Saturday was a pretty bad day. I was in a pretty crummy mood despite spending the morning selling Girl Scout cookies with my troop. Normally, engaging with young leaders within the community picks me up. But not on Saturday. Why?
I read the headlines.
For months, I have been paranoid. Paranoid that my students are not safe engaging in political discussions; paranoid that my instruction of government content would irk some parents or the public. My paranoia over the tenor of contemporary politics has largely been met with a blasé response from peers in education. I really hoped that it was just me who was being overly cautious and, well... paranoid.
I am no 'veteran' of politics; no resident expert. What I am is the front line. I sit and interface with young adults on a daily basis about politics and government. These days, it's really hard.
My students are becoming politically aware during a time in which the very act of talking is risky. In order to be ready for the AP Exam in May, we have to talk. We talk about tax policy, the rise of the National Security and Social Service State. We talk about critical de-alignment and realignment elections, the evolution and revolution within political parties. We talk about the national debt and policy solutions that directly or indirectly combat these issues. We talk about civil rights and liberties.
Normally, talking about these issues in my classroom is compelling, but manageable. Kids have predictable questions and reactions to concepts like policy brutality, gun rights, and terrorism. Kids are also passionate. The nice thing has always been that we can talk about it. Kids come to class and we examine these issues using 'reliable' sources who evaluate these policies from a partisan, yet academic perspective. We learn to advocate for policy change using data, not emotion.
But it's getting hard. Civility is hard to come by these days as passions are very high. These passions have a place in the classroom. We should talk and listen and feel. We should hear what each other has to say so that we can seek understanding and compromise. (I have always said, there are no clear cut winners and losers in policy; everyone has to give something up so that the policy can come into existence). Carzy enough, even the fundamental discussion over the importance of academia and data-driven argumentation is politically charged. While academics and pop stars debate whether or not the world is round on Twitter, both sides are drawing lines in the sand with language that is meant to label and demean each other. Using "us vs them" language makes the middle ground a no-mans land.
And here I am, stuck in the middle.
The rhetoric and the discord is growing, and it is already here in our schools. For the first time in the fifteen years of my professional career, I have had to tell my kids to remember that we are debating ideas. That the people we disagree with are people; equally entitled to our own opinions. That we can only move forward by patiently and respectfully talking. We may need breaks, we may need to work to remember why we are the community we are. Finally, sometimes the most viable solutions are somewhere in that now barren middle ground.
While I have these conversations, I am nervous. It's silly, I know. I should have nothing to fear. Yet, our kids' access to these very public, political discussions (and I am talking about all kids, not just high school aged kids) is influencing them to talk and not listen.
I may be paranoid, but I don't want to get to the point where we cannot talk. That middle ground is a very lonely, bleak reality that these kids have read about in their distopian novels. Yet our solution, to remedy speech we don't like with more speech, it's getting really risky.
I will keep engaging my community, selling cookies and volunteering... hoping that actions prompt speech. That kind of conversation is something I can toast my milk (and cookies) to.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan