Teaching Politics in the Classroom

It’s never felt more challenging (or exhausting) to teach high schoolers about our nation’s history and politics.
Walking toward my classroom, I can hear students, responsibly distanced and wearing masks, chatting about the news. With presidential debates, October surprises, and concerns about how the candidates plan to tackle the pandemic, it’s difficult to know where or how to start my government and politics class. After some trial and error, several weeks into school, I developed a strategy to encourage the thoughtful airing of differing ideas.
I often tell students to disagree without being disagreeable, and we must not be afraid of hearing views contrary to our own. Of course, those who intend to incite hatred, spread bigotry, and offend others don’t deserve a free pass; they should be called out. Tough conversations are vital if students hope to leverage what they learn in the classroom to make their voices heard and have an impact. These discussions also help cultivate patience, strength, and wisdom to know when to listen. Hearing doesn’t equal consent or agreement, I often say.

Disagreeing in a Civil Manner

At the start of class, I typically ask students about their thoughts on the news and election coverage. From there, I share articles students have read—or might be interested in—before discussion evolves. Students naturally engage each other in a conversation about media bias as well as an examination of candidates’ positions and policies. I watch in awe as students calmly and rationally tackle everything from health care, foreign policy, and the pandemic.
Without any prompting, my students wait until a person is finished speaking before jumping in. They don’t need reminders to avoid childish name-calling, including telling each other to “shut up.” To foster civility, they listen to various views before taking a firm stance on a given matter. This is hard work. When emotions become too heated, I ask students to pause for a few moments before continuing.

Using Ethics as a Guide  

My approach to the classroom has been informed by The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, by researchers Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. In the introduction, the authors address one of my biggest concerns:
Many teachers choose to avoid using political deliberations and discussions with students, often because they are unsure about how to negotiate accompanying pedagogical challenges. Further deterring teachers is the polarized climate outside schools. Fear of parental and public backlash leads some teachers to retreat to lectures and textbooks.
While I encourage students to engage in political deliberation, I often do fear the possibility of backlash from what is or isn’t said in my classroom. I spoke with McAvoy, a professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University, for some advice. She said teachers today face competing and often shifting responsibilities, depending on our students.  “Teachers have an obligation to prepare students for democracy and how to engage in the deliberative process.”
At the same time, teachers are constantly thinking about the need to follow school policy, which may or may not permit them to express differing views, while weighing that obligation against their beliefs about what constitutes effective teaching. “To teach is to sit between these competing responsibilities,” McAvoy told me. “What teachers are constantly doing is trying to think about what’s the best choice in any given situation. Sometimes, it’s, ‘OK, I have to follow policy because that’s the policy.’ Sometimes, it’s, ‘No, there’s room here for judgment, and I’m going to go this way.’ This is just the challenge of teaching.”
McAvoy’s words provide equal comfort for those who decide to share or conceal their political leanings, but I still worry. Right now, feelings about politics are so intense that everything that comes out of my mouth might be perceived as partisan or unfair. I told McAvoy about my frustration, and once again, I was reassured by her response: “It’s one thing for a student to say to a teacher, ‘What do you think of Trump?’ or ‘Did you vote for Trump?’ That’s very different than a teacher’s standing before a class, without invitation, saying, ‘I can’t believe what this guy just did yesterday.’ I don’t think teachers are on solid ground very often if they’re standing in front of the room and just being part of the partisan rhetoric.”

Deciding Not to Be Neutral  

I had McAvoy’s words in mind before sharing my thoughts about the first debate, just as I did before offering my thoughts about The New York Times’s coverage of Trump’s tax returns. I am a journalist by training, I tell my students, and I loathe hearing anyone call the media, including the nation’s paper of record, “the enemy of the people.” It is incredibly naïve, I articulate, to accuse The Times of making up a fake story to paint the president as a failed, troubled, or a slippery businessman.
Teachers must not remain neutral when it comes to the truth. At the same time, it is not our job to tell students what to think, but rather, it’s about teaching them how to think. That is impossible, however, when students (or others) refuse to acknowledge facts.
Make no mistake about it. I am taking a political stance when I share with students that I read and trust The New York Times. Teachers sharing their political views in class are walking a tight rope. As Joel Sohn, director of community and equity at Episcopal High School (VA), told me a few years ago during a back-and-forth about politics in the classroom, good judgment extends far beyond what teachers say in front of students:
“If we acknowledge that bias exists within our own teachings, then can any classroom ever truly be apolitical? Depending on what language I use, what texts I select, or what topics I bring up in the classroom, each one of my choices stems from a political ideology.”
I agree with Sohn’s assessment, and I tell my students that I am openly biased … toward the truth. I leave it up to them to decide how the truth should shape their minds and hearts. I also strive daily to help them develop the skills essential in that quest for truth.
David Cutler
David Cutler

David Cutler teaches American history, government and journalism at Brimmer and May (Massachusetts). His writing has appeared in the National Association of Independent Schools, Edutopia, HuffPost, The Atlantic, and PBS NewsHour. 


David Cutler
10/28/2020 3:16:29 PM
Chase, it’s always good to hear from you. Perhaps I did a poor job of expressing myself about being biased toward the truth. I meant to invoke these wise words from John Adams:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

If we can’t agree on a common set of facts, we are in deep trouble.

Jed Haupt
10/28/2020 12:06:37 PM
I am teaching an election class this semester, and our guiding text has been "Why We're Polarized" by Ezra Klein. I agree with all points made by Mr. Cutler and Chase. Yes, I trust the NY Times as well, but I'm also very open with my students about the importance of consuming a wide variety of "center" media, with the NY Times' liberal slant balanced by the Wall Street Journal and others. Students have dissected "truth bias" (confirmation bias) and how being "better informed" has actually served to reinforce our base biases, as presented in certain chapters of the "Polarized" book. All in all, students have done a great job with all of this.

Chase M
10/28/2020 10:13:53 AM
I definitely agree we need to open up about our biases with our students. I would caution that kind of "Bias towards the truth..." language though. In stating that "I am taking a political stance when I share with students that I read and trust The New York Times.." and then stating that, "I tell my students that I am openly biased … toward the truth." You are essentially saying to them, "The New York Times Always Tells the Truth," when we all know that media bias is a very real part of our country's reality no matte how they identify politically.

Psychologists call this "Truth Bias." We believe what we want to believe and we look for the facts that support what we think the truth is, often at times falling short of a comprehensive view.

We, as educators, can share "OUR truth" with students, but that does not mean it is, "THE truth." It does not mean that our interpretation of America's political landscape is always the same way that our students and their families interpret the political landscape. We can't go calling our views "Apolitical," or "objective," at all. The facts we choose to seek out and look for, are not the only facts out there.

I definitely resonate with what you're saying about equipping students with the tools to find the facts, but let's make sure we're giving them the tools to find the facts we won't discover in the NY Times. Give your students the tools to find the facts that offer an opposing view point to yours and praise that.

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