The Politics of Political Neutrality
Teachers often have to walk the line between discussing current events in the classroom and remaining apolitical. But in our current political climate, is this even possible?
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Every day, history is in the making. In the past year alone, there have been countless events all around the world that will have repercussions for years to come. Though COVID-19 is finally easing, the war in Ukraine rages on. In Iran, protestors continue to advocate for the rights of women and girls after the murder of Mahsa Amini, while just last year in America, Roe v. Wade was overturned. Undoubtedly, both cases will continue to play an important role in the future of women’s rights. Despite these urgent global matters, Stuyvesant’s teachers are required to remain “politically neutral” per a regulation of the Chancellor issued on April 29, 2021. As a result, many teachers have to tread the fine line between promoting the inclusivity of all political perspectives in their lesson plans and expressing their political views.
For many students, the classroom serves as a key vessel for political expression and exploration. Debates over current political issues are commonplace in social science and humanities classrooms and can arise in numerous ways. History teacher Svetlana Firdman tries to connect historical themes to current events when creating her lesson plans. “We’re always trying to bridge what has happened in the past with the ways in which it [...] has manifested itself in the present,” Firdman explained. “Nothing happens in a vacuum.” Viewing societal changes and continuities over time can help students understand more about our world today, and how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
History teacher Mordecai Moore gave an example of how he connects current events to larger themes of history. “We were [studying] LGBTQ [history], and my Do Now started with the parental consent bill, [also known as] the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill,” Moore described. Moore was also able to connect the struggles of the queer community to the recent Florida bill, illustrating the relevance of historical context to understanding contemporary politics.
History teacher Lee Brando believes that covering current events helps students not only learn about the world they live in, but also better understand the historical content they are studying. “[When my lesson plans make modern-day] connections, students can make connections on a personal level with broader themes in the distant and more recent past,” Brando said. Still, Brando emphasized that history doesn’t repeat itself, which they feel is important for students to understand. “We might see patterns that develop over time,” Brando explained. “Certainly there [are] striking similarities, but there [are] also ways in which things are different. And it’s important for students to not just conflate the past and the present.”
History classes aren’t the only ones that can benefit from discussions of current events. English teacher Sophie Oberfield believes that discourse is vital for helping students process the feelings they have about what is going on in the world. “If something upsetting happens in the world, I have a little mini lesson plan I do for writing and thinking and asking questions,” Oberfield described. Though she doesn’t directly teach current events in her Freshman Composition class, she does teach a fictional play—India Pale Ale by Jaclyn Backhaus—in her Asian American Literature class. “[It] does relate to processing anti-Asian violence in a way that I think is artistic and interesting and related to the topic of the class,” Oberfield explained. “It’s the first piece that I’ve taught in the course that really clearly connects to some current events.” In the play, the main character is processing the loss of her father in a shooting similar to that which occurred in a Punjabi-American temple in Wisconsin on August 5, 2012. Oberfield uses this piece to demonstrate the relevance of art as a way to cope with traumatic events and to teach about the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
The rise in hate crimes, coupled with recent school shootings and a slew of other events, has contributed to a divisive political climate. In the spirit of neutrality, Brando has made a concentrated effort to foster open discussion around contemporary topics. “The idea is to allow students to be exposed to different perspectives, [and] allow space in the classroom for different perspectives and intelligent debate,” Brando explained. However, they acknowledged that it is near impossible for anyone to be completely unbiased. “I cannot give students, you know, five different sources I have to select. I have to excerpt, and in doing that [I am] putting [in my] own bias,” Brando said.
It is also important to recognize that vetted sources may contain bias, even if they form part of a standardized curriculum. “Official” sources such as AP-sanctioned textbooks or College Board Daily Videos are not immune to political leanings. The best way to counteract inevitable biases is to immerse oneself in a diverse range of viewpoints on an issue and look at sources through a critical lens.
Firdman agreed that analyzing multiple perspectives is critical to keep lessons politically neutral. However, she pointed out that outside of school, it is difficult for students to source from a variety of perspectives without the help of a teacher. Thus, she makes sure to pack her lessons with different viewpoints on every major issue discussed. She also advises her students to view sources critically and with an open mind. “It could be something as simple as trying to recognize [...] your own bias, [or] the series of events or perspectives that have influenced the way that you process a piece of news,” Firdman explained.
Though positions on the place of politics in humanities classrooms vary from teacher to teacher, these subjects serve as the most common academic settings for students’ political exploration. The curricula of history and the language arts frequently overlap with political discourse, emphasizing analytical and personal approaches to current events, history, and the media. STEM-based classrooms, on the other hand, are generally thought to prioritize factual and empirical learning. In mathematics and physical science courses, for example, the focus is directed toward numbers, theories, and experimentation. Still, politics have greater relevance in STEM courses than one might initially expect.
Social studies teacher Matt Polazzo doesn’t teach any STEM classes, but he understands how politics are interwoven with the sciences. “I’m seeing this obviously from the perspective of a government and politics teacher, but I would argue that any science which is relevant to the world today is going to have the dark tentacles of politics entwined within it,” Polazzo explained.
This interconnectedness is especially prominent in environmental science. Issues such as green policy and industry regulation are relevant both to modern politics and to the AP Environmental Science curriculum, inexorably linking the two. Still, the class takes a more academic approach than policymakers on Capitol Hill. “The impetus for the [AP Environmental Science] curriculum is to teach environmental science almost exclusively as a science class, where chemistry, biology, [and] physics, as well as the social sciences, get integrated into this body of knowledge so that students have an introductory background [...] in all the different aspects of environmental sciences,” science teacher Jerry Citron said. However, the real-life applications of these concepts concern more than strictly empirical science. “When it comes to the political components of environmental science, there’s a lot of discussion about the laws,” Citron acknowledged.
The importance of politics in certain courses makes it difficult for teachers to address the curriculum in a completely unbiased way. Both the environmentalist movement and climate change have become heavily politicized, and this partisanship permeates through even the most science-based classes, such as AP Environmental Science. “When we talk about these environmental regulations, it’s unfortunate, but it does become somewhat political,” Citron admitted. “There is a party ideology with respect to environmental regulations and laws.” Generally, liberal politicians are associated with instating environmental protection laws, while conservatives tend to oppose these measures.
Interestingly, shifting attitudes toward environmental policy are mirrored by changes in the AP curriculum. “Over the last few years, laws have been less emphasized and the science [has been] more emphasized so that has been a sort of interesting shift, although I think a lot of teachers still teach a lot about environmental regulation and laws,” Citron reflected. “Politics clearly comes into play here.”
Environmental law is discussed in more than just science classrooms. “We were learning today in [AP United States History] about the rise of the modern environmental movement,” Moore recounted. He explained that his students observed marked changes in the Republican Party’s stance on environmental laws, from the late 1960s—when conservative politicians were more open to greener policies—to the Reagan administration, and eventually the 21st century.
The link between politics and a vast array of curricula is clear, so teachers are often challenged by the Department of Education’s enforcement of political neutrality. When asked if it is possible to discuss current events without getting political, Firdman responded, “It depends on the current event, but it’s difficult [to not] at least [touch on] politics.”
Despite the constraints the rule imposes, Oberfield understands why it is in place. “I think students need to not [feel] pressured in any one direction,” Oberfield explained. “I understand the principle, and I don’t want to make any students feel uncomfortable.”
For Polazzo, being politically neutral aligns with his teaching philosophy. “I don’t state my own political beliefs or ideologies in the class. I know that some teachers do and I certainly would not question their bona fides or what have you,” Polazzo stated. ”But, for me personally, I always feel like it's not my job to change your political beliefs [or] your political ideals.” Polazzo aims for his classroom to be a place where students are exposed to a multitude of political identities and concepts. In doing so, he hopes to foster an environment where students are free to explore their own beliefs and construct their political compasses. “I do want you to think rigorously about your beliefs and ideals. If you come into my class as a liberal or a leftist, I’m not trying to turn you into a conservative or vice versa, but I do want you to leave with a stronger basis for why you’re a liberal or a conservative,” Polazzo explained.
Though many students and teachers share this sentiment, they understand that complete political neutrality in the classroom is not always a realistic expectation. To some, one solution is to give students context on the information they are being taught. “I do think the presence of bias and politics [in lessons and discussions] should be explicitly recognized by the teacher,” sophomore Collin Liang said in an e-mail interview. Still, Liang does not believe that the need to acknowledge bias should cause teachers to shy away from politics completely; they should simply be conscious of the influence they have on students. “There is a major difference between awareness in a certain view and trying to push for said view,” Liang explained. The adolescent years are fundamental in the development of personal thinking, so how teachers discuss politics can have a significant impact on the way students approach them in the future.
In the polarizing political climate of modern America, it is important to accept that politics will inevitably find their way into our lives. Political neutrality may not always be possible, but no matter what, it is important to recognize the implicit and explicit biases that impact the way we think about current events. The perpetual debate over the effectiveness of political neutrality in the classroom ultimately boils down to whether being politically neutral adds to or detracts from the learning experience. In either case, the ability to recognize and synthesize a variety of perspectives on a topic is an important life skill for everyone, teachers and students alike.