Teachers need to take a Neutral Political Position in Class

When teaching political responsibility, teachers should avoid partisanship because: (1) the role of the teacher is to promote critical thinking; (2) “political responsibility” is a subjective term open to partisan interpretation; (3) accusations of partisanship can cause problems for a teacher. Teachers can best maintain their credibility and status in the classroom by refraining from political partisanship.

♦ Definition of terms

For the purposes of this article, “partisanship” is defined as a strong adherence to a cause or group. Partisanship can often (but not always) be blind and unreasoning bias and border on prejudice. “Political responsibility,” on the other hand, is a more subjective term, and a teacher could spend an entire class period having students debate its meaning. For the purpose of this discussion, however, political responsibility can be described as an ethically driven set of political beliefs and practices devoted to promoting the best interests of one’s fellow citizens through the political process – voting, advocacy, political action, etc.

♦ The teacher’s role

The teacher’s place in a political science, history or civics class, for example, is to bring the students to a level of discourse that accepts certain facts and principles as necessarily true. An agreement on those facts and principles is needed in order to develop a more complex understanding and practical application so that students can “connect the dots.” That connection is what education is all about.

If the teacher has a personal political agenda and bias, the facts and principles will be adulterated and slanted. Most students will perceive the teacher’s partisanship as actual class learning objectives, and critical thinking will be either be stunted or stopped altogether as students struggle to please the teacher. So the teacher’s role is to “stand in the center” and promote an approach that allows students to come to their own conclusions on controversial issues.

♦ The subjectivity of “political responsibility”

Two examples on differing views clearly illustrate the subjectivity of views on political responsibility follow:

“Thus do we seek inventiveness, diversity, and creativity within a stable order, for we Republicans define government’s role where needed at many, many levels, preferably through the one closest to the people involved.”– Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech as the 1964 Republican Candidate.

“I trust the American people to realize that while we don’t need big government, we do need a government that stands up for families who are being tricked out of their homes by Wall Street predators; a government that stands up for the middle-class by giving them a tax break; a government that ensures that no American will ever lose their life savings just because their child gets sick… – President Barack Obama

Each speaker, then, has somewhat of a different view on the federal government’s role and what being politically responsible is all about. The teacher’s role is to expose students to these diverse (convergent and divergent) views of political responsibility. As the class polarizes to the right, left, and center views on political responsibility, the teacher should preside in the “eye of the storm” as controversy develops from an ensuing discussion on political responsibility.

♦ Avoiding problems with school administration and the public

More than one teacher has found out the hard way that stating personal political opinions will almost always offend someone somewhere. Whether it be bias or activism from the right or the left, teachers run the risk of losing their jobs when they become partisan activists on public time and money. The best approach for a teacher is to “keep them guessing” when it comes to disclosing political inclinations. It goes to credibility and the teacher’s status as classroom arbiter and mentor and avoiding charges of “political indoctrination.”

♦ The best way to teach political responsibility

When teaching political responsibility, then, the best approach is to help the students find their own notions of what is “best” for the “public good.” In the two quotes above, Barry Goldwater’s notion of political responsibility focuses on the one “closest to the people”; i.e., local governments. President Obama believes that the federal government should be more closely involved in promoting the welfare of the people.

Deciding which approach (or perhaps a combination of both) is preferable is all about the students’ “connecting the dots.” The teacher should help with the “dots,” but allow the students to do the connecting.