Many years ago when I was still in my teacher education program and still very conservative, I had a recurring conversation with Rachael about the challenges of going into a career built around service in the public sector while still wanting to be an effective evangelist. I understood at the time that there’s a certain ethical expectation that public school teachers leave their religious and political beliefs at the door when they go to work; our job is built on the premise that we instruct in basic skills and we present information to allow our students to make informed decisions about their own lives. That was a difficult thing to parse when I was in the throes of the subculture that demands that all its members orient their whole lives towards making new converts to the subculture; I’d go in circles figuring out how I was supposed to be an effective witness for white evangelicalism when the standards of my profession demanded that I not discuss Jesus with my students. This was especially obnoxious because my atheist days in high school left me with a really strong instinct for wanting to protect the barrier between government and religion. I never really shook that instinct, even when evangelicalism was constantly telling me that the subculture’s version of Jesus belonged in every part of life.
I think the compromise I eventually landed on was that I had to follow the ethical code of my profession, but that meant that outside of teaching I needed to devote time to evangelism (or, alternately, get a job at a private Christian school where I wouldn’t have to worry about that particular restraint).
Thankfully, my journey to actually becoming a full-time public educator was long and arduous and largely coincided with my transition towards progressivism. The problem of keeping explicit expression of my beliefs out of my job became less acute as I moved into a system of thought that didn’t require me to constantly look for new members in the pyramid scheme.
Flash forward a few years to where I’m very solidly a progressive, and this question continues to confound me. It’s become more and more apparent that we live in a society where facts are treated as optional accessories to a person’s worldview, and the postmodernist rejection of objective reality that seems to have gripped white evangelicalism in fear for decades has now morphed into the rallying cry of national conservatism and the Republican party. The very act of education, which is predicated on the belief that things can be known is no longer a value neutral thing. Asserting objective reality is a political action.
This brings me to this tweet that I came across the other day:
While I’m writing this, the tweet has garnered over ninety thousand retweets and two hundred forty-five thousand favorites. People are moved by the idea that’s being communicated here.
Now, it’s fair to say that any single tweet suffers from a lack of nuance and depth due to its necessary brevity. Folks may be responding to the humor of the tweet (“oh, those wacky liberal college professors going on political rants in the middle of class!”) or they may be responding to the sentiment that college professors are fearless where high school teachers are spineless about their personal beliefs. I can’t say what the motivation is one way or the other, but I feel like there’s a great deal of complexity that’s being overlooked either way. Also, if I’m honest, I feel a little attacked as one of those high school teachers who believes that talking politics with my students is unprofessional.
See, there are a few factors that help outline the ethical need for public school teachers to avoid discussing political opinions with their students. One of the big ones is the fact that attendance at school is compulsory up to a certain age; our country believes that education is a public good, and that belief is codified in the requirement that parents send their children to school in some shape, form, or fashion. Because most parents don’t have the personal resources to educate their children in private schools or through home schooling, that leaves the public school option for the vast majority. Children who come to us don’t get a choice, so the least we can do is be careful in how we proceed with their education. After all, when you have government representatives telling citizens how to think, we call that propaganda.
Beyond the compulsory aspect of education, it’s also important to remember that in America we don’t consider people to be legal adults until they turn eighteen. High schoolers are mostly minors. Minors are supposed to have special protections specifically because they aren’t yet mature enough to act as fully responsible persons, and one of those protections is not being overwhelmed with a specific, government sourced narrative.
Furthermore, you have the relational dynamic between teachers and students. While it’s definitely true that teenagers are generally more interested in the opinions of their peers, they do respect and crave the approval of trustworthy adults in their lives. Along with parents, teachers often fill that role. We have an ethical obligation not to interfere in the ideological development of our students so long as it falls within the acceptable bounds of discourse in our nation. To do so would be taking advantage of an unequal balance of power within the teacher-student relationship.
All of these factors are dissolved or altered when you change the setting to college and the students to young adults. Professors still have ethical standards they need to adhere to when interacting with students, but the realm of acceptable discourse has expanded now that the students are older, paying for their education, and, most important of all, choosing to be in that setting.
Of course, all of this has been confounded thanks to recent events. The man who now sits as president of our country is an unprecedented threat to the democratic experiment in America. We’ve seen from his first week in office that he fully intends to enact the policy agenda he campaigned on, with its emphasis on scapegoating racial and religious minorities. He falls outside what have long been the acceptable bounds of ideological discourse. That should be license enough to criticize him in our classrooms, but the reality is that we live in a society where a large swath of the population supports him and carries with them the belief that government agencies are largely untrustworthy. As representatives of local government agencies, school teachers lack credibility in the eyes of this part of the population, and any justifiable criticism of the new administration in our capacity as government employees would be seen as overreach.
I feel this tension pretty acutely in my new job since I work in a rural school district that went almost eighty percent to that man. My students come from families that believe his lies, and open criticism is a risky proposition for me. To be an effective educator, I have to have credibility, and that credibility is built on the expectation that I’ll keep my politics to myself and just do my job. I don’t like it, but that’s the expectation.
So, y’know, just recognize that there are a few complexities behind the disparity between high school teachers and college professors voicing their opinions to their students.