Finding Common Ground: Teaching Politics in 2020

In my first Teaching US History post, I spoke about the concept of teaching students to “see both”–to realize that both the good and bad are tangled up in almost every topic in history or current event we study. I wrote: 

Seeing both starts with us as educators. Regardless of our own political and historical bias, we need to be willing to present and raise the side of the story that makes us uncomfortable, or that we’d rather not share. The importance of modeling here cannot be understated.

It’s this idea of modeling that I want to dig into today. How can we be effective models for students, even when a perspective we are sharing is in stark contrast to our own deeply held political beliefs? What role do we, as educators, have in creating space for students to share and to discuss their wildly disparate viewpoints? In an era where rhetoric and ideology are taken to the extremes, our roles as models for informed, engaged, and tempered citizenship cannot be understated. 

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my school offered a variety of workshops and events on campus to discuss issues of race both historically and in the present day. I facilitated a workshop titled, “Finding Common Ground with the Young Democrats and Young Republicans” in response to hearing from students on campus talk about the inability to have conversations “across the aisle” with their peers. 

I began this workshop with a brief story about why political dialogue is important to me as a person and an educator, citing much about what I wrote about in “Seeing Both.” Furthermore, I added some personal flair to the introduction: I am the faculty advisor for the Young Democrats while my senior advisee is the head of the Young Republicans. In relaying these personal anecdotes, it lets students know that it is normal to struggle with these conversations–adults and teachers can find them difficult, too. Through engaging these student leaders as well as fifteen other students that signed up for our workshop, I hoped that we could identify and then move past some of the things that block this active dialogue.

To start the session, I created groups that had one student leader and an equal mix of students that identified as Democrats and Republicans. Then, at the whiteboard, I had students brainstorm lists of stereotypes/generalizations that are usually applied to each of these groups. For liberals this consisted of words like socialists, snowflakes, and social justice-minded; for conservatives, the list included patriotic, selfish, and white. I then asked students to craft a sentence to share with their group a sentence that fit the model of: “I’m a ____, but I’m not _____” and then elaborate. For instance, I shared “I’m a democrat, but I’m not a socialist.” This then led to a broader conversations about the assumptions we make about each other because of the political party they associate with. Furthermore, we talked about how we are often given only two options–Democrat or Republican–when neither can completely encapsulate our beliefs as individuals. It’s always both. This understanding of our complexities as individuals and thinkers laid the foundation for our dialogue about race relations in the US–discussing Black Lives Matter and Mexican immigration, predominantly. 

Political scientist and philosopher Ruth Grant writes, 

moral education or development is not something that can be segregated or compartmentalized; it is not something acquired superficially; it is something that is going on continuously in the child’s life in relation to others and at the level of his or her very being…this means that children’s moral development cannot be separated from the moral maturity of the significant adults in their lives. (In Search of Goodness, p. 34)

As adults, we have to be willing to model this type of political dialogue. I noticed during the workshop, and in other conversations with students, that the language I would use to respond to students’ comments was quickly mirrored by other participants. A subtle “I agree with what you are saying, but…,” an “I never thought of that point,” or an “I’m just as uncertain on that topic as you are” normalizes the grappling that we want our students to be having at this stage in their education and development. If all our students know is the polarized and extreme rhetoric that they see on the news in the evenings, how could we expect them to do anything but automatically defend these extremes themselves? It’s our opportunity and responsibility as educators to provide students with another schema of understanding, of grappling, of discussing, and modeling this in discussion is an accessible and highly effective way to do so.

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