The Effect of Polarization on Our Schools

“Inflammatory polarizing tactics are meant to forge political allies by appealing to the baser emotions of man. What lesson is this for the classroom? Do you think you can keep the our country separate from your classroom? You know that it’s impossible to create unity in the classroom when there is divisiveness in the country.”
Sargent Shriver |Cleveland, OH | October 13, 1972

Our Quote of the Week underlines a reality that was true when Sargent Shriver spoke these words over 50 years ago and continues to be true today: that the polarization we see in politics adversely affects our classrooms, and by implication, our young people.

In 1972, Sargent Shriver gave a campaign speech entitled “The Hardest Job in America” before the Northeast Ohio Teachers’ Association. He was running for Vice President on the George McGovern ticket at the time. Even though much has changed in America in the 50+ years since Sargent Shriver spoke these words, there are many elements in the speech that continue to resonate today.

Shriver’s statements about the corrosive effects of dishonesty and divisiveness in politics are particularly striking. For example, he asks:

“How can teachers teach the virtues of truth and honesty in a climate in which morality is dismissed as naive and cynicism has become the norm?”
In the speech, Shriver makes a pledge to create a more supportive, sustainable, values-based environment for teachers:

“George McGovern and I can enable you to teach values that are observed in our national life. And we can also provide you with the schools and equipment. We can raise the federal share of the cost of education from 7% to at least one-third. We can relieve the local property tax burden. We can insist on suitable salaries and the funding of needed programs. We can stop short-changing education.”

Today, political clashes are wreaking havoc in our classrooms in many states. Not only are the disrespectful, disingenuous exchanges between some of our political leaders setting a negative example for young people and turning them off of service, the widespread suppression of learning is having a negative effect on students around the country. From the book bans that are happening in many states, to the efforts to eliminate everything from gender studies to Black history from curricula, political clashes are resulting in the limiting of educational resources in classrooms at every level of our educational system. In the end, the suppression of these areas of study limits what students are able to learn about our collective history and our society. As this blog post by Florida teacher Andrea Phillips shows, while battles about education may be fought by adults, it is the students themselves who suffer.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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