ARTICLE

Teaching the Election Doesn’t Require Neutrality

This history teacher offers a strategy for teaching about the presidential election. It starts with organizing ideas into three categories: consensus, legitimately controversial and out of bounds. 

 

This past April, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report The Trump Effect highlighted the challenges this election season poses for teachers. The finding that “more than 40 percent [of teachers surveyed] are hesitant to teach about the election” is a dispiriting outcome of this frenzied time. The report goes on to note that a frequent concern underlying educators’ apprehensions is that “[c]onventional wisdom and common sense dictate that teachers keep their partisan politics out of the classroom.”

This is indeed a challenge, but I believe that between the poles of neutrality and partisanship is a wide spectrum; there is a middle ground between proselytizing and passive accommodation of all views. And the current moment seems to call for a more deliberate, open-minded embrace of the values of inherent human dignity, compassion and justice above any pretense of political neutrality. In other words, these values can rise above the perils of partisanship.

I have previously argued that neutrality in the classroom is not only pointless and impossible, but that it is actually a destructive pose because it inhibits the development of our students’ morality and critical literacy skills. Critical literacy means resisting passive acceptance of facts and authority as sources of truth. It means encouraging students to interrogate texts for bias, uncover connections to systems of power and privilege, and identify and question missing voices and narratives. I can’t help but go back to my favorite insight from Howard Zinn, who observed, “[I]t is impossible to be neutral,” and “[N]eutrality means accepting the way things are now.” The corollary is that if we want things to change, we need to stop pretending to be neutral and embrace teaching with values of justice and equity at the forefront. 

How can teachers transcend this pedagogical problem? I read obsessively on this topic, and I stumbled upon a theory of media objectivity called Hallin’s spheres, which originated in a pivotal political science book that reviewed the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War. The model reflects a common journalistic practice that is easily adaptable to the classroom. Hallin’s spheres organize ideas into three categories—consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance—to inform how journalists should frame controversial issues. As public opinion and society evolve, ideas may move from sphere to sphere.

The gist is that ideas in different spheres call for various levels of objectivity, scrutiny and consideration. For concepts in the consensus category, there is widespread agreement, and teachers should feel free to adopt a strong position secure in the broad acceptance of the ideas. A good example would be condemnation of slavery in the United States’ past. As a nation, we’ve agreed that slavery is a despicable institution without merit. To lend any legitimacy to an opposing viewpoint would fly in the face of our national consensus.

Ideas that are legitimately controversial, however, require nuanced, careful framing, as there is no settled consensus. It is on these topics that teachers must work hard to find an objective balance, which doesn’t mean, in my view, refusing to take a position. Rather, it involves framing topics as open to reasoned disagreements among rational people and presenting multiple viewpoints and narratives. These are the most important—and excitingly challenging—topics to teach. 

For classroom purposes, I prefer to replace “deviance” with “out of bounds,” as the former has a negative connotation that might inhibit learning. Out-of-bounds ideas would be those that are not acceptable parts of the discourse, perhaps because they’re not supported by evidence or they don’t fit within what is legally possible. For example, one could take a controversial political issue like immigration policy and organize classroom activities to investigate the many sides of this question. Within that investigation, unconstitutional views—like the idea of administering a religion test—could emerge. Identify these ideas as out of bounds and explain why they aren’t appropriate for realistic consideration in the classroom.

The concept of Hallin’s spheres wedded to a pedagogical approach aimed at promoting critical literacy and a social justice mindset can help teachers carefully navigate this political moment. While a theoretical discussion of the spheres may be above the heads of most students, the model provides a reflective structure teachers can use to navigate the challenge of whether or how to teach about the election. Using this language in lesson planning, classroom discussions and even conversations with parents and guardians can provide a useful framework for explaining how and why certain topics are presented in class. 

In addition, an interpretive exercise of this sort would make for productive professional development or departmental work. As educators, we know that one essential element of any effective lesson on controversial material is thorough scrutiny of one’s assumptions and biases. A close look at how we categorize different ideas is a valuable tool to help us do just that.

Gold is aseventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.