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Election 2020: Teaching Political Identity

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

This year, countless educators will be tasked (formally or informally) with teaching civic engagement and political identity development during the lead-up to a presidential election, in a global pandemic, amidst unparalleled social protest, through an online medium, in one of the most hyper-partisan contexts in the nation’s history. It’s a lot.

This, of course, is both a significant honor and a potential curricular minefield. Some structural strategies just might ensure it is more of the former and less of the latter.

Establish a culture of curiosity and exploration

Students bring to the classroom an unfathomably diverse spectrum of engagement, political beliefs, and budding political heuristics. Many of which will alter to varying degrees throughout their life. Starting the process of evolving these habits and notions is often contingent on assessing them in an explorative environment where mistakes can be made and goodwill is prized above issue mastery. Here, much of that classroom culture starts with the teacher. Political environments--especially online--are laden with ramifications in today's world. Students benefit from having the opportunity to get into the laboratory of policy to understand fundamental divides that exist in our country. This does not mean depicting all ideologies as being harmless, but stresses the process of learning and empathizing above persuading and labeling.

Removing Barriers to Political Participation, Defined Broadly

Many key actions that adolescents take are governed by careful social calculus. An engagement calculus, provided by Dr. Alexis Redding, provides insight into what kind of procedural questions youth interested in participating in political action(s) ask. Political engagement may be contingent on whether students feel they have permission to act, if they can get to the engagement (transportation), if they can afford it, if they have the time, whether it is safe, and whether there is an alternative means to engage. These foundational considerations can be addressed by a host of stakeholders that hope to increase youth political participation. Campaigns, nonpartisan organizations, educators, and others can strive to lower the cost of engaging—broadly defined.

One such way to lower the perceived social cost, and to answer the question of “permission,” is to instill greater self-confidence in the young person as a political participant. Given that the biggest reason that youth opt not to get politically involved is that that they “don’t feel like (they) know enough about the issues,” dispelling these notions will be an integral function for the social studies classroom. Many voters—young and old—use a host of heuristics (such as political affiliation) that guide their voting decisions, and becoming an “informed” voter—especially in comparison to the general populace—can be a generally painless process in the era of candidate matching and other diagnostic tools. It is vital to instill habits of political participation in youth, in order to promote long-term political participation. Building the habit of political engagement early, by addressing foundational questions such as “do I have permission” and “do I know enough to participate,” is critical work for the high school government educator and an integral first step to instilling the habit of participation.

Conveying that Engagement is Multi-Faceted

For most students, being politically active is narrowly defined as voting or working on a campaign. Rarely is enough breadth given to the topic. A high school government course, however, offers the proper context from which students can see themselves in the political process. Everything from engaging in public political discourse online to taking a political ideology quiz is enveloped in the process of being politically engaged.

In short, political engagement looks very different from the participatory politics model that was conceived of in prior generations. Traditional gatekeepers to political ideas and media are being subverted by unprecedented access to, and interaction with, media. Complex political discussion seeps into Twitter feeds or their social media du jour. Instead of political thought and media being dominantly filtered by corporate and national media, as well as those close to us, today’s students have an inexhaustible and curated landscape of political speech and action at their fingertips. Participatory politics in the digital age is "significantly peer-based, interactive, nonhierarchical, independent of elite-driven institutions, and social". Bringing these experiences into the classroom is important for acknowledging the shifting nature of political discourse, while also better-preparing students to partake in it.

Spreading Awareness About Factors Contributing to Political Identity

Some of the stickiest moments one encounters when facilitating political learning in an allegedly apolitical environment are the very strong (although sometimes flimsy in rationale or longevity) beliefs that students enter the classroom with. If one student’s entire habitus is comprised of a relatively aligned ideology, then contrary opinions are likely to seem preposterous or even threatening. In the case of marginalized communities, that perceived threat is a challenging and important one to address. Disruption to a student’s aligned status-quo introduces a host of variables that are ultimately positive for a student finding their true political identity, but open the door to more short-term growing pains such as unproductive arguments and ill-willed labels. Teaching students about the roots of their ideology in a comprehensive and intentional fashion has the potential to be a mechanism for greater political empathy long term, but, just as importantly, establishes a culture of acceptance, exploration, and listening to understand in the moment.

Many different forces contribute to the developing political identity, including family, school, religious organizations, volunteer groups, community culture, national culture, friends, co-workers, media—curated, and otherwise. Helping students understand how these influences inform their political identity can provide important clarity in a time when so much of the information we see can be selectively filtered. It can also provide crucial empathy for how some of those influences for other students might be completely different. Integrating this recognition of influences into the curriculum will be a powerful addition to the classroom culture.

Going Beyond 40%

Ultimately, the role of the educator as a shepherd towards greater political participation cannot be overstated. As the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement summarizes, “teaching about voting increased the likelihood of students (self-reported) voting when they turn 18 by 40%.” Though there are better, more comprehensive, metrics than voting rates, this statistic underlines the importance of civics education. Teaching about voting is a wonderful start—and a foundation to be relentlessly pursued on a nation-wide scale. The ultimate goal of civics education, however, is to go far beyond just 40%.

As we approach this contentious November, there are many ways we can put our future voters and activists first. We can model equity-minded approaches, empathy-driven communication, and a hunger for improvement. In doing so, we can have an even greater effect than the advertised 40% bump in voting likelihood—striving for life-long and healthy political engagement.

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