Just as politics in America has become more and more polarized, so has our opinion about its role in education. This is especially true here in Utah, where so many hot-button issues (such as sex education, evolution and homosexuality) are still debate topics.
Take, for example, the so-called “no promo homo” provision that was only repealed last year. On paper, the provision prohibited Utah public school personnel from “advocating for homosexuality” in schools, but in practice it stopped educators from intervening to stop bullying of LGBTQ students and from affirming the lived experiences and identities of LGBTQ+ students — students who are far more likely to experience harassment and discrimination at home and school. This provision (and many like it) shows the lengths to which we will go to avoid engaging with our children about the realities of the world.
Though there are plenty of arguments against mixing politics and education across liberal and conservative platforms alike, it’s clear that there is a cognitive dissonance here: a complete lack of understanding about how politics and education are intrinsically linked.
Pedagogy (teaching methodology) is an inherently ideological practice. Public school teachers are agents of the state. The educational system is built and rebuilt by political decisions. Schools nurture the minds of what will become the next body politic that will shape politics for years to come.
How can we separate two things that are so interconnected? And further, don’t we want the next generation of citizens, of voters, of adults, to be educated about these things?
It’s important to examine our blind spots in this argument. We must ask ourselves: Are we really opposed to politics in education? What about the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, or the teaching of history as it happened? If we are defining politics in terms of only the politics we disagree with, then what we are actually in favor of is not the separation of these two things, but the removal of any viewpoint that is not our own.
We must also ask ourselves who we want to feel safe in classrooms. When we silence and invalidate the experiences of our LGBTQ students, or indigenous students, or students of color, we create an environment in which only some of our students are supported. We must practice compassion toward students on an institutional level as well as a personal one. That means validating students in their identities, but also teaching the facts of history and of our present.
Even when the topics are difficult to face, such as injustices in our past and present, or identities and experiences that are foreign to us, they are necessary to the safety, well-being and growth of young minds.
Our young generation is smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. We need to stop hiding scary or complicated things from our youth in the hopes that they’ll grow up and suddenly know how to deal with them. This applies to the discussion of LGBTQ identities and sex education, to learning about how politics affects our lives and how we can participate, to understanding that our classrooms exist on lands that we violently stole from indigenous tribes, to working toward the collective healing of a generation of students who have experienced more mass shootings than ever before.
Just because something is difficult to talk about does not mean we should shy away from it; rather, that’s even more reason to work through it together. Not only are our students capable of doing that work, but it’s our collective responsibility as educators to help them navigate these difficult realities.
Katie Van Sleen, Salt Lake City, is a graduate student in the Education, Culture, and Society Program at the University of Utah and a local artist and activist.