As a teacher, the end of summer not only means the end of my vacation but the beginning of new opportunities. I teach high school social studies. My students are bright, articulate, and diverse. They come from upper-middle-class and working-class families; families that can trace their heritage back to our nation’s founding and new immigrants searching for the American dream. They are bright, hardworking, and willing to face new challenges. However, during the past few years, they’ve been more reticent to share and discuss their political opinions about what is going on in our world. As a social studies teacher, I find that frightening for our democracy.
Perhaps some people may think that this is a good thing, that the last thing that we need is more division with the nation is already consumed with politics and divided by social media and the pervasive 24-hour news cycle. However, for someone that is entrusted with fostering thought, encouraging debate, and most importantly, creating future citizens, the fact that I can almost hear crickets when I ask my students to discuss their thoughts about politics (especially if their point of view differs from the majority) truly worries me.
It isn’t that these kids don’t have opinions– what person living in today’s world doesn’t have a take on current events? The problem is that they are afraid of being ostracized in front of others. They fear being called racist, intolerant, fascist, or woke. The strange thing is that the students are involved in dozens of opportunities to help the community. They volunteer to aid the homeless, those with learning disabilities, and many more– they are wonderful kids!
Unfortunately, when it comes time for political discussions, on more than one occasion students have approached me after class and admitted, “It’s not that I don’t have an opinion, I just don’t want to share my opinion.” Despite my assurances that their viewpoints are welcomed and vital in our society, they still resist for fear of having a belief that wouldn’t be considered the norm.
Some people may say that this is normal since teenagers are partly defined by their need to fit in rather than stand out. After all, when I look back at my youth, I cringe at the things that I did just to fit in. However, this is different. School is supposed to be a place where kids can learn from one another how to criticize, and more importantly, how to be criticized when your point of view is challenged. The point is not to foster debate for the sake of debate, but to make you think differently, perhaps even allow you to change your mind. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, but how do we progress as a society and country if this isn’t happening during a student’s formative years?
We may already be seeing the negative effects of this type of reluctant behavior. This week’s report that college students refuse to room with people that don’t share their political point of view is a symptom of the disease of division that is sickening this nation.
So, the question then is how do we encourage debate and convince young people that they shouldn’t be so quick to disregard someone who doesn’t share their point of view? I believe that instilling this begins at the high school level or younger. In recent years, school districts have courageously embraced the need for enhancing their curriculum to include the voices of people that have been historically marginalized to create a more well-rounded educational experience.
I believe that now is the time to embrace and reinvigorate the need for civics in our classrooms; A good civics curriculum that begins from elementary school that would encourage debate and fosters respect for other people’s opinions is sorely needed in this country. If done properly and done with the care and guidance of a trained educator, it can make us a much stronger democracy that will only survive when people don’t separate themselves into camps.
Additionally, I believe it would be productive for the leaders of our country that have enabled these divisions should take a stand. A few weeks ago, Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan to ostensibly support the democracy of the tiny island. While I applaud her efforts, I will argue that she could do a lot more to foster democracy and respect for other people’s opinions here in the United States. What if Speaker Pelosi made a point of visiting a college when they host a conservative speaker such as Laura Ingraham or Ben Shapiro? On more than one occasion, speakers like them have been prohibited from speaking for fear of violence. Conversely, what if Republican leader Kevin McCarthy also made a point of visiting a left-leaning speaker?
Only by making a concerted effort in schools and by our most prominent leaders can the most vital component of our democracy be saved. Only by encouraging debate and respect for each other’s opinions do we move forward as a society.