In my last post, I wrote about the idea of using a “sacrificial lamb” — a deeply flawed reading, assignment, and the like — in the classroom as a way to help students develop a critical sensibility. In this scenario, the students learn not through a positive model, but by seeing one that they can tear apart (isn’t it amazing that the sensation of schadenfreude works in so many contexts?).
As I came to the end of that post, I recalled a lesson that I’d used in my classes a number of times in previous years and had thought that it might constitute a good example of using a “sacrificial lamb” in teaching. Therefore, instead of my standard aimless musings, I thought I’d share my experience with this approach — assuming that in fact what I’ve done is using a “sacrificial lamb” and isn’t some other technique for which I have yet to create a biblical allusion-inspired title.
For the past six years I’ve taught an American Government class to ninth graders. We always begin the year with a unit on the current nature of political ideologies, what the party labels mean, and how those party labels (ostensibly) align with these ideologies in terms of attitudes toward social and economic issues. This unit is always a fun way to begin the year as it engages students with terminology and concepts that they’ve heard of before and simultaneously introduces many of them to some of the nuances and contradictions in contemporary political discourse.
One of the tools that I use in this unit (in addition to many political cartoons) is a nice, concise, little quiz that purports to tell you where you stand on the ideological spectrum based on your answers to ten questions. After taking the quiz, which now seems to exist only in an online format whereas previously it was a downloadable PDF file (which is now here: World’s Smallest Political Quiz — you’re welcome!), it shows you where you stand ideologically by placing a red dot on a grid. (Disclaimer: The score depicted on the image below serves merely as a demonstration of what a score report looks like; it does not serve as a reflect of the quiz-taker having just read the collected works of Ayn Rand.)
Initially I present this quiz to the students as a way for them to discover where they stand or see if their previous self-definition matches what this quiz says about them. After completing the quiz for homework and talking briefly about what they discovered (I have a colleague that has a nice extension to this activity where he then re-arranges the seating Congress-style based on ideological affiliation), I then ask them if the quiz itself has an ideology of its own.
The immediate reactions to this question are always that the quiz does not have an ideology — it’s merely a quiz. It’s just telling you the facts of what ideology you are. I think this largely trustworthy reaction is attributable to students’ expectations of what a quiz or test is — a document that ostensibly reflects an individual’s understanding of a particular concept. This idea is clearly reinforced through the omnipresence of testing and test results in one’s life — from serious test results like those related to medical conditions, to the, shall we say, less meaningful tests, like those peddled by the fine folks at Cosmopolitan magazine.
So, by challenging the objectivity and trustworthiness of this quiz, which I do by suggesting that it actually is attempting to persuade you of something and not just give you objective feedback about your beliefs, I’m treating the quiz as the “sacrificial lamb.” As a commenter on my previous post noted, this type of activity can also be done with literature and primary sources, which is definitely true. In some sense, detecting the “crap quotient” of a primary source is easier given how many are so chronologically and culturally removed from what is familiar to students. However, I also think that distance makes them somewhat inscrutable. Therefore, I think part of what I like about trying to get students to see secondary sources, or other ostensibly “objective” materials as a “sacrificial lamb” is that it challenges them to see the subjectivity that constantly surrounds them.
Okay, back to the quiz…
In order to get students to focus on the subtly subjective elements of the quiz I’ll ask them questions about the way its statements are phrased and whether they’re trying to cajole one into responding a certain way. Take a look at some of the statements:
- “There should be no laws regarding sex for consenting adults.”
- “Repeal laws prohibiting adult possession and use of drugs.”
Attempting to get students to see that these phrases aren’t neutral, I push them to come up with other ways one could address the same issue, but get different results. One can imagine how the framing of these statements dramatically affects one’s attitude toward these issues. Let’s try a few:
- “Government should encourage prurient behavior, and expedite the downfall of society, by providing no moral or ethical guidelines regarding sex or marriage.”
- “Government should encourage all people to become junkies and dependent on chemical substances by making all drugs legal.”
Hopefully you get the idea. Once students see that these phrases are not inherently neutral, they then are able to see other elements of the “quiz” that aren’t neutral either. I encourage them to think about the idea of a quiz and what the goal of a quiz is, which they well understand is to achieve a high grade. Well, look at what a “high grade” on this quiz results in.
I then get students to look at the arrangement of the grid and notice how the quiz makers have set up the various ideologies in relationship to one another. Well, what do you know?!? They put “Libertarian” at the very top (and, naturally, “Statist” at the very bottom)!
Finally, I get the students to look closely at the way that the descriptions of the various ideologies are framed and what words each uses, and how that selection of the words affects the tone associated with each ideology. For the purposes of illustration, I’ll just select the “Libertarian” and the “Statist” descriptions.
Libertarians support maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government; one that is limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the free market, and defend civil liberties.
Sounds pretty good, huh? Words like “maximum,” “support,” and “embrace” seem to be pretty purposefully selected. Now let’s check out the “Statists”:
Statists want government to have a great deal of power over the economy and individual behavior. They frequently doubt whether economic liberty and individual freedom are practical options in today’s world. Statists tend to distrust the free market, support high taxes and centralized planning of the economy, oppose diverse lifestyles, and question the importance of civil liberties.
Hmmm. Well that doesn’t sound too awesome. It’s kind of a bummer for students who end up selecting into this category as most ninth graders don’t like to be outed as someone who allegedly doesn’t think “economic liberty and individual freedom are practical options in today’s world.” Unfortunately, the online quiz omitted my favorite part of the description for “Statists” that explains how they typically fall into two categories — Communists and Fascists. This categorization further cements the negative association with this ideology as its proponents are then not only doubtful of “economic liberty and individual freedom,” but they also are in the same boat as either Hitler or Stalin. Not the best company to keep.
By the end of the class period, we’ve so thoroughly dissected this quiz and understand that it has a clear agenda of persuading its takers to “discover” that they are in fact Libertarians. I essentially “sacrifice” this quiz to help students see that documents — whether they purport to be objective or not — are not always what they appear.
I’ve not found tons of documents for which this works really well, but when I do encounter them, I find that those are some of the most enjoyable days to teach and some of the most engaging days for students. Now that I’ve managed to actually identify this technique in my own teaching at the secondary level, I wonder what other experiences people have had with this type of “ritualistic slaughter” in their own classrooms. As always, I’d love to hear others’ insights!