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Student Walkouts and Fundamental Tensions in Education

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Today, CESJDS students in the Upper School participated with thousands of their peers across the United States in a Walkout from classes to demand legislative action in response to the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida. The students spent 17 minutes outside their classrooms sharing their voices and memorializing the victims of the Parkland shooting.

The Walkout presented opportunities and challenges for schools. One of my fundamental principles as an educator is that I believe learners should have an opportunity to grapple openly with issues but that their teachers should not tell them what to think. I want to empower students to voice their opinions respectfully but not lead them to particular opinions. I encourage students to voice their opinions and get involved in American democracy.

My thinking in this area has been influenced heavily by Professor Israel Sheffler, the late Harvard philosopher of education. Sheffler believed that teaching should respect students' intellectual integrity and their capacity for independent judgement. He wrote that the ability to ask questions, critically evaluate assumptions and information, and having teachers who have a commitment to these approaches is what distinguishes education from indoctrination.

I believe that schools are not advocacy organizations and are not in the business of making statements on political issues. I have written elsewhere that schools must be focused on education. While each school has a set of values that define the context in which teaching and learning take place, schools must remain non-partisan. As an educator, the question I ask is, "How can we prepare students to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens of the United States and of the world?"

In the case of the current environment, students have requested that schools provide them with an opportunity to voice their demands. As the Walkout approached, it became clearly associated with gun control advocacy. But not all students have the same political opinions on how to ensure school safety. If a school grants permission for a walkout on a particular political position, does it necessarily mean that the school is taking a stance on that political issue?

As the Head of a pluralistic school and an educator committed to education, not indoctrination, I believe that classrooms should engage in political discussion in a culture of fairness for all viewpoints. Teachers ought to maintain their partisan neutrality in their classrooms even as they open their classrooms to these discussions. When teachers and schools share their partisan preferences, they establish unfair classroom cultures and, despite their best intentions, may influence their students' thinking.

In the end, our School determined that we would make room for students to express their opinions on the issue of safe schools. We worked to frame the Walkout as an opportunity for students of all different political viewpoints to do so and provided a safe environment for their expression through additional security measures.

I cannot say that all students felt that permitting the Walkout was a good decision. As one student recently shared with me, he felt that despite his personal opinion in favor of strong gun control, that the School was tacitly endorsing this view by enabling students to Walkout on a day associated with gun control. He did not feel we were living up to our pluralistic approach.

The Walkout does present a dilemma and the student made an excellent point that I could only tell him I understood his opinion. I did not share with him that the very fact that he could come to my office, argue his viewpoint and be respected for his opinion with no impact on his standing at the School made me recall Sheffler's approach to education as the School sought to balance competing principles.

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