January 13, 2021

Criticality, Neutrality, and the State of Civics in America

By Kara Cisco

Teaching after tough days—moments of crisis, pain, tumult, and uncertainty—can be some of the most simultaneously rewarding moments in an educator’s career. We get to teach lessons our students will remember forever. For a civics teacher, it often feels as though our entire tenure in teaching is in service of those days after the teachable moments in which we contextualize living history for our students and frame events with critical questions. “Why is this happening?” we ask each other, together, followed often by the more pertinent, “And what can we do?” 

On Wednesday, January 6—the day of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building—it was no surprise that every conversation I had with colleagues, friends, and fellow educators from across the country centered on our lesson plan for Thursday morning. I am immensely fortunate to be part of a wide collaborative network of civics and government teachers. The future of the country very literally rests in the hands of this group of amazing people and our immense responsibility to teach students to be civically literate and engaged leaders is not lost on us. 

In this political climate, there is absolutely nothing neutral about providing students with a safe and inclusive space to ask important questions.

The approach we took was one of inquiry, or student-guided and facilitated discussions about the events, that transpired. In my class, students engaged in a Socratic seminar regarding the limitations of the First Amendment: When can the right to peaceably assemble be restricted based on clear and present danger? What subjective differences do we notice in terms of when this right is restricted and for who? And was the president within his rights to speak, as he did, on Wednesday, in ways that seemed to incite the mob? 

From the perspective of an outsider, the way I framed my lesson on Thursday could be interpreted as neutral. I provided context and background information with a down the middle New York Times article that featured a timeline and a handful of capitol building maps. I did not editorialize. I grounded our class discussion in the First Amendment (which itself is open to bountiful interpretation but is hardly up for substantive debate). I used a seminar protocol that encouraged all students to speak, prevented anyone student from dominating the conversation, and used accountable talk features to keep the conversation collaborative and productive. And yet, despite all these great things, what I would most like the public to understand is that, in this political climate, there is absolutely nothing neutral about providing students with a safe and inclusive space to ask important questions. 

I believe that what building administrators and community leaders are asking for, in fact, isn’t neutrality, it’s criticality.

The call for neutrality rang loud on Wednesday evening; my network of civics teachers compared notes and almost all of us received some type of message from our administrators calling for us to take a neutral stance toward the events of Wednesday when speaking with our students. Of course, it’s essential for educators to refrain from being partisan, but a call for neutrality in the times of insurrection is morally dubious (as dubious as the call for neutrality many teachers hear when it comes to the value of black and brown lives). The events of Wednesday, January 6, demand a more sophisticated level of nuance, as well as an understanding that a stance of “neutrality” is what led us here as a nation, to this place where we fear engaging in any type of conversation in the classroom at all. In times of moral crisis, it is absolutely necessary for teachers, who are on the front lines of democracy, to engage in conversations that provide students the opportunity and the space to examine these events in all of their complexity. 

Teaching students to develop a critically conscious viewpoint around an issue through dialogue and deliberation can never be neutral while we are living in a time period where even having those conversations is considered a political act.

I believe that what building administrators and community leaders are asking for, in fact, isn’t neutrality, it’s criticality. Criticality, or the work of facilitating courageous conversations in which students examine myriad perspectives of an issue, is hardly neutral work. Teaching students to develop a critically conscious viewpoint around an issue through dialogue and deliberation can never be neutral while we are living in a time period where even having those conversations is considered a political act.

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