political neutrality in schools

In Vermont, an English and social studies teacher gave his students this item in a vocabulary quiz. They were asked to choose the correct word in the parenthesis:

I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes. (AP story via Kevin Drum)

In Madison, WI, third-grade students were told to write letters to public officials that “encourage[d] an end to the war in Iraq.” According to the Wisconsin State Journal:

Students were to write a letter a day for 12 days to other students, the state’s U.S. senators and representatives, the president of the United States, and the secretary of the United Nations ‘urging them to press for peace,’ as well as to the media.

If the war did not end in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.

Parents were asked to provide 10 postage stamps and 12 envelopes.

An alternative assignment was to be provided for students whose parents did not want them to participate.

Before I complicate this issue and discuss some of the subtleties, I’ll give my verdicts. The vocabulary quiz is funny, and it’s good to inject some humor into teaching. Moreover, the teacher is a professional who ought to have freedom of expression and whose every move should not be scrutinized. I wouldn’t support disciplining him in any way; yet I wouldn’t tell that joke myself to a high school class. The risk is too great that there’s a small minority of Republicans among the Vermont students who would be offended by the implication that they or their parents are stupid (not just wrong about some particular issue).

The anti-war letter assignment crosses an important line from civic education to advocacy. It is an illegitimate activity in a public school. Students should discuss the Iraq war and be encouraged to write letters about it. (Letter-writing is a civic skill). But they must be exposed to multiple perspectives and allowed to write their own opinions.

Now for the complexities.


First, public schools are not ethically or politically neutral. Every day they teach values: punctuality, obedience, authority, discipline, competition, sometimes tolerance and pluralism. The courts have held that public schools cannot explicitly teach any particular religious doctrines. They can–and many do–teach patriotism, respect for military mores, environmentalism, and/or religious and ethnic tolerance. To left-radicals and Christian conservatives alike, the distinction between permissible and illegitimate values can look pretty arbitrary. Why can you advocate environmentalism but not monotheism in a public school? (The argument that environmentalism is based on science does not convince me, but that’s another story. In any case, why can you teach scientism but not a religion?)

There are developmental pyschologists who argue that a politically neutral stance is not helpful when teaching children and adolescents. It communicates the idea that there is no way of knowing what is right, or that mature adults have no political views, or that there are so many sides to every argument that it doesn’t matter which side prevails. Some psychologists believe that it is better to expose kids to a strong set of beliefs and arguments that seem to matter to the school and its teachers. An education that is rich in explicit values will not brainwash kids. They will form their own opinions–sooner or later. Meanwhile, they will understand that mature adults hold views and act on them.

For some, the best civic education takes place in Catholic (often Jesuit) schools that demonstrate a commitment to social justice, explicitly link that commitment to their religious faith, but do not attempt to convert their students–often Protestant African Americans–to Catholicism. Their graduates understand that one can be seriously committed to a moral worldview that influences every aspect of one’s life.

We make a choice when we try to put all kids together in a “common school” that’s neutral about values and ideologies. Alternatively, we can have a system of universal, publicly funded education that’s pluralist. Then some kids may receive an Afrocentric curriculum; others, a libertarian one. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown, some public school students attend a school that is devoted to “democracy,” “self-governance,” and the “creation of community”; it is “consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist.” Other public schools are so “materialistic” that they imitate corporations.

The most radical and controversial way to achieve pluralism is to fund schools through vouchers. However, pluralism can also be achieved by giving families choices within a public school system, or by devolving educational policy to the local level. If local systems make up their own curricula, then the values that are transmitted in a Madison or Vermont school will be very different from those in a rural “red state.”

Too little is known (to my knowledge) about the differences in ideological orientations among schools and teachers and what impact that variation has on kids. However, it seems safe to assume that the “common school” is a myth and that students are mostly sorted into fairly homogeneous communities where the teaching reinforces their families’ values.

Is this homogeneity bad? Diversity of viewpoints may help to produce deliberative citizens who recognize and respect perspectives other than their own. On the other hand, some research suggests that the more ethnically diverse a school is, the less students discuss controversial issues, perhaps because such issues become too hot to handle. (PowerPoint.) In any case, viewpoint diversity may not help to motivate young people to act politically. A lot of successful mobilization comes from preaching to groups of like-minded individuals. If we demand neutrality and diversity in our schools, then we may produce students who are highly tolerant of diverse views but politically passive.

Finally, there is the question of what the Madison school assignment meant. Perhaps it’s acceptable to tell students to write letters in favor of peace, because everyone (including Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld) says that peace is the goal. “We saw peace as a common good,” one Madison teacher said. “We were just advocating that people keep working toward peace.”

Participants in public debates generally state their views in phrases with which everyone else is supposed to agree. For example, everyone supports “life,” and everyone values “choice”; both sides in the abortion debate try to capture the common ground. Likewise, everyone favors peace, but everyone also wants to “stop terrorism.” Most people want to “support the troops” and “enhance human rights.” If a teacher had told all her students to write letters “supporting the troops,” that assignment would have seemed uncontroversial to some but biased to others (including me). The same is true of the pro-“peace” assignment.

Ultimately, I don’t like the letter-writing assignment because I fear a backlash. We do want students to discuss current events and to learn civic skills, including the skill of writing letters to public officials. If teachers give assignments that appear politically biased, the most likely result will be rules blocking all controversial discussions in classrooms. One angry grandparent in Madison says of the schools, “They’re supposed to teach the facts and not opinions.” Opinion-free education is impossible, but it’s very easy for the authorities to provide education that’s free of all social studies and civics.

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1 Response to political neutrality in schools

  1. As someone sent to the office in High School for making an obnoxious comment about my homeroom teacher’s political bumper sticker’s on his briefcase, I’d like to chime in and say I think that the “spelling quiz teacher” should be disciplined.

    I think that implying to third graders that “Republicans are stupid” does not fall within any reasonable standard of professionalism for an educator. I think it is fine to make funny quips about our political leaders, I made a “nucular” joke yesterday in class to be honest, but I didn’t extrapolate it beyond hinting the President’s diction is lacking. To imply that the President and those who support him or her are of a decreased cranial capacity is not simply any statement, but it is a statment that dehumanizes the other, and I feel it is not far enough removed from racist phrenology or from those awful cartoons shown on Serb and Croatian tv about the barbarity of the other side for me to feel comfortable with saying this is simply a matter of free speech.

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