So I was reading Excite News today, and I came across this story, about two teachers in Albuquerque who were suspended for putting anti-war posters in their classrooms. About 45 students walked out in protest, and 4 were arrested for refusing to go back to class.
It got me thinking about what it means when parents and school administrators say that teachers have to be apolitical – they can only talk about issues, never defend one side or another. Frankly, it’s crap. The only time teachers get in trouble for espousing political opinions is when they’re minority opinions. Parents rail against “indoctrination” in schools, but only when it concerns ideals and values different than their own. A couple weeks ago, a teacher in Littleton took heat for wearing anti-war buttons outside the classroom. Yet somehow, I doubt any teacher has gotten in trouble for wearing “United We Stand” buttons or something that says “I Support President Bush.”
Every parent wants to raise their children to share their values and their opinions, and that’s understandable. But every parent also should desire their children to become critical, independent thinkers. Especially in high school. If minority opinions are routinely suppressed, how does anybody learn? Many parents just assume that their children will just absorb whatever they’re told, even when they are teenagers. Their own experience as parents should indicate otherwise. Most teenagers will agree with a reasonable argument, but they don’t swallow garbage any more than the rest of us, and they are even less likely to do something just because they’re told to do it.
Do teachers have an obligation to be objective and try to present multiple sides of an argument? Absolutely. Does that mean they shouldn’t be free to express their opinion on the matter? Absolutely not. Should they be careful to make clear that it’s their opinion, and that their students have no obligation to agree with them? Again, yes. Does that mean that once they’ve said their piece, they should just let it fade into the background and never mention it again? I don’t think so.
Repression of legitimate dissent is the first tool of every totalitarian government. If we truly support the right to free speech, then we support it for all Americans, including (especially!) teachers. We opine all the time that our schools should teach citizenship and character, and yet any time a teacher tries to raise the level of debate beyond the racist Iraqi jokes that are surely swirling throughout our high schools by now, they are smacked down for being too “political”, when really they just don’t agree with the supposed values of the community.
I believe very strongly that the only way you get adolescents to behave like adults is to treat them as adults. That means exposing them to alternative opinions and asking them to think about issues. If teachers are expected to bury their heads in the sand to avoid the tough questions, how can they do their jobs?