Politics in the Classroom

Politics in the Classroom

By Tom Robotham 

Recently an old friend shared on Facebook a link to a two-year-old article in The Staten Island Advance—a paper for which I used to work—about a New York City resident who was upset by a vocabulary question on his 11-year-old daughter’s homework sheet. 

“President Trump speaks in a very superior and ____________ manner,” the question read. “He needs to be more ______________ so that the American people respect and admire him.” 

The words the teacher was looking for were “haughty” and “humble.” But according to the article, the father instructed his daughter to leave the question blank, then circled it and added a note to the teacher: “Please keep your political views to yourself and do not try to influence my daughter.” 

I hesitated before reposting it, not because it was two years old—it remains highly relevant, after all—but because I feared it would feed into the already widespread notion among the political right that our schools are filled with Marxists bent on brainwashing children. I went ahead and shared it nevertheless because it raises an important question: How should teachers handle politics in the classroom?

Some would argue that teachers should avoid the subject altogether, and in some cases I’d be inclined to agree. To my mind, the question on the aforementioned vocabulary test was gratuitous. In other cases, though, discussions of politics are unavoidable.

A case in point: This year I’m teaching a media-studies class in which one of the modules is titled “Politics in the Age of Twitter.”  When I happened to mention that to a colleague, she responded, “Be careful talking about Trump. Conservative students might file a complaint.” 

I was not deterred. For one thing, the course in question is designed to help students learn to critically examine mass media. Given the impact of Twitter on our culture, it would be irresponsible not to address its impact on politics over the last few years. Moreover, it would be ludicrous to try to examine this impact without talking about Trump, who has used Tweets more effectively than anyone else in the political arena. 

That said, it would be equally irresponsible to use the class time for a 50-minute rant about the horrors of all things Trump—and not because I might offend some young Republican who happened to be in the group. It would be irresponsible because such an approach does nothing to help students learn to think. 

Does this mean I keep my political views entirely to myself when I’m in the classroom? The answer is no. I sometimes share my opinions. But I don’t dwell on them. On the contrary, I try to create an environment in which all viewpoints can be shared openly and examined with equal rigor. 

In the Twitter module, for example, I start by inviting students to consider whether the nature of the medium itself has enhanced or degraded our political discourse, regardless of who’s doing the Tweeting. I might then go on to play a Trump speech and ask them what they notice about the words he uses. Virtually all students pick up on the fact that he employs a limited vocabulary, uses a lot of superlatives, and favors short sentences. I point out that to his supporters, this is an attractive trait, while to his detractors it’s not. Either way, it’s a fact—and therefore makes him well suited to this new medium. 

Sometimes I venture into policy discussions as well. In an argumentative writing class I’m teaching, for example, one student informed me that he had chosen as the topic for his first essay, the case against gun control. (At least one student always does.) Not surprisingly, when I asked him how he would go about making his case, he mentioned the Second Amendment right off the bat. I asked him how he would respond to the counter-argument that the amendment links the right to bear arms to the need for a well-regulated militia, and he came back with the assertion that we still need militias to keep government power in check. When we moved on to the “good guy with a gun” theory, I asked him to consider whether or not that is realistic, given that in Virginia and many other states, no proof of competence with a gun is required at point of purchase. The bottom line, I told him, is that he’d need to back up his argument with solid research and beware of various kinds of common fallacies that we had discussed in a previous class. 

Had I had a student who wanted to write about the case for more gun control I would have challenged him or her with comparable questions. 

Most important, I tell my students that their essays have to include a substantive and dispassionate summary of the opposing position. I offer two reasons for this. First, it will strengthen their credibility, and second, doing the research for this portion might change their minds. (Imagine that!). 

I first learned the value of this in a political philosophy class that I took as an undergrad. Our teacher impressed upon us the importance of being prepared to argue on either side of a given issue because in doing so we will be forced to think more deeply and leave no stones unturned. 

All of this is easier said than done, of course. In particular, there are two challenges. First, if I do have students who are rigidly ideological on the right or the left, they’re in the minority. Most of my students, I find, simply couldn’t care less about politics at all. I don’t fault them for that. I figure it’s my job to help them understand, through Socratic dialogue, why they should care. 

The second challenge has to do with our cultural environment and the ever-intensifying polarization and emotionalism that characterizes so much of our public discourse. Alarmed by this, many people are calling for more “civil” discourse, and that’s all well and good. Certainly, I tell my students to avoid ad hominem attacks. But striking a tone of civility is not enough. 

What’s called for—in the classroom, and in society at large—is more intellectual rigor. We all fall short in that department at times. I know I do. After all, when we want to make a case for one position or another, it’s natural as a first step to go in search of facts, statistics and expert opinions to bolster our preconceived notions. At the same time, we may at times give short shrift to evidence that undermines those notions—or ignore it altogether. 

This is one of the great gifts I receive from teaching: At my best, I approach it not as a lecturer but as a partner in thought with my students. In the process, I am forced to continually rethink my own positions on whatever issue arises. I hope that in doing so, I am modeling that behavior for them. For when we get right down to it, I told them recently, we’d likely be better off if we abandoned the objective of having the last word on a given debate and instead thought of our arguments as contributions to an ongoing conversation.