Do Current Events Have a Place in Public Education?

classroomI would say that our blog exists very much in the now. We cover mostly business, tech, and blogging current events, and much of our content outside of current event coverage pertains to advice for use in those fields. For our blog, living in the now and understanding how current events affect our daily lives is a huge part of what keeps us going. As the mother of a high school senior and an active PTA member, I’ve learned, through conversations with my daughter and other parents, that the discussion of current events in our country’s social studies classrooms are becoming entirely too rare. This realization is what brings me to my subject for today’s post:Current events and their place in public education.

As any high school history teacher can tell you, much of the curriculum is built around two little letters: AP. Seniors, keen to pass those crucial AP exams to get a jump on college credits (or to increase their chances of being admitted in the first place) memorize endless facts, timelines, and names from centuries gone by in an attempt to score a 4 or 5 on the exam.

But while students cram their brains with when the last western Roman emperor was deposed or who opposed Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, is there any room for current events? Say, the minor matter of those troublesome campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does Osama Bin Laden’s recent death deserve a classroom discussion, for one example? Shouldn’t the memorization of the distant past be balanced with an understanding of the issues and events that might be directly impacting the students?

While I lament the lack of current event discussions in the modern classroom, in writing this post and trying to evaluate things from the teacher’s perspective, it occurred to me that current events can potentially be a very tricky assignment for the modern teacher of history. There is the simple reality of the AP and its power to set agendas in classrooms across America. There is the lack of guidance in the form of standardized curriculum, given the newness of events. But exploring current events also often means delving into the minefield of partisan politics. A generation of talk radio and 24-hour news networks has introduced the concept of partisan bias into the national conversation. Liberal bias is said to infect mainstream media outlets as well as educators, whom right-wing partisans feel are beholden to the reliably democratic National Education Association labor union. In this day and age, parents are especially sensitive to any threat (real or perceived) of indoctrination.

In the case of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serious matters are often filtered through the prejudiced lenses of partisan politics. Charlemagne or Michelangelo are not Republican versus Democrat powder kegs ready to explode. Even something as relatively recent as the Vietnam War has largely been rescued from the contentious squabbling of Red versus Blue. But as far as discussing the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? That’s still very fresh, and potentially very political.

Indeed, the history teacher must work overtime to avoid the land mines of current events, taking care to check his or her own political leanings at the door, to encourage civilized debate, and to treat all perspectives with respect. The history teacher must also find ways to relate past history to present history, and to always place current events in a partisan-aware yet partisan-neutral context. It may be tempting to stage a rousing left-versus-right debate and let the mud fly, but the public classroom is simply not the place for political grandstanding. In my opinion. the public classroom should never be a battleground. But it must and should be the place for students to understand the present in terms of the past.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this subject. How are current events covered in your child’s public school? Do you feel like there is enough discussion of current events? Are you worried about your child’s teacher’s politics influencing your child’s view of the world?

And taking things a step further: Do you think the current trend of politicizing current events opens the door to partisan debate in the classroom, and potentially even politically motivated bullying?

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