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I held a joint class meeting earlier this week with all 9th and 10th graders to get to know them better. The highlight was a lightning-round Q&A at the end, when they peppered me with questions. Some of them were fun: Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? (the correct answer is both). But the one that sticks in my head was when a student asked what I thought of this week’s first presidential debate. 

I started with clarity about boundaries: schools, administrators, and teachers should not and cannot be in the business of pushing a partisan agenda. It is important that students and families of all political stripes feel included. So many of our students are in the process or developing their social and political identities; they deserve support and guidance, not pressure, as they do that. But, at the same time, good schools have to stand for something. When what we see in political discourse goes against the core tenets of our mission — community, inclusion, curiosity, intellectual exploration, a productive exchange of ideas — we should be clear about that as well.

What I told the students was that the debate made me sad because it robbed them of the opportunity to see real civil discourse. Like many of you parents, I have watched decades of presidential debates; while there have been moments of incivility and recrimination, debates have typically featured principled arguments on the most pressing questions of our day. I assured our students that what they saw was not the norm; for many of them, this is all they know. And it made me particularly proud to be at BUA — a place that prizes discourse. Our humanities curriculum is designed to promote exploration of some of the most fundamental questions in human society. And while our conference tables in English and history this year have been replaced by tablet desks, the spirit of inquiry is alive and well. 

Over the coming weeks and months, we will embrace our responsibility not only to create opportunities for students to engage in healthy intellectual debate about the curriculum, but also to prepare them for the election. Researchers like Diana Hess — whose classic book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, and more recent book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education — compellingly make the case for how teachers and schools can help students navigate a polarized world. That’s what our students deserve.

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