Politics and Schools: on educating in a toxic atmosphere

We talk about the political climate as if it were not the very air of community. As social beings, we have no choice whether or not to participate in politics. In this deep sense, politics is not about voting; it's about the way in which our very presence trails along all sorts of political issues: our whiteness, our gender, our Americanness, our class, etc. Though we are individuals, we also always already (and sometimes unwittingly) represent groups. It is in this sense that politics is necessary. It names the fact that communities of people are forced to interact. This interaction of peoples is the air of community life, and we must breathe it, polluted or not.

The mark of politics today is that it is strangely both all-encompassing and difficult to internalize.  Let me see if I can explain. 

First, politics is everywhere. It's not just that it shows up on our twitter feeds or is constantly blaring on some screen at the peripheries of our vision. It's also that its mines and possible mis-steps threaten so many of our interactions. The fatigue surrounding the notion of political correctness is a mark of this ever-presence of politics. Communicating today bears not just the burden of individual representation, but we are all always already speaking on behalf of liberals or conservatives or white people or our gender or religion. Politics mediates all of our relationships, and all of our relationships are threatened by politics. It is all-encompassing.

Second, politics is difficult to internalize. This is in the nature of politics; it is fundamentally alienating. To speak politically is always to forgo our individual sense of self. When we speak politically, we do not just say what we think, but we speak "as" a group or "for" a group; we measure the possible effects of our speech. We negotiate and compromise. We are forced to encounter people who at least think we are wrong and may even think that we are dangerous. To speak politically is to move out of a space of individual integrity or wholeness and move into a negotiated, fragmented, hostile space that is always open and being refigured -- subject to events and outcomes and forces far beyond our individual control. It's unsettling. It can also be thrilling -- as war by other means.

Neither of these characteristics are bad in themselves. They are consequences of the fact that we are social animals. However, it is important to note that if we live purely politically, if we breathe only this air, we will find ourselves constantly unsettled. So, we need sometimes to escape from politics. We need private spaces in which we can be less measured, where we can speak without fear of reprisal, where we can recover from the stinging hail of the public sphere, where we can experience the calm of home, or the intimacy of being understood.

We know that a primary function of schools is to prepare students for citizenship -- so that they can weather the storms of public opinion at best or even steer communities towards the public good. However, schools also work as a shelter from politics. Young people need quieter spaces where they can hone their participation in the public life. A school is a place that is not fully public, but not fully private either. In an ideal school politics exists, but it exists as ideal politics: as simple the interaction of different community interests.

Schools must work harder today to create this original sense of political participation. This is of course something that schools have always done imperfectly -- they are too weak and too imperfectly realized not to be buffeted about by the political winds that affect wider society. Racism, money, hatred, and fear remain fundamental obstacles to democratic education today. But there are two ways that this can at least be addressed by students and teachers:

1. Give students a sense of ownership of in the school community. It's only through a sense that schools are vital centers of community life that students have access to politics in its best form. If we cannot give students a sense of autonomy as they grow, how then are they to express it fully as adults?

2. Directly address the political atmosphere of the times. Students must be sheltered from the worst forms of politics, but that sheltering must be explicit. We have to point out the forms of intolerance, unhealthy anger, and indeed death and war to students; we have to let them know that we see them, and that we are protecting them from these things so that they can eventually have the strength to change them. By not being explicit about the need to protect students from politics, we teach them either to be blind to politics or to be unwitting victims of it.

In other words, we need to both protect students from the bad air of contemporary politics and give them good air to breathe. It's only by performing these two functions that the school can keep alive the ideal of politics and shelter our most vulnerable people from the toxicity of the contemporary atmosphere.


  1. I am not an educator, so am speaking purely as an outsider (well, and as a former political science major in college over a decade ago). But I think you raise some interesting points here. The third thing I would add is that college should ideally introduce students to a measured form of intellectual challenge. A major issue with our politics right now is a reliance on immediate, angry response to opposition. Perhaps as a result of social media, or just a result of a faster moving and unbiquitous narrative, opposing thoughts trigger pain, fear, anger. Upon encountering an argument, the response is either to retreat out of the political arena, cloaked in hurt, or barrage into the political arena, powered by anger.

    Instead of simply retreating from anything that could "pollute" the atmosphere, as you write, it would be ideal if the college culture could introduce students to the idea of confronting opposing, challenging, even upsetting political (and non-political) ideas in a reflective, constructive way. We can tie this back into running, the idea of gradually building mileage as opposed to thrusting yourself into a marathon program for which you have no base. Over the course of four years of undergraduate education, can we gradually build a student's "base" for political discourse?

    1. I agree with what you say here. The challenge of politics is finding measure, to use your word. How can we avoid the extremes of retreat on the one hand and anger on the other. The analogy to running is right on -- can we stay in an intermediate space of effort, sustainable effort, without "blowing up" or giving up.

      Thanks for the well considered comment.


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