June 24, 2018
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Politics in the Classroom

Remember that favorite high school history teacher? Should you know what his or her political affiliation was? Ideally, no. Teachers should keep their political views to themselves, yet in a surprising number of schools, they do disclose to students their political leanings and why.

Such personal disclosure was unheard of a generation ago. And for good reason. As an authority figure, holding the power over grades and discipline, as well having more education and experience, a teacher can, even unintentionally, bully a student with opposing political views into submission, or at least silence.

Teachers who have abused their positions by asserting their partisan views may be responsible for the rise of a movement that advocates for academic freedom in public secondary schools and public colleges and universities. A group called Students for Academic Freedom has complained that college and university campuses, especially, are hostile environments for conservative students.

Dianne Hoff, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine, argues that public school teachers should not disclose political views. “They are bound by the curriculum of the state and district, and so in many content areas sharing any political, religious, or other viewpoints would clearly be beyond the scope of their curriculum,” she said. “With students in K-12 schools being of impressionable age, it is important to challenge them to think, but not to indoctrinate.”

It’s a different world in college. Hoff asserts that “students at this level are adults and are better able to judge the [instructor’s] perspective on their own.”

While it’s probably true that most college instructors are liberal, it’s not clear whether they make conservative students uncomfortable. In 2003, a push began for an Academic Bill of Rights, a document that reinforces the principles of fairness, inclusion and diversity in academia. Hoff suggests the so-called academic freedom movement is itself a political ploy by conservatives. Maybe so.

Still, conservatives probably do feel like the poor cousins on campuses, and good instructors know how to ameliorate that problem, and should do so. The fear on the part of instructors, though, is that they will begin to tread around political ideas as if on eggshells, Hoff said. If that happens, students lose. If the perception that “thought police” are patrolling the halls of academia, works of literature like Thomas Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which the author satirically advocates the Irish address the famine by raising babies for the English to eat, will sit on the shelf.

Tolerance for student views on politics, religion and other closely held personal matters must rule. But the very definition of a liberal arts education is that students are exposed to the incredible diversity of human thought, with each perspective presented in the best possible light.

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