On the 24th of June 2016 news broke that the UK would officially withdraw from the EU. Immediately my twitter stream – which I use to follow educators only – came alive with a wave of disbelief, anger and a whole spectrum of emotion, well, negative emotion at least. That is not wholly surprising. A recent survey by the University of California in the US found that not only were conservative academics outnumbered 5:1 by their liberal peers but that the left was moving rapidly to the far-left. This liberal bias among educators is borne out also by my experiences with primary and second-level teachers on Twitter. This is not surprising considering that teaching is a caring profession and many of the attributes of liberalism are a natural fit for a career in education. What I am interested in here, however, is political bias and indoctrination. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent Baltimore riots in 2015 I noticed an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement among educators and a clamouring for resources on how to “teach” about what happened. It was apparent that most teachers adopted a level-headed approach to teaching about the events but it was also clear that many were unable to prevent their political bias from entering the classroom in the days immediately following the shooting.
These educators – well-meaning as they were – hastily assembled classes on the topic, at a time when there were no results from official inquiries to draw from and only incendiary media and social media opinion to offer as primary source material. I am certain the majority who tackled this important issue did so in a professional manner but I believe others did not. That resulted in the indoctrination of students. The effect of that passion should not be taken lightly. Recounting his own conversion to National Socialism, Hitler said of his old History teacher at the Realschule in Linz, “When we listened to him we became afire with enthusiasm and we were sometimes moved even to tears…It was because I had such a professor that History became my favourite subject”
This came to mind again this morning when tweets from educators reflecting on the UK referendum (or Brexit) began to dominate my news feed.
And this is getting to the nub of the problem. Modern liberalism (and I personally consider myself a liberal) has adopted a worryingly dishonest and self-righteous tone. This was again apparent in my timeline. The line most commonly put out by educators about the result is that it robs British children of their future. Most cited the widely circulated poll below as evidence of that.
School-aged students are the most optimistic and arguably the most open-minded political demographic but they are also at the start of their political journey as citizens and are impressionable. In the run-up to the UK referendum polls like the one below were a common sight on Twitter. While they represent a practical introduction to participatory democracy, which is to be welcomed, one should question how many of these students were given a fair and balanced understanding of the facts by their teachers? In other words, to what degree are our students politically indoctrinated in school?
What I advocate is simply enforcing the rules that already exist. In the UK, for example, Sections 406 and 407 of the Education Act of 1996 demands that teachers and school administrators provide balance, factual information and a democratic climate in all classrooms when discussing political or controversial issues. Teachers are required to withhold any political bias, should not present opinion as fact and should not imply correctness or imbalance for one side over another in political matters.
Where there is no legal requirement to remain neutral it is essential that administrators and teachers uphold the integrity of their institution and ensure the production of democratically-minded young people by placing an emphasis on critical thinking, reflection, debate, informed opinion and research skills. If we equip students with these then we give them something far more powerful than liberal or conservative bias – the opportunity to choose wisely. The best mechanism for avoiding indoctrination and for producing informed and engaged citizens is for administrators and teachers to commit to the values and academic skills outlined in their Mission Statement and Learning Goals identified by their learning community and State Curriculum. By using these to identify an ideal student profile educators can minimise bias and rest assured that their students will be well placed to enact positive change in the future regardless of their political affiliations. We educators we need to make them fluent in the mechanisms of democratic participation, not demand that they think as we do.