Getting Political in the Classroom: An Analysis
By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples
As the divide between liberals and conservatives continues to deepen, political discussions have become increasingly charged. It has started to feel nearly impossible to engage in conversations with people from across the aisle as political discussions threaten to bring powerful emotions crashing to the surface. For the nation's youth, it can feel incredibly daunting entering an environment plagued by political polarization. It seems natural that schools, as institutions of learning, would bear the responsibility of preparing students for the heated debates and pressing political matters they are sure to face beyond high school, however, the threat of bias, minority voices being stifled, and passion spilling over into anger and misunderstanding, looms large. From here the contentious debate over the role of politics in schools arises. While some believe students require a certain degree of protection from potentially controversial topics that could spur heated discussions and possibly cause severe discomfort, others believe it vital that schools prepare students to interact with fellow citizens with belief systems that differ from their own and the government in all its forms. To achieve a greater understanding of how political discussions and civil discourse are viewed and treated in Conard as well as to explore the relative importance of such discussions in schools, I sat down with Social Studies teachers Christopher Islaub and Alan Patterson, as well as Social Studies Department Supervisor Jessica Blitzer. Each offered a unique insight into the extent to which civil discourse should be incorporated into the classroom, the drawbacks, and benefits of engaging in such discussions, and their overall significance. By examining reservations people hold when it comes to getting political in the classroom and exploring possible strategies for taking on these concerns, a conclusion can be reached on the extent to which such discussions should be incorporated into classrooms across the nation.
When considering the potential drawbacks of engaging in civil discourse, the threat of bias, even unintentional bias, jeopardizing the quality of the lessons that students receive and the integrity of class discussions, causes many to shy away from studying and exploring politics in the classroom. Mr. Islaub sheds light on the harmful ramifications of an educator, as the authority figure, declaring their position on a particular issue as students may feel pressure to accept this assertion as “the right answer.” Ms. Blitzer corroborates that a teacher stating their position can deprive students of the level of comfort necessary to share their point of view if what they believe happens to come into conflict with what their teacher believes. So then the question becomes whether it's possible to engage in civil discourse in classes such as government and history which lend themselves naturally to discussions of politics, without bias seeping in and tainting students’ experience and understanding. The consensus among Mr. Islaub, Mr. Patterson, and Ms. Blitzer was that yes, it is possible and critically important. Teaching students how to think as opposed to what to think, and not crossing the line from “the teaching to the preaching” as emphasized by Mr. Islaub could help provide students with the tools necessary to face the current political environment. In order to protect against bias in education, partnering with organizations such as the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement or CIRCLE could revolutionize the quality of civic education that students receive and ease the minds of those worried that engaging in political discussions in the classroom could lead to warped or skewed perceptions.
Aside from concerns of bias, the fear that minority voices could be suppressed or that passion could overwhelm a discussion and shift the dial from discourse to argument has made many wary of working to incorporate such discussions into the classroom. There are, however, strategies available to protect against such concerns. Mr. Patterson reveals his strategy of having students make a positive comment or a comment that builds off the idea shared by the previous speaker. Students are thus encouraged to really take in and consider what their classmates have to say. This practice also ensures that these discussions don’t become platforms for different people to assert their opinions without giving any thought to others’ viewpoints. Mr. Islaub shares his strategy of “establishing clear cut, shared group norms,” in which students and teachers come to a consensus on how they are going to conduct class discussions and agree as a group to listen to and respect one another. Developing group norms that teachers and students alike believe in and have a voice in creating will foster a safe environment that is vital for these conversations to be carried out productively, where everyone feels comfortable sharing their viewpoint whether they are a part of the majority or not. Finally, Ms. Blitzer conveyed the importance of instilling the understanding within students that “we may disagree but that doesn’t mean you're wrong and I’m right.” Helping students to understand that a discussion does not have to be “won” to be worthwhile and that “differences of opinion don’t have to result in any negative feelings,” as conveyed by Mr. Islaub will help to ease some of the heat and the tension that can surround discussions of politics. With such strategies in place, that Experienced Educators Mr. Islaub, Mr. Patterson, and Ms. Blitzer have been able to effectively employ, it is evident that it is in fact possible to engage in political discussions without passion turning to fire and without the majority voice dominating. The question then becomes whether it's necessary to engage in civil discourse in the classroom and whether a school is an appropriate environment for these discussions to take place.
When considering alongside Mr. Islaub, Mr. Patterson, and Ms. Blitzer, the appropriateness and relative importance of engaging in civil discourse and political discussions within the classroom, each of our individual perspectives were connected by a number of overarching themes. First, political discussions are appropriate when conducted within the proper setting such as a government or history class where such conversations are relevant and connected to the subject matter. Second, such conversations are important because they open up students to different perspectives, teach how to listen to and to try to understand perspectives that differ from one’s own, and finally help students to shape their political voice and to become more knowledgeable and prepared as citizens. Ms. Blitzer emphasized that “part of the role of schools is to create productive, informed citizens” which is partly accomplished through practice engaging in discourse. Ms. Blitzer also points out that the classroom is an ideal setting for this practice to take place, as teachers are trained facilitators, therefore, can ensure that the conversations being held are productive and do not transform into arguments. In addition, Mr. Islaub highlighted the importance of only engaging in political discussions in classes where they have relevance. For example, in his psychology class such conversations may be inappropriate but in AP US History they are necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of the material. Mr. Patterson builds on this sentiment, underscoring that discussions of current events allow for meaningful connections between the past and the present to be drawn. Students then achieve a better understanding of the relevance of what they are learning, a greater appreciation for the material, and a stronger idea of what is happening in the world around them. Ms. Blitzer corroborates that “politics are completely entrenched in the study of history” and thus it would be “irresponsible to avoid these discussions when they are connected to the content that we teach.” Learning about the Civil War and the racism that plagued the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the form of Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws, would essentially be incomplete if not connected to the systemic racism still entrenched within our society and the current Black Lives Matter Movement. Civil discourse also has the potential to open people up to different perspectives. In today’s world, it is exceedingly easy to surround oneself with individuals who share the same political views whether that be through the friends one selects or the social media algorithms that are carefully calculated to ensure that people get shown the content of those who believe what they do. Engaging in civil discourse in the classroom provides students with an environment where differences of opinion can be explored. Mr. Islaub emphasized that one of the focuses of AP US History is multiple perspectives, therefore, having these discussions where students listen to viewpoints that differ from their own is key in the process of learning that other’s views have value. Mr. Patterson disclosed that he makes a point of challenging students to look at things from different perspectives, as this can be extremely beneficial in finding common ground between viewpoints and establishing mutual respect and understanding. Ms. Blitzer corroborates this sentiment, underscoring how engaging in civil discourse helps students “learn how to be open to ideas.” The classroom environment encourages listening and the respectful exchange of ideas, whereas other settings leave the door open for people to ramble over one another and to never truly take in what the other person has to say. Furthermore, as highlighted by Mr. Patterson, engaging in civil discourse provides students with the opportunity to learn how to address counterarguments and in doing so, develop a stronger political voice as well as an understanding of not only what others believe, but also why they believe what they do. Ms. Blitzer corroborates that giving students practice defending alternate positions can help to broaden their perspectives. This is invaluable in the process of preparing students for the conversations they will face beyond the classroom and increasing their comfortability in engaging in such discussions. Ms. Blitzer further emphasizes that engaging in civil discourse provides students with the opportunity to practice supporting and defending their ideas. Students are able to gain a stronger, more distinct, authentic political voice when given this opportunity. Furthermore, dedicating time to discussions of politics can generate curiosity in students and inspire further investigation of certain issues or reconsideration of preconceptions. Ms. Blitzer shed light on the possibility that “hearing passion from your classmates may inspire passion in you.” Civil discourse allows students to discover and become excited about exploring new areas of interest. In addition, discussions of politics help schools to fulfill their duty to release into the world, informed, knowledgeable citizens. Mr. Patterson emphasized that schools must provide students with the education necessary to know how to interact with the government and understand the system they are operating in. Mr. Islaub underscored the importance of teachers recognizing that they are “working with future citizens” and therefore must “help students to be able to form their own informed opinions.” Arming students with the knowledge and the experience necessary to take on the daunting world of politics is key. Mr. Islaub emphasized that there is nothing more dangerous than ignorance; avoiding discussions of politics and allowing students to remain ignorant to the most contentious and significant issues facing the world today is gravely irresponsible. Attempting to protect the nation’s youth from the harsh realities of the “real world” will only serve to handicap them later in life, as they will lack the skills necessary to affect political change and to engage in productive, respectful discourse. As institutions of learning, it is the responsibility of schools to provide students with access to all the information they will need later in life. For students who are being directly impacted by the political world, it is also important to have a place where these matters can be discussed. For example, transgender youth who are currently experiencing a limiting of their rights in many Southern states must be provided with the learning and the information necessary to understand these restrictions and what can be done to make a change. Finally, Ms. Blitzer calls attention to the reality that “informed people are better decision-makers and may be more likely to act.” Students learning how they can influence the government and discovering what is important to them will help in the process of figuring out in what ways they want to interact with the government (protesting a law they believe is unjust or voting for a candidate who is championing a cause they believe in). This is absolutely essential for establishing a more informed electorate. Engaging in discussions that ignite passion in students may inspire them to vote and become active citizens. Practicing civil discourse and working to better incorporate political discussions into classrooms across the nation, will help to prepare students to take part in more productive and meaningful conversations in unfamiliar settings and to be ready to interact with the government in all its forms. Giving students practice listening to and working to understand other perspectives will help to create a more unified and sympathetic group of voters and young citizens that are charged with passion but devoid of aggression.