Every high school teacher can count on being asked his or her opinion on some political matter during the course of any given semester. Teenagers are curious, and they spend more time with their teachers than with almost any other adults in their lives—sometimes even more than with their parents or guardians.
It is usually a simple matter, if not an easy one, to follow the (often unwritten) rule about not unduly influencing young people’s developing worldviews by taking obvious political stances in class or in one-on-one conversations with kids. I have for years told my students, truthfully, that I have continued to read The Washington Post long after moving away from the Washington area largely because of how conveniently the Post is structured for the reading of opposing political viewpoints. The paper’s stable of opinion writers runs the gamut of backgrounds and predispositions. I encourage students to find a similar, intentionally structured way of encountering the ideas of people who have differing ways of looking at the world.
Can students infer some of my political opinions nonetheless, from the texts I choose to teach or the questions I choose to ask or the pop-culture references I appear to understand? Sure. That’s true of young people’s interactions with all adults. But normally I can, with the rest of my peers in the profession, not only do everything in my power to avoid telling students what or how to think, but also manage not to appear to be unduly critical of any given political candidate or office-holder.
Through the turmoil of this year’s national election season and into the future, the normal rules of not appearing to take political sides still apply, but they are being misapplied any time anyone suggests that Donald Trump’s public statements must not be parsed, let alone criticized, within the walls of a school.
Calling a politician out for Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny is not a matter of exerting undue influence by favoring one political party over another; nor is it a matter of disrespecting the presidency. Naming Mr. Trump’s hate speech as such is, rather, a moral imperative for supporting the missions of K-12 schools, in which Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist words and actions are punishable offenses that can (and must) be treated as being beyond the pale.
National figures must be held to the same standards of basic human decency as are the children we teach."
The first job of a school is to be a safe place for children. Even if the person saying inflammatory things is the president-elect—especially in such a case—the adults in schools must stand together to defend the identities of our students.
Schools do not allow identity-based attacks between or among students, and teachers work hard to help students to understand the difference between differing with someone’s ideas and attacking that person’s identity. Schools risk rank hypocrisy if a major-party nominee for the presidency, a president-elect, or even a sitting president, is held to a different standard under the guise of “balance.” The same standard applies to all nominees and elected officials from all parties in all elections.
Recall Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s reference to many Trump supporters as “deplorables": While a comment on someone’s behavior or words is not the same thing as a comment on that person’s identity, insofar as she could be inferred to be targeting groups of people based on, say, their shared socioeconomic status, race, or access to postsecondary education, Secretary Clinton deserved to be called out. This kind of distinction is precisely what we should be considering in our schools—and it’s precisely the kind that separates so many of Mr. Trump’s statements about people’s identities from so much other political speech.
One of the formative moments in my own political awakening was in 1984, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson—a local Chicago icon whose Rainbow/PUSH headquarters were just a few miles from my childhood home—used an unquestionably anti-Semitic slur in referring to New York City as “Hymietown.” Condemnations came from adults all around me, of all political stripes, and of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. I noticed this. The Rev. Jackson was certainly not given a pass because of his political prominence as an aspirant to the Democratic presidential nomination.
I have already begun to hear whisperings about the need for school employees to be careful not to appear to be criticizing President Trump for his past—or future—words during these next four years. This is dangerous nonsense. National figures must be held to the same standards of basic human decency as are the children we teach. Attacks on identity must always be condemned in our schools.