Monday, 10 December 2012

Dealing with politically sensitive topics in the classroom

Guest post by education writer Jillian Terry

Dealing with politically sensitive topics in the classroom

Presidential campaigns, political scandals, the world economy, healthcare,and controversial social issues: topics like these can incite some pretty vitriolic arguments among even the most civilized adults.I know I've seen my fair share of arguments about the issues both on and offline, the majority of which are far from polite and even further removed from substance. I'm sure you can think of any number of incidents of such explosive arguments.

It's that kind of occurrence that makes me wonder if any two apparently reasonable adults with opposing views on a subject can ever have a decent discussion about it. And while I was an educator in the US teaching a classroom full of middle school students, I wondered how they would handle such information. If the vast majority of adults I know couldn’t talk about current events without getting worked up into a lather, how might young students handle them?

In this writer's opinion, it's the job of every responsible educator to create an environment within their classrooms where students can feel safe to express their ideas and opinions without fear of ridicule or criticism. It's normally not hard to maintain this sort of safe environment when a teacher is talking about geology or grammar mechanics, but it can become quite a different matter when current events come up.

Such was the case in my classroom during the US presidential election season in 2008. At that time I was teaching at a prep school in what was then considered a “swing state” (meaning that the state didn’t lean towards any particular party), and the views shared by my students during the election certainly reflected the pervading divided views. Some students expressed worry about Barack Obama being elected president for a number of reasons, while others felt equally worried about John McCain's candidacy.

I could tell that much of what my students were saying was merely a regurgitation of what they heard from their parents at home. Students spoke of the uncertain economic climate, foreign policy, and healthcare reform with scant attention to detail, but with all of the passion of someone opposing or supporting each issue. A few times debates between students would devolve into out-and-out shouting matches a la cable news, but those incidents were in the vast minority.

My challenge was to act as a completely impartial moderator during these sometimes heated exchanges. As the teacher in the classroom, I held an almost uncomfortably powerful influence over my students—they looked up to me both for their education and for general life advice. There was no way that I could share my own political beliefs with them without running the risk of affecting their intellectual development. When it seemed appropriate—like when a student would rattle off "facts" that were clearly fabricated or misinformed—I would correct students and tell them about empirical and irrefutable data surrounding a subject. But I rarely if ever gave my own take on the subject.

Of course it's impossible to remain completely impartial or "unbiased," no matter how hard one tries. I'm sure there were instances where I inadvertently expressed my views on an issue, but there's no use beating myself up for it. What matters most is that educators approach controversial subjects with their students in a frank and open-minded manner—assuming the students are old enough to handle such subjects. I'm of the opinion that if students learn how to engage these issues with a level head in their youth then they'll be much more mature and informed citizens when they grow up.

What's your take on educating younger ones on controversial political/social issues? Do you think it's something best left for parents to discuss? Or can educators help shape the conversation?

Jillian Terry is a former educator turned freelancer who writes about higher education, the college experience, US history, and much more for among other sites. Feel free to send any comments her way!


  1. " their ideas and opinions without fear of ridicule or criticism."

    Not ridiculing ridiculous ideas is what ends up giving them tacit legitimacy.

  2. @twr: Yes, I fear so. If this blog had a mission statement, that idea would be among them.

    That said, however, a schoolroom is neither a blog nor a parliament. In a schoolroom, understanding has to come before ridicule.

    I always liked Bertrand Russell's point made in his introduction to his 'History of Philosophy,' that the first reaction when studying philosophy's history is to leap to ridicule at all the apparently absurd ideas.

    But the first job in learning, he argued, was to first come to understand WHY otherwise intelligent people came to accept such apparently notions, and only then--once you have the full context, and you've had a chance to toss an idea around--is the student in a position to know the idea fully for themselves.

    This is really the approach of reason, which students should see in action in their classrooms.

    Ridicule should come later.

  3. @ twr: I'd wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment when it comes to adults, but only partially when it comes to kids. Kids say ridiculous things all the time. It's it's their way of testing what's reasonable and getting to grips with reality, in a brain that's still forming itelf.

    If they say something that's clearly wrong they should be told why, but as a general rule they shouldn't be ridiculed. Otherwise you run the risk they'll stop questioning and accept on faith whatever comes from their parents or teachers. That would be a bad thing, even if what you're telling them happens to be right.

  4. I was being more general with my comment, and agree that this doesn't apply to kids (or those who don't have the opportunity to put their case).

    The students in this case do sound to be on the older side however, so it's reasonable to at least ask them to explain the basis of their opinions, and correct any errors of fact or logic that caused them to come to untenable conclusions.


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