Teachers play vital role in polarization

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Somewhere at a high school in America, there is a student sitting at a desk, eagerly awaiting today’s lecture. The teacher walks to the front of the room, takes a deep breath, and then says “before I begin today, there is an issue I need to address.”

But it turns it out, it wasn’t even an issue. Instead, the teacher proceeds to give a pitch for their political candidate. The student who moments ago was excited to learn, slouches in their seat a little. This student doesn’t support this candidate, and looks around the room to see if others feel the same.

Instead, almost all the students nod their heads in agreement with the teacher, especially when this teacher makes a derogatory comment about those on the other side of the political spectrum.

The student who was eager to learn now dreads every day they will have to spend in this class, fearful that speaking their opinion will cause the teacher to view them in a negative light. The student who once valued learning above all now becomes a reluctant participant in discussion.

This is happening to students all across the country. It happens every week, if not every day. I know because it happened to me.

It is a teacher’s job to educate their students. It is their job to ensure that students become citizens who are civically responsible, and to inform them of political issues. High school students should be taught both sides, and middle ground, on “hot button” political issues our nation faces today, such as gun control, health care, and abortion.

Research by social learning theorist Albert Bandura has shown that children are likely to imitate the behavior of others and therefore likely to share the political beliefs of adults in their life. Given that children spend most of their time at school and home, they are then highly likely to share the political views of their parents and teachers.

Furthur research by psychological researcher Judith Harris shows, however, that children often deviate from their parents’ political views after leaving home if their parents share extremist views and often talk politics.

This change in political affiliation is due largely to the fact that these are children are more likely to engage in political discussions and are then exposed to different points of view on issues that they simply did not know about before.

But imagine if we exposed these children to different political opinions from the beginning. Exposing children to differing views allows them to form their own beliefs, but this needs to be done in an inclusive environment. An environment where “liberal” or “conservative” isn’t equivalent to a dirty word, where “Democrat” or “Republican” is simply a self-descriptor and not an indication of who you are as a person. Not only does this allow students to form beliefs that they may not have otherwise, but it teaches them compromise. By having teachers foster discussion, they can be sure that these conversations are held as more of a debate than an an argument. Doing this will undoubtedly create more politically engaged, considerate citizens, especially in a time when America is more polarized than it has been for over a century.

While introducing students to viewpoints from across the political spectrum, it is important that teachers do not discuss their own political opinions. They should, in no way whatsoever, try push their political beliefs onto their students. They should generate discussion, and address the opposing side (whether they believe in it or not) if no students seem to acknowledge it. Had my teacher, after stating that “there was an issue that [he] need[ed] to address,” proceeded to have an open discussion about the upcoming election, it would have been a different day for everyone. I would have been exposed to a different view in a more inclusive environment, and my classmates would have been as well. The teacher could have ensured that our conversation stuck to policy and did not get personal, and I would have been in a classroom of students debating the issues. An entire classroom could have learned a different opinion and how to compromise that day.

But we didn’t. It’s important that this generation grows up learning how to have a civil discussion and how to debate without personally attacking their opposition. It lies in the hands of high school teachers today to allow their students to explore political issues in an unbiased manner, creating a generation of free thinkers that will help keep this country great.