Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

Students Are Uncomfortable Sharing Their Politics Today. Here’s Why

By Rick Hess — March 03, 2022 5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This past December, I interviewed Sanda Balaban about her work with Next Generation Politics, a civic learning and discussion initiative for high school students. Each spring, these “Civic Fellows” work in small, cross-school groups to tackle an array of hot-button issues. I thought it was worth featuring the reflections of one such group of New York state students, who wrote and administered to their peers a survey about free expression in school. (If you’re interested, the survey results were written up in RealClearEducation.)


Madeline Mayes, Fort Hamilton High School, Junior:

I didn’t even know that the word “conservative” existed as a political term until I took a Next Gen workshop called “The Right Side of the Aisle: What’s Up with Conservatism?” during my freshman year. In middle school, I had no need to worry about how my political beliefs aligned with my peers’ because nobody talked about politics. When I entered my high school, political discussion remained just as hush-hush. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit in March 2020 that my high school peers seemed to instantly become civically engaged but in a very limited way.

Practically every high schooler I knew who had social media was suddenly hopping onto the trendiest political movements and shunning those who were not in favor of these trends, whether it be the Black Lives Matter movement or anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. My peers all had their cameras off throughout almost a year and a half of remote learning, seemingly so they could scroll on social media during class, and suddenly barely discussed anything that wasn’t politics online. But only a narrow span of perspectives were being addressed.

Why? A survey that I co-conducted on behalf of Next Generation Politics last spring found that about 59 percent of the 250 New York City high school students we surveyed said they were uncomfortable with sharing their political views on social media. This underscores a set of concerns we should all have: Why are high schoolers posting strongly opinionated content online if they are uncomfortable doing so? The teen voice online is disproportionately liberal, but is it a façade? Are all of these teens really so left wing, or has liberalism become just another new trend? Where are conservative teens, and why are they seemingly hiding?

Jack Flanigan, Regis High School, Junior:

The main threat to freedom of expression is more insidious than speech codes or “forbidden words.” Instead, a cultural limiting of speech among young people is afoot. As a student at an academically rigorous high school and an involved member of the debate team and political club, I bump up against issues of free speech on the regular.

I’m not convinced we need to sound the alarm at top volume; speech is still legally free. But the fact remains that the cultural climate around freely speaking your mind in many schools today stifles discussion and debate. Because of the extreme fear of being labeled politically—and therefore socially—unacceptable once someone has called your idea or preferred policy “racist,” you have no good options. You can either defend yourself, which will likely be seen as doubling down on your perceived (or actual) racism, or you can apologize, which is an implicit admission of racism. In today’s extremely sensitive atmosphere around race and other identity-centered issues, neither of these is desirable and often neither is acceptable. As such, almost everyone (save perhaps a very liberal minority) simply silences themselves or distorts their feelings to varying degrees to fit what they see as the acceptable political narrative.

Ayla Iqbal, Valley Stream North High School, Senior:

Theoretically, social media could provide a vehicle for students like me to freely express our thoughts and feelings on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. However, currently, self-expression beyond mainstream sentiments on social media is very constrained. According to our survey findings, 59 percent of high school students are uncomfortable expressing their views online, and only 9 percent of students report being very comfortable expressing an unpopular opinion via social media. This is worrisome, particularly given how vital social media has become during the pandemic with so many of us at home using technological devices.

Self-expression is an underestimated commodity. It cannot be purchased, sold, or marketed. Whether it be finding your own voice, clothing, or music, hiding behind others to fit in shows no character and camouflages you. Today, though I still have barriers in connecting with others, I do not let my shortcomings hold me back from achieving what I desire in order to thrive, because I always have the ability to express myself.

Malcolm Furman, Horace Mann School, Junior:

Data from our survey shows that concerns and constraints around expression are caused, in part, by an unwillingness to seek out different viewpoints from one’s own. For instance, almost three-quarters (71 percent) of students surveyed believe Americans do a poor or very poor job of seeking out and listening to viewpoints different from their own. This strongly contrasts with students’ perceptions of themselves: Almost the same percentage of respondents (72 percent) believe they do a good or very good job of seeking out different viewpoints.

High school students need to face up to the fact that we may be part of the issue. Freedom of expression in schools deteriorates when students hold an “I’m not part of the problem” mindset. It requires courage from students and teachers alike to be supportive of viewpoints that are different from what’s expected.

As a result, schools must put more time and energy into ensuring freedom of expression is protected so that students feel comfortable expressing their beliefs and teachers are accepting of diverse opinions. For example, in Next Generation Politics, we set community agreements that specifically encourage people to freely express their opinions, knowing that their opinions will be respected.

These reflections were adapted from articles Mayes, Flanigan, Iqbal, and Furman wrote after conducting their survey. To read each of their full articles, visit the Next Generation Politics blog.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety How a Superintendent Urged Parents to Discuss Gun Violence With Their Kids
The leader of the school district that serves Monterey Park, Calif., encouraged parents not to "let the TV do the talking."
5 min read
A woman comforts her son while visiting a makeshift memorial outside Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Authorities searched for a motive for the gunman who killed multiple people at the ballroom dance studio during Lunar New Year celebrations.
A woman comforts her son while visiting a memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., two days after a gunman killed 11 people and injured several others as they celebrated Lunar New Year.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety Guidance on Responding to Students' Questions About Shootings
A guide for educators on ways to foster a sense of safety and security among students at a time when gun violence seems widespread.
4 min read
People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting several days earlier at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year's celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community.
Two days after a mass shooting that killed 11 people, people gather for a vigil outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif. In the aftermath of shootings and other community violence, educators are called on to help students process their emotions and help them feel safe.
Ashley Landis/AP
School Climate & Safety Many Schools Don't Have Carbon Monoxide Detectors. Are They Overlooking the Risk?
Less than a quarter of states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings.
5 min read
Image of a carbon monoxide detector with a blurred blueprint in the background.
School Climate & Safety Students of Color Disproportionately Suffer From Police Assaults at School, Says Report
A new report tallies up assaults by school-based police officers on students of color.
6 min read
Deputy Carroll walks the hall of Rice Elementary School with an administrator on Wednesday.
A school police officer walks the halls of Rice Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C., with an administrator on April 6, 2022.
Lindsey Hodges/The Index-Journal via AP