Do Politics Really Have No Place in Our Schools?

Trying to raise an informed electorate in institutions void of political discussions is a double-edged sword.

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Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

One of the first things I do when I move to a new neighborhood is to join its Nextdoor community. Nextdoor describes itself as a “neighborhood hub for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods, and services.”

While it’s been a great resource to find out about local community services and the occasional garage sale, it’s usually riddled with drama that just seems inevitable in online gatherings of people.

A few weeks ago, a concerned parent of the local high school posted about, what she claimed was, an unsettling sort of “indoctrination” in her child’s AP Government class. She said that she had listened in to the class over Zoom and had heard the teacher discussing the presidential debate with a heavy bias towards one party and that she was “fanning the flames of hate.”

The saga continued when an actual student in the class responded with a Nextdoor post of his own expressing that the claims made by the concerned parent were not accurate, bordering on completely false on certain points. The debate has now devolved into a “he said, she said” debacle with an underlying discussion about just how much of the current workings of the government should be discussed in an AP Government course.

Quite honestly, I’m not surprised that this sort of conflict is happening. We’re living in perhaps what is one of the most polarized times right now, fueled by takes from the mainstream media and the insidious and divisive nature of social media. And it’s made me think critically about whether politics has any place in our children's schools at all.

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University states that education is inherently political and I’d have to agree. Education is an inherently political institution, with its very foundation, existence, and features inextricably bound to the government and its policies.

Dunn further clarifies:

“Everything in education — from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning — is political and ideologically-informed… Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.”

It’s clear that regardless of whether topics like the 2020 election or the current administration’s response to the pandemic are discussed in schools or not, politics is a pervasive part of our education system.

Although education is inherently political, I can understand the desire to keep schools completely neutral zones when it comes to issues such as politics and government. Children are highly susceptible to influence and we don’t want biased teachers exerting their own political views on their students. There is also the risk of certain children feeling like they’re outnumbered and ostracized if they hold views that deviate from those of the majority.

But “neutral” in this sense can never mean complete impartiality. Betsy Warner, an educator, argues:

“There is no neutral. This is more than just politics. These are issues of right and wrong, truth and lies, and humanity itself.”

Dunn makes a similar claim by clarifying the fact that neutrality is, in itself, a political choice that supports the status quo. In classrooms with children who come from marginalized communities and identities, neutrality can do more harm than good by ignoring the interests, fears, and worries that define their lived experiences.

When issues such as human rights, justice, and equity become partisan issues that can’t be discussed in institutions of learning, we’ve already failed our children.

And what can we come to expect from keeping schools void of any such discussions? We’ve been paying for some of these repercussions for decades.

Older generations wring their hands and mourn the fact that young citizens do not vote in this country, yet I’ve always been puzzled as to how they could expect anything else. We spend the first eighteen years of a child’s life encouraging them, their educators, and their peers to remain completely apolitical in institutions of learning where they spend most of their waking hours. How can we expect them to develop the skills to become an informed electorate during this time? How can we expect them to come out of the gate swinging their pens towards ballots, ready to cast votes that come from a place of full understanding?

A close friend of mine who is in his late twenties expressed to me that the upcoming election is the first time he’ll be voting because he felt he had such a poor understanding of the issues at hand during prior elections. I told him that I completely understood and that it was most likely the responsible thing to have done if that’s how he truly felt.

It’s arguable that a misinformed vote is more dangerous than no vote at all, though I know not everyone will agree with me.

And when children have spent eighteen years of their lives ushered away from “difficult” conversations with their feelings and opinions coddled by the very act of avoiding political discourse, we see what we see now: an extremely divided citizenry prone to misinformation, welcoming of the embrace of the epistemic bubbles and echo chambers that are pervasive in the media, and unable to have any sort of meaningful disagreement on the issues that affect all of us.

I don’t mean to say that keeping politics out of schools is the sole cause of this, but I think it is a large part of the foundation upon which this phenomenon is built.

It won’t be easy to integrate politics in a meaningful way into our schools nor should educators be allowed to do it in whatever way they see fit. In fact, I think that it would be excruciatingly difficult to have political discourse in schools serve to benefit our children because of how long we’ve allowed this problem to fester in the first place. But it’s time to rethink why we keep politics out of school when education is inherently political, and how we’re setting up our citizenry for failure when we do so.

I enjoy writing about society and culture, especially of the internet variety.

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