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One topic not well covered in school: Politics

Our children are lacking role models for how to engage safely, respectfully, and productively in this area; they need to see respectful dialogue and disagreement
Illustrative. High school students. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative. High school students. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Election season is upon us here in the US. I have a neighbor across the street with lawn signs on his yard, and the news feed makes sure we know which candidates won their debates. Teach Florida and other advocacy groups made sure that people knew when the registration deadlines were, and I expect a flurry of emails over the next number of days reminding us all to get out there and vote. Elections are everywhere.

But they are not here in our schools. This absence is with us not just because these are midterm elections and schools only truly get excited about presidential elections. I suggest that we have two aspects of a fundamental problem, and we as schools have not risen yet to the challenge to combat this issue.

The fissure in American politics reflects more than an abandonment of the moderate positions and a lack of middle-of-the-road candidates who are prepared to compromise in order to legislate and govern responsibly. School staff are frankly afraid to educate politically in many an instance. Two years ago around this time, I invited faculty to serve as proxies for the candidates of the two main parties and to model a respectful and dignified parley that would focus on four or five real issues on which the parties diverge in their vision and solutions. Teachers declined to participate, fearful of being associated with any one of the parties. The idea of a noble debate died because the staff qualified to engage were worried about the (professional and personal) impact of representing. 

When student dialogue or conversation veers into the political in classes or on WhatsApp, the tone turns nasty and aggressive, and parents and students share upsetting stories and the screen shots of disgusting interactions. As administrators, we aren’t terribly surprised because the kids’ heroes are modeling exactly that kind of discourse on their telecasts, podcasts, and social media feeds. The adults in the political arena have, in large part, lost a sense of dignity, and a willingness to respect the other, and our kids have fully internalized the radicalized partisanship that characterizes our age. 

I had fun presenting John Anderson’s ideas to my class in middle school. While I wasn’t a Ross Perot fan, I was intrigued by the Johnson-Weld ticket. You don’t have to like the independent candidates, but you should appreciate nuance and variegation when thinking about critical issues and it would be wonderful if people would pay attention to platforms well-articulated more so than rating candidates based on who slung insults at the debate most effectively. Divrei chachamim b’nachat nishmaim (the words of the wise are easily heard), and we would all be better off with dishes of debate and dialogue served at lower temperatures.

Our schools need a Young Republicans club, not a cluster of students who hand out Brandon stickers. Our schools need a Young Democrats club, not students who will scream when labeling classmates who prefer some form of an abortion ban as fascists and definitionally misogynistic. Our communities need parents who might choose to disregard the well-established social taboo on having political conversations at our Shabbat tables, so that our children can see some evidence somewhere of respectful dialogue and disagreement. We need to figure out pathways that reflect the professed middot (manners) of our community because nobody is teaching the kids how to engage safely, respectfully, and productively in the area of political discourse.

About the Author
Avi Levitt has served as an educator for 28 years and as a school leader for 20. He currently lives in Boca Raton with his family, some of whom don't actually enjoy attending school.
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