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Do Politics Belong in the Classroom? BY ELIZABETH BRATTON

May 20 2019

Can teachers discuss political matters without forcing their ideas onto their pupils?

This is a question that governments, parents, and students alike have struggled to answer for decades. It seems, like many political affairs, to be a question without a simple answer.

The Department of Education underlines the importance of teachers ‘acting appropriately’ when expressing views. But what does ‘acting appropriately’ entail? Should teachers refrain from expressing their opinions at all, or should they speak about such matters in moderation? Many may argue that children are impressionable at a young age, and that they may be conditioned to think a certain way.

Last year, in Arizona, a bill was proposed that aimed to prevent political discussions in the classroom. The endorsement of politicians, legislation, or even conversations surrounding ‘controversial issues’ could lead to the fining of staff, or even the loss of jobs. Kelly Townsend, a Republican legislator from Mesa, described teacher biases as ‘a very real problem when things like Socialism and other ideologies are impressed upon the children outside of the curriculum’. As a result, she put forward the bill to prevent anyone working in a school from ‘espousing a political ideology or religious belief’, unless related to the topic being taught. Many refused to believe that such a proposition was coincidental; over a year ago, the teachers of Arizona began to demand higher pay and better school funding. Their activism eventually led to a statewide strike in April of 2018. To many, it seemed this bill was a form of retaliation: a way to silence those who were part of the ‘Red for Ed’ movement. According to the Arizona Republic, two teachers in Phoenix were punished at the end of last year for showing support for the ‘Red for Ed’ movement while at work - one staff member faced a one-day suspension, and both received hundreds of dollars worth of fines.

On the other hand, Amnesty International has highlighted the benefits of discussing controversial issues in the classroom while describing the ways in which teachers should approach these matters. The organization discusses the ‘cognitive benefits’ of debating contentious issues, and explains that it is a ‘[pupil’s] right to know about important issues that may affect their lives’. Furthermore, Amnesty underlines the societal skills that can be developed through debate: ‘learning to express opinions and having your opinion challenged, being aware of the diversity of opinions and to argue in an appropriate manner, [and] learning to accept and tolerate difference’.

Additionally, in this modern age of social media, students are already heavily influenced by opinionated sources on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be preferred for these opinions to be expressed in a classroom setting, where children are allowed to challenge their ideas as well as the ideas of their peers?

There’s even debate as to how much teachers really influence their students to begin with. Experts say that it is often our parents who affect our beliefs the most. Jeffrey Lyons, a Political Science Professor at Boise State University, explains: “many parents have the advantage of being their children’s first source of political messaging. Kids are these empty cups you can pour beliefs into.” Therefore, it is arguable that despite the views teachers may share, their preachings will have little impact if the child’s parents are equally politically aware, or even more so. However, Chris Dawes, a New York University Politics professor, believes that it isn’t your parents alone who shape your views. He states: ‘Maybe in college, you have a roommate who influences you, or you live in a community that influences you.' He suggests that, if you are in an environment which holds strong, defined values, these beliefs may soon be held by you as well.

One must also consider the risks associated with depriving young people of political lessons. According to the Washington Post, the number of young people voting in elections has steadily declined over the past 30 years, and that may be due to a lack of education and awareness. The article states, ‘Today, only nine states require a full year of civics. Ten states don’t require it at all.’ In the 2016 mayoral elections, the median voter age was 57. These statistics suggest that the less the youth are taught about basic topics such as the democratic system, the less likely they are to be politically active. The article also states that ‘a mere 25 percent of high school students achieved a grade of ‘sufficient’ on a national civics assessment’. Thus, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the younger generations are not learning enough about the society they live in.

While there is no clear "winner" in this debate, one thing is certain: with social media activist movements and tweets from political leaders, the world surrounding us teenagers is becoming increasingly political. Therefore, it is vital that we are equipped with the skills to handle such topics.

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