The Educational Is Political

Engaging the national conversation in classrooms


American school teachers (both public and private) have a long-standing challenge with which to contend: how to engage students with the world around them without preaching, advancing opinions as facts, or disenfranchising some of them – and doing it all without straying too far from the established curriculum.

In 1968’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire put forth the idea of critical consciousness: an in-depth understanding of the world’s social and political mechanics. Freire posited that exposing students to these varying and often contradictory structures at an early age would help them more easily recognize, and even take action against, oppressive elements in their own lives and better their communities through understanding. With that being said, everyone has biases, and presenting a balanced argument for both sides of a conflict can be a slippery task even with the best intentions.

That’s why Pickering v. Board of Education (also in 1968) ruled that a teacher has a constitutionally protected right to speak on issues of a public nature. However, in the fall lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, a federal court upheld a policy that New York City teachers could not wear campaign buttons in classrooms, arguing that individual school districts had the right to determine if buttons interfered with learning. The lesson here is that educating American kids on sociopolitical topics isn’t easy, but neither is interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Even one hundred years prior to the creation of that document, Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams called the complicated freedoms of a melting pot “a lively experiment.” And that’s something East Side educators take seriously.

At Gordon School, eighth graders have visited locations significant to the civil rights era in Georgia and Alabama since 2002 as part of their humanities curriculum. The school also conducts three day-long “teach-ins” over the course of the year regarding issues of social justice. In January, eighth graders conducted mixed-grade workshops, one of which was focused on Islamophobia.

Last year’s commencement speaker at Lincoln School’s graduation was Madonna Badger, whose #WomenNotObjects campaign focuses on the advertising industry’s retouching of photos of women to sell consumer products. The all-girls school is rigorously working on its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) curriculum in order to prepare young women to compete in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Providence public school teachers have been working without a contract since the start of the school year; the opportunity to address the function of unions and the role of government, among other issues, is what Paolo Freire had in mind back in 1968. Classrooms throughout Providence have also been alight with discussions of school safety, gun laws, and mental health services in the wake of the February school shootings in Parkland, Florida. These particular topics of policy and debate are the kind that have invaded all of our nation’s schools with urgency.

There have always been outside political issues clamoring to be brought into our classrooms, but those discussions, however messy, must be done constructively and with purpose. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”