Hostile, Divisive Political Climate Ensnaring U.S. Schools

Political debate in the United States has deteriorated over the past two decades, as reasoned, well-informed dialogue has been eclipsed by hyperpartisanship, name-calling, even paranoia.  But can anyone reasonably deny that the political climate today is debased beyond a point unimaginable perhaps even five years ago?

Unfortunately, this hostility and incivility has seeped into our schools.  Rigorous classroom debate is one thing; verbal attacks designed to incite and divide is something else altogether, presenting educators with a new set of formidable challenges.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey of high school principals conducted by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) at UCLA.

“The flow of the nation’s harsh political rhetoric does not stop at the school house gate, but instead, propelled by misinformation and social media, is fueling anger, fear and division that is negatively impacting students, schools and learning,” the report says.

Although the report is called “School and Society in the Age of Trump,” the intent, explains lead author John Rogers, professor of education at UCLA and the director of IDEA, is not to suggest President Trump singlehandedly took a wrecking ball to the nation’s political discourse.

Nonetheless, “the Trump administration has dramatically expanded the practice of demonizing opponents, as well as uses of invectives and violent political metaphors,” Rogers says.

A majority of the 550 principals surveyed are seeing an unmistakable increase in incivility over the past few years:

  • Nine in ten principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has “considerably affected their school community.”
  • Hostile exchanges outside of class, demeaning or hateful remarks over political viewpoints are increasing.
  • Most disturbingly, 8 in 10 report that their students have made derogatory remarks about other racial or ethnic groups, including immigrants. Very often, students will echo Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, with “Build the Wall!” being a particularly popular chant.

As a high school principal in California noted, “students are more and more willing to say outrageously racist, homophobic, ‘whatever-phobic’ things, believing it is their ‘right’ to do so. In the past, when this occurred, there would be a certain acknowledgement and perhaps shame I could elicit through discussion—an ability to see that hate speech is wrong. That is less and less true now.”

Truth Decay

The UCLA survey also focuses on how the steady flow of false information – usually via social media platforms – has corrupted critical thinking and exacerbated political tensions and divisions in schools. Over the past few years, “students struggle to discern fact from opinion, identify quality sources, or participate in inclusive and diverse deliberations on social issues,” the report said.

While this trend long predates the 2016 election, Rogers says, Trump’s relentless campaign to discredit traditional information sources has had an impact.

“President Trump’s rhetoric often obfuscates the public’s understanding of important issues and erodes commitment to the ideal that policy deliberations should be grounded in verifiable facts,” says Roger, who cites Politifact’s 2016 finding that 70% of Trump’s statements were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” lies.

In addition, Trump’s constant bellowing of “Fake News!” and “Corrupt Media!” further erodes the public’s trust in traditional, reliable information sources.

According to the UCLA survey, a large majority of principals reported an increase in students making at best dubious claims based on unreliable media sources, and rejecting outright the sources their teachers were using in the classroom.

The report also takes a look at how schools have been struggling to address greater societal challenges, such as gun violence, immigration enforcement, and the opioid crisis.

Trump’s “frequent public threats” to expand deportations, as well as his intention to exploit the immigration issue in 2020, has heightened the fear and anxiety of millions of students with undocumented family members.  Two-thirds of the principals surveyed said enforcement policies and demagogic rhetoric – now adopted by an increasing number of lawmakers and politicians – “have harmed student well being and learning.”

‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Disagreement’

Escalating political tensions, says Rogers, caught many schools a little off-guard, leaving them unprepared for the fallout.

The report offers a set of recommendations that can help stifle tensions and build and protect a healthier school climate.  School climate standards, for example, should emphasize “care, connectedness, and civility,” and be supported by a network of trained educators.

Rogers cautions that some district administrators pressure principals to enforce neutrality in the classroom. While this may sound practical on the surface, taking such a step can silence civil discussions.

“The most effective principals we studied create democratic cultures within their schools, inviting teachers and students to share their ideas and grapple together across lines of difference,” Rogers explained.

In one of the testimonials in the report, a principal in Connecticut pointed out that political differences between students, if handled carefully, can be used to promote engagement and trust in the classroom:

I try to be really real with kids. I try not to shy away from important topics. I tell teachers that their job is to facilitate dialogue and learning; I don’t want any sort of dialogue to be smashed. I don’t want them to feel like when discussions about the election come up that they need to shut them down so as to avoid any sort of hurt feelings or disagreement. I want teachers to have the attitude of ‘there’s nothing wrong with disagreement.’ We need to be able to foster and model how to properly do this for our kids.