Opinion
Families & the Community Opinion

Varsity Electioneering

By Peter N. Berger — January 04, 2005 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Varsity Electioneering

Events

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.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

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

Families & the Community Parents Call Chronic Absenteeism a Problem, But Most Can't Define It
A new poll sheds light on parents' views on chronic absenteeism and acceptable reasons to miss school.
3 min read
Empty desks within a classroom
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Families & the Community What Happens to the Lost-and-Found Mound at the End of the Year?
Most schools deal with lost-and-found piles as the school year ends. Some work with outside partners to recycle items for students in need.
5 min read
Dark gray laundry basket full of childrens' items with a white sign that reads "Lost Property"
iStock/Getty
Families & the Community Opinion What Student Impacted You Most as a Young Teacher?
Paying attention to students and their families can provide some of the most valuable lessons to teachers.
Michael Nelson
2 min read
Mike Nelson reads to his students.
Mike Nelson reads to his students.
Mike Nelson
Families & the Community Q&A How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head
Two Leaders to Learn From share insights on what family and community engagement entails.
7 min read