Jonathan Zimmerman: Arizona Shooting: Don't Blame Sarah Palin -- Get Public Schools to Discuss Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”]

It’s the Republicans’ fault! Listen to their nasty anti-government rhetoric!

That’s been the party line among many of my fellow Democrats, ever since Jared Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others outside an Arizona shopping mall Saturday morning.

They’re wrong. The real problem lies instead in our public schools, which have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics. That makes them suckers for the kind of conspiracies that Mr. Loughner reportedly embraced, as well as for the mistaken idea that one party is to blame for all of this....

We’ve stripped the schools of almost anything that’s divisive, contentious, or controversial. Is it any wonder that many of our citizens can’t engage in reasonable political dialogue?

Open up a typical history or civics textbook, and you’ll see what I mean. At the end of each chapter, students are told to recall certain names and dates or to identify different aspects of government. But rarely are they asked to take a position on a hot-button contemporary issue....

Do we want them to do it? That’s the biggest question of all. By insulating our classrooms from political controversy, we have raised a generation of Americans who often don’t know how to think or act politically. And if you think Jared Loughner is the only one, you haven’t been listening.

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