Professing Politics

Oct. 6, 2004, midnight | By Monica Huang | 16 years, 3 months ago

The extent of political opinions in the school environment

Walking into history teacher George Vlasits' third period class, Blazers can witness a teacher who warmly welcomes his students. From the warm-up to the bell, Vlasits openly shares his political views on topics ranging from the environment to the war in Iraq. But when a student goes over to the portables, a completely different philosophy can be observed: one of history teacher David Swaney who will not even disclose his political opinions in the classroom.

Whether it relates to the Presidential election in November or discussions in social studies class, the question faced by students and teachers is to what extent politics should be brought into the school environment. According to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students on Sept. 9 and 10, 77 percent of students believe that teachers should be able to communicate their political positions in the classroom. Bringing politics into the classroom can have significant consequences for the learning experience as evident from surveys.

To share or not to share?

Some teachers choose to express their political views in the classroom, while others purposely do not. For example, accordingly to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students on Sept. 23, 54 percent have had teachers who expressed their political views in class. Vlasits believes that teachers should clarify their beliefs for their students. "I much more prefer for my students to know my views and get a better understanding that my political views aren't the only ones out there. I wear them on my sleeve. I'm not trying to hide anything," remarks Vlasits.

Like Vlasits, many Blazers agree that teachers should reveal their political views in the school setting. "As long as they're not trying to influence students, that's what they're here for," says junior Emma Aguilar.  Sophomore Avi Edelman agrees, "Politics is everywhere, and you can decide for yourself if you agree with your teachers."

History teacher Kevin Shindel believes that teachers should express their views as long as they do not go too far. He cautions that, however,"if the teacher's motives are to indoctrinate the students, they definitely should not."

The extent to which teachers should express political views in the classroom depends on the age of their students, says Cherie McGinn, Social Studies Resource Teacher. "I think in the younger classes, the teachers shouldn't make strong statements of their political beliefs because students are in their formative years," says McGinn. "In the higher grades, it depends on the relationship the teacher has with the students."

Another option

Some teachers disagree with McGinn, saying the maturity of students should not determine whether it is appropriate to disclose political views in the classroom. Swaney says he purposely attempts to leave out his political opinions, although "it is difficult and not always possible." His motivation for withholding information is that he worries "about students either being intimidated and wanting to emulate my views or students who oppose me and want to have the opposite views."

Senior Laura Granados agrees that teachers should not impose their political views on students in the classroom. "It would be like brainwashing the students. They would go by what the teacher says instead of forming their own opinions. Teachers should be neutral," says Granados.

Worried Blazers

Sharing political opinions in class has a definite effect on the classroom atmosphere. According an informal Silver Chips Sept. 23 survey, 15 percent of students polled feel uncomfortable expressing their political views if they differ from their teacher's opinions. This deterrent effect can be even more significant among college students. According to a 2003 national survey commissioned by the Independent Women's Forum, nearly one-third of college students are uncomfortable sharing their views with teachers who are in disagreement with them politically.

Some students, like senior Carrie Cox, even fear that expressing different opinions might have negative repercussions to them personally. "I don't always want to give my views because the teachers might think it's too wrong. Then they won't like you," says Cox. Along with Cox, eleven percent of Blazers polled worry that their grades would suffer if they expressed political views different from their teacher's. Some of these students attribute this fear to worrying that a teacher might be biased against them if they argued with the teacher.

McGinn reminds teachers that they have power over their students through grading and college recommendations. In addition, history teacher David Whitacre agrees that a teacher should never penalize students for difference of opinion. "If they say they're a Bush fan and I'm for Kerry, I'm not going to give them a lower grade because of that," says Whitacre.

Stepping over the line

Assistant Principal Patricia Hurley cannot recall a time when a complaint on any such incident was reported at Blair. She hopes that if a student ever felt like their grade was unfairly influenced, they would take action and talk to someone. She believes there have not been these incidents because, "We assume we've hired people with good common sense," says Hurley.
While incidents of line-crossing are not very common, there are occasions at Blair when the appropriate line for sharing political viewpoints may be approached or potentially crossed. Junior Nora Arnold has never been personally offended by a teacher, but understands how some might. "I had Mr. Whitacre freshman year. He's very open with his views and he's one of those guys who walks the line… But his remarks aren't meant to be rude or offensive," says Arnold.

Whitacre says he does share his political views with his classes, but tries to be conscious of how he presents them. "I don't go out recruiting people. Sharing my views helps students understand who I am. You should explain your philosophies and walk people through your decisions," says Whitacre.

There are also incidents when students may offend both peers and teachers by expressing their political views. On Sept. 13, a Young Democrats Club advertisement was broadcasted on InfoFlow, which featured a photograph of Bush's face, graphic images of the Iraq war and the words "When Bush Lied, Thousands Died."

Some Blair staff and students felt that the advertisement was unsuitable to be shown on InfoFlow. Math teacher Peter Engelmann objected to the advertisement because "it had nothing to do with the Young Democrats Club, and it was a personal attack, a political smear act, attacking the honorable President.”

In addition to teachers, some Blair students felt that the Young Democrats' message went too far. "It upset students that were supporting Bush. The ad should not have been politically-motivated and should have [instead] been like, 'Are you interested in this Club?'" says senior Ben Lutz.

Some believe that a major problem with the promotion is that it only gave one side of an issue and did not offer any opportunity for discussion afterwards. According to Engelmann, "It should not be shown unless there was an opposite view. No one else had an opportunity to refute or discuss the issue. It was given to us as fact."

Senior Chris Nguyen-Gia, Television Executive Director of Blair Network Communication (BNC), says that the promotion fit BNC's technical (audio and video) and content guidelines. He says he felt that it was inappropriate of BNC to censor the Young Democrats' ad.

"Not humanly possible"

There are strong arguments on both sides as to what extent political viewpoints should be allowed in the classroom by students and teachers. Aguilar believes that it is extremely difficult for teachers to avoid sharing their views in class. "It's hard for them to do it. One way or another it's going to come out," says Aguilar. Vlasits goes further, stating that it is impossible for a teacher to teach without asserting his or her views.  "Being objective is not humanly possible," tells Vlasits. He continues, "I don't think anyone can. What annoys me is someone who says they don't put their politics into the classroom, but they really do. Even the words you use, the facts you choose to use or not to use, reflect your views."

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Monica Huang. Monica Huang is finally a HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR in the CAP program and is ready to move on to bigger and better things in life. Counting down the days until graduation and summer, Monica can be found hanging out with friends, watching TV, and dancing. … More »

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