A Plea For Politics In The Classroom

11/03/2016 02:32 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2017
Alan Levine

Since it’s election season, here are two truths and a lie: I live in west Los Angeles, I studied literature as an undergraduate, I attend a megachurch every Sunday.

If you can figure out which one is the lie, you can probably figure out whom I’m voting for next week. And you can probably take a good guess at a whole range of political positions that I hold. And yet, for many years, I was implicitly expected to keep this part of my identity under wraps.

A long time ago, during the George W. Bush years, I taught AP Human Geography to seniors at private school in L.A. Part of me feels like, all things considered, we had less to worry about back then. Nonetheless, I covered climate change, wars, refugee crises, terrorism, and all manner of national and international issues to which students of the world must pay attention.

Teachers are the Donald Trumps of their own classrooms. They have no checks or balances, and yet they are expected not to impose beliefs on students.

I get it. When knowledge is presented objectively, the audience is free to develop their own ideas. Except, that’s not how it actually works. In reality, ideas need foils and allies. They develop when we have something to support, reject, or otherwise feel passionately about. Banality inspires no one.

In my final year or two of teaching, I decided that opinion did not equate to indoctrination. and I decided that high school students don’t appreciate being patronized. Like anyone else, they can handle a little honesty. So, I labeled myself from the start: a moderate liberal, an environmentalist, a critic of (though not opponent to) capitalism -- in other words, a cosmopolitan middle class Westsider.

These were not revelations to my students. But this admission made me far more comfortable at the head of the class and, I think, a more effective teacher.

High school classes are boring in large part because they lack passion and conflict. If students don't understand how an academic concept relates to the present day and, if not to their own lives then to someone’s life, they're not going to care about it. Discussing the Federalist Papers or Nineteen Eighty-Four in a vacuum honors neither their long-dead authors nor the students to whom they are assigned.

There's something exciting about proclaiming and explaining one's beliefs -- just as there is something exciting about fighting back against beliefs that you do not hold. Somewhere in between, learning takes place.

More theoretically, the guise of objectivity can be more insidious than any particular opinion. Partisans who pretend to be objective exploit trusting audiences by presenting opinion as fact. This is the sort of ethical manipulation that Foucault warned against. In short, it’s disingenuous. Bias enters into lessons no matter what. False objectivity is exactly the sort of behavior that thinking people revile most in politicians.

Admitting to bias doesn't mean that I dismissed the other side. Far from it. When I taught about environmentalism, I suggested that developing countries have the right to use their environmental resources. When I taught about global trade, I suggested that economic shocks might be hard for workers to bear. When I taught about suburbs and freeways, I suggested that families have the right to feel secure and to commute as they please. Holding and defending an idea does not mean that you don't understand and empathize with the other side. Indeed, it requires that you do so.

As our country's fate hangs in the balance, I can only imagine how many teachers are biting their tongues -- on the left and the right. Much of the rancor, distrust, and even violence that divides Donald Trump’s America from Hillary Clinton’s America surely began in the classroom.

Perhaps it’s too late, but once we are cured of the plague of this election, teachers should let down their guard. Those who are honest about their opinions can encourage productive, respectful debates. Their students can experience something that is all too rare amid our national grotesquerie: understanding, dialog, and respect even in the face of disagreement.

They should take brave stands, whether they are Republicans in San Francisco, Democrats in Topeka, or Libertarians 2,000 miles from New Hampshire. In so doing, they will treat their students to richer discussions. Students will naturally come up with more relevant, passionate lessons in history and literature (not to mention science and art). The body politic will grow more mature.

It's ironic, of course, that one candidate is trading on his supposed candor. Meanwhile, the other candidate -- the one whom I support and with whom I agree on nearly every issue -- gets pilloried for being too guarded. The blank stares and suspicion that she rouses among opponents and undecided voters is a feeling that America's teachers know all too well.

By now you can probably guess how I spend my Sunday mornings. But maybe, just this once, you’ll see me at church this week. I’ll be praying for the fate of our country.

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