The great debates

 

In a politically conscious environment like Harvard-Westlake it is only natural to expect students of all political backgrounds to voice their opinions in class, particularly in history classes. However, the political atmosphere at school sometimes deters students from doing so.

“It is not my personality to hold back my opinions, but I have been singled out. I do think it made me stronger,” Jake Schine ‘10 said. “The teachers are overwhelmingly liberal, but they can conduct their classes as they so choose. I respect others’ opinions even if they don’t respect mine, and they definitely don’t.”

Though most teachers make a conscious effort not to explicitly state their views on current topics, many times students can pick up on subtle clues about their teachers’ perspectives on political issues, often manifested in their teaching.

“I don’t think it is a good idea to reveal personal opinions to students on really controversial current issues,” upper school history teacher Dave Waterhouse said. “I have certainly expressed an opinion on some things, like whether Andrew Jackson was a good leader, but I am careful to be neutral on current issues.”

On the contrary, Audrina*, who considers herself a moderate, thinks that “teachers tell students facts that are really subjective history as a method of voicing their opinions.”

Overall, most teachers feel that exposing their views, which may be contrary to those of some students, can hinder their participation and willingness to engage in class discussion.

History teacher Nini Halkett hopes to create a comfortable atmosphere that lends itself to open discussion and debate. She would not tolerate a student showing scorn towards a peer becuase of his/her political opinion, she said.

Despite the teachers’ best efforts to keep everybody comfortable, some students, like Whitney,* feel singled out.

“The teachers I’ve had have not respected me having a difference of opinion, especially when I categorize myself as being in a third party,” she said. “I think that my opinions are not respected as much because I don’t consider myself a Liberal.”

However, some students who are in the political minority at school don’t notice a difference.

“I find that having conflicting views makes class more interesting, and I never feel that teachers try to push their beliefs on me,” Spencer Friedman ‘09 said. “They are trying to inform me on the political process because they want us to make our own opinions.”

He acknowledged that some teachers fuse political views into their teaching, but they do not force it upon students.

“Everyone is entitled to display their views,” he said. “My teachers love it when I have conflicting views with them, and I debate all the time with Ms. Halkett.”

Not all students feel as comfortable communicating their beliefs.

“In the past it has been kind of awkward in history class because most teachers are liberal and I don’t want them to know that I disagree with them and I don’t want them to shoot me down,” Brody*, a Republican, said.

Although Halkett welcomes her students to debate with her, she feels that controversial issues are often hard to avoid.

“It’s not a slam dunk, one way or the other,” history teacher Francine Werner agreed. “You have to deal with controversial issues every day in U.S. Government and Politics and you just have to present both sides. There is no safe subject in government. I feel for the kids who are in the minority here. It is not pleasant to be in that situation.”

Similarly, history teacher Dror Yaron said, “I never wear my politics on my sleeve, but it’s okay to joke around with students as long as no one gets hurt and both points of view are acknowledged.”

Werner feels that it’s hard to navigate and keep kids listening to each other when they have opposing views, but it’s good for kids to learn how to argue. She often plays devil’s advocate to teach students how to defend their views in order to prepare them for the real world.

Yaron also likes to challenge his students by arguing views not necessarily his own in order to provoke discussion and broaden their understanding. So long as everyone is civil and has a chance to express themselves, Yaron considers a little political tension among students healthy.

On the other hand, Waterhouse tries to avoid conflict in his classees.

“I try to keep my classes on a fairly analytical and academic level. I don’t want, nor have I ever had, political tension in my classes.”

Despite the common belief that teachers are the major factor in swaying students one way or another, Yaron feels that there are some overlooked aspects in the curriculum that can alter how students form opinions and can discourage them from expressing existing ones. He acknowledged that the AP U.S. History text, for example Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” infuses liberal ideals into the classroom.

After using a text which leans towards a left oriented approach, Yaron would like to get a more balanced understanding of history by injecting a little more conservative standpoint into the curriculum.

“If you have a classroom where everyone has the same opinion, it wouldn’t make for very interesting discussions,” Halkett said. “Diversity in a classroom is a good thing.”

*These names have been changed because subjects wish to remain anonymous

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