Hess Examines the Challenges of Civic Education

Diana Hess delivers the 2013 Brodie Family Lecture

Diana Hess delivers the 2013 Brodie Family Lecture

Diana Hess, senior vice-president at the Spencer Foundation and professor of social studies in education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, delivered this year’s Brodie Family Lecture on “The Challenges of Civic Education in a Time of Political Polarization” in Kresge Auditorium on Oct. 16. An experienced high school social studies teacher, Hess is the author of Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion and the forthcoming The Political Classroom: Ethics and Evidence in Democratic Education.

After introductions by President Barry Mills and Casey Meehan (Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in education at Bowdoin and Hess’s former doctoral student), Hess explored the questions of how political polarization influences schools and whether “the right kind of school-based education” can mitigate polarization.

“We need to demand of schools a lot more than we currently do: we don’t need to be satisfied just with having schools prepare young people for college, although that’s clearly important or we wouldn’t be here, and we don’t need to be concerned just with preparing people for careers,” Hess said. “I think as we look across the United States, it becomes obvious that we need to prepare young people to participate politically and participate civically, not because we want them to do what we’re doing, but we want them to do a better job.”

Hess highlighted the widening partisan gap, the increasing public distrust of schools and educators, and the country’s pervasive disagreement about what constitutes a legitimate controversy that should be presented to students as such. She then offered her own recommendations for improving civic education in America, including putting an end to the “demonization” of differences and determining which issues should be taught as open versus “closed” questions (i.e. ones that have been sufficiently answered with evidence).

Audience members included faculty, community members, and students. “I went to the lecture because several of my professors recommended it to me,” said Danielle Orchant ’14, an education studies minor. “I found [Hess] to be really engaging.” The Brodie Family Lectureship was established in 1997 by Theodore H. Brodie ’52, who served as Overseer of the College from 1983 to 1995.  The fund supports an annual lecture at the College by a speaker of note in the field of education, delivering a message about problems and practices of teaching and learning.

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