Every year thousands of people come to Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties of Spotsylvania and Stafford to walk the grounds of Civil War battles. In 2008, our community finds itself in the unexpected position of a political battleground. In case you’ve been living in a cave, Virginia is one of the hotly contested “swing states” and our area, at the southern tip of the Washington, D.C. metroplex, may well be the hinge on which the Virginia electoral votes swing. On September 27th Barack Obama and Joe Biden visited the campus of the University of Mary Washington. Last week, on October 28th, Sarah Palin spoke in Hurkamp Park.
In a spirit of fairness, God let it rain both events. However, that rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm or water down the intense partisanship of anyone. I know because on Friday night, we dined with Democrats and on Saturday, we partied with Republicans. But my bridge group has agreed that it would be a bad idea to hold the regularly scheduled first Tuesday night of the month session, and my book club has called a ceasefire on candidate bashing. Here on Main Street, in a small but diverse community, politics can get personal and sometimes prickly.
We saw the same tension at school this week as our students voted in a mock election. Each morning during announcements our principal reminded students to be respectful of the opinions and positions of their classmates and their classmates’ families. Political advertising encourages the public to vote based on a candidate’s “likeability” or to vote against the opposition candidate based on “dastardly former acts or future plots.” It’s not surprising that a great many students think of a Presidential election as a popularity contest or cast it in the athletic competitive framework of “us” and “them.” Enthusiasm and emotions are running high and students are looking for validation of their opinions from their teachers.
I won’t tell my students how I am going to vote, nor will most of my colleagues. Just as in most communities, teachers are expected to be politically neutral during the school day. Some teachers choose to make their classroom a politics-free zone. While I understand their desire to keep politics out of the classroom, I think it is important that students understand that in reality, everything in their lives is touched by the political process. When they ask who I’m voting for, I won’t answer, but I will engage them in discussion. Why do they think I might support one candidate or the other?
I want them to talk about issues rather than personalities. And, if issues reflect the concerns of the people, shouldn’t both candidates be talking about the same topics? Instead of trying to shape the issues, shouldn’t candidates be addressing how they would shape solutions? Wouldn’t that be more productive than talking about each other? I hope that I can help my students understand that elections, regardless of what the advertisements tell us, are not so much about good guys and bad guys, they are about workable plans to address the needs of society equitably and efficiently.
It’s not a politically neutral statement, and we cannot teach American History, American Government or American Literature -- or a host of other courses -- without talking about these principles on which our nation is founded. As teachers we are given the awesome responsibility of providing students access to the knowledge of past, the skills of communication, and the habits of critical thinking necessary to participate in self governance. I want them to believe in the good intentions of their fellow citizens. I hope they will understand that they are inheriting the privilege and obligation to keep sorting out what those words mean in today’s world, and to move them from ideas to realities.
As for how I vote, I will remain a political enigma.
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.