The Country Is Massively Polarized But Our Classrooms Don't Have to Be

Oct 29, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Editor's note: This post originally ran in  2018 ahead of the midterm elections that occurred during incumbent Republican President Donald Trump's term.

I am heartbroken at us. I am heartbroken at what we, as a country, have proven to be. I am heartbroken at our last week, at how callously acts of racial and political terrorism have been dismissed, ignored, minimized, at how fear and outrage have been weaponized, increasingly literally, weaponized. I read it all, watch it all. I do my best to stay aware, stay present, and it keeps me heartbroken, actively heartbroken at us.

I am lucky enough to have this one thing. I have this teaching job, and while there are people out there doing work more immediately crucial to the safety and wellness of others, I have this place, every day for five different groups of 30 kids, where I can do what I can do. My class is pretty serious these days. We are studying the Holocaust together, reading Art Spiegelman’s “MAUS” and identifying the 10 Stages of Genocide, defining and working with words like dehumanization, marginalization, oppression and resistance. Students are doing their own research, picking groups they feel are victims and deconstructing the nature of their oppression.

We are seeing the stages of genocide at work in our world.

Some of my students are feeling them work against their families. It is serious work, especially so early in the year. But, then, these are serious times. Republicans are selling fear, and many are buying it, easily and hungrily. Fear that the government will take our guns, or too much of our money, or will give too much to those who don’t deserve it. There is a central, visceral fear of a country that is becoming not-White. Their media works hard to sell this fear, amplifying stories of violence by Muslims, by any other-than-us groups. The fear buys votes.

Democrats are selling outrage, and many of us are addicted to it, confusing it for something that looks like progress. We share our outrage, we perform it. We are outraged at the outrageous, and also at those who are not outraged enough, or in the wrong way, or in a slightly different way. Our media sells outrage cheap, with clickbait headlines and half-stories and we buy it, and we distribute it. The outrage buys votes.

Of course there are things to be fearful of. Of course there are things to be outraged about. But when many Republicans think Democrats are all criminals and communists, and when many Democrats think Republicans are all evil, stupid, or both, we are treading dangerous waters. When many people love our president not so much for what he does or what he says, but for how much those things upset liberals, we are only pulling further apart. I am not a moderate, and I make no calls for moderation. Too much of this is life or death for too many people I love, and I can’t call for holding the hand of someone whose fingers are wrapped around the throat of another.

When some leaders are working hard to normalize thinly veiled racism, sexism, transphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, I don’t want us to meet in the middle. I’m not looking for a common ground where not all are allowed to stand. So, I do what I can. It is not enough, but I pick up pieces of the work where I can, do what I can with them. I will vote next week for the party that recently realized that being more inclusive of people made them more electable for some and not the party capitalizing on being more exclusionary.

But, it is not my job to use my classroom to make more Democrats. It is not my job to disparage Republicans to the students in my charge.

It is my job to build a classroom culture that lets multiple perspectives exist and be heard. It is my job to let students hold and share their beliefs, but not wield them as weapons against others. The sixth stage of genocide is polarization, the use of propaganda to amplify and inflame the differences between groups. Polarization is, in effect, the act of creating an enemy.

When we first got to stage six in class, one student spoke up, “you mean like how Trump says all Mexicans are criminals.” Yes. And another, “or how people say all Republicans are racist?” Yes. Because who would respect a criminal, and who would work with a racist? Outside of our classrooms, we are moving further apart. The polarization of America disturbs me. The making of enemies, the with us or against us, the all or nothing, may be the battlegrounds in our country, but do not need to be the lines we draw in our classroom.

We can teach students the tools we wish our leaders had. It will be their turn soon.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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