What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics
In a recent post on this blog, Russ expressed concerns that the current push for politics in the ELT classroom is one-sided: not a push for an unbiased discussion of politics generally, but for a liberal social justice agenda. “Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins,” he writes.
As I indicated in a few tweeted responses, I think this post misses some critical nuances and misrepresents a benign—and in some contexts, necessary—push for politics in ELT. I won’t dispute that this push is aligned with liberal politics, but this is not an indication of a problematic bias. Rather, the historical coincidence that anti-racism, feminism, religious tolerance—principles of basic decency that ought to be universals, not partisan politics—have aligned with liberalism simply makes certain liberal principles appropriate for inclusion in the classroom.
Brevity is not a strength of my writing, but I’ll try to limit myself to five main points that Russ makes.
A Zealous Few
Russ treats the push for politics in the classroom as synonymous with a strict interpretation of Freire’s critical pedagogy, claiming that it “crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating.”
From his examples, we are left with the impression that swarms of social justice warriors are bent on injecting the classroom with their views about everything from race relations to GMO foods, environmentalism to 9/11 conspiracy theories. We are led to believe that this is characteristic of the push for politics, not a few zealous outliers.
Are there teachers out there like this? Sure. I’ve met a few. They’re typically young, overzealous and their boundary issues when it comes to political views are a problem out-of-class, as well as in. But are these teachers representative of the majority of teachers who believe that some politics have some role in the ESOL classroom? I don’t think so, and we are presented with no evidence that this is the case.
There is a difference between discussing political topics and indoctrination. However, once Russ expresses his suspicions that teachers are preaching their own foregone conclusions, he ceases to distinguish between the two. Maintaining the distinction is crucial both to his argument and to our classroom practice.
“Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy?” wonders Russ.
The answer is easy: “Easily.”
The line that Russ overlooks is not a particularly hazy one, the way I see it. Racism is unacceptable falls on one side of the line. GMO foods should be labelled falls on the other. Sexism is unacceptable is on the former side. Supply side economics created jobs is on the other.
The issues that I feel no problem imposing on my classroom are those related to discrimination and intolerance. Put another way, they shouldn’t even be considered political opinions. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance: these are not legitimate political views. That throughout history certain politicians have leveraged hate to sow division does not lend these views any legitimacy. Nor does the horrifying fact that this populism works, time and time again.
No view that calls into question the humanity or equality of other people on the basis of who they are is acceptable in my classroom. The reason is very, very simple: I have students and colleagues of different races, genders, preferences, ethnicities, and religions in my classroom, and none of those people will be made to feel unwelcome simply for being who they are.
I’m not talking about the most liberal stances available, here; I simply require tolerance for those different from you. My students don’t need to agree with me about white privilege or affirmative action or immigration policies. We can disagree about these things without insulting or dehumanizing anyone.
Before moving on, a caveat I wish weren’t necessary. There are people who will say, “But you’re being intolerant of people with differing views.” This is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, sometimes try to claim a religious justification for refusing to serve gay couples. To any thinking person, this is a cheap sleight of hand, but just to head this one off, let’s be clear: the intolerance of human beings on the basis of who they are is not morally equivalent to the intolerance of particular views. Jews need not apply and Nazis need not apply are fundamentally different.
The Right Side of History
Russ writes, “it would be nice to imagine there is a ‘wrong side of history’ and we’re all plodding along hoping we’re on the ‘right’ side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective.” In our Twitter conversations, he suggests that I’m oversimplifying the issue, focusing on the easy examples when there are countless muddy, difficult examples.
He is certainly right that there are challenging cases. I don’t deny that for a second. But complex cases do not lead us to the conclusion of moral relativism. More to the point, my argument is that I don’t think there is any widespread push to inject the muddy examples into our field.
The issues I believe have a place in the classroom are unambiguous. Issues of intolerance are categorically different from our views on taxation, corporate regulations, capital punishment, firearms legislation. I hold relatively liberal beliefs on all these issues. Under the right circumstances, I sometimes reveal my beliefs on such issues to my students. They are curious for insights into “what Americans think.” But I would never dream of presenting my view on these lesser issues as the right way. I would never dream of silencing a student who wanted to voice their disagreement with me on these issues.
The expression of intolerant views in a diverse classroom makes those who face marginalization and discrimination in society at large feel unwelcome even in our classroom. In many cases it calls into question the humanity or basic rights of individuals based on who they are. This is unacceptable. By validating, tolerating, or ignoring the expression of these views, teachers sanction them. We are leaders, and by taking up the onus of leadership, we forfeit the right to silence when injustice arises.
I don’t think that the view I describe here, the line that I draw is unusual. I think that I’m more representative of the politics-in-ELT push than the zealot Russ imagines.
An Isopropyl Solution?
Some will object that a better way to avoid this threat of intolerance is to create a classroom free of politics altogether, and Russ briefly flirts with this solution. Though I do not think he ultimately advocates for it, some did on Twitter, and I want to address this argument.
For one thing, the apolitical classroom is impossible in two senses.
The first, which Russ addresses, is that everything is political. Silence is political, and all the more so to the marginalized and vulnerable. A quick flip through your average coursebook is quick confirmation. Choices intended to be apolitical are anything but: One-dimensional tokenism in representation of minority groups, heteronormative examples, antiquated gender roles.
The second is that these issues will almost always enter the classroom in an overt manner at some point or other. I didn’t always feel the importance of explicitly calling attention to these politics. It was a series of experiences that led me to this position: kicking a student out of class for describe certain races as literally subhuman, observing a student calmly explain to his teacher what punishments his god has in store for gay people, reading an essay explaining why a student was moving out of her “black neighborhood” because a “black guy” and “another black guy” robbed her… I don’t know how the apolitical classroom crowd deals with these situations, but as I said above, I don’t think silence is an option.
Finally, though, I think we need to inject political topics into our classrooms because these are topics that surround us. These are things that we talk about—important, consequential things—and our job is to prepare our students linguistically to talk about the things people talk about.
I won’t remove students out of my class for offences they don’t understand. Nor do I want my students to be shunned outside the classroom for expressing views that they don’t understand are unacceptable in their new home.
Where I’m Calling From
I have avoided talking much about teaching context so far, but context does matter. An EFL classroom in Saudi Arabia and an IEP in Northern California are different in fundamental ways, and of course we need to adjust accordingly.
My own most recent context has certainly informed my perspective on this issue and it is my understanding that the push to include politics in the classroom is much stronger in contexts such as adult education. The students are adult immigrants to the United States. They are the politics, the hostage bargaining chips discussed on the news each day.. What I have the privilege of talking about with the distant abstract noun, politics, has concrete impacts on these people and their families. For these students the machinations and debates of white guys on TV translate to My sister isn’t here anymore. I thought my green card meant I was safe here. A stranger yelled at me on the street for speaking Arabic. I don’t know if it’s safe to take my child to the hospital. To wash our hands and sanitize our classrooms of “politics” is a privilege not afforded to all.