Teaching Politics in a Classroom

Children attending school do not come from a vacuum. Children's values are shaped at home and this equally applies to politics. Children enter their classrooms already with beliefs. We normally equate our beliefs with our identity that in the face of threats against what we hold is true, our normal reaction is to double down and become even more deeply entrenched in our stand. In psychology, such reaction is explained by our intrinsic desire to avoid cognitive dissonance as well as the backfire effect, our tendency to hold onto our beliefs even more strongly when given contradicting evidence. It is therefore not easy to teach politics in a classroom. Polarization of society can be permanent.

Both United States and the Philippines are highly polarized in politics. Going through various Facebook posts makes it really easy to appreciate the theories of cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. It is then a huge challenge for both basic and higher education to confront extremism which is sadly prevalent in our societies.

Beliefs are handed down from generation to generation. A Gallup poll, for instance, shows how teenagers' political views mirror those of their parents:

Above copied from
Teens Stay True to Parents' Political Perspectives

 And these beliefs also translate to ideological values:

Above copied from
Millenials after 2016

How can education possibly address the problem of a polarized society? Christopher Clark offers a perspective that can help answer this pressing problem. In Examining the Relationship Between Civic Education and Partisan Alignment in Young Voters, Clark saw that a good civic education, a combination of discussions, simulations and community projects; and an open climate where students are entitled to their beliefs but their opinions still need to be justified, can help prevent extremist views. Unfortunately, one without the other leads to extremism. A good civic education is inadequate if the climate is not open. An open climate, where anything goes, is equally bad. There is indeed a fine line such that one may be tempted to simply do nothing. Doing nothing unfortunately will simply propagate the polarization that we already have.

Antonio Contreras, perhaps considered as a polarizing figure by some, recently wrote quite a personal note in his column in Manila Times:
...I now teach at a university where most of my students come from the privileged and the elite. And I take this as an opportunity to expose them to the realities of life. I bring them critical thinking and theories in classroom settings, and then I take them out to the real world through learning activities that enable them to taste and feel poverty, deprivation, powerlessness and the horrors of maldevelopment, elitist exclusion and political corruption.
I would have wished that my detractors should have asked first my current and former students how I conduct my classes. I am strict, but not authoritarian. I exact discipline, but not as a dictator, but as a friend who happens to be their professor.
This could have also disabused their minds about my being a highly partisan demagogue.
My students can attest to the fact that I never use the classroom to impose on them my partisan political views, or to celebrate the President I support, even as some of my colleagues love to use their class time to espouse partisan hatred towards the Marcoses and President Duterte....
I spent my college years at the Ateneo de Manila University, an elite institution similar to de la Salle University where Contreras currently teaches.  While attending Ateneo, I had the opportunity to participate in immersion programs and there were indeed plenty of discussions and activities regarding political and social issues. The climate during the years I spent at the Ateneo in my opinion was not open. I distinctly remember one occasion when some of my classmates and myself started singing a Marcos' tune, March of the New Society or "May Bagong Silang", just to see how our instructors would react. I guess that was also the last time we sang that tune inside the campus.

Contreras is one of the very few people in academia I know who is obviously not pro-Aquino.  It is indeed a fine line for us in education to help prevent extremism. I think having a teacher who does not espouse the beliefs of the elite in an institution of priviliged students is a breath of fresh air. And I hope he remains true to his commitment not to impose on his students his partisan political views.