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Lou Phillips

Remaining neutral

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I've been reading with great interest the recent thread on political ideology. I am sorry I haven't contributed but I don't feel that my beliefs are coherent enough nor am I eloquent enough to explain my ideas. My question to other forum users is, should we try to remain politically neutral in classroom? I am teaching A-level Government and Politics for the first time and I don't want my students to feel as if I am pushing my ideas on them. I am sure they will get a feel for my point of view, often I use anecdotes to illustrate my points e.g. - when saying what kind of people get involved in politics I suggested that is was often from 'political' families, one of my earliest memories was burning an 'guy' of Thatcher on the bonfire on November 5th. But I don't think I should explicitly reveal my allegiances (in spite of their frequent asking which way did I vote at the last election).

Any thoughts?

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I've been reading with great interest the recent thread on political ideology. I am sorry I haven't contributed but I don't feel that my beliefs are coherent enough nor am I eloquent enough to explain my ideas. My question to other forum users is, should we try to remain politically neutral in classroom? I am teaching A-level Government and Politics for the first time and I don't want my students to feel as if I am pushing my ideas on them. I am sure they will get a feel for my point of view, often I use anecdotes to illustrate my points e.g. - when saying what kind of people get involved in politics I suggested that is was often from 'political' families, one of my earliest memories was burning an 'guy' of Thatcher on the bonfire on November 5th. But I don't think I should explicitly reveal my allegiances (in spite of their frequent asking which way did I vote at the last election).

Any thoughts?

I don't think it is possible or desirable to be politically "neutral" in the classroom. The context of the classroom isn't politically neutral after all.

I want my students ultimately to have the skills to think critically about my ideas and the ideas of others. I have therefore no problem discussing controversial issues or in letting my students know where my own opinions and beliefs lie and where they come from.

It is the only intellectually honest thing to do. This is not of course saying that I "push my views" onto students. I believe I am skilled enough to present opposing views in a rational way also even when I find them disagreable.

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I've changed my mind on this one recently. In fact I recall having some kind of argument with Andy Walker about this in the past.

I started teaching politics last year and although I have not told the students how I have voted in the past they really want to know my opinions on issues. I have found that being honest with them but making it explicit that it is my own opinion is appreciated. However my priority is to create an atmosphere in the classroom where all opinions are respected and where every pupil feels comfortable in putting views forward. I try to discourage aggressive arguing (which tends to be used by people to compensate for lack of real insight) and get the students to justify their points.

I suppose that the political opinions of your class will also reflect the way you teach. Many of my students are left wing so I ofetn find myself throwing right-wing ideas at them to get them to explore their own ideas more effectively. I guess the reverse would be the case too.

What exam board and syllabus are you teaching?

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I've been reading with great interest the recent thread on political ideology. I am sorry I haven't contributed but I don't feel that my beliefs are coherent enough nor am I eloquent enough to explain my ideas. My question to other forum users is, should we try to remain politically neutral in classroom? I am teaching A-level Government and Politics for the first time and I don't want my students to feel as if I am pushing my ideas on them. I am sure they will get a feel for my point of view, often I use anecdotes to illustrate my points e.g. - when saying what kind of people get involved in politics I suggested that is was often from 'political' families, one of my earliest memories was burning an 'guy' of Thatcher on the bonfire on November 5th. But I don't think I should explicitly reveal my allegiances (in spite of their frequent asking which way did I vote at the last election).

Any thoughts?

I discovered soon after I began teaching that this is a major issue when discussing controversial issues in the classroom.

My first school was in a very conservative area. The Labour Party was non-existent and the constituency had one of the largest Tory majorities in the country.

The students, understandably, shared the political ideology of their parents. This became very clear whenever political discussions took place in my history and sociology lessons. I felt it was my responsibility to counter the right-wing views that they held. For example, racism is always worse in areas which are virtually exclusively white. It did not take them long to discover that I held left-wing views. This confused them. All authority figures they had been in contact with held right-wing opinions. They found it difficult to grasp that someone they respected could hold different political views from their parents.

A few years later I met one of my former Y8 students in the Sussex University library (she was at this time studying for a science degree). She told me that her friends had been completely shocked by my political comments in the classroom. As she said, none of them had ever met a socialist before. Psychologically it was a problem for them as I was very different from what they expected (it has to be remembered that this was at a time when Margaret Thatcher was about to be swept to power). Although she was not a socialist (that was indeed a step too far) she claimed that I had had a tremendous impact on her political consciousness. Far more than all those other teachers who she now realized had been promoting the dominant ideology.

Despite my willingness to question their conservative views in the classroom, not one parent every complained to the head or raised this issue on parents evenings. The nearest to a complaint I received was when one mother suggested that her daughter had began to question her “values” during discussions over the dinner table. She pointed out that during these discussions she often quoted things she had learnt in her sociology lessons.

The only time I was called into the head’s office about my “inappropriate” comments came the morning after I covered an RE lesson soon after I began teaching. It was my own form group and the head of RE had left work where they had to colour in outline drawings of stories taking from the Bible. I was rather horrified by this and decided to have a discussion on the existence of God. At one stage in the proceedings a boy asked me what my views were. At first I refused. He answered that he thought this was unfair as I was expecting them to openly express their opinions on the subject. He was right of course and so I did spend a couple of minutes explaining why I did not believe in God. One of the girls in the class was the daughter of the local vicar. That night he was on the phone to the head and the following morning I was escorted to his study by the deputy head (for a moment I thought I was going to be caned). The head was very sympathetic. He told me that he had been a radical when he was a young teacher. He winked and told me to be careful in future. I wasn’t but I got away with it. The reason being that the students did not tell on me. Maybe I was lucky that my students did not want to get me into trouble. I know the vicar’s daughter was devastated by the news that her father had complained to the head about me.

My advice is therefore to freely admit your political views. However, it is important not to use your superior intellect to make them feel foolish. You also need to make sure you don’t make too many enemies. If your lessons are interesting and you get good exam results, you will be safe from harm.

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Guest Stephen Turner

As I am not a teacher, here's a little anecdote. From the ages of 12-14, my form teacher was a man called Jeff Nuttall, a poet, jazz musician, actor, anarchist, and all round good guy. What I really liked about him was his honesty, he never ducked a question in two years, and his ability to make the "normal"exciting and challanging. One thing he wasn't was neutral. I am a different person for having met him.

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I suppose it depends what one means by "neutral". I got into a sort of argument with John about this some months ago. One could insist that no one could ever be truly neutral since we all bring our innate and inbred prejudices with us when we enter the classroom. On the other hand you could also argue that what's required is not an absolute "tabula rasa" but rather an honest attempt to present both sides of any argument, whether one agrees with it or not. I frequently debate current affairs issues in class, and don't mind answering questions about my personal beliefs, but I do try to be even-handed and present the arguments against my point of view as well.

I do think it's very wrong to try to convert people to one's political beliefs in the classroom. Like it or not, when we stand at the front of the class, we're in an authority position and to prosletyze would be take unfair advantage of this position. Also, if people are allowed to do this for positions we find acceptable, we'd be a little hard put to protest when, say, a BNP sympathizer, decided to do the same...

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A slightly different view on 'neutral' :

Neutrality is also another political position to hold,usually with regards to foreign policy.

Perhaps 'equanimity' would be the better word to use?

______________________________________________

I'll choose to do so here.

As said, maintaining an equanimous outlook is difficult if not impossible. The value comes from attempting to do so.

In the attempt to maintain equanimity one becomes familiar with the reasons one is having difficulty in doing so. This reveals the influences of say natural impulses as well as 'unnatural' ones or those formed by, for example, the media. In learning to 'know oneself', one comes to a knowing of politics. Negative political ideologies depend heavily on a pavlovian pre judice to overcome natural impulses such as empathy.

A society of equanimous educated individuals that adopts a neutral stance as far as other societies go does not abandon morality. Quite the contrary. It stands a chance of developing a healthy morality. The neutrality allows it to dialogue with what may otherwise be antagonists. It may thus have a greater eventual impact on world events than if it chooses belligerence. Children, I think, quickly sense go and no-go areas. If their acquired responses leads them to sympathies with what essentially are anti-human politics I suspect that they will sublimate same and this may fester into the kind of problems that will have to be dealt with by societies in the long run anyway.

Teaching, in my opinion, should often concentrate, at least early in the pupils career, on learning how to learn. Coming to 'know oneself' through equanimity is a valuable tool. The teachers who demonstrates this, or teaches by example, needs of course to first apply it to their own selves.

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John writes:

“For example, racism is always worse in areas which are virtually exclusively white.”

I disagree. It can be even worse in areas where the mix of the local population is rapidly changing. I can think of a couple of towns not far from where I live that have this profile and where racism is rife – and racism that manifests itself in different ways: white v. black, Indian v. Pakistani, Asian v. Afro-Caribbean. Racism is also not the exclusive preserve of the right-wing or the white middle class. I know quite a few Labour voters (working class and members of trade unions) who express blatantly racist views. Remember the dockers who went on strike in support of Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech?

Regarding the issue of neutrality, I remember an inspiring teacher of mine who used to set up formal debates in class, where he selected proposers and seconders to put forward opposing views and not necessarily (or even preferably not) the views in which we believed. A friend and I were selected to put forward the pro-Apartheid argument. We both hated the idea of Apartheid, but it forced us to research the beliefs of those who did support it and to try and sound convincing. We lost the debate, but it was a valuable learning experience. By the way, I think that our teacher was a Socialist, but he never let on…

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As I am not a teacher, here's a little anecdote. From the ages of 12-14, my form teacher was a man called Jeff Nuttall, a poet, jazz musician, actor, anarchist, and all round good guy. What I really liked about him was his honesty, he never ducked a question in two years, and his ability to make the "normal"exciting and challanging. One thing he wasn't was neutral. I am a different person for having met him.

Jeff Nuttall actually taught me as well (via the Open University). I agree, a great teacher with a completely unique style. A true revolutionary.

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I suppose it depends what one means by "neutral". I got into a sort of argument with John about this some months ago. One could insist that no one could ever be truly neutral since we all bring our innate and inbred prejudices with us when we enter the classroom. On the other hand you could also argue that what's required is not an absolute "tabula rasa" but rather an honest attempt to present both sides of any argument, whether one agrees with it or not. I frequently debate current affairs issues in class, and don't mind answering questions about my personal beliefs, but I do try to be even-handed and present the arguments against my point of view as well.

I do think it's very wrong to try to convert people to one's political beliefs in the classroom. Like it or not, when we stand at the front of the class, we're in an authority position and to prosletyze would be take unfair advantage of this position. Also, if people are allowed to do this for positions we find acceptable, we'd be a little hard put to protest when, say, a BNP sympathizer, decided to do the same...

To decision to play the neutral chairman role is itself a political position. For example, I got into trouble for telling the class I did not believe in God. I would not have got in trouble for telling them I believed the opposite The reason being that my making that statement I was challenging the dominant ideology. The person who plays the role of the neutral chairman does not do that. He takes sides by adopting that position and becoming part of the dominant ideology.

Of course, the teacher should attempt to provide an accurate representation of the different political positions. However, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that we can be completely objective in the classroom. For example, I was fully aware that when teaching Nazi Germany I failed to provide fascist views in a good light. In fact, I carefully censored some of the visual materials I used in the classroom. After all, the Nazis were talented propagandists.

I think we should be as honest as possible about our political beliefs. One way to do this is to run a Debating Society. I was teaching in a school in Brighton in the height of Thatcherism. At the time, Brighton had two Tory MPs. The Conservatives also ran the local and district councils. My head was also a Tory councillor.

I thought it was my duty as a citizen to challenge what Thatcher was doing to the UK. I therefore helped the head of English to establish a Debating Society. We held regular debates for the upper school. Students would second teachers. Staff were encouraged to join in these debates. After one debate on the miners strike we held a collection for their families. We never had one complaint. Brighton now has a Labour council and provides both MPs for the town (in fact, both MPs are the fathers of two of our regular debaters). Just a coincidence of course but I think we did our little bit to create an interest in politics in the town.

At another school I used to organize Question Time sessions (based on the TV programme) for six formers. The panellists were all teachers. They were well attended as students are always keen to discover the political opinions of the people who teach them.

I also organized mock elections during general elections. Candidates would visit all classes to answer questions during form periods. It was all part of what I considered to be their political education (you could now get away with it by calling it “active citizenship”.

It was important to do this in the 1980s because of Thatcherism. It is even more important today as Blair is in many ways worse than the Iron Lady.

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Thank you for your opinions. I think I will be more open with my views, if only to stimulate debate as currently whilst my students enjoy arguing about music, sport etc they rarely discuss their own politics in the classroom apart from the odd comment of 'Tony Blair's an idiot' or 'we should stay out of Europe' which they won't eleaborate on more eloquently. I am also keen to set up a debating society perhaps this will be another way to get them talking and challenging each other.

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Thank you for your opinions. I think I will be more open with my views, if only to stimulate debate as currently whilst my students enjoy arguing about music, sport etc they rarely discuss their own politics in the classroom apart from the odd comment of 'Tony Blair's an idiot' or 'we should stay out of Europe' which they won't eleaborate on more eloquently. I am also keen to set up a debating society perhaps this will be another way to get them talking and challenging each other.

Perhaps you could get some of them to register here as students and get them to ask questions, or post their questions here on their behalf?

The exercise I am doing with my students HERE certainly requires a good deal of openess and reflexion on the part of both the teacher and the students

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