No one can deny the United States is in transition. We are moving either toward an autocracy or toward a renewed democracy. While most of us in education probably hope for the later, most of us acknowledge the momentum of the former. What I’m not sure most teachers realize is that some of this is OUR FAULT. Perhaps more than some. Perhaps much more.
A robust democracy requires a knowledgeable, able citizenry. Clearly, we do not have enough of that right now. To be sure, there are many great Americans who are doing all they can for democracy–I’m thinking particularly (but not only) of the high number of Black voters who pushed through shockingly-cruel voter suppression practices to cast votes against dictatorship. But, they are not yet as powerful as they should be, nor have public schools been as much of a benefit to them as they should be.
One of the reasons why public schools have failed individual citizens (only some of whom even bother to vote) is that too many teachers believe personal politics should not be discussed in classrooms.
I would argue that there is nothing more important to be discussed in classrooms–at all levels!–than personal politics. Here are some of the reasons why I think that.
Personal Politics Raise Diversity of thought on Important Matters
People living in a society are political animals. Personal politics is a manifestation of how we think about and what we think of other people. A robust democracy depends on a general sense of responsibility and respect for all. Democracies work well when everyone speaks, everyone is listened to, and all open-minded, thoughtful people participate.
By ignoring personal politics, teachers have abdicated entirely their function in a democracy, which is to produce thoughtful, capable, empowered citizens. By presenting a falsely apolitical front in their classrooms, teachers who don’t discuss issues of personal politics are doing the following:
- Ignoring their students’ need to learn how to make critical decisions about their own beliefs.
- Keeping students from learning how to research, examine, and find facts regarding matters of personal politics.
- Making it harder for good teachers to take up issues of personal politics by normalizing what looks like an apolitical classroom.
- Keeping our national conversation about matters related to personal politics separate from the intellectual realm of education, which is where people are supposed to learn EXACTLY about how to understand and contribute to that very national conversation.
Classrooms are Political Spaces in every meaningful way. Students are subject to every political policy, every funding decision, every vote, every minor change at the IRS, every rule in every agency in every body of government in our country. How teachers address all those issues in the classroom–even if they decide NOT to address them–is nothing more than a PERSONAL POLITICAL DECISION. We teachers need to accept that instead of running scared from it.
By raising questions of personal politics in our classrooms we can encourage diversity of thought. We can help all our students use their myriad experience from an infinite number of combinations of cultural backgrounds, class status, gender, ability, and more to come up with new ideas for making our country–and our world–better.
By ignoring personal politics, we abdicate our most important role. And, worse, we raise students to be fodder for corporations for whom financial profit (short-term or long-term) is the only goal. Teachers who treat their classrooms as apolitical spaces are not educating children. They are raising livestock.
Personal Politics Explains Why Different Students Need Different Education
All students are not born equal. We are each born into a set of conditions that already greatly determine our futures. We have free will, but our free will depends on the world around us. We are free to announce that we will be rich, happy, and influential; but the material conditions we are born into have an enormous impact on our success in meeting those goals.
That means that success for some people is much, much easier than it is for others. And, success is much, much harder for others. Right now, if we all put in the same amount of work, the status quo will remain because the very rich already also have much, much, much easier ways to become richer, happy, and influential.
True education–an education that empowers students to become knowledgeable, able citizens–is not one-size fits all. Those born into the uber rich need an education in generosity, in how impoverished people have risen up violently against people like them, how the world will benefit when wealth and power are distributed more equitably. Those born into poverty need an education that includes models of how impoverished people in the past have been able to rise up in their own circumstances and how others have made real systemic change that improved the circumstances of people like them in the world. They also need education in how to resist, how to push forward in the face of opposition, and how to amass power to take care of themselves and others like them.
These things all look different in different places. That’s why it’s a good thing that education policies are often decided locally. Local elders, in communion with their younger fellow citizens, are better suited to understand what the young people in their area need. And those elders need assistance from educators and funding from everyone to develop the tools they need to make good decisions.
These are all matters of Personal Politics.
More Informed and Capable Citizens Can Determine Their Own Future
Too many current political leaders and their followers believe that they know what’s best for future generations. That’s not true. Honestly, we don’t even know for sure what the next 30 days will bring!
Future generations will determine what is best for them. What elder generations must do is empower all of the future generations with the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to make those decisions as those decisions arise.
Right now, we are moving toward a static curriculum that tells students the facts they need to know and trains them–not educates them–in discrete skills, such as reading comprehension and writing with clarity. And that training will look exactly alike for all students (except the uber-rich, of course). The skills students are currently being trained in are precisely the skills that will make future citizens really good employees: they will be good at tasks and will be terrible at recognizing and questioning and improving the bigger picture. Again, this isn’t educating citizens. It’s raising livestock.
Standardized Exams have been as powerful in education as Trumpism has been in national politics. They both impose the will of an uber-rich onto the rest of us. Standardized exams are a perfect tool because they do two things exceptionally well:
- They encourage teachers to focus only on discrete skills that can be captured on standardized tests and that also don’t help students to learn how to effectively challenge authority.
- They make a small group of people uber-rich, while keeping other people from resisting the uber-richness of this small group of uber-rich people. (It’s a vicious circle.)
Teachers who keep a supposedly apolitical classroom are very nicely fitting into this vicious circle. They are doing their part to keep the livestock profitable and docile for the owners. These aren’t teachers; these are farmers.
A Caution: Students are a “Captive Audience”
Many teachers are afraid of being political in their classrooms because they believe it is illegal or ethically wrong to bring personal politics into the classroom. I hope teachers who read this will understand that the ethical problem actually comes from trying to be apolitical. The legal matter is something else.
I am not a lawyer and I do not have any specialized legal training or experience. So please don’t take any of this as legal advice. But there is information that has been helpful to me as a senior teacher.
By law, students are considered a “Captive Audience.” That means they do not always have certain rights that they have in other places. For example, students (while they are being students) do not have the same first amendment rights as other citizens. To ensure students (who are not entitled to full rights) are treated appropriately, educators must care for them in particular ways. As such, teachers are forbidden from telling students how they should vote and why. Teachers may not be partisan (or one-sided), especially in current political debates.
This does NOT rule out discussions of personal politics. Classroom spaces are allowed to take up political issues; in fact, they should and they do. But they must be taken up in a nonpartisan matter and in an area that is related to the teachers’ expertise and the subject matter of the classroom. It’s even better if the students bring up the issues and the teacher simply referees and provides directions for the students to find and bring in relevant information to present to the rest of the class. Doing so is educating students for the future. Help them learn why personal politics matter and help them get good at arguing for, organizing for, and making actual change toward what they believe is right.
Even young students can handle this responsibility, and good educators can help them handle it well.
Teachers are not politicians. We do not stand on soapboxes and announce our own beliefs in the classroom. But we should absolutely open our classrooms and our students to studying these very issues. Nor should we hide our own views when they are relevant and within our areas of expertise. As such, classrooms should be filled with explicit attention to personal politics. And if some people don’t like that, they are free to make their own arguments about it. But the one thing they cannot do in a democracy is outlaw it.
Right now, bringing personal politics into the classroom is not outlawed (it can’t be); however, too many teachers are willingly complying with autocracy by pretending or believing their classroom is and should be apolitical. This compliance may come from fear, ignorance, or even wishful thinking.
Teachers: Be Political. Now.
Colleagues, it’s time to grow up, accept our real responsibility in our supposed democracy, and do our jobs. If we don’t, we are as responsible for the end of democracy as are corporate capitalists, autocratic politicians, and uber-rich parasites for whom we are serving our students up as livestock for their children to live off.