Principle and the Politicization of the American Classroom

March 14, 2018 is likely to usher in a new landscape in American discourse, a possible sea change in the way we engage on certain issues. But the change is not that our youth have found their voice or that they are finally the ones who may change the national conversation on gun violence or that there is some slim hope that we can crawl out from under the overbearing boot of the gun lobby. It is not that perhaps rational humans can discuss the intricacies of a Constitutional phrase the avowed “originalist” justice threw out to suit his own view of a personal right. It is not that we may be ready to address the rationale for ordinary citizens to own weapons originally and solely designed for war. No, these are not the coming change in the tide of community activism. All of these could have come about without what is planned for this day by high school students across the country. The sea change, cheered on by the left and tacitly approved by numerous institutions of higher learning that will not allow attendance records for this act to blemish would-be candidates’ admission prospects, is none other than the politicization of the American classroom. Forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Certainly, it is heartening to watch a segment of our population, often looked down upon for their supposed self-indulgence, roundly and loudly disproving all of that. It is heartening to know that a new generation, most of whom cannot even vote, are willing to step into the breach where so many cowardly adults—the great concentration of whom are in DC and state capitols across the country—have failed in a sworn duty to uphold public safety. I am in awe of some of the students who have spoken in intelligent and coherent ways about what can and should be done to address our nearly unique problem in the developed world. Leaders are being made, as they so often are, in the midst of a crisis. Those leaders, based on what we see now, are poised to solve issues our current set of leaders have simply given up on. What should give us all hope is that their chances of success are aided immeasurably by the fact that they will outlive all of the failed generations that came before. Yet the actions planned for March 14th should strike fear in the heart of anyone committed to principle and precedent.

When thousands or millions of high school students walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes tomorrow—in remembrance of 17 innocent lives and in support of public safety policy to mitigate the threat of future school shootings—they will walk back into a classroom where there can no longer be any expectation of education separated from ideology, politics, or the “strongly held beliefs” of their peers or those placed in positions of authority over them. They will have said, in a most public way, that school classrooms are places for political activism and should no longer be sanctuaries of objective fact and critical thought. The giddiness of those on the left so cheering this action by an apparently awakened youth have not considered the consequences of this act or their support for it. That is a shame, but it is not surprising in a country more respectful of the concept of ends justifying means than of a logically consistent and deliberately considered life.

I have recently engaged with school administrators about a middle school Social Studies teacher displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his classroom. Soon to be discussed with the same administrators is the playing of Christian “praise music” during class. These are preposterous actions perpetrated by teachers on unsuspecting students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who deserve far better treatment. There are ethical issues with both and perhaps Constitutional issues with either. But if it is appropriate for students, on school time and property, to protest a lack of support for the sanctity of their near-adult lives, is it not also appropriate for them to take school time and protest in support of the sanctity of what some may consider unborn lives? If it is proper for students to demand legislation on weapons limitations from the school grounds, then it is equally proper for those who feel threatened by what they consider to be a lifestyle choice to protest the position of authority an LGBTQ teacher has over them in that same environment. What constraints can there possibly be for a teacher who decides to explicitly state his support for the campaign and the man—not the office—of the eventual president? What of a student whose deeply held beliefs compel her to audibly and publicly pray during each class, unwillingly conscripting her peers into religious theater and trampling on others’ freedom of conscience? The answer, of course, is that there can be no constraint, once the precedent is set, until the Supreme Court hears the multitude of cases that will surely propagate from this seemingly justifiable and “inherently good” act.

There are spaces in our shared lives that we should reasonably expect to be apolitical. Our military is so both because of law and because of the deep professionalism and cherished sense of commitment to the principles most eloquently described by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. Public venues where there is limited choice in companionship, such as the pressurized tube of an airplane or cramped public transportation, are places where one should not be subjected to the loudly professed views of others. Church sanctuaries should be similar spaces, though increasingly they stray far from the noble concept the term “sanctuary” once described in more brutal yet chivalrous times. And public schools should also be places where young citizens of every different creed, color, and orientation should not have to face the politics of others except as they relate to the objective study of the complex histories of our multi-faceted nation.

Do not misunderstand. These are places where everyone should be able to discuss, in the Socratic way, the issues of our times in an effort to understand the country as it was and as it is. I make no case for the supposed “safe spaces” cropping up across campuses nationwide; they are no friend to our sacred rights so clearly enumerated in the 1st Amendment. A learning environment is by necessity a place where beliefs are questioned and uncomfortable topics lead to a deeper understanding of our human condition. These laudable goals are not the point of focused political activity, particularly those expressions framed as protest and activism. No student—right, left, or otherwise—should have to be exposed to the purely political rantings of whoever speaks loudest or for this singular moment has captured the national conversation. No student should have to endure a one-sided display from an authority figure of a dark and often disturbing presidential campaign. They should not be forced to listen to praise music. And they should not protest on school property and during school time what some will believe is support for curtailing other, equally enumerated Constitutional rights. This protest flings wide the school doors for all manner of protests based on all manner of ideologies. That is good for no side and for no one at all. If the first casualty of war is truth, surely the first casualty of blind activism is principle. You, your students, and the country will surely suffer the consequences.