The school shooting in Parkland, Fla. a year ago led to a wave of political activity and debate, especially in and around schools. Students at Mount Desert Island High School were on TV news.
On the letters pages of the Islander, many called for changes to gun regulations. Others said some students with a different point of view, those on the conservative side of the issue, felt bullied and dismissed. In a snowstorm we put aside our differences and work together, one letter writer said, asking, “Why can’t school be more like that?”
Teachers likely have a different perspective on this than students do. When asked if a school is politically neutral, a teacher may take that to mean “does the school do a good job and presenting an unbiased learning environment?” But for students, what happens in the lunchroom is as important as what a teacher says in the classroom. For some, school is the first place where they’ve experienced conflict over politics.
It’s this same tension that Rep. Larry Lockman sought to address when he sponsored a bill in the current Legislature seeking to “prohibit teachers from engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.”
No teacher sees his or her role as telling students what to think. But history and civics are never uncontroversial. If a student is upset to learn that members of one group have been responsible for abuse and oppression of another, teachers and fellow students can offer empathy and sympathy. But the hard-to-hear truths must not be edited out of the curriculum.
The bill seems likely to die in committee. It ought to. Nevertheless, the larger debate is a very important one. It’s not about policing what teachers and schools can and can’t say and do. But it is about facing the reality that we urgently need some functioning bridges across the political/cultural gulf. If we can’t build them, conflict inside our public institutions will only get worse. Or we’ll self-sort into politically homogenous communities, and be the poorer for it.