Straight From the Source with SJ: The Nature of Political Discourse in High Schools

By: Samantha Martin, Contributor

In many classes, even those based on argumentative discussion (such as English classes), teachers and students often shy away from Civil or Political Discourse in its entirety. Do you think this avoiding of discussion is justified and why? If not, what can be done to encourage more civil political discourse within schools? -Matthew

Believe it or not, I ask myself the exact same questions fairly often. Political debate is such a major component of modern day society, and knowing how to debate and discuss ideas properly is a key skill most students should have an understanding of before reaching adulthood. It is one that is not often addressed in classes, even those like English and Civics which are often based around debate. To find the answer, or at least an answer, to these important questions, I spoke to Kirsten McMahon, an English teacher at Carlisle High School, to learn how she handles debate in the classroom.

McMahon told me that she personally believes there is a time and place for in-class discourse, and she encourages discourse “as long as it is relevant to what we are studying, and we are not dismissing people while we are having these discussions.”

Despite the fact that debate can add to the study of certain novels and concepts, McMahon did acknowledge that discourse in the classroom can cause conflict among students, due to the fact that many students take political issues to heart. She noted that this seemed to be especially apparent during the most recent election cycle, due to the combative nature of the presidential debates and the strong feelings associated with the key issues the candidates focused on. “I found that with the recent election, it was so decisive that people felt that if in individual sided with a particular side, that there was something inherently wrong with that person, and I found that people were unwilling to listen to other people’s opinions about that because of how decisive it was.”

Another member of the Carlisle High School community, a student named Maya, also cited key issues during the recent election as a source of heavy, sometimes personal conflict in class discussions. “A lot of the time we are afraid to talk about race, issues concerning the LGBT [community], the government and president, different religious issues,” Maya said.

“Political issues cause a lot of divide between people, especially the youth.”

So, there’s the answer to your original question: teachers avoid political debate out of fear that these discussions will lead to pointed and personal insults. However, this only leads to more questions: Why do students use personal attacks when discussion gets heated? How can teachers try to avoid having these sort of hostile attacks on students occur without avoiding politics altogether?

McMahon, a teacher who has taught classes made up of both ninth and tenth graders, told me that this pointed and insult-ridden style of discussion was common among both older and younger students. “With younger students, it tends to be sort of a mark of immaturity, I think, to try to one-up their peers, or try to attack people based off of character, which is actually a logical fallacy. But with older students, it’s almost like a rite of passage, where they feel like they’re wiser and they’re older, and they know more, and therefore their political conversations become a little bit more pointed and a little more scathing in tone.”

Maya had a similar perspective to McMahon as to why students may be so pointed when debating: students may use insults while debating “in order to win, or maybe because the person [they are debating] made them mad with their viewpoint.”

And as for how to prevent personal insults in debate? McMahon has tried several methods. “Sometimes, getting them [older students] to back away from that can be a little more difficult, whereas with my younger students, it’s a lot easier to say to them, “Let’s be more mature about this, let’s tackle this from this perspective, let’s stay on topic, and let’s be respectful,” but for some of my older students, they have learned the habits of their peers, and they have learned the people themselves, and I think sometimes it can be a little more tempting to make personal attacks.”

When discussing with me how to make debate less scathing and more focused, Maya put emphasis on students correcting their own behavior, arguing that students should “make sure that no one is making personal attacks, and basing their arguments strictly on facts rather than what they want to believe.”

Even though much in-class discussion seems to be filled with this sort of animosity, McMahon still remain hopeful that with the correct guidance and moderation, politics still have a place in class discussion.

“I know that students want to talk about politics in class, and so what I tell them is we can certainly entertain those conversations, but we need to be thinking about building a community that is inclusive, and building a community where people’s voices are heard instead of ignored,” McMahon said.

Maya agrees. “It’s important to make sure that people feel comfortable debating respectfully rather than just being nasty to others.”