By Rachel Schwartz
Bringing up money, religion or politics may be a dinner party sin, but at school there is no such rule against discussion of politics in or out of the classroom. While such potentially heated discussion is part of some courses, most teachers try to keep their personal opinions out of their lessons.
“I think everyone in this department is extremely self-conscious about trying to present an unbiased point of view,” history teacher Ken Neisser said.
History classes present the biggest opportunity for political discussion to take place, since politics are an essential part of studying the past, history teacher Drew Maddock said.
“It’s pretty hard to cover up your true feelings,” Maddock said. “Teachers are trusted to be reasonable and to respect diverse opinions.”
Some students find teachers’ beliefs to be thinly veiled, even if they don’t directly reveal their personal opinions. These students said the overwhelming majority of both faculty and students are liberal.
“I can see how a few of Harvard-Westlake’s conservatives can feel really bogged down since everyone just says ‘No, you’re wrong,’” Sam Lyons ’13 said. “First and foremost, I’m a patriot. There’s been a decline in patriotism among liberals. I’m a fiscal conservative.”
Unlike some conservatives on campus, however, Lyons does not try to disguise his views.
“I live to argue,” Lyons said. “I was very liberal when I was younger. I love to be the person who says things that others disagree with and who provokes them to share their views. Especially for those who are socially conservative. I can understand that it is very tough for those people.”
Andrew Miller ’13, also a Republican, finds no problem with teachers sharing their views.
“Sometimes it’s kind of entertaining to see how they put one view over the other,” Miller said. “I actually think that it’s nice that they’re being honest with you and not hiding it.”
Self-described leftist Jack Wilding ’13 and self-described libertarian Wiley Webb ’12 agree that some teachers’ professionalism is better than others. Wilding has never experienced teacher bias, but said his French teacher told him to tone down his personal politics in his AP essays.
“Politics are awkward. There is really no way to get around that,” Wilding said. “Sometimes it’s impossible to stop debate from degenerating into a screaming fight.”
In general, Wilding finds that with such a large consensus and such a small minority, there is no point in opening up about complex issues like the economy, a topic more hotly contested.
Webb said that for the most part, he learns what his teachers’ personal politics are when he develops personal relationships. He thinks of history differently because he feels he has had experience with very biased teachers.
Maddock loves to discuss politics with his students outside of class as long as they come in with an open mind, he said.
“Anybody can come in [to the history department office],” Maddock said. “We talk to all different types of students: tall, short, left and right… the problem is the occasional teacher who thinks anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot.”
While Lyons loves talking with history teachers who he considers very well-informed about both sides of an issue, he said English teachers are not as open.
“In smaller debates with English teachers, I think they just brush off my points,” Lyons said. “I’ve come to expect it. I would really like to go to a school where there was a big conglomeration of different views. I really like to understand how people think, especially politically. Plus if everyone agrees with you, it’s just so boring.”
Math teacher Kevin Weis said he considers himself a political minority as a Libertarian, but feels open about his beliefs.
“I do not feel any pressure about being in an ideological minority,” Weis said. “My views are in the minority in the general population as well, so I am used to it. If anything I would say I feel less pressure while at work, as Harvard-Westlake is a very open and supportive place.”
Weis said while he is socially liberal, he believes in very limited government and the separation of government from the economic sphere, similar to the model of the separation of church and state.
“I don’t think my political beliefs are really that controversial, and I have never felt any pressure to hide them,” Weis said. “I did, for my first few years at Harvard-Westlake, feel like I needed to hide the fact that I am an atheist, though I admit that this pressure was self-inflicted. I think that atheists are currently one of the most misunderstood and persecuted minorities in America.”
Neisser said bias at Harvard-Westlake is not a problem since impartiality can only serve to make teaching more difficult and limit class discussion and critical analysis. Both Maddock and Neisser stressed that being nonpartisan does not mean stopping political commentary in class, whether discussion is about past or present.
“Criticizing Gilded Age corruption is objective regardless of whether you are liberal or conservative economically,” Neisser said.
“The failure to talk about it is not the solution,” Maddock said. “Some people may think that is how it should be, but they should be talking about what matters in the world.”