Do Politics Belong in the Classroom?

I read the Teaching Tolerance blog voraciously. I love everything they publish there, not because I’ve been published there myself, but because it helps me immensely in my classroom. I strive to educate my students not only with the curriculum provided to me, but also about issues that my students will face outside of the classroom.

A recent article on the blog got me thinking, though. In it, Sarah Anderson argues that there is a place for political discussions in the classroom:

It’s true that people usually come into political conversations with their minds already made up; the point of the exchange isn’t so much to gather new information as it is to convince the other person that his way of thinking is incorrect. It can make for uncomfortable situations. But we must have these kinds of discussions in the classroom.

We need to give young people the opportunity to practice. For a lot of people, it is impossible to have a discussion with someone who has opposing political views without getting heated. Others avoid all political talk because they don’t want to deal with the discomfort or possibility of conflict. But we cannot learn from—and about—each other unless we have these conversations. Perhaps our congressional leaders would be more effective if they had received more explicit training in how to have a civil discussion with someone who holds differing political views.

With the election coming up, I find that my students want to talk about politics more than usual. One student wrote a paper about how people should be able to vote at 16, not have to wait until they are 18. Another student wanted to discuss what Republicans were saying about Obama, and still another (in a different class) wanted to discuss what Democrats were saying about Romney.

All of them want to know how I plan to vote.

I was trained to believe that teachers are public figures. It’s part of the reason I don’t write much using my last name, and it’s also the reason I don’t tell my students how I plan to vote this November.

I feel that too many students are faced with too many adults insisting too many things about politics. Whether they are looking at political ads running on television, watching coverage of the conventions, or simply listening to those closest to them talking idly around the dinner table, it can be difficult for students to make up their own minds with so much noise going on around them. I find, also, that many students choose the political party of those they consider role models without needing much more information.

Being one of those role models, I don’t want to push my political views on my students. I know I have a lot of students who look up to me, and I’m hesitant to tell them about my political affiliations because I don’t want them accepting my views as their own without research and critical thought.

While I do think it would be a great idea to incorporate a research project about the election into this year’s curriculum, I’m not sure we’ll have time for that. If I taught history or government, you bet I’d be using this as a way to hone their research skills, but it’s a little more difficult to work into the day in English. As such, I generally refrain from voicing my political views in the classroom.

The bottom line is that I believe my job is to open my students’ minds, not change them. I want them to think about things in a new and different way, not blindly agree with whoever sounds good at the time. That is why I do not engage in political discussions in my classroom. I don’t want them to hear what I have to say and agree without thinking about the issues in their own ways, on their own time.

What about you? Do you believe political discussions have a place in the classroom?

Photo Credit: mrsdkrebs

One thought on “Do Politics Belong in the Classroom?

  1. Probably not in an English class, but certainly in a government or civics or poli sci or even history class. And then I think it would be important for the teacher mostly to stress critical thinking skills. Those seem to be painfully absent from many voters’ decision making.

    I imagine you teach critical thinking while you teach literature. It all helps.

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