4. Politics

Do you remember the moment in Animal Farm when Napoleon (the Lenin pig) ordered the dogs to drive Snowball (the Trotsky pig) out of Animal Farm? Napoleon had taken charge of the education of the pups, and they had grown up loyal to Napoleon. I read the book in high school, and though I had no plans to be a teacher, I was struck by the awesome and potentially dangerous power entrusted to those who work with children.
On the one hand, teachers cannot avoid influencing children’s political thinking. Neither can parents. If we present ourselves as devoid of political leanings, or embarrassed about them, children pick that up. On the other hand, our politics, if well-developed, are based on years of study and thought. They are also based on our personalities and events in our lives. We hope that our children’s political thinking will develop so that they participate intelligently in our democracy. We don’t want them to be carbon copies of ourselves, but neither do we want them to appall us with their politics.
I’ve worked to help children understand politics without indoctrinating them. I rarely gave hints about my politics. My beard and bumper stickers may have given me away as a bleeding heart, tax-and-spend liberal, but only to those who knew and trusted stereotypes.
Meanwhile, children “rooted” for candidates, often as they rooted for a baseball team. The timing of national elections and world series games is unfortunate. Before each election, I faced a class of children who knew which candidate was the “best” one. Their reasons varied. Some supported candidates’ stands on issues, but most based their leanings on image, parental influence, and peer influence. I hope that’s less true of adults.
Adults have to be careful with their power. I remember that Mr. Loucks, my junior high social studies teacher, cautioned us during the student government elections: “Don’t just vote for candidates because they are good-looking. Think about how well they’ll do the job.” Coincidentally (or not), there was a national campaign going on at the time. We could choose a good-looking president, or one whose campaign slogan was “Experience Counts.” Partly to avoid being superficial, and partly to rebel against my parents, I supported the experienced one.
I encourage children to wait. Each year, around election time, I tell them about some of the concepts they will learn later, and some of the experiences they may have later that will help them develop political opinions. I ask them to try to focus their political thoughts on issues that are important to them now. They often confuse the words “vote” and “root,” and I try to get them to see the important difference. I want children to form opinions based on sound thinking and information.
There is no easy formula for dealing with children’s political thinking, in or out of school. I have voted pretty much the way my parents have, and I suspect that my daughters’ politics will probably follow suit. But I hope our good sense in the voting booths is due to genetically inherited intelligence and wisdom, and not indoctrination.

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