Politics Invade High School Classrooms
Growing national partisanship finds its way into classroom discussions
March 7, 2022
You walk into the school and put on your mask. Surrounding you are signs asking people to wear a mask correctly at all times. Someone near you argues with a staff member about whether they should have to follow these regulations. One.
As you head into the atrium a couple of School Resource Officers greet you. Their presence makes many of your peers uncomfortable. Two.
They’re at the school because of a rapid increase in school shootings in the United States. Something that your classmates have been fighting back against for years. Three.
On the wall are posters for the environment club. Many of them had been involved in a climate strike earlier that week. Four.
Today is Thursday. The one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. You think back to a year ago when your classes spent days discussing and processing the democracy-shaking events. Five.
You head to your first-hour government class. Today you will have a group discussion. You brace for the political arguments and issues that will come up in class. Women’s rights, racial equality, affirmative action, economic and social systems, abortion and LGBTQ rights are some of the most controversial issues that your class will grapple with throughout the year. We’re up to 11.
There is no longer any way for you to go through a week of high school without having to grapple with and interact with a slew of political issues.
Since the 2016 election, partisanship and political divisions nationally have risen rapidly. Highly contentious issues regarding COVID-19, election law, racial justice, women’s rights and more have found their way into schools in multiple ways.
“Why has it become so much more, I don’t know if polarized is the right word, it’s literally ‘us’ or ‘them,’ government teacher Jack Hood said. “It’s definitely happened in the past three years.”
Hood started teaching AP Government during the last few years. Instantly he noticed the ability for political tensions to affect classrooms.
“There were certain things they were going to talk about and certain things they weren’t going to talk about,” Hood said. “Just because they didn’t want to have the discussions and have somebody get offended and get a call. I think it actually had a chilling effect on what you think would be a safe space for free speech.”
Hood said that contentious discussion is present almost all of the time, but is most notable with some specific issues such as gun rights and abortion.
When it comes to class discussions, teachers are desperate for students to engage in constructive and meaningful conversation instead of monopolizing and dictating.
“That’s how you have a conversation,” Hood said. “And you model that for them and they either figure it out or they don’t. ”
Students agreed that class discussions can be uncomfortable for those who view issues differently from their classmates.
“It’s certainly tense,” senior Joey Gadzia said. “It also depends on what you’re saying. Most people say the same thing and affirm each other but obviously if you dissent then it’s a little more tense and a little more abrasive.”
One challenge in recent years has been an increase in issues that are question of verifiable fact. Whereas moral and ethical issues have been debated for years, recent actions taken by the right to undermine the validity of elections and promote claims that have been proven false has presented new issues for the classroom.
For many teachers, Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol insurrection, was one of the hardest days of teaching they’ve had.
“One of the most difficult days of my teaching career was trying to explain, on Webex, what happened on Jan. 6,” Free State government teacher Jeff Haas said. “I had six government classes the next day and I thought that was a real unique challenge relating to that.”
Closed mindsets aren’t exclusive to one party however, as people with all political views can find themselves too rooted in their beliefs to engage in good discussion.
“That can be true of people of all political parties that they are so set in their ways they won’t listen to other ideas,” senior Kenna McNally said.
McNally is an active member of the Lawrence High School Young Democrats club, as well as the chair of Kansas High School Democrats.
One of the most difficult days of my teaching career was trying to explain, on Webex, what happened on Jan. 6
— Jeff Haas, Free State Government Teacher
She has been involved politically for years and spoke about how political issues affect everyone. And for her, being actively involved in how those decisions are made is crucial.
“Being able to be a part of that process is really important to me,” she said.
In response to intense polarization politically, questions of free speech have been challenged by both sides of the US political spectrum. With rampant misinformation and an increase in censoring from social platforms, many have been looking to how speech will continue to manifest itself in a digital age.
It’s a question that very soon could filter down to the high school classroom.
“Both sides, left and right, have gone up in arms about one side not being able to speak or shutting down speakers,” Hood said. “I think we’re going to see a ripple effect of that here. I think we already are. I know for the last 2-3 years that’s been a pretty big issue both left and right. Because what does free speech mean and how does that look in a public sphere? The first thing we teach with freedom of speech is that your freedom of speech is not unlimited.”
The topic of freedom of speech and how it interacts with COVID-19 has been noticeable in academic environments, with mask mandates and other safety regulations that have been implemented.
“I would say frequently post-COVID it’s been that way,” Gadzia said. “I mean you have to see it everyday, you come to school and you hear it and you’re just in it.”
Some students believe safety precautions for COVID-19 have become too politicized, especially in school environments.
“Instead of people worrying about the safety of their classmates they’re worried about ‘does the political candidate that I support, does the political party that I support, believe in masks and their effectiveness?’” McNally said.
But regardless of political view, the impact that increased political tension and partisanship has had in schools is frightening and not showing any sign of stopping.
“I made the joke, I shouldn’t be able to tell who you voted for president based on how you wear a mask,” Hood said. “Things became almost like it was a political statement or a political attack to do something. It seems like people politicized things that used to not be political.”