Moral Lines in the Classroom

The end of the day. A room of teachers. Quiet laughter about the upcoming blizzard. Coffee and snacks. A normal start to a faculty meeting. The meeting itself, however, was far from normal. Topic: Talking with students in a tumultuous political climate.

The discussion was interesting but inconclusive. We shared some of our experiences in the past months and discussed ways to approach difficult questions in the classroom. From the nodding around the room, I think everyone agreed about the importance of dialogue and raising multiple perspectives to allow students to come to their own conclusions.

However, the question very quickly came up about whether we, as a school, should take a stand on specific issues and refuse to condone perspectives or discussions that cross certain moral lines. I believe that we are morally obligated to clearly define what it right and what is wrong, and also that we are doing our students a disservice by legitimizing illegitimate claims.

This does not mean that I am opposed to having discussions about controversial topics. For purposes of example, I will discuss the recent travel ban because it has generated much political discourse and countless questions from students.

I believe the travel ban should be up for discussion in the classroom. To address the questions students are asking, we should look at all the arguments Trump is using to uphold the ban and investigate their inaccuracies. We should discuss the fears that led to the travel ban in the first place, and examine times in history in which immigrants and refugees were barred from the US because of xenophobia, economic and employment concerns, religious discrimination, or racism. We should then explore the implications of past policies, look at statistical evidence and data to allay fears and debunk rumors, examine the Constitution to understand checks and balances, and discuss the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that US signed in 1948. Finally, we should consider how we would each want to be treated if roles were reversed, and whether we have different internal metrics for how we approach different groups of people. If so, we need to then examine why that is.

An investigation like this would serve to help students draw conclusions about the travel ban that are based in fact, evidence, a deep understanding of historical context, and respect for all of humanity. They would understand why the ideas behind this travel ban are factually inaccurate and therefore ethically wrong. We need to teach about the travel ban so that students can understand why it is wrong from a moral perspective, and be able to defend that position when faced with opposition from those who have given into fear.

My school walks a delicate line between being a faith-based institution and a school, and it does take a stand on certain controversial issues. Not all of our stakeholders agree with the school’s positions, but it provides teachers with legs to stand on and a mission to stand by when we evaluate differing perspectives. It gives us the freedom to say, “I understand what you are saying, but this is why you’re wrong.”

Currently, I don’t have the academic freedom to condemn the travel ban on moral grounds. I don’t even really have the freedom to engage in the discussion with my students because I don’t know whether I’d have steadfast administrative support if phone calls start coming in. So when questions come up, a daily occurrence in eighth grade, I find myself pretending to be nonpartisan, dancing around issues that I feel very strongly need to be addressed. I do my best to explain each side’s arguments to my students as succinctly as I can and then try to redirect us to whatever we’re actually supposed to be studying (and that’s a different issue entirely). I don’t want to say something that is later taken out of context and politicized when it was not meant to be. I don’t want to ruffle the feathers of those who are already poised for a fight.

What a world we’re living in if I’m afraid that standing in solidarity with refugees and immigrants could cost me my job.

Unfortunately, this tendency to politicize is exactly why I am trapped in a personal moral dilemma. I believe that the purpose of education is to build a better, more peaceful world and that doing so involves cultivating attitudes of empathy, caring, kindness, and compassionemphasizing dialoguerethinking traditional masculinity and femininity; and engaging with real world problems to figure out how to solve them. Avoiding controversial discussion, thus allowing a moral wrong to be construed as a legitimate opinion, is incongruent with these beliefs.

If a student left my classroom, went out into the world, and enacted a travel ban like Trump’s, I will have failed at educating that student. I will have failed as an educator. My job is to provide students with the tools to explore and answer their own questions. Part of that means guiding students towards what is right. I would be vehemently attacked if I supported a student’s project on, for example, ways to get young people involved in white supremacy groups. And I would be likewise attacked for diverting a student’s interest away from a project about fundraising for groups working to end poverty.

Clearly, there is a right and there is a wrong. Clearly, we have already drawn moral lines. It should be no different with issues labeled political. In the end, we’re dealing with people who need help. It is no more challenging than that.

As an educator, it is my responsibility to guide students to do their own research to draw ultimately conclusions based on valid information. So I am not opposed to the discussion. I am simply opposed to allowing a perspective that is flawed, both in evidence and in morals, to have a defensible place at the table.

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