Politics in the Classroom Part Two

Exactly two years ago, I wrote an article called “Politics in the Classroom.” As my very first Tatler article, it left something to be desired, but it revealed a general idea: in an in-class political discussion, a teacher’s role is that of a moderator, never a contributor. But now, two wild and controversial years of the Trump Administration later, I wonder if sentiments may have changed. Is the verb “moderate” still relevant to a teacher? Has its meaning changed? To understand how Lakeside’s and, by extension, the nation’s relationship with politics has shifted, I reached out to two of my former interviewees.

Mr. Souser and Ms. Yorks, who were both featured in the original article, restated their belief that a teacher’s job requires keeping their political views to themselves, in order to create a space in which their students feel comfortable sharing. In 2018, Mr. Souser noted an exception to this approach, saying that should any government candidate speak or act in a way that contradicts the school’s values, it’s “fair space for criticism” from the Lakeside Administration. And in 2020, he still stands by his previous opinion. Despite the potential negative effects on students who support candidates whose actions contradict Lakeside’s values, Mr. Souser made the point that when we accept our position at the school there’s no mystery to what those values are. Ms. Yorks also noted that, while political issues like fiscal policy or immigration might be topics for debate in her class, she has no tolerance for racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views.

Over the past two years of political change, “moderating” has remained a key word, but it’s meaning has developed. Although Mr. Souser’s position remains the same, he said that the connotations of silence have changed. When he started teaching, he says, “there was a general sentiment among colleagues that if one was silent, then one was neutral.” But now, after two years of shifting cultural landscapes, he feels that silence is more often regarded as complicity. I asked English teacher Ms. Yorks whether she held that opinion—that silence now equals complicity—and she explained, “I absolutely agree that silence equals complicity when it comes to matters of oppression.” But, she doesn’t feel that that same concept applies to political topics like tax policy or universal medical insurance since she feels that sharing her view on these types of topics might prevent students who hold a different position from speaking up.

During our interview Mr. Souser also brought up the concept of “overlapping mandates.” He explained that while he aims to develop problem solving tools and global citizenship within his students, there’s also a mandate from the Lakeside Administration for teachers to remain relatively impartial. According to Mr. Souser, the problem of “overlapping mandates” is not novel. He believes “that our current political situation as a school and nation mirrors this [overlap] more urgently and openly than in years past; that’s not necessarily new as much as it is evident.” In that statement, Mr. Souser highlighted an interesting change, and perhaps the central theme in both cases.

So what do these two shifts— “silence equals complicity” and “overlapping mandates”— signify? As Mr. Souser pointed out, teachers are torn between maintaining political impartiality and fostering engaged citizens; this tension has been made all the more extreme by 2020’s political situation. The conflict that teachers face is a symptom of a larger issue: the political intensity of the past two years. As the contentious November election approaches and stark partisan battlelines are drawn, the role of politics in the classroom only seems to get more muddled.