AQA state that:
A-level Government and Politics enables students to develop their critical thinking skills and enhance their ability to interpret, evaluate and comment on the nature of politics.
For a teacher this is quite a challenge, especially in ‘politically charged’ days like these. Days in which the ‘politically impartial’ speaker of the House of Commons has found himself in hot water for expressing a preference as to whether Donald Trump should address the Houses of Parliament and stating that he voted for ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. A teacher of politics thinking about developing the political critical thinking skills of her students needs to ensure this critical thinking is sensitive to the values and beliefs of different political traditions. This is hard enough when the values and policies of the two seem to have much in common, it is a much harder task when they don’t.
According to Olga Khazan:
liberals and conservatives… now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences
And, despite many MPs in the Labour Party marching through the same ‘Brexit’ lobby as the Conservative government’s MPs ,the same seems to be at play in the UK.
This distance between the two sides can easily venture into classrooms. A caller to a radio station last Sunday stated that her 17 year old son:
was forced to drop his Government and Politics [A level] after he was “alienated” by fellow pupils for voicing support for Trump during an in-class debate. The concerned mother also said that he was told by the teacher “he shouldn’t have such strong opinions”.
If a teacher and the majority view of the pupils in a class is such that Trump is beyond the pale it might be very difficult for someone with differing views to state their case. That his classmates reportedly shunned him in the next lesson and that this was seemingly supported by the teacher makes it even more worrying. If you can’t have strong opinions in a Government and Politics class, where can you? Maybe the teacher and the classmates need to think about the importance of denial.
The caller was phoning in to the Katie Hopkin’s show on LBC is of note, at the end of the call Hopkins suggested she ‘might go into teaching’, something that might send many teachers into paroxysms of anger. Apparently this sort of response would be quite typical for people of a liberal disposition, our response, whether conservative, liberal or libertarian or a. n. other, to people with whom we disagree tends to be one of complete disbelief, after all our values are the correct ones.
Khazan cites a report by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, who have studied the difficulty in how to persuade people to your way of thinking. She writes:
One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.
“We tend to view our moral values as universal… there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”
For someone updating their status on social media this means they usually send out messages that take their own ethical code as being the one that everyone shares, and if someone doesn’t share it then there must be something wrong with them.
If you think Trump, his team and his supporters are a ‘bunch of deplorables’ it might not be the most persuasive language to use if you want to persuade his voters to change their minds. Brexit is another obvious issue with which it is easy to come unstuck and find yourself treating those ‘on the other side’ as if they are completely deluded. The more passionate one feels about an issue the less carefully one might choose one’s language.
For a teacher, in a classroom, if you want to connect with those who do not necessarily share your views it might be worth looking at how you communicate as well as what values you are promoting.
A classroom is a place where emotions matter but it is also a place where the use of reason and reasoning can be taught. As David Hare puts it in his foreword to Denial by Deborah E Lipststadt
“In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are. “
The classroom should not encourage children just to shout off their opinions but be places where opinions are developed through careful thought and analysis of facts and ideas. This would involve the teacher understanding different viewpoints and presenting material, where useful, dialectically. As this article puts it:
Surely [pupils] deserve the opportunity to learn how to think, before a teacher tries to tell them what to think as well.
This seemingly liberal view against teachers indoctrinating kids might seem reasonable enough, until you realise it’s from the Daily Mail and written by the aforementioned Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is a right wing controversialist and the Mail is a newspaper even shunned as a reliable source by Wikipedia, so when I tweeted the article I should have expected a reaction. Most teachers even those agreeing with the sentiment could not see past the Hopkins/Mail concatenation. Not all opinions are equal but for some this is due to who utters them and where, rather than what the opinion might be.
The film of ‘Denial’ shows this brilliantly, as much as someone might hate the words of David Irving because of who he is, in the court of law it came clear that the battle over what is said is more important than the battle around their character. If we are teaching about such things it would be important to show how the teacher should not say ‘Irving is evil’, no matter what their personal viewpoint might be. They might speculate as to his motives, but the most important part of the lessons should be about the facts of the case as presented. A great lesson in how to think forensically rather than purely emotionally, the film shows how difficult this can be and also how all involved are emotional beings and that this is an important part of what makes us all too human it might sometimes get in the way of ‘truth’.
If not all opinions are equal this cannot be based on what we ‘feel’ about those facts but on how we examine, analyse and use persuasive argument to see which opinions count for more. These opinions will sometimes, perhaps often, not reflect our own. We have to ‘deny’ our own feelings. This denial can be very important.
In a Government and Politics class, it shouldn’t be the initial opinions of the teacher, or the children, that matter. It should, however, be about discovering about where ideas come from. We might ‘feel’ our moral sentiments are universal (some of them might be) but we need to look at how other people might differ. Rhetoric can be carefully constructed to persuade those who disagree with us to think about what we might have to say with sympathy. The course could also look at the darker arts of politics: The Prince or, even, House of Cards, but most of all it should look at how to have educated opinions, how to muster arguments, empathise with your opponents, yet be able to argue with them respectfully, eloquently and thoughtfully and perhaps, even, sometimes change their minds. Articulating opinions sometimes needs the act of denial in order to make them stronger.