Politics in the Classroom

Fellow blogger and high school history teacher Chris Wehner has a very interesting post up on the risks of introducing personal politics in the classroom  and on his blog.  He was prompted, in part, by my recent exchange with Brooks Simpson surrounding my statement of support for Barack Obama on this blog.  Chris’s concern, as I understand it, is that the introduction of personal politics in the classroom ultimately runs the risk of alienating students and stifling discussion:

For several reasons I have decided to cease with political blogging: First, as in the classroom, my words here are taken seriously by young people. I have students who might read this blog and I can influence them. Yes, being a positive influence is the goal, but by ranting political points of view, am I violating that trust factor with students? This was my question to myself. As I see it, I need to keep this blog focused and free from political rants, much like I do in the classroom.

Second, I have always felt that as an educator it is my duty to develop “thinkers,” and not simply expressions of my political or social beliefs. If I continually made rants in my classroom about the Iraq War, my feelings about Bush (or any other candidate), then I feel I am doing a disservice to my students. I am potentially influencing them to “believe” and “think” like me, and that is wrong in my humble opinion. As teachers our students will look up to us, and that can be a license for some to influence their students in ways that are simply
not appropriate.

I am going to address Chris’s points in turn, first the question of the place of personal politics in the classroom and second on my blog site.  First, I think it is important to note that the introduction of one’s personal views in the classroom need not be characterized necessarily as a “rant”; it seems reasonable to suggest that it can be done in an intellectual way and in a way that furthers or introduces a topic for discussion in the classroom.  In contrast to Chris, I have on occasion shared my political views with my students.  What matters is the way in which it is done given Chris’s point that our primary responsibility is to “develop thinkers.”

I want my students to see someone who is not only passionate about history and politics, but can also engage in serious intellectual thought from multiple perspectives.  Let me say that these moments do not occur every day or even every week, but when they do I am very much aware of my role and responsibility.  What is my responsibility?  First and foremost, I must be as clear as possible as to why I hold a specific position.  There is no emotion or ranting, but a clear explanation as to why.  Second, I must be able to demonstrate that I have thought about the issue in question from multiple perspectives; in fact, I must be able to demonstrate that I am as familiar with the relevant counterarguments as I am with the one I happen to support.   It’s also important to demonstrate change over time, that on occasion there is a need to engage in revision based on new information or personal experience.  In the classroom a teacher must make students feel comfortable sharing their own views and this can only be accomplished if the instructor understands that the discussion is ultimately not about him or her.  Most of the time the students are much more interested in questioning one another than their teacher and that is my preference since it helps build community in the classroom and a sense of trust that will hopefully lead to a continuation of the discussion outside of school.  However, when the questions are directed at me or I am engaged in debate with a student I make sure that all of the students understand that I am listening and that I am interested in what they have to say.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, in response to a student that I need to consider their point or a question asked.  In other words, I want my students to understand that even though I hold a set of beliefs I do not claim to have it all figured out.

Chris believes that a more activist approach on the part of the teacher is more suited in the college as opposed to the high school classroom:

I am potentially influencing them to “believe” and “think” like me, and that is wrong in my humble opinion. As teachers our students will look
up to us, and that can be a license for some to influence their students in ways that are simply not appropriate.Yes, one can say that as long as I have a safe classroom and students feel safe in expressing viewpoints counter to mine, then I can stimulate discussion. In a college classroom, maybe, but in a high school classroom, students who disagree will more often than not be intimidated and will close themselves off to me as a teacher.

I couldn’t disagree more with Chris on this point, although I should note that I teach juniors and seniors.  In fact, my work to model proper behavior during debate tends to have a positive influence in the way students treat one another.  If I don’t do it, who will?  Most of my students get their news from one of the mainstream cable channels or radio personalities where the objective is entertainment, insult, and sound bites.    Again, the injection of a teacher’s political/moral/religious views into the classroom need not take the shape of a “rant” and I am curious as to why Chris continually uses that term.

Finally, let me say something about my blog and this week’s wade into the political arena.  Brooks Simpson’s comments have given me a great deal to think about.  I understand that some of my regular readers may have been caught off guard, but in the end, I assume that most of you can distinguish between a political and historical post.  This is not going to be a regular feature as I want this site to stay focused on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  At the same time this blog does provide me with a voice and I chose to use it for a political purpose.  I do not nor need not apologize for doing so.  For the first time in my adult life I feel a sense of urgency for this country.  We are five years into an immoral war that should have never of happened and we have a president that has proven to be completely incompetent.  Obama’s speech on Tuesday evening had a powerful effect on me.  He spoke to me in a way that no previous public leader has been able to do and I wanted needed to share it – not as a historian, but as a citizen.

By the way one of my students came to class yesterday morning after having read my blog and commented on my announcement.  I looked at my class and very calmly said that I fervently hope that at some point in their adult lives, and regardless of their political views, that they are able to support a political candidate for office that speaks for them.

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12 comments… add one
  • Heather Sep 10, 2008 @ 16:42

    Sorry, but as a teacher, I don’t think politics belong in the classroom beyond bare bone facts. I remember how uncomfortable it was as a student, being forced to parrot some teacher’s political agenda or risk failing.
    A lot of my students are the same way. They feel that if they disagree with my political views then I will not like them or will give them a bad grade. I have no business making another person, let alone a student, feel that way. It’s unethical, and I get after fellow teachers for it all the time.

    Healthy debate is okay, depending on the class. Nothing wrong with teaching students how to argue effectively.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2008 @ 15:20

    Larry, — I agree that at times it can be risky, but I disagree that the sharing of a particular political opinion must be understood as pushing an agenda. You seem to think that the goal is to put a student in his or her place, but why can’t the intent be to simply demonstrate what is involved in holding a view? Often times I will argue for a position from two very different perspectives with equal effort and in a way that makes it impossible for students to know where I stand personally. My goal is primarily to demonstrate that political/moral beliefs involve or demand reasons that have been thought through. Your final thoughts simply do not resonate with my experience.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 21, 2008 @ 14:53

    There are two interesting issues here–blogging politics and politics in the classroom. I am wary of both.

    Before I began blogging I spent a long time looking for good history blogs and found very few of them. Lots of great starts, but over time most history blogs seem to fade and posts about history are replaced by posts about either A) politics, or B) the blogger’s cats. The political posts are tempting because they get tons of hits and generate discussion, but to me they are tendentious and boring and better done elsewhere. See for example the History News Network blogs, which typically feature posts such as “Why I, a Very Smart Historian of Early Modern Europe, Oppose the Iraq War. Part Eleven.” Or more recently a spectacular new blog, The Edge of the American West appeared and almost immediately became derailed into a political blog with occasional history content.

    Politics in the classroom is a different issue. I am political as hell, but I keep cool in the classroom. Not only because it is deeply unethical to use my position to promote my views, but because it is counter productive. When you push an agenda in the classroom the students know you are cheating. (We forget that they are just as bright as we are, just younger.) They immediately begin to discount everything you say from that point on. In the end you have less of an impact than you might have if you had simply presented the facts and let them play with the modern applications of the history lessons.

  • Rebecca Mar 21, 2008 @ 14:27

    I do share my politics in the classroom. It’s really hard to teach a class on the American Revolution during an election year in which politics doesn’t come up.

    I’m a fervent Obama supporter, but I try to be equal opportunity: I helped students who wanted them get tickets to McCain’s event on campus.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2008 @ 19:26

    Thanks for the comment Steve.

    Chris, — Thanks again for the post, which was very thought-provoking and gave me a chance to share some things on my mind. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel that is June. Good luck to you in these few remaining months.

  • Chris Mar 20, 2008 @ 19:07

    Hello all. Just finished a day of teaching and meetings. Also, to be clear, my post was not a challenge to Kevin or anyone else. It was an intellectual reaction. I was questioning myself. Finally, Kevin’s concern about my use of the word “rant” is a good one.

    I also agree that political discussion can and is appropriate in the classroom. I hope it was clear that I supported this type of discourse, just not my interjection into it as an opinionated person.

    Anyway, Kevin I appreciate your post, good thoughts.

    Kind Regards, Chris

  • Steve Mar 20, 2008 @ 18:15

    I can remember having political debates back around the ’04 elections with one of my all time favorite HS history teachers. I feel like being able to bounce my political ideas off of him was very beneficial in learning how to debate and discuss as well as figuring out how to dissect my own ideas. It helped matters that he was a Bush proponent and I was, and still am, very much against him. Being able to discuss opposing views on issues with someone I respected and viewed as intelligent in no way forced me to “think” rather than think and only made me into a better listener and learner.

    Removing contemporary political discussion from a classroom does students a complete disservice. However, as with anything, it takes common sense on the part of the teacher in order to not cross that line from discussion into ranting.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2008 @ 18:12

    Brooks, Heather, and Tim: Thanks for the kind words and support. This is indeed an important discussion to have given the nature of civil discourse.

  • Tim Lacy Mar 20, 2008 @ 18:07

    There’s nothing wrong with providing high schoolers with examples of civil discourse. I’ve observed Kevin long enough at CWM to trust that he wouldn’t “rant” in the way that Mr. Wehner dislikes.

    I also trust, more importantly, that Kevin would let opposing views be aired in their entirety. This is crucial—and is part of why civil discourse is not what it should be. Kevin does not seem to me to be a classroom tyrant that suppresses all feelings and reasons contrary to his own.

    While I’m reluctant to explicitly share political opinions at my own weblog, I nevertheless respect my fellow bloggers who present their own in a civil, respectful fashion. Kudos to Kevin for having the professional freedom to do this—and for caring enough to attempt to do it the right way. – TL

  • Brooks Simpson Mar 20, 2008 @ 17:05

    I don’t happen to think that dealing with political issues in a classroom is a bad thing. My students get from me a healthy dose of my skepticism about lots of people, regardless of party affiliation. Nor do I think Kevin’s “wrong” in doing what he’s doing. I do think this is a serious discussion worth having: I like both Chris Wehner’s post and Kevin’s reply, and the world would be a better place if our own national political discussions were held on such a thoughtful and respectful level.

  • Heather Michon Mar 20, 2008 @ 14:44

    I can’t speak as a teacher, but I don’t really see anything wrong in discussing politics in a classroom setting. (I grew up in Vermont, where political debate was always part of the curriculum. We did mock town meetings every year beginning in junior high, even though, living in Burlington, we never got to attend the real thing.) Americans are a culturally a political people, have been since the beginning, and only in more modern times have come to view politics as something that is somehow dirty and tainted. This is a particularly good election for discussing all sorts of things that touch on American political and social history. As long as everyone gets to voice their views in a respectful manner, what’s the harm?

    That said, I do understand concern about the “rant” factor, which seems particularly high these days. I myself have wasted far too much time on the Comments sections of the Huffington Post, trying to make people think about some of the the things they are saying and the presumptions they are making — and getting roundly insulted for my efforts. Emotions are running so wild right now that even the most innocuous comments get flamed. I’m just about the most non-confrontational person on the planet, but the names I’ve been called in the past couple of weeks…I can’t even repeat them. Let’s just say this primary season is not always bringing out the best in people. But again, as long as classroom discussion does not devolve into a series of ad hominem attacks, I think it can only do good things.

    I’m not worried about this somehow drifting away from Civil War discussion. You are a citizen, this is your forum, so speak your mind!

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