I was excited by my lesson plan about the presidential elections. I planned to help students research issues and form opinions by guiding them through a variety of perspectives. Then my student teacher asked a question that surprised me.
“Do you ever have parents complain about elections being discussed in school?” he wanted to know.
“Why would they?” I asked.
“Because it’s kind of a touchy subject,” he continued in earnest. “People are very opinionated and they might not like you talking to their kids about politics.”
I had never considered the election as an off-limits topic. I wondered if I should be more careful when approaching the subject. Of course, there are topics like abortion that gets bantered about by both political parties, but they are not appropriate for middle school. I know that middle school students otherwise love to argue and debate pretty much anything, some passionately defending one candidate over another—usually their parents’ pick. But I didn’t want to introduce such a volatile subject in school if it would lead to conflict and discord.
Then my skepticism dissipated. It’s true that people usually come into political conversations with their minds already made up; the point of the exchange isn’t so much to gather new information as it is to convince the other person that his way of thinking is incorrect. It can make for uncomfortable situations. But we must have these kinds of discussions in the classroom.
We need to give young people the opportunity to practice. For a lot of people, it is impossible to have a discussion with someone who has opposing political views without getting heated. Others avoid all political talk because they don’t want to deal with the discomfort or possibility of conflict. But we cannot learn from—and about—each other unless we have these conversations. Perhaps our congressional leaders would be more effective if they had received more explicit training in how to have a civil discussion with someone who holds differing political views.
Besides, studying elections and our voting system has long been a part of American education. Six years ago, I led a class mock election. We focused on the voting process and not so much on the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. We discussed what factors a citizen takes into account when deciding who will receive his vote.
The truth is, some of the current campaigning feels more like reality TV than legitimate politics. Many people cast their vote for the candidate with the slickest ad campaign. But it is essential that students learn to look past the sound bites and media madness in order to better understand party platforms and candidate track records. This is the only way they will learn to be educated and informed members of a functioning democracy.
I also encourage my students to learn as much about a candidate as possible instead of just aligning themselves with their parents’ positions. As they reach adulthood, students will make their own decisions. And if parents have a problem with this classroom exercise in independent thinking and citizenship, I will be happy to join them in civil discourse.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.