Varsity Electioneering

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What is the proper role of schools, teachers, and students when it comes to public issues and partisan politics?

I was one of those undecideds in the 2004 election that late-night comics made fun of. It wasn’t because I hadn’t paid attention. I even watched all the presidential debates. It also isn’t that I don’t have convictions. My problem was that every time I listened to one of the candidates, I wanted to vote for the other guy.

Being undecided made it easy for me to appear objective when my students asked whom I was voting for. But not everybody’s undecided.

In the closing hours of our most recent ordeal-by-stump-speech, a high school in my neighborhood found itself embroiled in politics. A student group announced it would be screening the film “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the school gymnasium on election eve. The principal vetoed the show. I’ve never set foot in the school or seen Michael Moore’s documentary, so I can’t validly judge either. I’ve heard enough, though, about the film, from Mr. Moore and others, to gather that it’s a partisan critique of President Bush that isn’t especially careful about distinguishing fact from opinion.

What is the proper role of schools, teachers, and students when it comes to public issues and partisan politics?

Public schools wrestle with a unique dual identity. On the one hand, we act in place of parents. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court permits schools to limit student speech that “the government could not censor,” search students and their belongings without meeting the normal threshold of probable cause, and discipline students without satisfying strict courtroom due-process standards. At the same time, public schools are clearly an arm of the government, so we need to be wary of trampling rights and acting with partisan partiality.

We talk a lot these days about teaching students how to think, but the fact is you can’t think without something to think about. That unavoidably means providing kids with information, insight, and some answers they’re not yet prepared to come up with on their own. In short, being a teacher inevitably involves teaching my students both how to think and what to think.

Teaching other people’s children what to believe is a weighty responsibility. After all, teachers are trustees. The kids in my classroom aren’t mine to mold the way I want them. Regardless of the depth and sincerity of my convictions, I’m uncomfortable advocating opinions that their parents wouldn’t want them to hold.

The trouble is opinions just won’t go away. Teaching involves asking kids to explain what they think in essays and discussions, so it’s not surprising when they ask back. If I’m teaching them U.S. history, it’s only natural, even commendable, that they question what I think about candidates and government policies. When I’m teaching English, they often ask me anyway, if only because I’m a handy adult who’s supposed to know things.

The hazard is that a teacher’s opinion can carry an awful lot of weight. That’s why during classroom debates, I have to keep reminding kids to talk to each other and not to me. It’s why when they ask my opinion about a story we’ve read, I tell them I’ll explain what I think after they’ve reached their own conclusions.

No, I don’t always keep silent. They know I think slavery is an evil institution. They know I think our republic is remarkable. They also know my thoughts on a thousand other details. But they don’t need to know my position on present issues to understand what the issues are. They don’t need to know which candidate I’m voting for to understand how voting works and why it’s important.

Revealing your personal preferences is neither inherently wrong nor inherently necessary. Some maintain that it’s artificial for teachers to withhold their private opinions from an educational process intended to prepare children to participate as adults in politics and government. I disagree. I think it’s no more artificial than keeping campaigners out of polling places. We curtail what they can say when they get too close because they might unduly influence someone’s vote. Teachers are in a similar position. We can be too close and too influential, too.

As for students, three landmark court decisions outline their right to express themselves at school. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate,” and that students’ speech enjoys First Amendment protection as long as it doesn’t “materially and substantially” interfere with other students’ rights or education. A 1970 ruling clarified that decision and permitted schools to limit students’ statements of political opinion, including campaign buttons, provided officials don’t single out a particular party or point of view. The court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier upheld a school’s right to exercise “editorial control” over school-sponsored publications and performances, especially those which the public might reasonably infer enjoy the support and endorsement of the school. The court specifically allowed school officials to censor material that is “biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.” In addition, schools aren’t required to lend their “resources” to the “dissemination” of students’ opinions, particularly when those opinions “associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

Exchanging ideas is at the heart of education. But we need to remember the danger the Founding Fathers saw in partisan politics.

I realize it runs counter to the modern gospel of empowerment, but the fact is kids aren’t entitled to all adult rights, any more than they’re bound by all adult responsibilities. Even voting-age students need to remember, as all adults should, that the First Amendment doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want whenever you want to. It certainly doesn’t require it. Exercising the freedom of speech doesn’t preclude exercising restraint.

Those who favor extending campaigns into corridors and classrooms often contend that taking a position is part of the electoral process. But that’s not the process schools should be part of. We’re not supposed to be mimicking political rallies. We’re supposed to be teaching kids enough history, science, and literature that they’ll have the grounds and the tools to weigh issues and candidates when it’s their turn.

Students love to argue, and controversy can motivate and add vigor to learning. Exchanging ideas is at the heart of education. But we need to remember the danger the Founding Fathers saw in partisan politics. They saw the danger so clearly because they saw it in themselves.

We at school, both students and teachers, could profit from their insight and their warning.

So could the rest of the nation.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Page 33

Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as Varsity Electioneering
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