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Teaching About Politics in a Polarized World

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One of the great frustrations educators face in today's society is that those outside of education have strong opinions about how teachers should do their job. Despite years of study, training, and experience working with children, teachers don't have to look far to find others telling them what kids need. This discontent with the state of education usually focuses on how to teach rather than what to teach. However, politics in schools is a different story, and one where the stakes are much higher.

Few topics in education can elevate tension faster than politics. Because of this, many teachers try to keep politics out of the classroom. Whether it is a fear for job security or a distaste of how ugly political discourse has become, teachers are skilled at changing direction when politics enter the discussion.

A Necessary Conversation

What may be lost on some educators is that teaching politics in the classroom is exactly what has to happen in order to change the trajectory of the current political discourse. While spending six years teaching 11th grade English classes at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, N.J., I was always haunted by author George Orwell's image of child informants reporting their parents to the government for thought crimes in his dystopian novel 1984.

This image should help us consider how we communicate in front of children about politics and other important social issues. Making children mouthpieces for our own ideologies or co-opting their innocence with agenda-driven messages that they are too young to comprehend are steps toward the kind of dystopian child exploitation Orwell warned against.

Instead of using children to promote discord, what if we used their beginner's minds as a reminder that there is a better course? Uncorrupted by the prejudices that destroy curiosity and breed fear, children love hearing new ideas. They are able to agree to disagree without the lingering angst that has divided our nation so deeply. I see it in my own son’s eyes when he is mystified by the sight of two adults becoming angered by the other’s opposing perspective. My heart breaks over the possibility that he will one day develop the tunnel vision that he currently finds so confusing.

History contains an abundance of cautionary tales that show how partisan gridlock halts progress. Differences in thought and culture are what has made America great. Our hero should be the liberal who defies party convention to recognize the need to lower a tax or the conservative who triumphs a regulation that protects a disadvantaged group. Politicians used to recognize that their opponents had the same goal: Make the world a better place for their constituents. Now debate's greatest accomplishment has been to diminish the integrity of office.

But what has always impressed me about great teachers is how they can guide the tone of class discussions in positive directions through modeling and empathy. The same is true when it comes to politics. I have found success in this area by knowing my students and encouraging them to share relevant testimonials to illustrate their perspectives. Few things can build empathy better than looking at the dynamics of an issue through a peer's eyes.

Putting Politics in Practice

Modeling positive discourse is important when offering students a different path from the current divisive discourse found in today's political environment. Here are some successful strategies that I have followed in my own classroom:

Break your own echo chambers. If we as educators mindlessly consume agenda-driven media, incessantly share messages on social media that oversimplify complex problems, or spend most of our time demeaning messengers instead of messages, we should recognize that our time could be better spent. Our habits are growing the divide and setting a bad example for our students.

Stay neutral in front of students. Encourage them to see the merits in opposing views. Everyone benefits from sharper critical thinking skills. Let students decide for themselves where they will stand. As a teacher, a source of pride was that I would have liberal- or conservative-leaning students approach me outside of class to share an argument they found particularly compelling. They respected my opinion and knew I respected theirs.

Separate false dichotomies. What does it mean to be liberal? A simple definition is to support a government that plays an active role in helping the disadvantaged. What does it mean to be a conservative? A simple definition is to support the smallest, most efficient government possible. Both are noble pursuits and have a vast territory on which to find common ground. Adding unfair labels fuels hate. A conservative isn't a racist because he is conservative. A liberal doesn't hate the police because he is liberal. By destroying these false dichotomies, we can bridge gaps and learn mutual respect.

Discourage generalization. We all know the frustration of being judged. Students need to know that generalizing is lazy. Don't assume that all liberals refuse to listen because one liberal was dismissive of an idea. Likewise, don't assume that because one conservative is cynical, all others are as well.

Respect how experience informs perspective. There are pivotal experiences that inform who children will become, what they will think, and how they will view the world. I know of a student whose parents were once wealthy small-business owners, but lost everything when a new tax proved devastating. I see how a free breakfast in the morning is essential to helping a hungry child excel in school. When educators hear these testimonials, we can empathize with each varying perspective and better understand how experience influences student opinion.

Providing our students a different path than "divide and conquer" with their political opinions is no small task. We've been busy bees creating hives of hate. Being mindful of how our behavior impacts students and allowing them to maintain their beginner's minds are two ways of reversing course. By giving them the ability to consider opposing views and empathize with the speakers of those views, we might be able to deliver the promise of a world where we can respectfully agree to disagree.

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