Sunday, November 11, 2007

Left, Right and In-Between

I teach American Government to high school seniors. At 17 and 18 years of age, they are on the cusp of adulthood, getting ready to attend college, and starting to envision their lives as independent beings. My course is a combination of content (we talk about the three branches of government, Constitutional rights, political behavior and more.....your standard American Government fare). We also spend a good deal of time discussing current events, for which I liberally use Newsweek, NPR, and the New York Times to guide our discussions. If it's in the news, we'll be talking about it in class.

I've been teaching this class at the college and high school level for more than 15 years, and the inclusion of current events makes the course new each year. I grew up in a politically inclined household and I still remember how excited I was to vote for the first time. I felt informed and ready to pull that lever. That's the goal I have for my students: I want them to be well-informed and thoughtful voters, excited to participate in the democratic process. To that end, I treat them that way. I take their opinions and questions seriously, and I make sure that they have the opportunity to fill in the gaps in their knowledge while they are figuring out their ideology.

But I don't train them to think like me. At the beginning of class each year I always joke that if I need to brainwash somebody, JT exists for that purpose (though those of you who are acquainted with the boy know just how unlikely that is). I tell them that my goal is to help them become a better citizen, not a clone of me. In pursuit of that goal, I address the issues like a political scientist, and we explore all sides of a topic . Then, if they ask, I tell them what I believe. Finally I remind them again that their job is to think for themselves, to follow their instincts and decide where they stand. Left, right, or in between, it doesn't matter to me what they think. But it matters very much that they think; that they take up the mantle of citizenship by asking where they stand and what they believe.

As a result, my class is a microcosm of views. There are idealist progressives, independent-minded libertarians, social conservatives and any other view you can think of. For nine months they sit in my classroom and they listen to one another, they listen to me, they ask critical questions of the world. And then they walk out into the world, better informed and ready to take up the mantle of citizenship.


tumblewords said...

Sounds good to me. I talk to so many young people that parrot ideas they've learned in schools from teachers with an agenda. I love hearing of teachers who are open to all ideas and teach each student to think for himself.

J.Bro said...

As I've begun to interview more and more places (knocking on wood that it continues), my answer to questions about my teaching goals are in this vein. I generally talk about how I want my students to leave the classroom with two things - enough historical knowledge to be able to put the news in context and enough conceptual & theoretical knowledge to be able to explain everything as part of some larger pattern. If they can - when they can - that's success, to me.

Today, I got a very nice note from a curmudgeonly Emeritus comparativist who drilled me during the interview I had last week. "By the way, I particularly appreciated your responses to question which were at once helpful in terms of your ability to cite and integrate literature without being either defensive or offensive (reminidng the questioner that he/she didn't know enough about the subject). This style will I am sure serve you well as you teach." For other reasons, unfortunately, I'll have to respectfully decline if they decide to offer me the position.