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The Place of Politics in the Classroom

Santosh Muralidaran

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        On Nov. 8, 2016, Donald Trump’s triumph sparked intense controversy nationwide. With Donald Trump winning the majority of electoral votes but Hillary Clinton preceding him in the popular vote, the news quickly spread globally. With almost all main news outlets predicting slim chances for a Trump victory, many in liberal strongholds were upset by the outcome of the election.

        As such, the day after the election, in my fourth-period literature class, there was a divergence from the daily curriculum and in its place, an intense focus on the recent election. Pre-planned by many teachers that morning, the period started with a guided walk around campus in two lines, with partners from each line expected to engage in a discussion about the election results and their views on it. When we returned to the classroom, the teacher read aloud an opinion-editorial published by the Huffington Post. The article, titled “What Do We Tell The Children?”, condemned Donald Trump and implicitly called for the protection of children from bigotry and the fear of advocating for one’s opinion. While I personally believed the article had its strengths and weaknesses, my problem was not with the article itself, but rather with the lack of objectivity used in presenting the material to students. It was introduced as a direct rebuttal to Trump’s merits and presented as an undisputed fact, almost similar to how a history lesson would be lectured. The article referred to Trump as a “mean person” and stated that “[such life lessons] will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a democratic society that protects the rights of all people ― regardless of the cooperation or resistance those efforts face from the executive branch.”

        That day, we had not been presented with any other article featuring an opposing viewpoint. Because the article’s core argument was presented to us as an obvious fact rather than one of many fallible views toward the election, it became apparent to me that the classroom activities following election day were not intended to improve our critical thinking skills, but rather attempted to create a safe space for all those feeling threatened by Trump’s presidency or who had not supported him during the election. On one hand, this was beneficial, because it provided the majority of students with a sense of comfort following the controversial election, allowing students concerned about or frightened by Trump’s policies to speak up and defend their beliefs. However, many Republicans, conservatives, libertarians and students espousing different political philosophies did not feel comfortable stating their opposing viewpoints. In such a class environment, the majority of liberals and Anti-Trump supporters likely already supported the opinions being presented to them, incentivizing them to affirm their unchallenged beliefs and have safer opportunities to speak up.

         The debate about whether politics has a place in the classroom has been enduring. There have been reports of many liberal teachers and administrators continuing to denounce Trump and his actions when there is no necessity to do so to teach the lesson that they are required to teach efficiently. It would be equally irresponsible for a conservative teacher to berate Hillary Clinton or any democratic ideology in front of students. Even before the controversial 2016 presidential election, for example, Anoka-Hennepin school in Minneapolis banned teachers from addressing political issues in class for the sake of their professionalism and in response for previous attempts to do so.

        From the historical debates about the ideal system of government and the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the current debates about abortion, taxes, diplomacy, immigration and even the 2016 presidential election, there are always at least two sides to every story. Do all opinions on each of these topics shed their importance within the walls of a classroom? Of course not. However, should school administrators avoid bringing up and promoting discussions regarding such subjects in the classroom when the “facts” are skewed? Absolutely. Depending on the region or community in which it is located, schools will often have a dominant ideology. Too often, that idealistic value is represented and favored more than the others. Political discussions in class will almost always involve some bias, geared towards that general popular belief.

       Such polarization remains rampant in the liberal environments of schools in California and many other places across the nation, most notably in the Silicon Valley. My exposure to the political opinions I learned from classroom discussions since middle school has consisted of predominantly liberal and progressive ideology, prompting teachers to engage in the deliberations favored towards such philosophies. Granted, the fault does not stem solely from educators, as they often intend, for good reason, to create a safe environment for students. With most colleges in the United States regarded as highly liberal, teachers may opt to engage in discussions to incentivize the majority of students with opportunities to freely speak and express their values. However, while the possible motives as to why a teacher would choose to start a political discussion in class are justified, the reality differs. Students who are part of the ideological minority will feel isolated associating themselves with their true beliefs if a teacher and most of the students in the class are subtly or blatantly condemning their views or other unpopular ideas.

        Simply put, there is no need for political discussions in classrooms. With classes that are designed to teach subjects outside the realm of politics, such as mathematics or science, political events such as the 2016 election and political debatable issues should remain a topic of discussion elsewhere, as it is not worth the diversion from typical course of study that actually teaches the students unbiased material.

        Teachers should not perpetuate political discussions in classrooms, especially if they do not address the topics being covered. However, certain classes such as history, government or economics classes may have sensitive political issues embedded as a part of their curriculum — for example, a history lesson on the evolution of the two-party system or the study of a historical document addressing issues such as human rights or health care. It is important for teachers, when such discussions arise regarding controversial topics in these situations, to remain objective and discuss both sides of the issue. The classroom will be majority liberal, conservative, libertarian or affiliated with any other political group, but regardless, students must have the exposure to both sides of an issue and additionally receive equal support to represent their opinion. With dominant beliefs in classrooms inescapably receiving more representation, only in cases where a political point of view must be addressed to teach a lesson effectually should teachers begin to address such ideas. And even then, teachers must deal with such situations by uniformly acknowledging and displaying the multiple perspectives of the issue. In all other cases, teachers should not need to reroute from their scheduled lesson plan in, for example, algebra or chemistry, to spark deliberation on politics.

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