Is it appropriate to bring politics to the classroom?

One of my colleagues told me that she thought it was inappropriate to discuss politics in the classroom. I told her that I had discussed the election with my students. “Oh no”, she said – “I wouldn’t do that. It could make people uncomfortable. The classroom should be a safe place.”

I was surprised by her strong response. “I do think there is a time and a place for it”,  I conceded.” It depends on the class. However, I teach a writing class and that seems like a good place to open a discussion.”

During the election – I had suggested we write about what we think of the current political climate. “Nobody here discusses it” – one of my student’s told me. The students live together in an assisted living center. The class is taught at the facility. “It’s all over the news – and we all have an opinion – but at dinner we avoid the discussion.”

“I think it would be good to spend some time writing about it, I told them. I reminded them that the writing topic is optional and no one needs to write about it if they feel uncomfortable. My students agreed on the topic – but the next week was tough. Most were clearly for Clinton but not all.  Non-the-less, it opened a dialogue and cleared the path to better understanding. It exposed the elephant in the room.

I told my colleague that there is discourse  happening on campus – that more than 200 students went to an event about the Muslim travel ban and that Foothill College President Thuy Thi Nguyen kicked off the event, calling the ban “illegal and unconstitutional” and reiterated her support for the college’s international students.

This kind of discussion, I believe, is important both in the classrooms and on the campus. I have thought about the safety factor that my colleague brought up. It is a risk that the discussion can get out of control or that someone feels silenced. That did happen to some extent in the writing group. But it also led to a discussion about our commonality and the need for more open communication between the sides. And it allowed the group to express their respect for each other and brought them closer as peers and as friends.

 

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One thought on “Is it appropriate to bring politics to the classroom?

  1. This is a pretty complication question. I also wonder how politics can be appropriate in my courses. In my critical thinking classes, particularly, I think it’s essential that I teach students how to critique what’s happening in their own country, so the conversations sometimes wander into politics. During the past administration, I never worried about asking difficult questions about Obama’s drone policy, Guantanamo, trade deals, etc. At times, to establish a debate, I would even write on the board, “Is Obama a tyrant?” That was then. Now, I wonder how it would go over if I updated the name. Ultimately, my purpose with this is always along the line of what you write about in your blog: to get students to consider issues from multiple sides, to be able to articulate or listen to or at least appreciate conflicting sides. But a part of me dreads the idea of a photo going viral with the words, “Is Trump a tyrant?” written on the whiteboard. I guess I’ll just have to be sure to always include the word DEBATE in big bold letters so no one is confused.

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