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Learning about and debating controversial topics is insufficient. Students must grapple with issues that truly matter to their local communities. 

By Suneal Kolluri 

Every year, I opened the first day of my government class by asking students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. At schools in the San Francisco Bay area, the tradition of saluting the flag generally subsides in later grades, and students were startled by the sudden revival of an old ritual. Each crop of new students expressed a mix of excitement, irritation, and skepticism, rising in an uneven, mostly half-hearted display of allegiance. At the activity’s end, I asked students to reflect on the pledge. We discussed its accuracy as a representation of America, in particular, whether the United States stands, as a republic, for “liberty and justice for all.” Through this opening discussion, I would introduce the essential question of the government course: How can the United States government protect liberty and justice for all?  

By and large, the pledge frustrated students. For most of the inner-city youth in my class, the liberty and justice assertion of the pledge is disingenuous. Urban neighborhoods struggle with persistent challenges yet to be meaningfully addressed by public policy. The gap between the rich and poor has grown rapidly in recent decades, and these economic disparities are patterned along racial and ethnic lines. Fortunately, in a democratic government like that of the United States, citizens have the power to address injustices through individual and collective action. While younger citizens trail older citizens in voting rates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016), the popular conception of widespread youth apathy may be overstated. In response to Donald Trump’s election, young people participated in marches and school walkouts across the country. Young Americans created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which has populated the social media feeds of digitally connected youth. While some have criticized such protests and hashtag activism as shallow and ephemeral, these expressions of political activism suggest potential for greater, more sustained youth engagement. 

Controversy, while valuable in and of itself, is not sufficient to develop citizens capable of productive political engagement. 

I contend that schools must develop student capacity for activism. I advocate for politicizing pedagogies that help students develop tools to enhance liberty and justice for society’s most marginalized communities. I use politicizing because the adjective politicized connotes a social justice orientation that words like civic and democratic do not necessarily engender. Existing scholarship on civic education has articulated ways of encouraging democratic participation. However, it often encourages shallow political engagement that deemphasizes the academic skills necessary to undertake sophisticated political analysis and challenge structural inequities. Alternatively, pedagogies that emphasize critical thinking are often inattentive to political contexts. Effective democratic engagement necessitates that teachers address both of these components of civic pedagogy. Teachers should employ critically conscious controversy and an intentional focus on political thinking skills to adequately ready students for democratic participation.  

Critically conscious controversy 

Some teachers might avoid contentious topics for fear of being perceived as indoctrinating students or deviating from content standards. However, as McAvoy and Hess (2013) argue: 

[S]hying away from the pedagogy of classroom deliberation is not the right choice. Young people need and, for the most part want, to learn how to deliberate about such issues, and evidence shows that there is a powerful connection between such learning and political engagement (p. 35). 

Democracy necessitates civil deliberation of thorny political issues. If schools, out of fear, neglect to develop this capacity, students will graduate unprepared to navigate political controversies and potentially reluctant to influence the political contexts that shape their lives.  

However, teaching solely for the sake of controversy requires little more than pedagogical moxie (e.g., ask students to discuss whether abortion should be legal, then confidently manage the classroom fireworks that ensue). Controversy, while valuable in and of itself, is not sufficient to develop citizens capable of productive political engagement. An additional necessity is that students gain an understanding of sociopolitical processes that frame political decisions and outcomes. In addressing the question, “What kind of citizen?” Westheimer and Kahne (2004) argue that civic education can emphasize civic participation or civic justice. A “justice-oriented” approach draws upon pedagogical theories of “conscientization” (Freire, 1970), wherein teachers guide students toward sophisticated analyses of systemic inequalities with the potential for collective action. I propose that a justice-oriented approach is more appropriate for inner-city youth since it embeds students’ sociocultural realities in the curriculum. Given the structural nature of disparities in health, housing, wealth, and education, urban youth’s civic participation must be predicated on an analysis of systemic oppression if it is to engender meaningful social change for marginalized communities. 

Political thinking skills 

Often lost in the conversation about civic education is an emphasis on academic skill. Political engagement and civil discourse necessitate more than a passion for politics and an awareness of structural inequality. Literacies and critical thinking skills are central to meaningful engagement with the complex ideas and abstruse texts that undergird much political discourse. Also, amid a continually shifting political landscape and an abundance of political information accessible via contemporary media, students must be prepared to decode and analyze political content. A teacher is responsible not just for ensuring that students learn but that they learn how to learn. Effective political pedagogies must enhance both literacy and critical thinking.  

The types of thinking employed by social scientists and historians represent a promising starting point for enacting politicizing pedagogy. The historical analysis skills of sourcing and contextualization deserve special attention (Wineburg, 2010). Sourcing entails interrogating biases to evaluate how an author’s motivations might affect the credibility of claims, and contextualization calls on students to attend to the local and historical context in which a document was written. Sourcing and contextualization compel learners to act as intellectual detectives, weighing often contradictory claims to piece together a plausible evidenced-based account. Holding students accountable to facts and logical reasoning in class discussions is an important facet of politically engaging curricula (Michaels, O’Connor, & Resnick, 2008), and assessing the credibility of information is of particular importance in a society where fake news and alternative facts pepper the political landscape. A recent study by the Stanford History Education Group (2016) found high school graduates to be woefully underprepared to evaluate political information on the internet. Such an approach helps students become responsible consumers of political knowledge and develop sophisticated, evidence-based arguments in contentious political times. 

Often lost in the conversation  about civic education is an emphasis on academic skill. 

A sample lesson 

Keeping in mind the importance of critically conscious controversy and political thinking skills, I outline here a lesson that I used to engage high school students in political thinking. The lesson occurs in a unit on the war on drugs, an issue that has provoked decades of spirited debate. At the heart of the issue are tensions between liberty (e.g., the freedom of people to buy and sell items of their choosing as well as the freedom of people to live in communities free from drug-related challenges) and justice (the treatment of perpetrators and victims of drug trafficking). The question guiding the unit was, “How can government policies alleviate drug use and drug-related violence in urban communities?” 

The unit began with a brief history of the political decision to wage war on drugs, focusing mostly on the Reagan years. Set within the context of the Cold War and the CIA-endorsed struggle against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the students were introduced to excerpts of Gary Webb’s three-part series called “Dark Alliance,” which was published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. Through a mix of lecture and short readings, students grappled with the connection between the crack cocaine epidemic and the CIA intervention in Nicaragua. While Webb never directly implicated the CIA in knowingly funneling drugs into South Central Los Angeles, he was the first to identify the local mechanisms of the exchange of drugs in a U.S. city for anticommunist funding in a foreign land (Bratich, 2004). The specific nature of CIA involvement in the quid pro quo remains an open question. Was the CIA oblivious to the exchange of drugs for the financing of their Nicaraguan war? Did they know about it? Did they encourage it? The students debated these questions during a 90-minute class. 

The allegations made in the Webb articles were controversial at the time and continue to incite debate today. Following the 2014 release of the movie “Kill the Messenger,” journalists revisited Webb’s claims. The Washington Post printed an article challenging his central theses (Leen, 2014), while the Huffington Post suggested that new evidence corroborated much of Webb’s argument (Grim, Sledge, & Ferner, 2014). Where to lay blame for the origins of the drug trade remains a heated political issue, dividing Americans by the extent to which they believe the government would ever knowingly harm impoverished communities. 

Specifically, the question weighs heavily on low-income communities of color, those most affected by the spread of crack cocaine. For my students, the symptoms of drug addiction linger close to home. They are physically and sometimes emotionally close to drug addicts, drug dealers, or victims and perpetrators of drug-related violence. However, the lesson does not direct students to blame individuals for their transgressions. Instead, the pedagogical discourse operates at the systemic level, calling upon students to analyze the structural foundations of a social challenge. Whether the government is an ally or adversary in the fight against neighborhood drug abuse is a relevant issue of critical significance to marginalized youth. Ultimately, the answer to the question will inform an appropriate systemic response to enhance liberty and justice in a community affected by the drug trade. 

The final assessment for the project included an argumentative essay and a panel discussion about crime and violence in the local community. After four weeks grappling with evidence about the history and effectiveness of crime-related public policy in the city, 12 students sat after school in the auditorium and fielded questions from classmates about the efficacy of policies like Reagan’s war on drugs. Students, teachers, community members, and the neighborhood’s city council representative all attended the panel and engaged in the dialogue. The lesson was thus part of a larger discussion that allowed students to publicly challenge the structural foundations of violence in their community. 

However, while this gave students an engaging opportunity to learn about and debate the controversy, this is not sufficient to prepare citizens for political engagement. Even more important is to support their development of certain essential academic skills needed to conduct inquiry in the social sciences. Specifically, the unit also included activities designed to teach students to examine sources and contextualize claims. 

First, students read the 1996 New York Times article by Tim Golden, which argues that Gary Webb’s story was largely unfounded and contends that the reason it gained notoriety is the tendency of the black community to believe conspiracy theories. Focusing on the sourcing of the piece, students often argued that the Times is elite competition to the San Jose Mercury News and that its attempts to discredit Webb were designed to maintain its industry dominance. But, I asked, didn’t Webb also have professional ambitions that might have compelled him to exaggerate?  

Students’ analysis of the documents would then address their historical context. When the “Dark Alliance” series was published, racial tensions were high across much of the country, but they were particularly volatile in Los Angeles, which was just four years removed from the notorious uprising of 1992. On one hand, Webb and the San Jose Mercury News may have stoked the flames of racial aggravation for the sake of newspaper sales and recognition. On the other hand, the response from elite media outlets like the New York Times could have been motivated in part by the urge to reassert a stable racial order by portraying African-Americans as conspiracy theorists and discounting their beliefs. The challenge in the classroom was to help students think through the nuances of the historical context and see how they might have led to two very different tellings of the same story.  

Students also received two documents reporting on investigations into the alleged Dark Alliance. The first by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents South Central Los Angeles, was excerpted from her foreword to Gary Webb’s book (1999). In it, she describes her own investigation, which took her from Los Angeles to Nicaragua and led her to conclude that the CIA definitely knew their accomplices were funneling drugs into the poor Los Angeles neighborhood. The second, written by CIA employee Frederick Hitz — who was assigned to investigate the organization after Webb’s articles were published — argues the opposite. Students worked individually or in pairs to decide which statement they find credible.  

Regardless of the conclusion at which students ultimately arrived, they engaged in a sophisticated interrogation of evidence about a contentious issue that is highly relevant to their community. 

The source of each document suggests potential biases that might color these narratives. At this point in the unit, most students were convinced that the CIA must have known of the havoc their intervention was wreaking on inner-city Los Angeles. Thus, they would readily point out the biases of Hitz, a CIA employee charged with investigating his own organization. However, students rarely, if ever, questioned the potential biases or credibility of Maxine Waters, even though, as an elected official serving a community victimized by the crack cocaine epidemic, she likely knew that her approval ratings would rise if she identified a guilty party for the neighborhood’s devastation. Often, the biases that are hardest for students to detect are their own, and in a hyper-partisan age, tendencies toward confirmation bias can inhibit productive political conversation. 

Ultimately, whether the CIA knew of or supported the funneling of drugs from Central America to South Central Los Angeles is unclear. Reputable journalists, politicians, and historians disagree. The objective of the lesson is not to arrive at a right answer. Rather, the pedagogy intends to politicize. Regardless of the conclusion at which students ultimately arrived, they engaged in a sophisticated interrogation of evidence about a contentious issue that is highly relevant to their community. In the process, they learned to construct evidence-based positions in deliberative discussions with each other and the broader community. Such practice is an integral element of preparation for future engagement in informed political activism. 

Toward a critical curriculum 

Existing scholarship has emphasized the importance of controversy (McAvoy & Hess, 2013) and critical inquiry into structural oppression (Freire, 1970). Also, research has emphasized the importance of thinking skills essential to the analysis of sociopolitical texts (Wineburg, 2010). Politicizing pedagogy requires each one of these pieces. By themselves, though, they are not sufficient to enable students to politically engage for meaningful social change. Controversy matters for political education. However, historical or political controversies that lack relevance to students’ communities will do little to prepare them to engage in discussions that matter. Further, controversy must be grounded in the thinking skills at the core of the discipline. In my teaching experience, lessons that successfully incorporated each of these elements were the most effective at piquing student interest in politics, engaging them in productive academic discourse and guiding them to develop the analytical skills essential for democratic citizenry. While the skills for political engagement discussed here are not exhaustive, they are foundational to a curriculum seeking to promote intellectual engagement in the pursuit of social justice. 

Though this discussion has been situated in a social studies class for low-income students of color, the concepts apply in a variety of contexts. For example, science teachers might engage students in analyzing controversies having to do with curbing pollution in the inner city or with preventing and treating diseases that disproportionately affect the local community. The emphasis on critical literacy can just as easily serve teachers of math or English, and it can be just as effective in suburban or rural contexts as in urban ones.  

Certainly, creating and teaching such lessons can be challenging — even after 10 years of working on such curriculum, I often struggled to help students develop the kind of critical literacy I aimed to teach. However, the existing literature on student political engagement as well as my classroom experience suggests that well-designed curricula have real potential to prepare students to advocate meaningfully for “liberty and justice for all.”  

References 

Bratich, J.Z. (2004). Trust no one (on the internet): The CIA-crack-contra conspiracy theory and professional journalism. Television & New Media, 5 (2), 109-139. 

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing. 

Golden, T. (1996, October 21). Though evidence is thin, tale of CIA and drugs has a life of its own. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/1996/10/21/us/though-evidence-is-thin-tale-of-cia-and-drugs-has-a-life-of-its-own.html 

Grim, R., Sledge, M., & Ferner, M. (2014, October 10). Key figures in CIA crack cocaine scandal begin to come forward. Huffington Post.  

Leen, J. (2014, October 17). Gary Webb was no journalism hero despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says. The Washington Post.  

McAvoy, P. & Hess, D. (2013). Classroom deliberation in an era of political polarization. Curriculum Inquiry, 43 (1), 14-47. 

Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnick, L.B. (2008). Deliberative discourse idealized and realized: Accountable talk in the classroom and in civic life. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27 (4), 283-297. 

Stanford History Education Group. (2016). Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University. 

U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). Voting-age population by state. Washington, DC: Author. https://census.gov/library/visualizations/2016/comm/voting_age_population.html 

Webb, G. (1999). Dark alliance: The CIA, the contras, and the crack cocaine explosion. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press. 

Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41 (2), 237-269. 

Wineburg, S. (2010). Thinking like a historian. Teaching with Primary Sources Quarterly, 3 (1), 2-5. 

SUNEAL KOLLURI (kolluri@usc.edu, @sunealkolluri) is a doctoral candidate at the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif., and a National Board Certified Teacher in high school social studies. 

Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 39-44. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.