Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Politics and the classroom

A couple of days ago, I was asked an interesting question by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia.
If you're comfortable with it, would you do a piece about what you tell your students about politics and current events?  Or maybe you're not allowed to be political in school.  I'd just be interested to understand how to accept the seriousness of all this without feeling like crawling into a hole and hiding from fear, and I know you would have a way to be honest and forthright without scaring your "kids."  How do you approach this?
It's a difficult question.  The simple, quick answer is that in general, I try to be as apolitical as I can manage.  Since I teach biology, this isn't hard most of the time (the current administration has had little effect on, for example, photosynthesis).  I do periodically have students who want to argue about politics, either with me or with their classmates -- I have one class this year that has a couple of left-wing Social Justice Warriors and a couple of diehard Republicans, and several times I have had to say to them, "This is not the venue for duking it out over political issues.  Save that for outside of class."  And to their credit, they've all acquiesced, and more or less get along (although that might be more because they sit in diagonally opposite corners of the classroom -- by their choice, not mine).

Sometimes, though, that simple answer doesn't quite cover all eventualities.  For example, I'm unequivocal that creationism and intelligent design are not science and are completely unsupported by the evidence.  I do tell my intro bio students that I have no desire to change their minds on religious matters, which may be a little disingenuous of me, because I treat evolution as a fact.  On the other hand, I'm being honest in the sense that students can be successful in the unit on evolution, and come into no conflict with me at all, by simply learning what evolutionary theory is about, irrespective of whether they believe it's true.  It is, as I always say, like learning about communism in a political science class.  This doesn't make you a communist.

These days, though, I don't get much flak over my obvious acceptance of the evolutionary model.  I've taught in this district for 25 years, and by this time, most people know me well enough to realize that I'm a staunch evolutionist but also am not going to get in someone's face about it if they believe otherwise.  Honestly, in the last five years I've had more conflicts with students over climate change than over evolution -- the politicization of that issue has of late been more pervasive and more vitriolic even than the whole evolution vs. creation fight.

But I'm fairly unequivocal there, too.  The evidence strongly supports anthropogenic climate change.  There's no real doubt about that any more.  If you choose to disbelieve it, or to think that 98% of climate scientists are in some kind of immense, evil conspiracy to lie to us so as to give us clean, renewable energy and unhook our economy from the Middle East, and are being challenged by a plucky band of honest and courageous multimillionaire petroleum companies, then that's your business.

The hardest decision, however, comes when I see an issue that I feel is of national (perhaps international) importance that has no connection to the curriculum I'm teaching.  At what point is it incumbent upon me to make sure my students are steered in the direction of taking an appropriate stand on ethical or moral issues?  I've more than once compared the events of the last six months to the rise of fascism in Weimar Germany; wouldn't it have been the ethically right action for a teacher in Germany of the early 1930s to urge his/her students to fight the Nazis, to contradict their anti-Semitic and Aryan-purity rhetoric, to stand up against the evils of the times?

I think most of us would answer "yes," but the problem is, the appropriateness of these actions is only apparent because we see what the outcome was.  We know about World War II, the Holocaust, the wholescale destruction of much of the established order in Europe and elsewhere.  We have access to information that our hypothetical German teacher would not have.  How can teachers here and now decide when (or if) it's appropriate to make a political stand in the classroom, when there is no way to know what the outcome is going to be?

This is one of the reasons that I have chosen not to discuss politics in my classroom.  The possible benefits of doing so, in affecting events in an uncertain future are, in my opinion, outweighed by the breach of ethics that would come from my pushing my political views on a young, impressionable, captive audience.  Things would have to be a great, great deal worse before I'd take that step.  I do encourage them to watch the news (including suggesting to them to get their news from a variety of sources), I urge them to take a stand on issues that concern them, and (for the ones old enough) I tell them they should vote.

Other than that, I really have no business bringing politics into the classroom.

I think I'm more or less successful in being non-partisan, to judge by my Critical Thinking classes.  I always tell them that I'm not going to divulge my own opinion on anything we discuss; my job is to needle everyone into clearer thinking, whether or not I agree with them.  One class was particularly insistent about knowing my political leanings, so when someone brought it up (again) on the last day of class, I asked them to guess where they thought I was on the political spectrum.  No one chose far right (I suppose that's understandable enough, given my obvious acceptance of evolution and climate change).  Other than that, it was a nice bell curve.  A few said center right, a lot said center, a few said center left, one or two said far left.  A couple insisted I must be a libertarian.

So I guess I'm doing something right.  Or left.  Or center.  You understand what I mean.

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