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
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.