Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Operation Objectivity

By Shawn Healy
A First Amendment controversy in New York City schools raises a broader question of the extent to which educators should make their political preferences known to students during an election year, or at any juncture for that matter. The United Federation of Teachers, who endorsed Senator Barack Obama for President, filed suit to challenge an ordinance that prohibits politicking among teachers on school grounds. A federal district judge upheld it in part, prohibiting an Obama button on an educator's lapel, for instance, while allowing the distribution of literature in staff mailboxes or the posting of fliers in common areas not accessed by students.

Social studies educators in particular are placed in a precarious position, as many of us are passionate about the very political parties, candidates, and issues we teach our students about on a daily basis. It is difficult to separate our subjective evaluations of each with objective lessons that present the facts before students so that they can come to their own conclusions. This phenomenon comes to a head during presidential election years when politics drives the discourse of even the most casual civic participants.

I taught about the 2000 presidential election during my second year as a teacher. My classes examined the candidates and major issues of the campaign in great detail. We studied the internal dynamics of each of the 50 states in the Union from the perspective of the Electoral College (I never could have anticipated the extent to which this exercise would resonate!). My seniors even orchestrated a school wide presidential election with real ballots and polling equipment, equating individual social studies classes with states and staging the race to 270 electoral votes. All along, my students peppered me with questions about my own preferences, and I promised to reveal them the day after the election.

I held true to this commitment, but the election was not decided for another 36 days. I provided daily updates of the Florida recount to my students, but my comments were colored hereafter by my presidential preference, for now I had visible skin in the game. I vowed to never make this mistake again, and even though I taught a civics course that asked students to declare their own party affiliations for the purpose of a semester-long government simulation, I held true to this policy.

However, I did have colleagues who felt otherwise and remained candid about their political preferences. Proponents argue that we cannot possibly separate our personal biases from the subject matter we teach, so it is better to make our preferences known and allow the chips to fall as they may. Others go so far as to suggest that if one truly believes the ideals to which we subscribe, it is our duty to dispense this sage advice to our students, shaping young minds and tomorrow's leaders.

I clearly subscribe to the position of classroom neutrality, no matter how difficult it may be to execute. I feel that we do our students a great disservice when we deny them the opportunity to encounter objective information and to arrive at their own conclusions after thorough analysis. On another level, to indoctrinate is to deny that our students enter the classroom with political information, familial influences, and biases of their own. In short, they are not empty vessels.

I must also admit that I have been forced to walk my own fine line throughout this election season. The Freedom Museum has positioned itself as a non-partisan source for political information about this election and a myriad of other freedom-related issues, and as our content expert, I must walk this walk throughout all of my official duties. I am also a passionate supporter of one of the presidential candidates, even serving as an alternate delegate at the nominating convention. All along, I have taken tremendous strides to keep these dueling hats on separate pegs of the proverbial coat rack. I'll leave the assessment of whether or not I have succeeded to readers of this blog, listeners of our podcasts, attendees of teacher seminars, lectures, and conference presentations, and visitors to the museum.

Soon enough, the yard signs will yield to winter snow, our campaign ephemera will be related to the memory box in our closets, and our country will get back to the day-to-day struggles of work, family, and society. Regardless of what side of the aisle or which candidate you associate with, political passion should be treasured, not scorned. However, personal and professional distinctions must remain, and I commend educators everywhere who aspire to neutrality while at work.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

Powered by Blogger