Social Studies Opinion

Is It Appropriate for Teachers to Discuss Politics in School?

By Dave Powell — November 16, 2016 6 min read
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I ended my last (rather lengthy) post with a gentle call to action: if you are a person with political views that lie in opposition to those expressed by Donald Trump in the just-completed presidential election, you have received your wake-up call. It is time now to engage more forcefully in political action. It is time to talk more with people who disagree with you, and time to redouble your efforts to help them understand where you’re coming from. It is time to teach.

I know a lot of people probably read that and thought, “Sure. Nice sentiment. I’d like to be able to do that, but unfortunately I also would like to be able to feed my family for the foreseeable future.” You may have even heard about the California teacher who was suspended for teaching a lesson in which he compared the rise of Trump to the rise of a certain fascist in the 1930s who set the whole world on fire and helped it descend into chaos. That guy has been a teacher at his school for 40 years and they still suspended him! And, not for nothing, but it’s not exactly like he was espousing the most controversial position for a person to have right now. You might be thinking.

Well, I get it. It’s cold comfort, I’m sure, if I tell you that the teacher was originally suspended until Wednesday but later told he could come back as early as today (Monday). This was strictly a CYA maneuver by school administrators who have to take every threat seriously. If you read the article at the link you also know that another school administrator in California was suspended for using profanity when talking about Trump at a student walkout. That one reminded me of Dave Chappelle’s line in his truly remarkable opening monologue on Saturday Night Live last weekend: “Boss said it was okay!” It will be interesting to see how this administration handles the expression of political speech, profane or otherwise, given what the boss has already said.

But I digress. Should teachers talk about politics in school? Can they? These are tough, uncomfortable questions, but our hand has been forced. We have to talk about them.

Personally, I’m used to it. Every spring I teach a course called “Teaching Social Studies.” It is nominally framed as a traditional methods course but I don’t really teach it that way—much to the chagrin of a small number of my students. See, many of them enroll in the teacher education program to become social studies teachers not understanding that learning to teach is much less straightforward than they want it to be. They want to be told what to teach and how to teach it. They crave reassurance that there are secrets to classroom management and grading and writing lesson plans that are simply waiting to be unlocked for them by an expert teacher.

To be sure, these things are important. But I’m not that kind of expert. My job, as I see it, is to help them understand that teaching is never that easy, that it is characterized by enormous complexity, and that it’s no easier to anticipate the challenges of teaching than it is to anticipate the challenges of working in an emergency room at a hospital. Sure, you have the power to save lives and make a difference, but you also have to stay aware of the fact that something bad (maybe even unimaginably bad) is capable of happening at any moment without warning. There’s no formula for dealing with it. You just have to prepare yourself as well as you can, trust your own teachers, and trust your instincts.

What we work on in our “methods” class is developing enough confidence in ourselves to pull it off. Social studies is, after all, the most political subject, which explains why it is constantly being attacked and marginalized. Almost all of my students begin the course with the everyday anxieties of teaching in the front of their minds, so the last thing they want to think about is stirring the pot by addressing controversial issues in class. Then I tell them that discussing politics is not only called for but is a central responsibility of the job. Many are confused. Some are scared. A few resist.

None of that makes it less true: teaching is an inherently political activity. Full stop. As soon as we erect a wall between student and teacher and establish teaching as the act of transmitting or sharing knowledge from one to or with the other we establish teaching as a political activity. Education is about empowerment—it is about enlightening the learner for the purpose of enlarging his or her vision and experience. The act of teaching is the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. It is the ultimate method of empowerment. It is political.

This explains why so many people care so much about education. People care passionately about Common Core and opting out and having school choice and the cost of college because they fear that social and economic advantages will be taken away from their children if they don’t get their way on these issues. The fact that these issues and others related to them (especially issues related to economic and social inequality) do not get discussed in school—the place where their impacts matter most, the place where their impact is felt so acutely—is a wild dereliction of duty that falls at the feet of our whole society. This is a democracy, after all. Democracies depend on open discussion in public spaces of public issues, not private conversations around the dinner table or in the walled garden of Facebook that solidify views that have already been settled and never see the light of day.

It’s not always easy, or comfortable, to have conversations about controversial topics but we have to be willing to do it. We have to create conditions that normalize discussion of politics in public spaces instead of treating politics as a topic to be avoided at all costs. Of course, our schools are currently not well suited for this at all. By reframing public education as a private good, not a public one, we’ve given in to the idea that schools exist to sort us into jobs, not to prepare us to be citizens. It’s no wonder we’re so dissatisfied with them: job preparation is boring, and we see the consequences of insufficient citizenship education all around us. We’ll have to reset the agenda to make this possible. We’ll have to reclaim our schools as public spaces.

That has to begin with a clear-eyed analysis of what our schools have become, and how teacher education programs support them. We can’t let the politics of division and fear infect the way we educate our young people but unfortunately that’s exactly what we do when we run away from political discussion instead of engaging in it. We’ve been taught to believe that politics is dirty and unseemly, that it’s a zero sum game and a winner-take-all enterprise. We’ve been taught that the objective is to find people who agree with you and mobilize them instead of talking to people who disagree with you and trying to change their minds. Imagine if we trained our teachers to be experts in fostering civic dialogue and conversation related to the subjects they teach, and transformed our schools into spaces where those conversations could flourish. If we care about the future of our country that’s a politics of education we should all be able to get behind.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.