Teachers: talk politics in class but don’t proselytize

Teachers can – and should – talk about the election with students, but they shouldn’t impose their views on them.
Teachers can – and should – talk about the election with students, but they shouldn’t impose their views on them. AP

Two days after Donald Trump’s presidential win, California social studies teacher Frank Navarro was placed on paid leave amid reports he gave a lesson comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler. His school district reinstated Navarro the following Monday, when its superintendent called the lesson “a very appropriate academic comparison for a social studies teacher to make.”

That’s true, but only if students were allowed to make up their minds about it. That’s the crucial distinction we must recognize, as schools wade through these difficult political times.

Put simply, teachers should give students the skills and knowledge to analyze public issues on their own. But they should never bias students towards a position. That’s not education; it’s propaganda.

Some teachers – Trump supporters and critics alike – seem to have lost sight of the difference.

An Alabama math teacher was put on administrative leave last week for projecting an image of Donald Trump in the style of Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” poster from the 2008 campaign. But he also placed “You’re Fired” – Trump’s signature reality-show line – at the bottom of the image, below Obama’s name, suggesting Trump had fired Obama.

According to a student, the teacher told the class he scaled every student’s test by 10 points instead of taking points away from the students who performed best on it. “Those of you who like Obama and Hillary, that’s what they would do,” he allegedly said. “It’s gonna take a lot of work in the next four years to undo what was done in the last eight years.”

Clearly, this teacher was seeking to sway students toward his point of view. But so was a teacher in Oklahoma, who was recorded in class calling Trump voters “uninformed,” “ignorant,” and “racist.”

The remarks drew a rebuke from the teacher’s principal, who told a local newspaper teachers should be “role models” for students. He also warned teachers against expressing their political opinions in “the classroom setting,” which is “not the proper forum for that.”

But that’s not right, either. Teachers are political beings, just like the rest of us. How can they be role models if they must pretend they’re neutral?

That was philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn’s question in 1938, when he challenged America’s teachers to be honest and straightforward about their political views. “No one can teach an art which he is forbidden to practice,” Meiklejohn wrote. “Slaves cannot teach freedom.”

But he also cautioned teachers against abusing that freedom, by insisting students echo or share the teachers’ opinions. “The very existence of democratic schools depends on that distinction,” he said.

That brings us back to Navarro, who was briefly suspended after comparing Trump to Hitler. Was Navarro trying to get students to reach their own conclusions? Or was he attempting to convert them to his own?

It’s too early to know. But some of Navarro’s own statements should give us pause. “I said to (school officials), ‘I’m not pulling these facts out of my hat,’” Navarro told a local newspaper. “‘It’s based on experience and work and if I’m wrong, show me where I’m wrong.’ And there was silence.”

That comment suggests not just that Navarro saw strong similarities between Trump and Hitler, but also that he wanted his students to see the same thing. It’s simply a matter of “facts,” after all, and not of opinion. Who could disagree with that?

School officials’ silence suggests they’re forgetting Meiklejohn’s point, which we all need to remember right now. The question, again, is not whether Trump is good, bad or indifferent. It’s whether we will have the courage to leave the answer up to students, instead of imposing our beliefs on them.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.