• Jonathan

Talking Politics - 3

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

Continuing the discussion of Pennsylvania legislator Will Tallman’s attempt to ban discussion of political matters in the classroom, by taking that proposal seriously (regardless of my personal biases which might cause me to address it with hostility vs. reason), I was able to identify a significant flaw in the argument underlying the proposal: the fact that it seems to rest largely on anecdotal information.

In general, statistics are more useful when trying to determine the scope of a problem, while anecdotal data puts flesh on those statistics, especially by demonstrating the impact such problems have on real people.

While we should always check numbers to make sure we are not overreacting to something that is actually taking place infrequently, dismissing anecdotes just because they may not be representative would be a mistake.

Statistically speaking, flying in airplanes is much less likely to get you killed than driving in cars, which might make major news coverage of airplane disasters seem like an over-reaction to unlikely events. The number of casualties in a single plane crash could explain why dramatic air accidents are so much more newsworthy than auto fatalities treated as little more than background noise (unless they happen to you or a loved one). But remember that the huge amount of attention payed to plane accidents directly led to the kinds of investigations and regulations that have made air travel so safe in the first place.

Getting back to the subject at hand – the politicization of the classroom – if we start with higher ed and divide the number of colleges where events like student shout-downs of speakers or harassment of those with differing opinions by the total number of colleges in the US (over 5000) we would probably end up with a very small percentage of places where such troublesome activities take place. And even where it is happening, surveys of students would likely reveal that very few of them participate in such behavior, or are even very aware of it.

Yet the nature of this form of partisanship strikes at the very heart of what higher education is supposed to be about, which is why it is legitimate to give the matter some attention, even if problems are not (yet) widespread. Even so, we should separate those who are addressing the problem thoughtfully versus those curating incidents and presenting them in the most negative light possible in order to stoke outrage.

Moving on to K-12 teachers who were the targets of the proposed Pennsylvania legislation, while public school teachers have a fair amount of leeway to decide how things are taught in the classroom, they face much more scrutiny and regulation than do tenured college professors, from peers, administrators as well as students and their parents. So even if the subset of teachers for whom discussion of current events forms part of their pedagogy have strong political opinions, they face many more challenges using their position of power to sway students over to their beliefs.

I’ve purposely avoided posting my own examples of anecdotes where teachers have abused positions of trust, but you can easily find them (especially since many of them have been curated by those angered over such abuses). But in cases I’m familiar with, students and parent had options to appeal to administrators, or to find other ways to ask teachers to live by their own professional standards or code of ethics. These all represent reasonable – albeit imperfect – ways to deal with the problem our friend in PA was trying to solve that do not involve damaging a teacher’s ability to engage with students about important topics, not to mention potentially trampling on their free-speech rights.

In the next and last entry to this series, we’ll look at how taking a critical-thinking approach to this controversial issue helped us achieve far more than simply dismissing something we disagreed with out of hand.

Next - The Conclusion...