From the October 23, 2008 Columbia Spectator:
Politics should be kept out of the classroom. Educators should maintain perfect neutrality on partisan issues and not disclose their political views. By never talking about their own beliefs, they will avoid prejudicing their students’ grades on the basis of the views expressed and indoctrinating them into a specific ideology. Wearing a button or putting up a sign contributes to shaping political views. At least that is what The New York Department of Education believes.
That simplistic view of political propaganda infiltrating the classroom falls apart, though, because every part of a school’s curriculum helps shape a student’s ideology. In history class, when we learn about how the New Deal saved us from the Great Depression, it’s an only slightly-veiled lesson that governmental intervention in the economy can be beneficial while laissez-faire economics is harmful. Brown v. Board of Education showed that Supreme Court “activism” was a good thing. Conservative Christians use the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson to say that the Supreme Court has been wrong before, and by implication could be wrong on a case like Roe v. Wade. All great literature explores important philosophical questions that can shape political views. In short, in many classes almost everything is inherently, if not explicitly, political.
Wearing buttons and putting up posters just makes that politicization clear. No John McCain supporter is going to become a Barack Obama voter because of an Obama pin on a professor’s lapel. If anything, it just makes it clear which direction the teacher’s politics lean. Perhaps that’s exactly what some are concerned about. The New York Department of Education recently began enforcing a regulation that teachers should maintain strict neutrality while on the job. NYCDOE Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has prohibited teachers from wearing campaign pins or putting posters on union bulletin boards. But the new regulations are not an attempt to keep schools free from all accusations of political proselytizing. The Department of Education may say that the regulations are meant to keep students from feeling intimidated for holding a view contrary to that of the teacher. Nevertheless, the department betrays its actual goals by not trying to regulate what teachers say, so much as what they wear.
In fairness, teachers can intimidate students who do not agree with their politics. I endured that during my last two years of high school, spending a great deal of mental energy arguing with teachers who were far more conservative than I am. One even accused me of cheating because I demonstrated that he was wrong about the crucial facts of his argument—that conservative policies were better for the economy. That’s clearly intimidation. He wasn’t wearing any political apparel at the time, but he was perfectly able to intimidate without needing to display a button declaring his views.
Indeed, one can wonder exactly how much educators actually change the politics of their students. Certainly, no one should receive a lower grade because they disagree with their instructor about who should win on Nov. 4. But restricting political apparel does not even remotely affect the issue. It would seem likely that teachers actually do very little to shape the ideologies of students, for most of the students who pay close attention to politics are not undecided voters. The students who do not know as much about current events are less likely to remember a few stray comments about President Bush’s tax cuts from an economics class.
What displaying campaign materials can do, however, is raise awareness of an issue. If a teacher is wearing an Obama button, students may be curious to ask more about the candidate and why the teacher supports him. By beginning a discussion of current events, the pin can teach students more about politics. And that’s an absolute good—students can never learn too much about political affairs, especially because test-driven classrooms spend far too little time on the workings of our government. In that sense, then, the strict enforcement of this mistaken idea of neutrality is harmful because it deprives students from learning about what is going on in the world.
But the essential problem with enforcing this ideal of neutrality is that it does not address the problem it claims to solve. No partisan individual who wears Obama apparel will become impartial without it. The real answer is not to condemn campaign paraphernalia, which have never graded down a student with opposing viewpoints, but instead to watch out for actual cases where teachers allow their views to override academic integrity. That behavior is what actually harms students and should not be tolerated. Wearing an Obama pin does not harm anyone, and the New York City Department of Education should not punish teachers for doing so.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. He is a member of the Columbia University College Democrats.