When school censors prevent students from discussing controversial issues, it’s not just harmful to journalism — it’s harmful to citizenship. That’s the bottom line of a newly released study that adds to the growing consensus that the censorship of political discourse in America’s schools is holding back civic preparedness.
The just-issued report, “Youth Civic Development & Education,” is a joint product of Stanford University’s Center on Adolescence and the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle. It captures the best thinking of eight leading educators from around the country who gathered in February 2013 at Stanford to assess what’s needed to help young people develop into effective civic participants.
The response: More time during the school day and in school-sponsored extracurriculars to discuss issues of social and political concern:
[S]chools discourage political disagreement in the classroom by treating as offensive opinions that depart from the community’s dominant view, repressing the opportunity for students to explore diverse viewpoints and unique perspectives. Schools therefore need to be open to expression of diverse opinions and encourage engagement around disagreement rather than merely assuming that certain opinions are off-limits within the context of classroom discourse.
To the extent that civics is taught at all in schools, the authors say, it emphasizes civic “knowledge” — the “how a bill becomes a law” lecture that everyone remembers from seventh-grade social studies — but not civic “skills and values.” This missing component — not just how government works, but how individuals can affect it, and why it’s important for them to try — is what can inspire young people to view civics as a participatory activity and not a spectator sport:
By neglecting the values and skills dimensions of civic participation, civic education fails to prepare young people for full citizenship and leaves them unprepared to counteract an increasingly polarized political discourse. Schools should take a broad view of citizenship education and prepare their students to acquire constructive civic skills and values as well as necessary civic knowledge.
The Stanford/UW report is the third in the past two months to document the connection between effective civic education and protection for students and teachers to safely talk about current events. Within days of each other in October, Tufts University and the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation each released studies calling on schools to be more welcoming of student opinions on issues of public concern, including matters of school governance.
Student journalists and their teachers disproportionately suffer when school leaders cultivate a climate that stifles debate. Civic learning cannot thrive under the level of censorship that the Supreme Court made possible in its 1988 Hazelwood decision, which empowered schools to ban discussions that “associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.” Increasingly, civic educators are awakening to the reality that the plight afflicting journalism is everyone’s problem.
Scholarship on what is actually best for student learning is fast overtaking school administrators, whose lawyers and lobbyists are desperately clinging to discredited notions of schools’ authority over what young people may think, believe and say.
A handful of extremists are asking the Supreme Court to give schools unlimited authority to punish students for discussing issues relating to sex or sexuality, even outside of class time. In August, the federal Third Circuit struck a sensible balance in a First Amendment case involving breast-cancer awareness bracelets, deciding that students could safely use anatomical terms without fear of discipline if they are doing so in the context of discussing social or political issues. But lawyers for the Easton Area School District have no interest in sensible balance. They want the authority to stamp out discussion of social and political issues, because empowered students with the legally protected right to criticize school policies are the worst nightmare of an insecure, underperforming school administrator.
It’s time for courts and legislatures to stop listening to these extremists. The verdict is in from those who actually understand what it takes to develop future civic leaders, and who value students’ welfare ahead of a day without criticism.