Politics and our Children: Can We Let Them Watch the President?

By Mark Heller.

The recent controversy over the President’s speech to America’s school children caused me to feel a measure of dismay.

The political gamesmanship that surrounded the event was very much a sign of the times. The far right suspected that the President’s goal was to “brainwash” our students into supporting his “socialist agenda.” Some even compared him to Hitler! The left defended the President’s “right” to speak with our nation’s children while conveniently ignoring the criticisms and partisan objections they voiced when President George H.W. Bush similarly addressed the country’s school children in 1991.

That our politics have come to the point at which a number of parents would refuse to allow their children hear the President of the United States address them, that they would rather pull their children out of school than have them exposed to their nation’s elected leader, tells me that we are not serving our children well as they travel the road to true citizenship.

I believe we have reached an important juncture in educating our children about citizenship, and I hope we can take advantage of the opportunity this situation has given us. I urge all Americans to step back from the partisan politics of the day to help our children learn about participating in our democracy in ways that will create better actors, voters, and leaders. The first step on that path, I believe, is to help us all return to a higher level of respect in our national, local, and personal interactions.

What follows is text from a letter I wrote to my school community about this topic in the days immediately before President Obama’s speech to students. I hope that by sharing these parts of that letter, it will help us generate a new type of dialog that will serve our children well in their growth toward responsible, active, engaged citizenship. After all, creating good citizens has always been one of the most significant goals of American education.

We very much want to engage our students about the world around them and about taking part in our democratic system. We feel that they ought to learn about our national issues and hear perspectives on those issues regardless of which party’s philosophy they might endorse. As an administration, we see a big problem in our country today – that, as a nation, we are not very good right now at engaging in civil discussion and disagreement about the policies and political philosophies that are being “debated” in the public square. We very much want our school to be a place where our students learn to listen to all sides of a debate and engage in questioning, answering, and exploring, but always in a polite and civil tone. We do not want our students to become liberals. We do not want our students to become conservatives. We want them to learn how to listen respectfully, how to question respectfully, and how to come to their own opinions and votes while respecting those who may come to different conclusions. In essence, we want them to learn how to be citizens. In order to do that, they have to be exposed to different points of view. We would like them to study those points of view.

If we were to show the President’s speech, we would hope that those families who disagree with the President’s comments would engage their children in discussion about what the President says, and that they will in turn provide (and teach) their own countervailing views. When you do so, please also reinforce rules of respect and polite civil discourse. (“We disagree with the President because . . .” ) Examine his choice of words as an English teacher would. Explain why the words chosen make you doubt his sincerity or, in the alternative, inspire you. Above all, discuss it and, in the process, teach your child how to think and act with respect.

We want our students to learn that patriots can disagree about policy choices in a democracy while still loving their country and wanting the best for all of her people. Opting out of hearing a speech by the President or a member of the clergy from a different religion or any opinionated speaker does not serve the goal of learning about others and, eventually, yourself. We believe that our students’ education is well-served by exploration and engagement about issues, not by refusing to even hear opposing views.

As a school, we are absolutely fine with our students disagreeing with whomever is President and voicing that disagreement, even publicly, as long as every student shows respect to every speaker and every event that they attend. We want all of our students to know that they have the right to disagree with the President or their Congressman or the Governor, and that they have many appropriate avenues in which to voice that disagreement, including their vote.

Our democracy needs its young people. But before they turn 18 they ought to learn how to be better citizens and better participants than the models they see in their daily swim through our culture’s waters. Their educational experience [ought to] help them learn how to participate with respect for others, respect for ideas, and respect for our country, the greatest nation on Earth.

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