Can Teachers Be Politically Neutral?
At the beginning of every school year, I tell my community college freshman that it is okay to disagree with me. I tell them that it is okay to disagree with the readings and with each other. I tell them that I want them to think critically about the texts that we read, to question everything.
I tell them this because I think that most students are taught to regurgitate what they’ve read, not think about it critically. And critical thinking is an important skill for both further education and for the existence of our democracy.
My educational past was littered with “my way or the highway” thinking. Coming of age attending a religious school taught me that dissent was to be punished. In the thick of the culture wars, it was either have a conservative opinion, or risk being labeled ungodly.
So now, as a teacher, I tell my students that, when we have discussions, they are free to express whatever opinion they want as long as it doesn’t denigrate someone else’s identity. I do not allow sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic language and ideas in my class because I want marginalized voices to be able to have a seat at the table.
When I was working on my first master’s degree, in Education, we would often talk about how we should approach divisive topics in the classroom. Most students agreed that we should try to give representation to both/all sides of the issue, to expose students to all points of thought. I remember one class in particular, we were trying to figure out if gay marriage was an appropriate debate topic for a high school classroom (this was before it was legalized nationally).
And suddenly there was a split in the room. Most of the straight students agreed that balance was appropriate as long as the question was handled with sensitivity. But the queer teachers, myself included, remembered what it was like to sit in a classroom and hear your classmates debate your rights, your humanity. It always felt like a personal attack. Because these ideas are not abstract. They have very real implications for marginalized students.
Ideas should be defended, not identities.
But as our political landscape has started adopting extreme ideas as the norm, it is becoming more and more difficult to enforce my own policies.
As people in power embrace white supremacy ideology, it becomes impossible to discuss both sides of issues around immigration and police brutality without treating racism as a reasonable position. I refuse to do this in my classroom.
As trans identities become fodder in the war for “family values,” as queer bodies once were (and in many ways still are), it becomes difficult to have any conversation that reckons with gender without presenting the idea that the trans experience is illegitimate. I refuse to do this.
As powerful men continue to to maintain power after being credibly accused of sexual violence, it becomes difficult honor the experiences of my students who have experienced rape and assault themselves.
So I have begun to de-emphasize discussion in my classroom, to pivot more toward writing assignments. To talking in small groups.
And for those of you wondering, I do still practice what I preach about allowing students to disagree with me. I have helped students write papers railing against abortion, praising confederate monuments, and preaching against LGBT+ rights. These are all positions which make me very uncomfortable. And while I do ask them to think critically about their positions, to reexamine certain assumptions they’ve made, I know that it is ultimately my job to help them learn how to articulate the argument they want to make, not to control the argument itself.
But still, I mourn the loss of classroom discussion in my classes. After all, it was through classroom discussion that I learned to articulate a lot of my own political opinions.
But I believe that as long as a major party is advocating for violence to be done to marginalized bodies, as long as fascist ideals are on the rise, and as long as we are keeping people in cages, I’m not sure it is possible to have a “balanced” discussion in the classroom anymore.
Because as a teacher it is my job to make sure that all students feel as if they have a safe learning environment, somewhere that they can come to engage with various texts and broaden their minds. If a student doesn’t feel safe in class, they can’t learn. Call that coddling if you want. I call it responsible pedagogy. And often I end up with myself on the line in order to make it possible.
As the old activist saying goes, silence is violence. If I’m not using my platform to stand with those who need the most help, am I not part of the problem?
I’m still holding some discussions in the classroom. But I’m steering away from topics that can be wielded as weapons. Hopefully, one day, our social and political atmosphere won’t be so toxic. But until then, I’ll try to make my classroom a place where all students can learn, regardless of opinion, regardless of identity. And maybe, for now, that means students need to do a little less talking, and a little more listening.
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