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Politics in the Classroom?

posted: 9.13.12 by Andrea Lunsford

Observing the Republican and Democratic conventions has led me to think about the degree to which politics enters my classroom.  MLA held an entire conference on this question during the “culture wars,” and I remember giving a talk that attempted to sum up the sense of the meeting.  As I recall, while there was great disagreement—some were profound supporters of professorial activism; others determinedly against such actions—the consensus was that classrooms are political spaces in some sense:  the question is whether the teacher proselytizes or whether she and her class interrogate all sides of issues, as in rhetorical analysis.

A good and longtime friend and colleague, a staunch Republican who has gotten more and more conservative over the years, tells me that his students have no idea what his politics are.  In fact, he says, if they venture to discuss the issue at all they assume he is liberal-leaning.  But I wonder.  He is prone to use examples in his teaching that have very right-leaning views along with those that in some way criticize left wingers.  So I wonder whether his students may not read between the lines and be perfectly aware of his politics—even if they don’t say so to him.

This is an issue I think every teacher has to face and face squarely.  What is our role in the writing classroom, where we aim to teach rhetoric as the art of ethical persuasion and writing as a means of making good things happen in the world?  The role I choose is primarily analytic:  that is, I and my students look at texts of all kinds and analyze them for how they appeal to audiences and also try to figure out who those audience members are.  We select texts that are political briefs, political speeches, and political satires—along with informational essays, narrative essays, and so on. But especially in an election year, I want to take the opportunity to concentrate on the political process itself and on analyzing the rich array of texts before us.  I hope I can be as clear-headed and conscientious in my analysis of left-leaning pieces as I am of right-leaning ones.  But if my students ask me about my own politics, I won’t stonewall them.  Rather, I will spend just a little time telling them where I come from, politically (my family, e.g., comes from a swing-state in the Civil War, and they fought for the North and against slavery; they are resolutely committed to civil rights for all).  And I’m happy to describe my fundamental values and how they relate to my desire to be the best teacher I can.  Then I ask students to take a bit of time to write about where they come from politically:  doing so always brings out a diversity of opinions that can, if managed well by all of us, lead to insights in the group as a whole.

This was certainly the case one year when I had the President of the Young Republicans in my class along with a very diverse set of classmates.  He was white and from a privileged family; others were African American, Chicano/a, Chinese, and Vietnamese.  We were in an election year then, as well, and when we began learning about rhetorical analysis, we looked at several political speeches coming from different viewpoints.  The Young Republican started out arguing dogmatically and analyzing from a very narrow viewpoint.  He was joined by several other students who, though not as dogmatic, leaned his way. But the rest of the class respectfully disagreed.  As we all understood rhetorical analysis more completely, their disagreements changed from the kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” thinking we are so familiar with, especially in first-year classes to much more nuanced and open thinking.  We had some bad patches, but all of us made a commitment to listen to one another rhetorically, as Krista Ratcliffe would have us do, and really HEAR what the other person is saying, really be open to what the author of the political speeches is saying, before we came to judgment.

I was right in there with them the whole way, and I learned that I needed to listen better myself, to be as open as I thought I had been.  At the end of the term, a few minds had been changed, and while the Young Republican stayed committed to that ideology, he did so from a much more knowledgeable and nuanced stance.

So I am all for bringing politics into the classroom—if we do so rhetorically, ethically, and with respect for all opinions.  John Duffy has recently written about first-year writing classes as lessons in democracy and in global citizenship.  At its best, this is an aim of my writing classes—along with making sure that students become better able to understand, analyze, articulate, and interrogate their own positions.

Who knows what November 4 will bring.  But in the meantime, we have an absolute wealth of material to work with in our classrooms.  I’d like to hear your views on this subject and how you plan to use this election as an occasion for learning.

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One Response to “Politics in the Classroom?”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    Perhaps the crux of the matter lies here:

    “What is our role in the writing classroom, where we aim to teach rhetoric as the art of ethical persuasion and writing as a means of making good things happen in the world?”

    The key word here is “good”: as philosophers know, this is one of the founding questions of philosophy, and, of course, a central concern of theology. But if, as I told my popular cultural semiotics class just yesterday, one takes a non-foundationalist, non-absolutist stance on cultural analysis, things can get pretty tricky when one tries to justify one’s own ethical/moral positions. For what is the “good” in one culture may not be so in another; and where does that leave us?

    Doing my best (which may indeed not always be good enough) to make it clear that I did not want to privilege my own ethics/morality (and I do have an ethical code), I explained that one of the tragedies of history (and of current American politics) is that human beings often get to the point whereby rational discourse simply doesn’t get anywhere. Just look at the current election, or at the deadlock in Congress, or at the whole American scene whereby an ongoing culture war seems to have no end in sight. Problem is that each side in a highly polarized nation (and highly polarized world) is convinced that it has the “good” on its side.

    Such a condition seems to lead to a counsel of despair, or at least to the deconstruction of all values. To demonstrate how I maintain a sense of my own values while knowing that I cannot ground them in a bedrock of foundational certainty, I tell my classes that, in effect, if I am morally judging something I either “follow the money” and/or “follow the murder.” That is, if someone is making what is on the face of it is a moral claim but is really acting on a profit motive at others’ expense, I judge that “bad.” If someone makes a moral claim but really just wants to kill people, I judge that “bad.” (The “morality” of the Third Reich is a very easy example in this instance: don’t forget that the Germans thought they were doing something “good,” and no amount of reasoned debate was going to stop them). Thus, where it really matters, rhetoric often breaks down: because if someone disagrees with what I deem immoral profit making or simply genocide with no relation to self defense, I cannot really debate that person.

    If anyone doubts that, just look at the current world scene. It isn’t simply that there is no reasoned debate; the possibilities for reasoned debate have broken down. I tell my students that I have no idea how to overcome the mess, but that in our class we will try to learn how to analyze how things got this way (at least in contemporary America), because if one does not know the causes of a condition, one can’t effectively begin to fix it).