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Would bringing politics into the classroom help prepare students to become active citizens?

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Joel Westheimer says that bringing politics into the classroom could help students become more engaged, prepared citizens.

Classrooms today are not teaching a skill and that is proving detrimental to churning out informed, active citizens in a democracy, said professor Joel Westheimer on St. Louis on the Air. That skill would be: critical thinking.

“One of the big problems with schools right now is the cultural obsession with standardized testing,” Westheimer said. Westheimer is specifically referring to standardized testing around math and literacy, which is pushing aside the teaching of subjects such as art and the teaching of how to be an engaged citizen in democracy.

“History, science, gym, recess, social studies are all pushed off the table,” said Westheimer, the University Research Chair in Democracy and Education and an education columnist on the Ottawa Morning and Ontario Today shows on CBC Radio.

That means that teachers’ freedom to teach things like critical thinking and analysis is also limited.

Westheimer believes there is an opportunity for schools to reengage students in such critical thinking: encourage discussion of politics in the classroom.

Politics really has a more noble meaning.

“Politics really has a more noble meaning,” said Westheimer. “When we see the kind of gridlock we have in Congress, the dirty politics we see on stage, when you think what is important for a democratic scene, you’d think that one thing that is important for public schools to teach is how to critically analyze the world around us, how to deal with different ideas. That’s not being done enough in schools. When people say they want to figure out how to keep politics out of schools, I want to see how to bring it back in.”

Westheimer said that teachers do not have the time to prepare to lead such critical discussions, or to host them, because they spending endless hours preparing students for standardized tests. Marsh pointed out that often teachers are reluctant to lead these kind of conversations because of school board or parent pushback.

“How should our schools be different from schools in a totalitarian dictatorship? Think about it. Schools in all countries in the world want kids to know how to do fractions and read and write. Schools in democratic society have an additional mission: to teach kids about controversy, about controversial ideas. … We need schools to be exposed to different perspectives.”

Westheimer recently published the book “What Kind of Citizen?” which shows how schools can bring political discussion back into the classroom. He said that when parents say something like “I don’t want my kid to be exposed to these ideas,” the answer is: “That’s too bad.”

When we think that politicians can't learn how to discuss different ideas we have to wonder: have they been prepared for that?

“When we think that politicians can’t learn how to discuss different ideas we have to wonder: have they been prepared for that?” Westheimer added.

There is a vast amount of information out there, and the internet makes it easier to access, but Westheimer sees schools continually pushing for students to memorize more facts, more information instead of learning how to debate ideas and perspectives.

“We don’t have a problem with a lack of information—we have too much information,” Westheimer said. “What we need to teach kids is where information comes from, how they can sort through that information and what the different ideas of powers and rights are behind information. We have the opportunity for students to explore not just two but five, ten perspectives on every issue.”

Related Event

What: UMSL Center for Character and Citizenship Presents Joel Westheimer "What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good"
When: Wednesday, April 20 at 3:00 p.m.
Where: Century Room A in UMSL Millennium Student Center
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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