Should History Teachers Express Their Political Opinions in Class?

Can Opinions Be Avoided?

About a week ago, we were talking about the writing of the Constitution in one of my Early American History classes. At the time, the government had finally come to an agreement to reopen the federal government and to raise the debt ceiling. So in the course of discussion, a student raised his hand and asked me who was responsible for this recent “crisis.”

When current events come up in an American History class, what is my role as an instructor? By nature, any discussion of modern political events could require me to present a personal opinion. And even if it is possible for me to avoid expressing my opinion on some subject, it can be very tempting to share my views, particularly when it comes to important topics. Some would argue that the instructor should stick to the subject matter. So in my case, I should stick to the past, not get caught up in a political controversy of the present. I am supposed to be a history teacher, after all, not a political pundit. And if a teacher uses his position of authority in order to express personal opinions, he or she is has become more of an indoctrinator than a teacher. Just stick to the facts, Mister History Teacher.

Personally, I think it is essential for any history instructor to connect the events of the past to the present. If we do not attempt to learn from the past and to make connections to current events, then the whole exercise of studying history is rather pointless. This is why I continually make references to current events in order to make the circumstances of the past more relatable and relevant for my students, the majority of whom likely believe that a history course is a pointless ordeal that one must tolerate in order to fulfill general education requirements. And even if I were to somehow avoid talking about current events, controversial questions regarding the past are going to come up, many of which have modern implications. Unless a history course consists of nothing but memorizing trivia, historical questions will be raised that have no definitive answers.

So if I cannot avoid expressing opinions, should I try to be "fair and balanced," whatever the heck that means? Or should I try to call it like I see it, reminding students that they should always feel free to take my opinion or leave it? This doesn't mean, of course, that my opinion has to be blatantly partisan. There is also something to be said for playing devil’s advocate, expressing views commonly held by others. But all points of view, whether discussing the present or the past, are not created equal, and there are far too many points of view on any subject to cover them all. So in order to avoid a dry class in which the teacher is some sort of a perfectly “objective” robot creating the impression that there is no such thing as truth, there are times when I will let my humanity show and say what I think. And since I am working with supposed adults, they need to develop the capacity to recognize when I am expressing an opinion and to evaluate the argument that I am making. It’s rare when students will speak out strongly against what I am saying, but I relish those moments when they come. Studying history, after all, is as much about raising good questions as struggling to find answers, and the last thing any decent teacher wants is a bunch of students mindlessly copying down notes in order to memorize the “truth” for the next test. Unfortunately, this is what we community college teachers tend to get, in spite of whatever efforts I might make to get them to express their opinions on various subjects.

So in the situation I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I gave sort of a multifaceted answer to this particular student’s question. My initial response was pretty simple: “it depends on who you ask.” The House of Representatives passed a spending bill that funded everything except for Obamacare, knowing that the Senate would reject it. When neither side would budge, we had a shutdown. So Republicans blamed the Senate for rejecting a spending bill, causing the shutdown. Democrats blamed the Republicans for choosing to shut down the government rather than funding legislation that had been passed by Congress and signed by the President. Party affiliation and/or feelings about the Affordable Care Act pretty much determine which side you blame.

I did mention, however, the polling data which indicates that Republicans have been blamed more than Democrats. This is largely because some prominent Republicans had been saying for some time that they were willing to shut down the government over Obamacare. This then created the impression that Republicans initiated the shutdown. But once again, whether someone agrees with the majority of Americans probably comes down to party affiliation. Still, politics is about perception, and the public response to the games that politicians play is often more important than the actual policies being implemented. In the end, the long term political impact of this shutdown will likely be far more important than the immediate effects of those sixteen days.

In addition to giving me a chance to cover the basics of this “crisis,” this student’s question created a good opportunity to describe one of the problems with the division of power/checks and balances system that I was covering in class at the time : it can be hard to get things done, especially when political parties come into play. The Constitution framers did not generally like the idea of political parties, a fact I point out more than once as we go through our class. Given current events, you can kind of see why. Still, this complicated process, in theory, should lead to better decisions and prevent any individuals from amassing too much power. But it sure can be a pain in the ass.

This student’s question also gave me a chance to have a quick discussion about Senate rules regarding filibuster/cloture/etc., which have made it so the Senate needs 60 votes to get much of anything done. Because of these rules, the party in control of the Senate cannot play the same game as those in charge of the House, passing whatever bills it wants and blaming the other chamber for “inaction.” In my view, this goes against the original design of the Constitution in which a simple majority is needed to pass a bill in the Senate, making it even harder to get things done than the framers intended. But I guess you could argue that this is just my opinion. I didn't spend too much time on the filibuster topic, however, because I was hoping to keep my students somewhat awake. It was a three-hour community college night class, after all. Plus, I needed to get back on topic, describing our stupid system for electing presidents. But that’s a whole other story, and I will spare you my opinion on that one.

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Comments 9 comments

mbuggieh 3 years ago

With all due respect: If the nature of your opinions are reflected in your comments describing the Electoral College as "our stupid system for electing presidents" and that your class as a "a three-hour community college night class, after all", then perhaps you should avoid sharing your opinions with your class.

The Electoral College system is less "stupid" than you think and protects low population states and non-urban areas from the tyranny of high-population states and urban areas.

The fact that your students are attending night classes at a community college does not mark them as inferior as your comment "after all" suggests.

As someone who has spent some 35 years as an educator---much of it at the community college level, I find your assessment of community college students---expressed in the words "after all" most troubling and most unfortunate.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

It sounds like you are handling it pretty well. I never had a problem with teachers giving opinions as long as they were recognized as opinions. A few years ago I went back to school to take a course on American Indian History. I like the professor but I did get annoyed that he always dug up complaints about Republicans but not about Democrats. From my college days in the 1950s I still remember professors who I might disagree with but they respected my opinions or those who hold opinions like mine. The object of education, I think, is to get people to learn to think for themselves.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 3 years ago Author

mbuggieh,

Low population states and high population states are not monoliths. I don't vote as a Californian. I vote as an individual citizen. But if I voted for Mitt Romney in the last election, my vote did not count. I have a longer hub about the topic that I could post a link to if you want, and I make these arguments to my students. Each argument I use is true. The only question is whether or not you think this makes enough of a case to change the system. And I never give any test question or assignment that would ever require anyone to agree with my opinion.

That statement you found so offensive was a joke. I don't dumb down my classes for my students. But describing in detail the filibuster system would be more detail than necessary in an American History survey course. And in a three-hour night class, which is kind of a ridiculous format anyway, it would likely fall even flatter than when students (and teacher) are more awake.

I was making fun of the format, not the students. Students who attend night classes are often my most committed students.


mbuggieh 3 years ago

Thanks for clarifying your comment about community college students.

The problem with changing the Electoral College system, at least from my point of view, is tyranny of the majority---particularly urban majorities.

This is something that many of us who live in New York States, for example, are acutely aware of.

New York City dominates state politics and any time there is, for example, a referendum---in which individual voters vote for/against a ballot measure (ballot measures with state-wide impact) the tyranny of the New York City majority overwhelms the wishes of voters upstate.

And I am not talking about the state Assembly or Senate voting. I am talking about direct votes from the people.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 3 years ago Author

I don't see how the electoral college system does anything to prevent the tyranny of urban majorities. Whether votes are cast by individual citizens, or votes are cast by the state as a whole, people living in urban areas will have the most influence because most people live in urban areas. Plus, voters living in urban areas do not all vote the same way, and neither do people in rural areas. The same, of course, can be said for the people living in any given state. So when we have a winner -take-all system in which a state casts all of its electoral votes for a single candidate, the people in the state who voted for the losing candidate are not represented. This is particularly ridiculous when states are extremely close. In the 2000 election, did it make sense for Florida to cast all of its electoral votes to one candidate or the other? It was a virtual tie.

Here's a link to the hub I mentioned that contains the entire sermon that I preach to my students. It's difficult to dispute the accuracy of the arguments I make, but you could dispute my general conclusion, as I point out to my students:

http://hubpages.com/politics/Replace-the-Electoral...


sheilamyers 3 years ago

Great hub! I think you handled the student's question in a very good way. Instead of giving just your opinion, you switched it up to show that the opinions people give are going to be based on what side they're on by political party. By giving the reasons either side will use, you've given the students the basic information. From that, they can get on the internet and do some research - good research if they read both sides of the story - and then they can decide for themselves which version of the truth sounds the most convincing.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

I love those classroom challenges that take the whole class to decide upon a solution, if there is one. Great way to motivate students to learn the topic. Thanks for sharing from your personal experience. Sounds like you have started a good thing.


Dennis AuBuchon profile image

Dennis AuBuchon 3 years ago

Great hub. I voted up, interesting and awesome along with liking, pinning and tweeting. Instructors are in a difficult position when it comes to history as in your hub. I suggest that if a student ask about a particular issue that you present both sides of the issue and let the students decide how they feel makin sure the have all the facts. It creates an opportunity for students to think for themselves rather than being pointed to a paricular side of an issue.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 3 years ago Author

Thanks Dennis. One problem, however, is that we live at a time when many people can't even agree on the basic facts.

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