election Research Topics and other resources below.

Other related Research Topics:

Other Resources:
Presidential Elections
The Great American History Fact-Finder (Reference Book)

Elections
The Reader’s Companion to American History (Reference Book)

96 Years After the 19th Amendment, the First Female Presidential Candidate

“When my mother was born, women did not have the right to vote, so we’ve come,
in really just a few generations, having to fight for the right to vote
to finally a potential woman head of state.”
–Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton

Women Marching in 1913 Suffragette Parade, Washington, DC [public domain] via National Archives and Records Administration

Women Marching in 1913 Suffragette Parade, Washington, DC
[public domain] via National Archives and Records Administration

The first efforts to achieve women’s suffrage began before the Civil War. In 1848, a group of over 300 men and women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to hold the first women’s rights convention. It took more than 70 years for American women to eventually gain that right.

Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, the 19th Amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920. On August 26, it was formally adopted into the Constitution by proclamation of Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.

Though women finally achieved the right to vote, their struggle for equal representation in government has continued, and today they are still largely underrepresented in elected offices all across the nation. It took almost a full century for the first woman to be nominated for the office of president by a major political party, when Hillary Rodham Clinton secured the Democratic party’s nomination this year.

Below are a few more firsts by American women in government and politics:

Rankin, Jeanette. Rep. from Montana, 1917-1919. Leaving White House [public domain] via Library of Congress

Rankin, Jeanette. Rep. from Montana, 1917-1919. Leaving White House
[public domain] via Library of Congress

1887: Susanna Medora Salter became the first woman elected mayor of an American town, in Argonia, Kansas.

1916: Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin carries the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

1924: Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming became the Nation’s first female governor when she was elected to succeed her deceased husband, William Bradford Ross.

1932: Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas is the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

1933: Frances Perkins is appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, making her the first woman to serve as a member of a U.S. presidential cabinet.

1964: Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine becomes the first woman formally nominated for president of the United States by a major political party, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.

Sandra Day O'Connor Being Sworn in As Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Her Husband John O'Connor Looks On [public domain] via National Archives and Records Administration

Sandra Day O’Connor Being Sworn in As Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Her Husband John O’Connor Looks On
[public domain] via National Archives and Records Administration

1981: Sandra Day O’Connor is appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court, making her its first woman justice.

1984: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro is the first woman nominated for vice-president on a major party ticket.

1993: Dr. Sheila E. Widnall was the first woman to head a branch of the U.S. military as Secretary of the Air Force. The first female U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno was confirmed 98-0 by the U.S. Senate.

1997: Madeleine Albright https://www.britannica.com/biography/Madeleine-Albright is sworn in as the first female U.S. secretary of state.

2007: Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Hillary Rodham Clinton at 2016 Democratic National Convention By JefParker (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Hillary Rodham Clinton at 2016 Democratic National Convention
By JefParker (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

According to the World Economic Forum, 63 of 142 countries in the world have had a female leader at some point in the past 50 years, but the United States has never had one in its 240-year history. Why has it taken so long? And will 2016 finally be the year? We’ll find out on November 8!

The General Election Begins

eLibrary continues to follow the election with frequent updates of its U.S. Presidential Election, 2016 Research Topic page. Currently, the page has a recap of the conventions and Research Topic profiles of the candidates and their running mates. It also includes the profiles of third-party candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The page also has a section with up-to-date polling articles, including a link to the aggregate polling website RealClear Politics, a section on campaign issues and political analysis, and a section on campaign finance and influence. As the debates unfold, we will provide analytical articles of the debates from different viewpoints, along with continued updates of the polls before and after the debates.

Below are more Research Topic resources for your research and discovery:

Election Coverage with SIRS Issues Researcher!

We are about a year away from voting in the next our next president. This is a good time to learn all about important campaign issues and the potential presidential candidates. There are many resources available to do this, and ProQuest SIRS Issues Researcher is a great place to start. Our Election 2016 Leading Issue can help you navigate the world of politics through editorially-selected articles in a format that offers both content and context. Critical thinking questions prompt students to go beyond the surface to examine issues. Election season is also a perfect time to start planning class debates.

What campaign issues will you focus on in your classroom? Do you have any suggestions on how to improve our coverage? Comment below or Tweet us at #ProQuest!

How CultureGrams Can Help Your Students Understand East Asian Politics

If you asked students what they know about World War II, odds are they could tell you basic facts about Hitler, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombing of Japan. But could they tell you about how the war still shapes national identity and international relations today?

Tensions are rising in the Far East, and the legacy of World War II continues to shape international politics. Whether the Japanese prime minister visits a war shrine or China claims disputed islands in the East China Sea, many political events raise old fears about the aggressive military policies and massive loss of life that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. As you might expect, each nation views both the past war and current events in very different ways.

Take the visit Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid to the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating Japan’s war dead. According to the Prime Minister, his visit was a chance to ponder the “preciousness of peace,” reaffirm Japan’s resolve to never wage war again, and pray “for the souls of all those who had fought for the country and made ultimate sacrifices.” But Japan’s neighbors, including South Korea and China, accused Abe of taking an unrepentant stance on the war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers, including 14 war criminals who are enshrined at Yasukuni. For China and South Korea, the shrine is a symbol of Japan’s military aggression that took the lives of millions of people.

Prime Minister Abe at Yasukuni Shrine

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the Yasukuni Shrine for Japan’s war dead. Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press.

Recently, some Japanese have taken a closer look at how South Koreans, the Chinese, and the Japanese themselves view World War II—including how those views shape international relations. Mariko Oi, a Japanese correspondent for the BBC News, writes about her experiences learning too little in school about Japan’s role in World War II: “I still remember [my teacher] telling the class, 17 years ago, about the importance of Japan’s war history and making the point that many of today’s geopolitical tensions stem from what happened then. I also remember wondering why we couldn’t go straight to that period if it was so important, instead of wasting time on the Pleistocene epoch. When we did finally get there, it turned out only 19 of the book’s 357 pages dealt with events between 1931 and 1945.” According to Oi, many of the war tragedies that cause the most tension today—the Rape of Nanjing, forced Korean and Chinese labor in Japanese mines, and the forced prostitution of comfort women—were relegated to single sentences, sometimes tucked away in footnotes.

The debate about how to depict Japan’s actions in World War II continues today, with some historians insisting that Japan teach its youth about the war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers. Nationalist groups, however, often downplay the war atrocities and insist that Japan did nothing out of the ordinary. The Japanese government is currently debating changes to school history textbooks that would “nurture patriotism” and express some nationalist views of World War II.

Considering how differently the histories of Japan, South Korea, and China portray World War II, it’s important for students to learn how each nation views its past. And that’s where CultureGrams can help. Our history sections are regularly reviewed by country natives, yet written for younger audiences. For students just beginning to learn about controversial issues like World War II, our country reports’ history sections are a helpful place to start.

The Government Shutdown and Recent Budget Battles

Day three of government shutdownOn October 1, 2013, the U.S. government went into  a partial shutdown, resulting in the furlough of 800,000 federal workers, the closing of national parks and government offices and sending cable news commentators into a frenzy. The basis for this shuttering of the government is a showdown between Democrats and Republicans over the previously enacted Affordable Care Act. House Speaker John Boehner has been pressured by members of his party and the Tea Party Movement to defund or delay “Obamacare,” which they see as a potentially disastrous overreach of federal government, and such provisions were included in a continuing resolution, a bill that would temporarily fund the federal government until a budget is approved or another continuing resolution is accepted. President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were resistant to any change in the the ACA, which they see as settled business and a signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency.

There have been numerous shutdowns in the past, the most recent being a 1996 impasse over funding for various federal programs. The current battle is latest of numerous bouts of brinksmanship that have happened in recent years, including the debt-ceiling and “fiscal cliff” fight that led to the 2013 sequestration, a raft of across-the-board budget cuts that many warn will negatively affect the economy.

Also complicating the current picture has been a looming mid-October deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling or risk having the U.S. default on payments to creditors and the resulting damage to the reputation of American creditworthiness.

eLibrary’s large collection of newspaper, magazines, books and other resources allow for effective research on the workings of the federal government and up-to-the-date content on current events. Follow the links in the text above and search in eLibrary for Research Topics pages and plenty of other documents related to federal budgets and the political battles that surround them. Research Topics are returned with regular results while searching in eLibrary (you can use the lists that drop down as you are typing search terms to aid in discovering them) and they can also be found by clicking the “Browse Research Topics” button. Among other RTs that will be useful for context and background on this topic include National Debt and Deficit, Economy of the United States, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, Branches of the U.S. Government, Republican Party (U.S.), Democratic Party (U.S.)