Opinion
Teaching Commentary

An Educator’s Ambivalence in Today’s Political Climate

By Daniel Osborn — January 31, 2017 3 min read

As a teacher and researcher who studies history and social studies education, I ask questions regarding the nature of knowledge that exists in U.S. schools. What narratives are normative in the classroom? Are voices silenced and, if so, which ones? These questions offer a response to ethnocentric curricula that privilege the historical experiences of some students, while displacing those of others. This work allows me to evaluate the depiction of marginalized communities in the classroom.

The impetus for this work comes from a commitment to creating more-inclusive schooling experiences, particularly ones that champion diversity and multiculturalism. It is fertile ground for learning experiences that expose students to multiple narratives rather than a single version of the past. However, my sense of empowerment to do this work—and perhaps, that of many teachers—has been shaken by the recent nature of political discourse.

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In today’s political environment of sweeping executive orders and bans on refugees, our country seems to be enveloped in language that demonizes immigrants and Muslims, objectifies women, and normalizes bigoted sentiments. I am concerned for teachers, whose efforts to confront this discourse may be construed as partisan by virtue of sanctioning one political perspective at the expense of another, including those that target vulnerable communities.

Educators are tasked with helping their students develop critical consciousness, not endorsing one particular worldview and having students internalize it. Teachers should nurture students’ ability to appreciate multiple perspectives, promote civil discourse, and overcome the danger of a single narrative.

While the narratives that characterize immigrants and Muslims as a threat to American society are troubling, my fear is that we educators may promote learning experiences that silence this seemingly nativist worldview in the classroom. Although silencing such voices could be justified as giving hatred no sanctuary in learning environments, it could also be construed as silencing the voices of large segments of the electorate, ignoring their concerns, and creating learning spaces that are inclusive in name but not in practice. There is a tension here that we must resolve.

With the increase in virulent rhetoric, however, there are limitations to certain educational objectives. How should educators invite multiple viewpoints into the classroom without inadvertently condoning hate speech? How can teachers advocate for multiple perspectives, when it means silencing the ones we find disagreeable and vile? How does this not perpetuate a pattern of privileging based on one’s position in society? Do we include perspectives that may target and defame vulnerable communities as we avoid the danger of a single narrative? Do we include them to avoid privileging one worldview in the classroom and society?

How should educators invite multiple viewpoints into the classroom without inadvertently condoning hate speech?

Educators seek to promote empathy and civil discourse. This resonates when I think of the historically stereotyped and misrepresented communities to whom I have dedicated my intellectual pursuits. What are the limits of empathy? Is it relativistic for teachers to ask students to empathize with ideas they find reprehensible, or is this an act of breaking down boundaries and creating space to understand the other? How can we protect free speech and expression in schools and society without allowing for hate speech to proliferate?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As educators, we should strive to avoid partisanship in the classroom and presuming one worldview is absolutely true while others are invalid. I want students to navigate through ambiguity rather than becoming absolutist in their thinking. I seek to provide learning spaces that allow students to think critically rather than being reliant on an educator to tell them what is right and wrong.

The current political rhetoric I find so disturbing tells people what is right and wrong in an uncritical fashion. How can educators challenge many of the Trump administration’s subjective assertions without also presuming that alternative visions for America produced by their own positions in society are not conditional?

Resorting to easy answers fails to grapple with the challenges inherent in opening up learning spaces to multiple perspectives. This is the challenge of teaching today: not allowing one narrative to dominate, while also not allowing hatred to infiltrate the classroom and inform perceptions of others. This is not a paradox. This is the work that lies ahead for teachers.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as An Educator’s Ambivalence in Today’s Political Climate

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