Politics in the Classroom

Debating plays a major role in American politics and elections.

Debating plays a major role in American politics and elections.

A teacher walks down the hallway, clad in a Green Bay Packers jersey on a dress down day at Rectory School. Despite the vibrant green of the t-shirt, it doesn’t attract much attention. But what if a teacher were to walk down the hallway donning a shirt with the name of a political candidate?

Liking the Green Bay Packers is a personal opinion, just the same way supporting a political figure or party is one. So why do people address politics so differently, and why is it so fragile in a school environment?

Mr. Walden, an 8th grade history teacher who includes government and politics in his curriculum, believes it’s because “although people have the right to express many different things, The Rectory School is a tuition-driven school, and we need to be sensitive to the wide diversity of students and political views.”

While it is true that Rectory thrives from tuition, wouldn’t a discussion based on politics supplement a class like Mr. Walden’s? His response to that question is, “I think a benefit would be a greater connection with the students, but in a school setting, I think there needs to be a little bit of discrepancy when it comes to adult points of view and adult topics.”

Although many teachers at Rectory do agree with Mr. Walden, teachers such as Mr. McCarthy, also an 8th grade history teacher, believe that politics should “absolutely be discussed.”

Many teachers have exercised a less delicate and broader approach to the topic, called debate. This unbiased angle allows a teacher to speak with students more freely about an otherwise divided subject. Students can interact with each other and the teacher, while still remaining equal in the classroom. “I love a good argument; I like to teach people how to express their opinions. Anybody who tells you your opinion is wrong, is wrong. It’s your opinion. It’s a moral judgment, and I like to teach that. Go ahead and argue with me, and then I’ll jump and argue the other side. I want people to have their own opinions,” Mr. McCarthy said about the topic.

Politics, by dictionary definition, is “the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level.” Although it is undeniable and unavoidable that an individual’s personal opinions on political candidates, parties, or policies, will differ from the next person’s, by dictionary definition, politics doesn’t appear to be an unsuitable discussion topic for the classroom. In fact, not only does politics seem suitable for discussion, it also proves to be a crucial arena for students to develop and cultivate their own ideas and receive necessary exposure to the outside world. Mr. McCarthy believes that, “Whether they (students) agree or disagree with what’s expressed, I don’t think it should be one opinion being voiced. I think everyone should have a voice. Overall, by utilizing your own voice in school, students will be more prepared going forward.” And doesn’t that sound like the very reason a child goes to school? More important than a good grade on a math test, in my opinion, is an understanding of the complexity of the outside world.

While teachers are the ones directing class discussions, what about the students? What role do they play in a discussion of politics in the classroom? Ninth-grade student, Louisa P., who completed Mr. McCarthy’s history class last year, shared with me her opinions on this fragile topic. Louisa believes that the discussion of politics in the classroom is beneficial in that it “helps her to understand, because she doesn’t know much about politics.” Although it has supplemented her history class in many ways, she brings up an important point by stating that teachers share a biased opinion, which, in turn, leaves her with only their biased opinions.

Ninth-grader, John D., who was a student of Mr. Walden’s last year, shared with me his opinion on the topic. John believes that the line is drawn when “teachers try to impose a certain view on students.” This raises an important question: What should a student take out of school? One could conclude that students attend school to learn how to think, like Mr. McCarthy said. Students shouldn’t be taught what to think, because that would prevent us from developing our own opinions and the ability to exercise our minds. John also shared with me that he believes, “Rectory students are at an age where they accept other people’s opinions and views without being negatively influenced by them.”

After speaking with history teachers and their past students, I have learned that students are more than willing to hear what teachers have to say about their personal political views. On the other hand, understandably, teachers are a bit more hesitant to share with students how they feel about personal subjects, such as politics. But, still, do we really know where the line is drawn? Well, it seems to me the line is drawn when we lose our desire and drive to continue discovering, learning’s certain mysterious and vast quality that never fails to grasp both students and teachers alike.