Politics In The Classroom

During my debate class today I explained to the students that part of their grade depended on how well they behaved while not debating. In other words, they had to be quiet and respectful while in the audience watching the other teams debate. To encourage this, I also threatened to make them alphabetize the list of presidents found in the back of their text book and then copy the list five times if they could not remain quiet. At that, several looked over the list. One student then said “Oh good, Obama’s not in here.” I cringed expecting exactly what came next, angry looks accompanying accusatory shouts of “What’s wrong with Obama?” Alright, I thought, this is a debate class, so this could be positive. But then the first student offered two responses: 1) He has the same middle name as “some terrorist,” and; 2) he wasn’t born in America.

What was I to do with that? On the one hand, you’re told over and over to leave your personal beliefs at home. The teacher must remain neutral. On the other hand, how could I, as an educator, allow someone to hold such absolutely ridiculous beliefs? Surely I would be failing my calling if I let this student think either of his “reasons” were legitimate causes to oppose Obama.

I had a similar dilemma last year around the time of the election. Most of my students were, and are, strong Obama supporters. When I asked them why, however, most had little or no idea. One time I had a student give me a definite and clear answer. When I asked what was so great about Obama, that student said “He’s black.”

Again, what to do? In that situation, I asked them why that mattered. As a history teacher, I quickly steered them to the historical importance of the election. No doubt, everyone can agree that in a county which only fifty years ago segregated the races, electing a black president is an amazing thing. But then I pushed them past that by asking if the fact that he is black has anything to do with whether or not he’ll be a good president. Eventually I think most of them got the distinction.

Back to today. I had to correct that student. There just isn’t anything to debate about Obama’s name or place of birth. Letting the student “make up his own mind” about those things would be like a science teacher letting a student make up his own mind about whether the Earth is round. Or a math teacher leaving the multiplication tables up to each student’s opinion. I could not let his little mind be stolen by the nutcases.

Of course, for his sake and the sake of all the Obama supporters in the class, I pointed out that even though those reasons were bunk, there are genuine reasons to oppose Obama. I used his call for longer school years as my example. No controversy there; we ALL agreed that was a bad idea.

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