The Soapbox: Dissent Belongs In The Classroom

Driving home with my 16-year-old son this week, I asked him if any of his teachers had led a discussion regarding recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. He told me that it hadn’t come up. I pressed a little bit harder—not in AP US History? Not in sophomore English? Nope. I then asked him why he thought that was and he responded, “Well, Mom, everyone’s viewpoint would be subjective. Like, no one would agree and it could get heated.”  The sun began to set as we neared home and our conversation quieted. I felt heavy of heart—and I can best speak to that pain and worry as a teacher.

I am a public school teacher. I currently teach Creative Writing to seniors and honors/on-track sophomore English. I think I know firsthand why a topic such as Ferguson, Missouri, is so easy to pinpoint as one to avoid. My son wasn’t wrong—opinions would be formed and disagreements would be inevitable. If not handled effectively, the discussion might spiral into a web of hurt feelings and wasted time. Such an activity might create discussion of goings-on in the classroom at home and that might lead to parent/teacher communication—some of which might feel unpleasant.

This happened to me last year. I had a wonderful group of honors sophomore students. Their summer project was to identify a current event that they felt passionate about. They were instructed to find a work of fiction that explored such events, as well as research current statistics and potential solutions, and then put their findings in an essay as well as a Powerpoint for presentation. Common topics selected by students included: pollution of the oceans, internet freedom, and bullying. Two students selected gay marriage rights to research. On the day of their presentations, they both received applause from most of the class and kudos from me because they had fulfilled the terms of the assignment—my praise was offered to all students who did so.

Within 48 hours of their presentations, I received a visit from three students at lunchtime to let me know how offended they had been and that they did not appreciate my “liberal agenda.” A student in tears handed me a letter because she was so threatened by the idea of gay marriage, and I received a phone call from a parent who was very upset that her daughter’s project hadn’t been valued. Her daughter, a creative and brilliant young woman, chose to do a summer project about how ‘dumb’ summer projects are. I appreciated the irony, but she did not fulfill the terms of the assignment. I pointed out that as students aren’t required to test into honors classes, the summer project is a distinguishing requirement from on-track classes. In any case, during that phone call, I was berated for bringing “political topics” into my classroom.

It was a very emotionally trying couple of days for everyone involved. In addition, these incidents took place during the first week of school. I felt overwhelmed and deeply misunderstood—even a bit threatened. That discomfort went away as soon as I met with the parties involved. I assured my students that my politics were none of their business, and that the students who presented their research regarding gay marriage had fulfilled the terms of the assignment and therefore had earned my praise. Repeatedly, I stressed that students’ personal beliefs weren’t being attacked— different viewpoints were simply being presented. Students had the freedom to accept new viewpoints or hold fast to their personal opinions.

I called the irate parent and we were able to not only come to an agreement about the honors project gone awry but also establish a line of communication about why politics do have a place in the classroom. Most importantly, I learned that if I were going to permit ‘hot topics’ — aka current events — to be explored, I needed to do a better job outlining the perimeters of how to disagree.

The only rule I know of that exists for me as a teacher regarding politics is one that I believe in wholeheartedly—that rule is it is NEVER my job to teach my political perspectives. Rather, it is my job to facilitate a classroom safe enough to express personal opinions in speech and writing. It is my job to create a space where students can let their guard down long enough to be wrong, or right. It is my obligation to create a classroom in which elements of the rhetorical triangle are applied to real life discourse. It is my job as an educator to teach my students how to support an opinion and how to agree to disagree as well as how to move forward with friendships and collaboration in spite of these differences.

It’s not an easy job. I must ask, though, how can teachers be expected to turn away from current events — to avoid the exploration of issues that students close to voting age are inheriting? How can students begin to navigate a sense of self if they never bump up against others who disagree with their core beliefs? Have you ever read the comments beneath a politically charged article that appears online? Often, these comments are pure vitriol. Personal attacks are leveled at authors and reason goes by the wayside. Perhaps it’s because the comments are being made from behind a screen. Maybe, though, it’s because the commenters never learned how to disagree with others— to argue using ethos, pathos and logos or to accept a different point of view and move forward. If this seems too minor an example, I am glad to point to the current United States Congress. I’ve seen 15-year-olds accomplish more in 50 minutes of structured discourse than our elected officials have in the past six years.

Out of curiosity, I asked my English Department colleagues if any of them had discussed the recent events in Ferguson. Three of the seven present, including myself, had. Those who opted not to stated that they didn’t have time due to curricular demands, but one stated, “I was not about to go there.” I assert that we have to go there. It is unfair of society to deem character education an aspect of teacher responsibility only to remove topics where character building is possible.  Teachers deserve to receive training and professional development in the facilitation of debate if they feel insecure about potentially explosive discussions. An aspect of my yearly evaluations involves whether or not I connect my subject to real world issues. All real world issues can be viewed from a political perspective. To avoid such issues is to avoid potentially meaningful connections and possible application of content.

Hubert Humphrey once said that freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate. Can we agree that a teacher should never wield the hammer? And, can we also agree that a teacher must provide the skills for discussion, dissent and debate? I fear that our future leaders will be unable to cross the aisle and their opinions will come to rest in a comments section of an article causing them to seem inarticulate and virulent. I’m so happy to report that the students with whom I had a rocky beginning last year ended up being one of the most successful, generous and creative groups I’ve ever had the privilege to teach. Many new friendships were formed and as a whole they learned to disagree eloquently about literature and events in the world.

Something is occurring in America right now that seems akin to a lazy, bullying form of dissent between those with strong ideologies. We are losing the art of compromise and so much of the good that can result from a willingness to find common ground. Teachers can and must help to facilitate learning the art of compromise. A teacher’s politics don’t belong in the classroom, but politics do.