Continuing the discussion of a Pennsylvania legislator’s call to ban discussion of political issues in the classroom, as mentioned previously, the first step for thinking critically about such a proposal is to temporarily check our biases. In this case, the biases I need to control for derive from my instinctive dislike of such a proposal based on my own beliefs regarding freedom of speech and hostility to second-guessing teachers or limiting their freedom to teach as they like.
With those biases present and accounted for, the next step would be to find a charitable way to interpret the thinking behind such a proposal. By “charitable,” I am referring to the Principle of Charity that calls on you to engage with the strongest version of an opponent’s argument, rather than just zero in on its weaknesses.
If you read national news sources covering the story, most of them don’t apply this Principle. Instead, they spend a majority of words condemning the legislation, with maybe a quote or two by its author, Will Tallman, in which he explains the nature of the law he proposed, but not the reasoning behind it. As is often the case, we need to turn to reporting closer to the ground for more detail.
In a longer explanation of why he was motivated to propose such a law, Tallman claims that when he served in school committee, he never received complaints about teachers talking politics in the classroom, but that now that he is a member of the state legislature, sitting on a major committee on education, he has fielded several such complaints from parents highlighting issues he also heard about from family members with kids in school.
Note that what he seems to take issue with is not that contemporary political issues are being discussed, but that such discussion might be partisan vs. pedagogical. This is an issue that cannot be dismissed out of hand, given what we have seen happening in higher education over the last several years where lack of viewpoint diversity has led to abuses such as students with conservative viewpoints being given lower grades, or having speakers they invite to campus harassed and de-platformed.
If you read conservative media sources, you will know that lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses and aggression towards those holding right-of-center opinions is a problem many conservatives are sensitive about, as are many liberal critics of campus culture characterized by shut-downs of controversial speakers and other attempts to enforce political orthodoxy.
But college campuses are not the same as the K-12 classrooms in public schools targeted by Tallman’s proposal. Are those classrooms also places where political indoctrination might be a problem?
There is certainly evidence that this has occurred on some occasions. Naturally, it is difficult to draw the line between instances where controversial matters were discussed vs. times when teachers brought them up in order to sway students to the teacher’s way of thinking. That said, it is not hard to find stories of teachers acting less than professionally when it comes to political topics they felt passionately about, up to and including instances when teachers abused positions of trust.
Keep in mind, however, that this evidence is anecdotal which leads to one of the strongest arguments against a proposal that might limit or even harm lots of people due to the irresponsible behavior of a few. It is to that counter-argument to Tallman’s reasoning that we shall turn to next.