When “St. Louis on the Air” recently Twitter-polled listeners as to whether or not politics should be discussed in the classroom, 82 percent of voters answered “yes” while only 18 percent answered “no.” These results are no surprise to Joel Westheimer, education professor at the University of Ottawa.
On April 20, while visiting the University of Missouri–St. Louis and before delivering an afternoon lecture organized by UMSL’s Center for Character and Citizenship, Westheimer sat down with St. Louis Public Radio’s Don Marsh and shed light on the decisive poll results.
“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,” Westheimer told Marsh. “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 described how standardized testing keeps educators from teaching students critical analysis skills and ways to consider and inhabit different viewpoints. His recently published book “What Kind of Citizen?” outlines how schools can bring political discussion back into the classroom.
“We don’t have a problem with a lack of information—we have too much information,” he said during the interview. “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.”
As for parents who may not want political discussions to become part of curriculum focus, Westheimer said, “That’s too bad.”
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