Teaching in the Age of Controversy

My good friend Jeff once shared this quote on his blog:

A child who is protected from all controversial ideas... is as vulnerable as a child who is protected from every germ. The infection, when it comes—and it will come—may overwhelm the system, be it the immune system or the belief system. (Source: Jane Smiley, Chicago Tribune)

In today's era of increasing polarization, it seems that anything labeled "political" is also considered "controversial." When so many problems are ultimately caused by ignorance, I worry what this means for the future. This year, I taught ninth-grade Human Geography, a new course for me and our curriculum. Some of the topics that came up: migration, climate change, religious freedom, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, changing definitions of race, and other "political" topics.

I think that I successfully managed to help the students learn about these topics without causing unnecessary angst, but I was certainly wary of potential phone calls from angry parents. But at the same time, it was not an option to not cover these topics. Take migration, for example. A very charged topic right now, but the understanding of migration is crucial not only to Human Geography as a subject but to the mission of my school as a Catholic, Jesuit institution.

I've seen other teachers attacked for simply presenting topics that students or parents felt were "too political." In almost every case, those topics were, I think, vital for students to understand and equally vital to our school's mission. Our Mission Statement says very clearly that our school:

promotes justice and mercy, develops critical minds and nurtures compassionate hearts to serve others

It's impossible to develop critical minds, compassionate hearts, and promote justice if certain topics are considered verboten. It's not about indoctrinating students–though at a mission-based school, it should certainly be expected to express that some points of view fit our mission and others do not. But if we, the teachers, do not helps students to wrestle with challenging topics, to understand their blindspots, biases, and ignorance, then who will?

So when people say, "Teachers should not be political in the classroom," what do they really mean? My fear is that they are trying to remove from discussion any topic that would threaten their own power, whether economic, social, or political. A tweet from the pseudonymous @sisyphus38 put it succinctly:

Who determines what is political and what is educational...(And how are people tricked into thinking there was such a difference?) Who determines what is on the agenda or off the agenda? Power does of course and power serves power.

Being "neutral," as some recommend, is not an option. As a teacher, either I am helping students uncover the truth, particularly when it comes to areas of injustice, or I am actively perpetuating oppression. As Elie Wiesel said when accepting the Nobel Prize:

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant."

As a teacher, I have to be willing to address topics of injustice, even when I'm worried they may be too "political." That means working hard to craft lessons that challenge the students and to provide a safe space for students to grow into their own understanding of the world. If I don't take up this task, then I am ceding the role of instructor and guide to others–to social media and to that same culture of polarization and tribalism that has gotten us to this place. The students deserve better.

As an administrator, I have to also make sure that the other teachers feel empowered and protected when their own lessons receive pushback from students, parents, or colleagues who feel threatened. How can we make it clear as a community that we have a duty to prepare students to engage with the world thoughtfully, even (especially) when it's uncomfortable? We have to be willing to dialogue with those who disagree, but also stand firm about our role. I feel fortunate to work at a mission-based school, where we can be very upfront that this is a school with a point-of-view. Every member of this community is here as a volunteer.

To help keep me grounded in this mission as an educator, I have a poster hanging in my office with a quote from Paulo Freire:

Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

I cannot think of a better call to action for educators.