Political Preference and the Classroom

There's been a heated discussion on the New York Times website about the issue of teachers declaring their political preferences, particularly in the form of wearing pins that endorse a particular candidate. This discussion has followed a blog post by Stanley Fish, which you can read here.

As a teacher, I'm in an unusual position at the moment: I'm Canadian, and teaching in the US, so I can't vote. I know who I'd support if I could -- but I have a handy, default dodge for any student questions about who I support. How would I handle this situation if I could vote? I think that I would evade the question, at least to a point. I'm not sure that there is a comfortable answer to this question, but this is why I'm taking this position for the moment:

As a teacher, I'm in a position of power over my students. I'm reasonably certain that my political view become apparent to my students at some point during the semester -- but I'm not interested in putting them in a position where they have to agree or disagree with me on this kind of point. If they think of me as a good teacher, if they respect me, they risk being swayed for the wrong reasons (i.e. because they want to please me, or because they want to emulate me. I'm not sure that my students do want to please or emulate me, usually, but in this area, I'd rather play it safe and limit my influence).

But my bigger concern is that, as a teacher, I can't reduce political issues simple binaries. It's not my job to make sure that my students vote for the 'right' candidate. It's my job to give them the intellectual sophistication and critical thinking skills to see through bad arguments and manipulation on both sides, to encourage them to question campaign strategies in general, to nudge them a bit closer to being engaged citizens, to urge them out of complacency. If I try to teach that way while I'm wearing an Obama pin, I make the discussion partisan in a way that is, quite frankly, counterproductive. I make it easy to dismiss me -- or to agree with me -- without considering the real content of what I teach. That's not what a classroom is for.

Whether I teach Beethoven or Shakespeare, Madonna or the Beatles, I'm giving my students something that I want them to bring into the world with them, something that I want to make them thinking and questioning citizens. The issue of support for a particular candidate feels huge in the run to an election, but in the long term, I want to give my students something much bigger, and much more important. That's a big task, and I'm never sure that I'm up for it -- but oh how I try.

No comments: