In America we have devised a perfect recipe for a stagnant polarization that may just be one of the biggest hot topics of the century. We see a society where we have identified so heavily with our social divisions, that it becomes our instinct to immediately reject anything opposing our group ideology. This rejection is not often based on fact, and is generally controlled by emotions. Media assists in this by providing many sources to confirm our bias and allows us to never hear the opposite viewpoint. Clinical Psychologist Chloe Carmichael dubs this process “group polarization.”
How does school play into this mass polarization that has been exacerbated by confirmation bias made possible by our access to media?
In school, teachers have a moral responsibility to check bias in order to allow room for students to form educated opinions. Students from both sides feel silenced and frustrated with teachers who refuse to hear their views, however, they gain a deep respect for teachers that open their classrooms up to an array of opinions and viewpoints.
But how difficult is it to keep an open classroom? Where do teachers personal morals clash with open expression in classrooms?
Having bias in the education process is inevitable. In no way is this an individual political parties issue. To lay blame or fault onto one person or movement is ignorant because this issue is larger than one person or group. Group polarization, with American politics at its epicenter, is a cultural epidemic. In order to have a working democracy, every American has a responsibility to be open to a variety of viewpoints and take part in discourse, which can be difficult and complex. This is why we need open discussion in school, to learn how to navigate uncomfortable arguments and turn them into educational, respectful discussions.
How does Wilson staff deal with bias and the effects of polarization in the classroom? History and economics teacher, Hyung Nam explains his tactics and beliefs.
“I don’t think its moral to impose ideology on other people at all, but at the same time I think people are really dishonest when they claim they are neutral or being objective,” Nam said. “There is a difference in imposing your ideology and being honest about where you’re coming from and acknowledging that we are all situated with our worldview where it shapes the way we act in the world.”
Many teachers and students agree that acknowledging your bias while attempting to limit your viewpoint is an effective way of teaching morally, but this process it more difficult than it seems. Senior Alex Morgan shares her experience in Nam´s classroom.
Senior Alex Morgan
“When I was in Mr. Nam’s economic class, I shared some opinions on Cavanagh, because that’s the topic we were discussing. He and another student both interrupted and wouldn’t let me finish sentences,” senior Alex Morgan said. “it was very aggressive, and frankly my heart was pounding. I guess it’s not really an open climate for discussion.”
Morgan considers herself to be “slightly liberal” and enjoys learning through discussions. She recognizes you can’t be completely neutral as a person, although as a teacher she agrees you need to acknowledge your bias. At the same time, she believes teachers should help support students in making strong claim’s, even if it contradicts the teacher’s ideologies.
“It was frustrating because I think the way that people learn is through discussions and discourse and differing opinions, and teachers shutting down differing opinions, when it wasn’t anything violent or offensive, it’s just very disappointing,” Morgan continued.
Nam responds to Morgan’s comments and explains his side of the conversation, shedding light on how teachers navigate these situations.
¨That’s come up over the years. You have to look at every individual case to see what’s going on,” Nam said. “But a lot of the time, students are saying things that just aren’t true, and I challenge them on it. I expect students to back up anything that they say, and if they can’t back it up it’s easy (for students) to say they’re being attacked for their views.¨
Nam ultimately boiled this conflict down to the importance of students providing evidence and making responsible claims. He is a strong believer that students need to learn to make sure their claims are well-researched and thought through.
Morgan claimed she wasn’t given the space to provide evidence for her claims, and was ultimately frustrated with the class in general.
“Only his opinions are right. There was no subjectivity to it at all,” Morgan said. “Anything that you say that differs with him is just completely wrong.”
When a student feels shut down in a class, it makes the entire culture of the classroom feel unwelcoming to learning. As a teacher working in this environment it must be increasingly more difficult to avoid students feeling shut out if their bias doesn’t align with the majority, especially as radicalism grows in both the left and the right. These conflicts are a result of group polarization.
The polarization that causes conflict in our classrooms is perpetuated in the education process. Textbooks are commonly misleading and full of the blaten bias of the author. Just ten years ago you could find textbooks that paint Columbus as a heroic icon that discovered America, while leaving out Native Americans existed long before Columbus. Older textbooks often neglected to mention the horror and bigotry that Columbus contributed to as well.
We have come to realize that the information we receive in school is biased. Every book, lecture, article, and song is full of subtle unavoidable pushes and shoves that lead you one direction or the other. Students need to learn how to recognize most information as unavoidably bias and attempt to expose ourselves to as many perspectives as possible.
According to Stanley Kurtz political commentator, in an article for the national review. “Almost any Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History textbook has more influence on American politics than 90 percent of the books reviewed in our leading newspapers and political magazines. Yet when was the last time you read a review of a high school history textbook? Never, I’ll bet. That’s partly because these thousand-page monstrosities are tough to read, and even tougher to judge for anyone but professional historians.”
Textbooks can be like catnip to group polarization. They provide perfect subtle ways for historians, writers, and politicians to force their view on American youth through the supposedly trustworthy information published for every young person to read.
Kurtz writes about a student from Minnesota who posted pictures of her AP US History textbook, highlighting a section discussing Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement.¨Essentially, Fraser’s updated text portrayed conservatives as bigots, Trump as mentally unstable, and the Black Lives Matter movement as a reasonable response to a police force acting like an ´occupying army´ in a ´mostly African-American town.´¨ Kurtz Shows the textbook’s obvious favoring toward the all political Black Lives Matter movement, and the demonizing of President Trump.
No matter your political views, this seemingly factual textbook is using diction to make an opinion for you, instead of providing the student with information allowing them to come to educated opinions on their own. A student reading this might still come to the conclusion that Trump is mentally unstable and the Black Lives Matter movement was perfectly reasonable if the textbook solely provided the facts; however, maybe a student would come to a different conclusion. Regardless, this writing does not allow students to think on their own.
Teachers can have a huge impact regarding this issue. When textbooks provide us with biased information, proper discussion lead by a teacher can help expose students to many more perspectives. When a teacher allows students to simmer with the facts and come to their own conclusions, and allows them to express those opinions, students will be astronomically more inclined to relate to their learning. This creates a respect-driven bond between students and teachers.
“I’m pretty surprised at how willing people are to,at least,give every idea proposed the benefit of the doubt, and that’s mostly due to Mr. Loveless,” senior William Sweek said. ¨He fosters a culture of being polite and listening, but also having an opinion and expressing it, and it’s a good balance and he does it well.”
People have views regarding how much politics should be discussed in school in general. Some believing its unavoidable, thinking politics and ideologies are involved in everything we say and do. To exclude that from our education would be next to impossible. This is highlighted in an article published by NPR interviewing Diana E Hess, author of Controversy In The Classroom.
“My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.” Diana E. Hess said.
At Wilson many political topics are brought up in class. Black Lives Matter, gun control, and climate change are regularly discussed political and controversial topics that classes have attempted to tackle. Is our school fostering open-minded students that are willing to hear all viewpoints, or are we too falling victim and contributing to group polarization?
“Our job as teachers is to provide information and thought, not to turn everyone into clones or disciples of us,” life skills teacher at Wilson, Raymond Panagopoulos said. “Unfortunately, in some of the classes here, if you’re not speaking or thinking the way the teacher wants you to, your not going to get a good grade.”
Panagopoulos has been a mentor to many students at Wilson and he has been a member of the Wilson community for nine years. Panagopoulos recognizes the group polarization epidemic that America is experiencing, and has heard students accounts of it manifesting in Wilson’s Culture.
“I think it’s our job legally, ethically and morally not to steer someone with your own thoughts, but to provide them with the information for them to make those decisions themselves,” Panagopoulos added.
“Too many students run around the school thinking they’re supposed to think a certain way.”
Panagopoulos stresses that his information comes from listening to Wilson students.
“I can’t personally say that (I’ve seen) teachers do this here, it’s only what students have told me over the past years.”
Students with differing ideologies, all over Wilson have expressed frustrations with feeling shut down in class. However, Wilson students recognize that this isn’t a constant and appreciate when they feel heard and respected.
“There are definitely some teachers that are pretty biased and don’t like to admit it and don’t like to hear other opinions, but there are still good teachers here,”senior John Henry Scott said. ¨Everybody is somewhat biased, and there is virtually no way to go about being unbiased. I think the most important part is for teachers to notice their bias and make it very clear to their students where they stand.”
Across the board, students and teachers agree that acknowledging your bias is an extremely important tactic in navigating discourse and helping to demolish group polarization. This issue isn’t only found in teacher/student relations. Harmful effects of polarization can be seen in student to student conversations as well with people making hurtful assumptions about their peers due to factors in one’s ideology.
“I’ve gotten called names for my beliefs on different things; people have labeled me a Trump supporter and called me homophobic and racist just for the fact that they thought I was a Trump supporter and on no other grounds, and it’s sad, but it is what it is. There’s definitely a view that if you’re looked at one way there’s a negative connotation.” Scott said.
Polarization is a product of culture not individual philosophy. Learning to accept this is extremely important.
“I think it’s really important for people to speak their mind. It doesn’t really matter to me if your left or if you’re right. As long as you get heard, that’s what matters,” Scott said.
Taylor Arantz identifies as a Democrat, and she recognizes that because of her ideology she is in the majority at Wilson. Generally she feels comfortable expressing her opinion in class, yet mentions that certain students make her feel shut down in class.
“Whenever I try to voice my opinion, I would either usually get cut off because the situation should not get talked about, or somebody who’s more on the conservative side would say, ‘But ok, listen to this,’” Taylor said. Taylor believes that teachers should try to be neutral when teaching.
“There’s a lot of teachers in this school that are liberal and have liberal opinions,” Taylor said. “I’m glad that most of the history teachers are unbiased, but some of them are a little too biased.”
In a blog post written by award winning teacher Tom Rademacher, he interviews a student in his class who identifies as a conservative. Rademacher identities as a liberal democrat, and he is interested in what his student has to say about his teaching. In the post, Rademacher mentions that he admires this student’s work ethic.
“He comes in at lunch to talk about ideas, to challenge and be challenged. He is open to new ideas and uses discussion and debate to deepen his understanding of them,” Rademacher writes.
The student says he always feels comfortable in Rademacher’s class and claims he is his favorite teacher.
“You always listen to what each student has to say including me, and you never really put words in their mouth…One thing you have done really well is making everybody’s voice equal,” The student said.
Classrooms can be open to discourse and productive conversation regardless of the degree of diverse ideologies within the room, and Rademacher’s classroom is a beautiful example. We see a student that is willing to back up his opinions and challenge his own beliefs, and a teacher who allows students to express their opinions regardless of their ideology.
“Social justice teaching is not, or should not be, about teaching students what to think,” Rademacher said. “We should teach critical thinking, teach about empathy and with empathy, teach inclusively, critiquing our own instruction to make sure we are teaching to and about marginalized groups. Teaching well is an act of social justice.”
All these issues stemming from polarization have solutions. It comes down to listening and being curious. If we can look up to educators like Rademacher, and as students and future scholars attempt to detach ourselves from our cultural divisions enough to accept the fact that we need to listen to everyone’s beliefs, than we can be part of the solution to group polarization.