In the fall of 2016, before the presidential election, a 9th grader came to school wearing a Trump 2016 T-shirt. I walked into the faculty lounge that morning to get a cup of coffee and nearly a dozen teachers were standing in front of the one-way glass window, looking at him with open disgust. They were discussing how the student should best be reprimanded, or at least “re-educated,” for his politically indefensible display. Their comments included:
“Why is he wearing that?”
“Is he racist?”
“This is not ok. This is not normal.”
I interjected: “Why don’t you ask him?” My question was immediately met with head-shaking and looks that told me I clearly didn’t understand. To my colleagues, the shirt was so gross an offense that engagement served no purpose. To me, their unwillingness to talk with him was a missed opportunity to better understand the perspective of someone who saw things differently.
The tenor of the discussion around politics that I saw play out that morning—both the judgments and the refusal to engage—reveals a persistent problem in our schools. It’s a problem that extends far beyond the comments of a few teachers in the faculty lounge.
I have been a teacher for 14 years. For the past seven years, I have been at a private high school in Los Angeles. For seven years before that, I was a public high school teacher, in Los Angeles and in Philadelphia. What I’ve seen alarms me. The lack of humility on the part of educators, when it comes to teaching students about cultural, religious, political, viewpoint, and ideological diversity, has resulted in a climate that stifles learning. While all of these components are important, in recent years, the need for an understanding of political diversity has become the most salient.
I have seen a pervasive norm that conservative ideas are bad and progressive ideas are good. While this norm may be reversed in other districts around the country, the reality is that most Colleges of Education (the institutions that train and produce teachers) are situated at universities that support this orthodoxy.
In my current position, I run my U.S. History, Gov-Econ, and Civics classes in a way that welcomes all political perspectives. Because of that, I have become one of the few instructors at the school students feel they can come to when their perspective doesn’t perfectly align with what they feel is the “right” view. Students have come to me reporting things like “If I bash Trump in my essay, I get an A” and “If I promote building the wall, I fail.” While I believe that this is, to some extent, hyperbolic, perception matters and it indicates a broader problem in primary and secondary school education. There are at least three reasons this needs our attention.
First, one of the goals of education should be to prepare students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Fostering the ability to think about complex and controversial issues from a variety of perspectives, with an eye towards problem-solving, is a necessary part of that process.
Second, higher education has, up to this point, received the lion’s share of attention on the problem of ideological conformity. But prioritizing reform only at the level of post-secondary education ignores a significant fraction of young people. The National Center for Educational Statistics showed that, in 2017, “about 44 percent of high school completers enrolled in 4-year institutions and 23 percent enrolled in 2-year institutions,” excluding about one-third of high school completers from any resulting advances.
Third, modeling respectful discourse has to start early if it is to become internalized. K – 12 students need to observe their instructors articulating and defending various positions and exhibiting genuine and thoughtful curiosity about views different from their own. Moreover, students should see that the ability to reason through an argument and the demonstration of curiosity are desirable and valuable traits to have.
We should be training students to be critical thinkers, where critical thinking is the analysis and evaluation of an issue free of ideological and subjective judgments. This skill is rarely taught in secondary school classrooms, even though schools know how to do this, at least in principle. In fact, this approach is more frequently seen in early childhood and elementary classrooms. It’s present in activities like “How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?” This type of thought exercise lays the groundwork for problem-solving and thinking outside of the box. However, at some point usually, during middle school, when the topics become decidedly more controversial than paper clips, structured lessons with a specific political agenda and singular viewpoint become the norm.
A few months after that morning in the faculty lounge, I had the opportunity to speak with the student who had worn the Trump t-shirt. He explained that he wore it partly out of pride for his conservative ideals and partly out of frustration for the way he felt those ideals were judged in the school setting. Based on the teachers’ comments I’d overheard, he was right to feel that way.
This problem of a singular ideological position in primary and secondary education is likely to intensify, at the very least in the near term. For instance, in recent weeks, students have demanded that anti-racism readings be adopted into classrooms across the country. While there are certainly merits to the anti-racist perspective, by incorporating it as a teaching tool, we’re reflexively and uncritically accepting this version of the world. But this is not what education should be. After all, we shouldn’t be telling young minds what to think, we should be teaching them how to think.