By Janis McMath, Editor-in-Chief
Education systems have always been dealing with this contentious issue. The claim that students are being indoctrinated by their highly political teachers has been repeated for every belief on the spectrum, and the political tension that characterizes the past few years has certainly put a spotlight on this question. What are the options for educators?
The paper “Discussing Controversial Issues: Four Perspectives on the Teacher’s Role” outlines the several stances teachers take regarding this problem, one of which being “exclusive neutrality”: the belief that disclosing any political opinion in the classroom and teaching any political lesson is inappropriate. Some prefer “neutral impartiality,” the practice where students learn about politics and discuss them, but teachers never disclose their bias.
Some think advocacy is appropriate. Yet, data from student surveys have shown that most pupils dislike it when teachers preach their beliefs. At the same time, the majority of students are found to be comfortable with teachers expressing their political leaning. It seems that issue is not the differing politics—it’s the forceful format that turns students off. Advocation from an authority figure doesn’t leave room for discussion. As teacher David Cutler quotes in a HuffPost article, “One teacher’s sense of ‘social justice’ is another teacher’s sense of ‘irresponsible judicial activism.’”
And back to exclusive neutrality: this is firstly inconsiderate of the fact that understanding politics is a vital lesson for any citizen living in any society, so schools have an obligation to teach it. Secondly, this stance does not realistically consider what being an educator necessitates. Teaching values is a big part of education; values are inherently political. As Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University Alyssa Hadley Dunn states, “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts […] We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” For example, lessons about “appropriate” attire, language, and manners are political. Teaching about current events certainly entails political discussions. Asking a teacher to express none of their political perspectives is akin to asking them not to teach. This stance is also a good opportunity for those who want to oppress certain political stances from being explored; in the UK, the Department of Education (DfE) asked teachers to not discuss politics in the classroom in response to many teachers criticizing budget cuts that directly impacted their work.
In cases of neutral impartiality, many different sets of research show that regardless of their plan to not disclose, teachers often said things or avoided topics that revealed their bias to an educated listener. In most cases, teachers cite fear of indoctrinating students as their main reason against revealing their political leaning—yet it seems that the bias reveals itself naturally regardless of their good intentions. And it is simple to argue that neutral impartiality could have the greatest possibility for indoctrination because of the observed tendency for teachers to reveal their bias unknowingly. Since the information is coming in but is not being contextualized, it is easier to assume it is fact. Teachers are constantly teaching pupils facts, so this is a logical assumption to take. I think it’s important that we just accept that showing our bias is unavoidable in a job like teaching. So, viewing that as a reality, how can educators go forward?
They can use what the research points at as the best option: “committed impartiality.” This method involves disclosing and using procedural neutrality—which means telling students your bias but ensuring that your lessons offer fair representation of all sides and your marking is not influenced by your leaning. As Wayne Journell, a professor of teacher education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro argues, just as knowing a news source’s bias helps contextualize the information it offers, knowing a teacher’s bias helps contextualize the information they offer. Additionally, I think that knowing a teacher’s political bias and still liking them offers a positive representation of different ideologies for students, and that is a valuable lesson.
Teachers have the responsibility to be as fair as possible—and that includes to themselves. It’s unrealistic and unfair to assume that people can be totally neutral. But, if teachers confront their flaw of being biased honestly together with their students, better action can be taken to prevent bias issues. Pretending that personal political values are something that can be shut off in the context of teaching, a value-ridden profession, is simply dishonest.
On to Cincinnati,