All education is civics education: A meditation on electoral politics

By | March 1, 2016

I teach college.

That’s a thing I do, and it’s also the biggest and most important piece of my professional identity. Because I was a PhD student, and then a PhD candidate, and then a person with a PhD, I am very aware that my first identity is supposed to focus on my scholarship, and my second or possibly my third is supposed to be about my teaching.

Eff that. Teaching is the most important thing I do. It’s also the professional activity I think about the most. And also the thing that exhausts me most of all.

This semester, I’m teaching graduate students who are majoring in education. And yesterday, in class, I made this argument to my students: All education is civics education. Everything we do in classrooms models for students how to engage with the world.

I told my students that I am struggling with how and whether to represent my political identity in class, because there’s one candidate in particular who makes me “viscerally furious.” That’s the phrase I used, “viscerally furious.”

I am committed to teaching in solidarity with students from marginalized communities, and in particular with students of color. And I told them this, and I told them that the candidate who makes me viscerally furious is someone who’s not quite sure what to do when he receives an endorsement from a white supremacist. He’s someone who doesn’t know that when you get an endorsement from a white supremacist, you walk the fuck away from it.

And people are voting for someone who doesn’t know to walk the fuck away from an endorsement from a white supremacist.

It’s not a small number of people, either: Significant portions of primary voters are standing up for a candidate who’s a documented liar, hypocrite, xenophobe, and bully. That means my students are living and learning in a cultural context where a vocal segment of their country feels totally fine embracing racism. What would it mean to be a person of color, trying to learn and live and love and grow in a context where that kind of hate is getting spewed?

And here’s my dilemma: What does solidarity look like? Does it look like walking into my classroom and notifying my students that I stand in opposition to Donald Trump and everything he stands for? Or does it look like leaving my politics at home, as is commonly expected of teachers?

There’s really good reason to require teachers to remain silent about the Big Topic of politics. Teachers are in positions of power relative to their students, which means they might exert undue and inappropriate pressure on students when it comes to the most fraught issues of the day. There’s also the issue of bias: When a teacher introduces their political views into classroom discussions, that also invites students to speak about their political views. Teachers have to be prepared to approach all of their students with fairness and a commitment to community, and that doesn’t come naturally or easily even when things are calm. It’s especially hard when we introduce topics that are close to our hearts and then learn that some of our students don’t stand with us.

On the other hand, my politics still exist, even if I don’t state them to my students. Making them visible to students may be more fair than leaving them unspoken. And, as one of my students pointed out, politics are also visible in the smaller activities that make up a classroom. They’re evident in my policies, in where I place my body, in how I facilitate conversations and how I organize class time and assignments. Even if I never stated it overtly, my students likely already assumed that I would stand against everything Trump embodies.

But I struggle with this. Right now, the struggle is about the repugnance of Donald Trump; at other times, it’s been about bigoted immigration bills or misogynistic rhetoric around reproductive and workplace rights.

I made this argument to my students yesterday: All education is civics education. Everything we do in classrooms models for students how to engage with the world. And what service or disservice do we do to students when we leave the difficult, thorny conversations outside of the classroom?