“Shut up and teach!” The fear of being too political in the classroom

Taking care not to be “too political” or “too ideological” helps maintain a superficial peace at thanksgiving tables and in classrooms, and is probably a necessary part of sensible social self-regulation. But such self-censorship can also disempower those most vulnerable to political vicissitudes and neuter our teaching effectiveness. Not coincidentally, it is almost a truism that “mere political differences” should not impede friendship, family love, collegiality, or the dispensation of one’s professional duties. And yet it is clear that what is, for some, a matter of life and death urgency, can indeed look like “mere politics” to those who benefit from, or are only distantly impacted by such matters.

The question of how political to get in the classroom is one faced routinely by thoughtful teachers at all levels. To what extent is it our educative and moral responsibility to face critical contemporary issues head on? And when does a teacher’s silence or “neutrality” devolve from being a tool to facilitate respectful, candid discussion to a tacit endorsement of positions that are racist, xenophobic, or just plain nasty? And how often are we tempted to police ourselves, to err on the side of caution, avoiding these “political issues” for fear of being singled out by students or conservative gatekeepers as having ventured into unsuitably ideological territory?

If there has never been a more urgent time for teachers in the U.S. to ask these questions, it is precisely because the normal boundaries of secular democracy have already been beaten into whimpering submission. The distinction between religion and state, vitriol and argument, and truth and falsity, while always fuzzy in U.S. public life, is blurring to a degree that may be unprecedented. And what adds salty insult to injury is that those most shameless about violating such lines, for example, the white supremacist kleptocratic theocracy now steering the ship, are the quickest to cry foul when they sniff out a supposed boundary violation.

It is, then, precisely those who have most enthusiastically injected personal morality into political policy that object most strenuously when others speak in ways that reflect this overlap. That, for example, abortion has been framed in the U.S. in such dramatically political terms, rather than as a personal, medical choice, is a quite deliberate result of conservative extremism. And, of course, once an “issue” has been successfully constructed in such terms, discussion about it is easily interpreted as always already political. Most of the battle has been lost, then, when so much that is basic to our well being, and that of our students — for example, the shape of our families, our ability to access clean water and medicine, our freedom to buy Starbucks coffee or wedding cakes without being harassed or refused — gets labeled “political” by those also committed to policing the bounds of appropriate discourse.

We teachers might, then, want to focus less on whether or not the topics we’re discussing are, in fact, political or ideological, than on the very deliberate, and political strategies according to which these themes have been politicized in the first place. With politicization itself as their most insidiously political tool, conservative extremists can effectively commandeer all classroom discussion. It’s a pretty simple recipe: My “think tank” pours energy and money into anti-choice, anti-gay, or anti-immigrant initiatives, buying politicians and campaign ads, and then censors those who dare disagree with our position on the grounds that these others are inserting politics where it does not belong. Controlling access to the very conversations that might be used to engage with these life and death concerns is a masterful stroke by conservative extremists precisely because it keeps so many moderates and progressives from speaking for fear of fear of being seen as “ideological.”

We progressives want to be tolerant, of course, and this laudable aspiration comes to be used against us by conservative extremists who understand quite well how invested many of us are in our ethical self-concepts. But by implicitly agreeing to honor the lines of tolerance and civility adopted by these extremists — and it is a double standard of the highest order — we effectively tie our own tongues. It isn’t, then, just that we may have both a political and moral duty to discuss critical issues, but that we have an even more basic responsibility to challenge where they have drawn the lines of politics and ideology in the first place. As usual, our easiest choice will usually be to remain silent. And, as usual, such silence will translate into a crescendo of support for conservative extremists who, with practiced, spittle inflected righteousness, will continue to shout at us as they have for years: “Shut up and teach!”

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