Opinion: Politics in education can be dangerous

By Morgan Jay ’25

Politics should be left out of education, but when that’s not possible, it should at least be presented in an unbiased fashion to allow students to form their own opinions. In my experience at Woodberry Forest and beyond, this has not always been the case.

I first saw this issue rear its head during the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race between Glenn Younkin (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D). Some attributed Youngkin’s victory to McAuliffe’s comment: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.” Youngkin is the first Republican governor of Virginia since 2009, a feat that is at least partially related to his stances on education. 

Residents of my hometown, Alexandria, Virginia, booed Youngkin after the Virginia Department of Education implemented new “model policies.” These policies largely pertain to gender identity in schools; more specifically, they restrict bathroom access for transgender students and require legal documents for a student to change his or her pronouns. The policy is similar to the Parental Rights in Education Bill, which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law on March 28th, 2022. The bill was popular among parents and even Democrats. In a poll by Public Opinion Strategies, 61% of all people were in favor of the legislation, including 55% of Democrats and 67% of parents. Considering the public’s vocal response, these numbers paint a different picture, one where the bill constitutes support from a majority of Floridians, regardless of their party affiliation.

The debate over gender identity in schools essentially boils down to how much a school should impose an ideology on its students. A spokeswoman for Youngkin’s administration articulated this: “It is not under the school’s or the government’s purview to impose a set of ideological beliefs on [its] students.”

Several students at Woodberry Forest recalled experiences where political ideology was imposed on them in academic environments. I intend to share some of those stories to show how politics in education can be problematic. For the sake of the students’ and teachers’ privacy, I will not use names.

One student recalled an experience from virtual classes in winter 2021: “We were on a Zoom call when a student’s camera briefly showed a Trump flag in his dorm room. The teacher stopped class and inserted his own opinion on President Trump. He should have politely and privately asked the student not to show the flag again, but instead, he alienated the student in front of his peers.”

Another student recalled his history teacher misquoting former President Trump during a lecture: “During our unit on the KKK, [the teacher] referenced a recent event: the Charlottesville riots. Next to an image of rioters holding Nazi and confederate flags, as well as other symbols, our teacher displayed in red, boldface font the oft-misquoted Trump-ism: the ‘very fine people on both sides’ remark. He completely disregarded the rest of the quote.”

Trump’s above remark is a small piece of his speech, which notably excluded white nationalists and neo-Nazis from the “very fine” people to which he refers. In the same speech, Trump said, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” And even before that, he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America.”

I pressed the above student on whether he thought this to be an honest mistake or a deliberate attempt to frame Trump as a racist. He responded, “I remember multiple times in that class where [the teacher] accused Trump of siding with the confederates, neo-Nazis, and racists. He knew what he was doing; I have very little doubt about it.”

When a teacher imposes his or her opinion on the class, it becomes challenging for students to form opinions on their own. Oftentimes, teachers are positive role models who can prompt political mimicry instead of independent thought. 

To give an example of an incident that extended far beyond a single classroom, a teacher recently referred to the notoriously conservative news outlet Fox News as “F*x” in an email to the [NEWS] folder, which includes students, faculty, staff, and others. I happen to think very highly of the teacher, and I was surprised at this insertion of his opinion in an unnecessary setting.

One of my current teachers put it best, “I’m not interested in creating fifteen mini-me’s—I just want you to back it up with facts.”

Although these examples are notable, small acts are more common. For example, one student told me that he was “harshly told to include ‘their’” after providing “did anyone forget his or her backpack?” as an example in a grammar lesson. 

So far, I’ve discussed the imposition of left-leaning ideology, but I’m sure there are examples of the opposite. My experiences trend left because of the political views of the faculty members at Woodberry Forest. In a 2020 mock election led by Dr. Jordan’s government class, Woodberry’s faculty favored President Joe Biden with 86.8% of the vote. Had they viewed the candidates differently, perhaps Biden would have been the one misquoted. 

This is not to say that students and faculty should not discuss politics with one another; I’ve often enjoyed respectful debate with my teachers, and when everything stays factual, we find common ground.

I do feel, though, that politics does not have a home in elementary schools or other inappropriate settings. I don’t anticipate my younger brother being able to differentiate between unbiased and biased quotes like the ones previously mentioned, which could be detrimental to his ability to form opinions of his own when he is older. As long as politics remain in their proper forums, education will be better off.

The contents of this article do not necessarily represent the ideas of Woodberry Forest School or the editorial board of The Woodberry Oracle.

Categories: Opinion

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