Sunday, October 23, 2016

Remaining Neutral in a Time of Polarization

Image result for politically neutral dog
As a teacher, I have always tried to remain politically neutral in class. Part of the reason for this is because I am in a position of authority, and I don’t want to impose my beliefs on my students, whose views, though less informed because of their youth, are every bit as valid as my own. The other reason why I try to remain politically neutral is because I want my students to think for themselves. I provide them with articles about what’s going on in the world, and I allow them to write and discuss these articles with as little input from me as I can muster. As a high school English teacher, I also attempt to connect centuries-old literature to modern-day events while allowing my students to find their own evidence-based paths toward truth.
Remaining neutral is incredibly difficult for me--especially during what has been, arguably, the most polarizing presidential election cycle in our country’s history. It’s also difficult because I have been politically active since I can remember, and I love having reasoned political debates with others. Further, I know of teachers who are not neutral, and that increases my desire to discuss my own beliefs and provide my students with an opposing viewpoint.
At the same time, I wonder if my silence is misconstrued as complicity for the racist, misogynistic, and deplorably unintelligent child-like banter that’s unbecoming of a world leader. Elie Wiesel, who wrote a novella titled Night about his experiences surviving the Holocaust, once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Therein lies my dilemma. Supporters of Trump and Clinton each claim that they are the tormented and the other candidate is the tormentor. Who am I to say that either of them is wrong? At the same time, when I don’t publicly stand against hate-filled rhetoric, what example am I setting for my students, and for my two young daughters?
As written in a recent Washington Post article: “Words matter. So do actions. Even when children don’t listen to what we say, they pay very careful attention to what we do. Children are watching. They are listening. They are learning from the example we set as their parents and teachers—not only from what we say and do, but from what we accept when it comes to the words and actions of others. We have to show them that hatred, sexism, racism, disrespect, and threats of physical violence are not okay. They’re unacceptable at any age — for a kindergartener, a high school student, or a presidential candidate.”

Trump’s words and actions go against everything I teach my students and my children. At the same time, the political polarity that straightjackets our democracy will eventually ruin it if people don’t start thinking for themselves again. I want my students to take a stand against social injustices because their minds and their hearts move them to speak up. I want my students to discern false from factual political arguments so that they can make informed decisions, thereby forcing political candidates to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator by using words that say a lot but mean nothing. In the end, it is the children who are going to continue making this country great. Perhaps there is room for me to assert my own views and be a little less neutral, but, in doing so, I must be careful to keep from hindering my students’ thinking. After all, that’s what they enter my classroom for in the first place.

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