Politics in the Classroom
I recently had an interesting exchange with one of the students in my senior seminar class on 21st century citizenship. As we are now discussing the American political system and issues of divided vs. unified government, our discussions naturally and valuably turn toward current events, specifically the Republican presidential nomination process and prognostications about the election in November 2012. The crux of this particular exchange was the question of what is the proper role for me, the teacher, in our class discussions about political issues and current events. Is it appropriate for me to express my own political leanings for the sake of spirited debate? Or rather is it "safer" for all students around the Harkness table if I remain politically neutral?
I often see value in both sides of this issue. On one side, there is no doubt some value in students' seeing their own teachers' passion for and interest in important issues. Indeed, teacher passion is a leading driver for student success in the classroom. If a teacher is genuinely enthusiastic about the topic at hand, this will rub off on and inspire his or her students. I am very passionate about politics (and why I love teaching it) and I do hope my own passion will stimulate similarly strong interest in my students. If revealing my own opinions helps to achieve that, I can see its value. Similarly, a teacher expressing and supporting his or her own opinions is an opportunity to model informed citizenship. If I, the teacher, simply used the classroom as my soapbox to pontificate on my own views, that would be improper. However, if the teacher is held to the same standard as the students, namely to express a viewpoint and then support it with objective evidence, that is a positive example, just like a coach demonstrating a skill. Assuming that my students are interested in my opinions (and this seed of curiosity can increase engagement), if they see that I have put my own careful thought and deliberation into developing them, it will hopefully inspire them to do the same.
Yet the other side of this issue is equally compelling. The classroom must be a safe place for every student to express his or her opinion. It must be a level playing field. Thus, when a teacher takes a side with an important issue, no matter how thoughtfully developed it may be, a certain number of students in the classroom will be on the "other" side. I am not certain that this is right for any of these students, to be on the opposing side of the teacher. Even a seed of doubt that the teacher would not be able to consider every student objectively can undermine the integrity of the classroom. A teacher is in a position of power in the classroom; it is not an equal relationship as it is among the students themselves. When students are encouraged to debate and disagree with one another, there is nothing to lose in that exchange. Whether perceived or real (and I am confident it would be perceived, as none of our teachers would ever penalize a student for his or her personal views), no student should feel s/he has something to lose because they may disagree.
Much, if not all, of this comes down to the professionalism of the teacher, of course, and I have every faith that our faculty knows how to balance the two sides of this issue. However, especially in my class when politics is the topic at hand, it is admittedly hard to tamp down passions and emotions for issues of great import, and I would not want to. I want my classroom to be teeming with energy and dissension and personal engagement. The question is whether it is proper for me to be in that mix.
So where have I ended up on this issue? As we were discussing, based on the latest data and political history, the odds of President Obama being reelected a year from now, one of my students asked, "Who will you be voting for in November, Mr. Lourie?" My answer: "I'll let you all know after you graduate in June."
Mr. David Scott Lourie
Sunday December, 4, 2011 at 03:42PM
Choose groups to clone to: