Should Politics be Discussed in Schools?

Should Politics be Discussed in Schools?

Shreeya Agarwal & Elissa Dallimore, Writer

Democracy is an emphasized value in the school environment. The intricacies of the subject are discussed in depth in terms of past court cases, past presidential elections, and past conflicts; offering students an adequate background for the issues we face today.


However, when contested specific issues dominate headlines, discussion becomes limited, if the issue is even discussed at all. The fact that we have policies that limit free political thought, begs the question: although we learn about democracy, are we truly putting it into practice in the classroom?


Although the 2016 presidential election has come to a close, many of those who witnessed the bedlam still taste the air of contention and discord among themselves. The classroom has not become immune to this tumult of political activity and discourse, instead one could say it has become one of many places that has felt the impact most heavily. Notable examples were displayed right here at Oakdale High School, where students were seen promoting “Feel the Bern” bumper stickers and t-shirts, while others wore “Make America Great Again” hats and socks.


Developing a political identity isn’t often high on the priority list for many students. Many high schoolers, unfortunately, are just not aware of the political issues at hand and don’t possess an adequately deep understanding of the topics that are being discussed in the headlines today.


To develop a thoughtful political conscious, students must garner a well-rounded base of knowledge, of which they may refer to as needed in discussion. The abundance of social studies classes at Oakdale effectively serves this purpose, from basic history classes like World History, to classes that focus on specific components of those classes, such as World Religions.


However, the order of the required history classes has recently been hotly contested. Some educators believe that without the foundational knowledge of basic historical events, a student cannot adequately understand the issues discussed in a government class. Previously, AP Government was only offered to sophomores and upperclassmen for that reason, but beginning next fall, incoming freshmen will be able to take this class instead of merit or honors government.


“Taking government as a ninth grader hurts [this development] because kids haven’t had the exposure to form their own beliefs. If they were to take it as an upperclassmen, then that would lead to more political discussion,” explains social studies teacher Ms. Pam Briggs.


The current Social Studies Curriculum Specialist, Ms. Colleen Bernard, agrees with this statement. She has proposed adjusting the current schedule to move American Studies to ninth grade, Government to tenth grade, and World History to eleventh grade.


In general, each teacher interviewed expressed the desire for current events to have a larger role within the classroom. The strict curriculum and rigid testing schedule provides little room for teachers to allocate time to discussion. Even within the curriculum, students are taught to memorize the facts rather than taught to think for themselves about the world context of these facts. The omission of nonfiction that concentrates on theory, in contrast to the heavy focus on narrative nonfiction, prevents students from thinking at a higher level. When teaching students to pass a test, rather than to expand the depth of their knowledge about the world, political discussion cannot thrive.


A person’s interest in politics can manifest at any time during the course of their life. social studies teacher Mrs. Terry Gibbons expressed her own observations regarding political interest, stating that students begin to develop such interests “right away in ninth grade” and that “some students already have strong political opinions that may either be their own opinions or based on outside environments”.


On the other hand, government teacher Mr. Nate Smarick responded, “Some develop an interest in middle school. It is a student by student basis, even some seniors don’t get interested.”


Additionally, the home environment has a massive influence on a student’s viewpoints. Growing up in a liberal or conservative household undoubtedly guides any child’s political identity due to the simple fact that they are surrounded by those who hold those political views.


The one place where a student may not be encircled by homogeneous opinions is school. Contrary to critical belief, exposing students to political thought in school does in no means imply that students are being force fed opinions and thoughts that are not their own.


Rather a school environment, if utilized properly, can become one of many mediums in which a student is given the ability to define his/her own political identity. As Mrs. Briggs puts it, “It’s our job to expose them [students] to the facts of how the government works and to apply to what’s happening in the real world so they can form own opinions about those things”.


Oakdale students who recently responded to a school-wide survey appropriately titled, “Political Discussion in Classrooms”, emphasized their thoughts on the prevailing matter. Nearly half of those surveyed at 43.5% indicated that current events within their social studies classrooms were only discussed on a weekly basis, whereas 34.8% specified that the discussion of modern headlines in their classroom were mentioned “rarely”.


When analyzing a social studies classroom, most would agree that the prime focus is on the relationship between human societies and the relationships of the humans within those societies. Teachers, however, are often expected to stick to a widely generalized curriculum that is unanimously agreed upon by the school board. This leaves little room for educators to venture outside of a mandated syllabus and thus excludes critical political discussion out of the picture.


It is inevitable that students become exposed to the contentious issues that define society today with the advancement of online journalism and social media. Most are generally aware of the broad interpretations of various social conflicts and cases, but do not possess an adequate platform to express their own thoughts and opinions. 78.3% of those who were surveyed stated the discussion of politics is absolutely necessary in a school environment.


Oakdale senior, Alexander Queiroz, further emphasized the point when asked about whether the inclusion of politics was appropriate in a school setting by stating, “Yes absolutely, but preferably informed political discussion”.


Current FCPS regulations in regards to political discussion mandate that an educator may not impose their political views unto a student, or exploit them by means of required political materials or activities. Generally, teachers interpret this guideline to abstain from influencing a student’s views beyond the role of a mediator or a devil’s advocate. In practice, this could include hanging a poster of one candidate in a classroom, and in complying with this rule, including a picture of the opposer.


However, conflicts abound in interpreting such vague statutes. In the case of Weingarten v. Board of Education the ruling asserted, and courts upheld, the employee’s free speech concerning politics was limited in schools to educator designated areas. For example, a teacher may wear a pin advocating for a candidate within a teacher’s lounge, but not in their classroom. The general premise of this ruling has subsequently been followed by numerous school districts.
An informed electorate is required for a democracy to thrive, and the knowledge needed doesn’t suddenly come to one when they turn eighteen. As an institution of learning that promotes free thought, school serves as the perfect place for this learning to begin.