Fear, Risk, and the State of Political Expression at HM

Fear, Risk, and the State of Political Expression at HM

Ryan Finlay, Contributing Writer

The Horace Mann School appears on the surface to be a remarkably homogeneous community — politically. Our curricula are infused with the latest theories from the progressive academic community. An entire philosophy on American society and its future is packaged and distributed to the student body, and too often, as designed, students accept it at face value. There’s something rather important missing from this picture: a vast swath of the political spectrum. One could easily conclude that there are very few non–progressive students at HM, but this is an illusion; the community contains silent multitudes.

Here is the problem: HM, like so many other academic institutions today, fosters a learning environment that I believe is hostile to those who do not subscribe to progressive politics. This includes not just conservatives but also centrists and moderates on the left. As a result, our school has developed a political bubble in which the majority of the views expressed in classrooms are far to the left of the mainstream views of both the American public and the actual political average of the student community. A fantasy is built for progressive members of the student body, making them believe that their most radical opinions are far closer to the mainstream than is actually the case.

Over the course of this composition, I will attempt to illustrate exactly how this bubble is facilitated and maintained. I also intend to offer an explanation for why so many members of the student body who are not progressive are unwilling to express their political views in class. I will use personal examples, as well as reference the experiences of others. To protect everyone’s privacy, I will not identify by name any of the courses, faculty members, or students involved in any of these true events.

I recently spoke with a faculty member about the school’s political bias. This faculty member made the case to me that many teachers feel obligated to open students’ eyes to the inequality that surrounds them, as though taking off the horse blinders that supposedly plague children of economic privilege. Something is clearly being lost in translation. The result is a continuous pressure in the classroom to embrace visions of wholesale societal reform. Time and time again, when students attempt to contradict these ideas, they are criticized for failing to recognize the lived experiences of others, as if the lived experiences of their own families are irrelevant. At the end of my conversation with this faculty member, they estimated that perhaps ten percent of the student body is at odds with the politics of the school. I disagree; after four years and hundreds of conversations out of earshot from teachers, I propose a figure closer to thirty or forty percent, a sizeable portion of the student body, one composed not simply of white males of privilege as some might claim, but rather a diverse collection of students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

We are constantly encouraged to think in terms of morality, which is weaponized to reinforce the political bubble. When issues of politics or social reform are raised in classroom discussions, there is a certain approach HM students are accustomed to expect from the faculty. While the specific strategies depend on the context and the individual issue, there is a common reliance, in the majority of cases, on preaching right versus wrong.

A perfect example would be the equality versus equity comparison. Every junior and senior is well acquainted with this cartoon graphic; the school makes sure of it in Seminar on Identity. For those who are not familiar with it, spectators of different heights watch a baseball game from behind a fence. On one side, labeled “Equality,” each spectator stands on a box of similar size. As a result, only the tallest can see the game. On the other side, labeled “Equity,” the shorter spectators are supplied with appropriately sized boxes so that everyone can watch the game from an equal vantage point. As the tallest spectator can see over the fence without a box, they receive none. Everyone is exposed to the graphic at some point during their HM education and told to recognize the inherent superiority of the equity model. In other words, equity is taught as a moral imperative.

The gravity of the graphic’s message is easy to miss. When it’s displayed to students, the struggle between the two choices is made cartoonishly simple, literally. The choice of equity seems so plainly obvious that if you argue for equality, it appears as if you are an elitist who doesn’t want people without certain resources to enjoy their lives. There is never any dynamic discussion on the real effects of either choice. Equality and equity are philosophies on access, but the real pros and cons of choosing one over the other, details which are decidedly complex and unable to be reduced to childish cartoons, are practically ignored. When the principle of the sports game is applied to the real world, it proposes either a rejection of meritocracy, or a denial that it exists in the first place. This approach gets students bogged down in a false impression of simplicity, leading to such conclusions on meritocracy that frequently include: the system is broken, unable to be reformed, rotten to the core, and deserving of demolition.

To those students who do not share the political leanings of the institution, the graphic is inflammatory and the associated classroom dialogues steamroll any real consideration of the benefits of equality. What is so disturbing for non–progressive students about many class discussions on politics is not just that the goal is to discredit non–progressive strategies, but rather that the merits of progressive preferences are so often steeped in moral arguments.

Students who agree with these arguments have the school’s unspoken authorization to attack opposing ideas on the grounds of righteousness. This training in moral protectionism begins early, as I recently heard one student explain: “I remember being introduced to the equity versus equality diagram back in the Middle Division. Teachers made clear that there was a right system and a wrong system.”

The school offers a range of incentives for adopting a specific outlook on society. We are at a highly impressionable point in our lives, and the school’s willingness to glue some of our ideas on progress into place while discarding others should frighten everyone. It is not a problem that some students may naturally espouse politics that are considered radical by others. It is not even a problem that they might choose to reaffirm their sentiments with a set of morals they have chosen to adopt. It is a problem when a generic set of progressive morals is pushed upon everyone else by an institution we rely upon to facilitate education.

Treating one set of political views as moral automatically labels all others as deficient. Morals are not deductive; they are a sense of right and wrong. When students are encouraged to believe in specific political ideas according to moral justifications, it becomes all too easy to decide that alternate ideas are rotten, and those who defend them are immoral. This is damaging to the community and damaging to education. It narrows the scope of perspectives deemed fit for students to engage with honestly and without unfair preconceptions. How is anyone to competently argue their position on a current political issue when the conversation assumes that one side has staked out an inherently immoral view?

Casual and sanctioned attacks on non–progressive views are frequently integrated into classes, especially the first few minutes of the period when current events are brought up for roundtable discussions. I have always enjoyed these moments: I think it is important to hear what others have to say about the latest developments around the world, regardless of whether or not we agree. What I do not enjoy is the common devolution of these conversations into vilifying conservatism, which both progressive students and even some teachers are happy to do. In one instance, a student was decried by their classmates after voicing support for deportations. Our community member was labeled immoral for speaking honestly about their political beliefs — beliefs which are accepted as perfectly normal across the country. In the Horace Mann classroom, however, this person became a punching bag for their progressive classmates.

Some teachers openly fail to set a better example, choosing to fan the flames. One year, I had a history teacher who, the day after an event that they felt merited the press’ attention, brought copies of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to class. They would place the newspapers side by side and argue that because The New York Times’ front page included more stories about social justice issues and people of color, the more right-leaning Journal was maliciously indifferent and trying to minimize the importance of those stories. No mention was made of the fact that the Journal is openly focused on issues surrounding economics and finance. The teacher held such discussions multiple times throughout the year.

In an equally blatant display, a student shared with me their experience dissenting in SOI. While voicing concerns about the political bias of the curriculum and the overall condition of free speech at school, their instructor cut them off mid–sentence, saying, “that’s enough.” It was reinforced to this student that the purpose of social justice-related curricula is not for the material to be challenged but rather to be absorbed without question.

Signs of indoctrination manifest across campus. More concerning, though, is that some of the students seem comforted by it and rely on their teachers to feed them opinions. I once heard a classmate ask their history teacher — word for word — to “tell us what to believe,” concerning a recent civil rights issue, as if it were teachers’ responsibility to shape students’ politics. It is not. We ought to think for ourselves, and the school ought to encourage independent inquiry.

The structure of the bubble leaves students with other views in a delicate position. So many of us want to resist and be open with the HM community about who we are and what we believe. At the same time, we must grapple with the vulnerability that comes with many faculty openly opposing our politics. At the end of the day, the impulse to self-censor is fueled by risk assessment: it is not worth jeopardizing academic success at HM in exchange for political expression. Unfortunately, by protecting ourselves, we reinforce the illusion that we are a small minority of limited conviction.

Every classmate I know who is not progressive self-censors in class during discussions of current events and politics. The degrees of self-moderation vary widely, depending on a range of personal factors. Most choose to keep their comments vague to leave little room for accusations of being “too conservative” about an issue. Then, there are the most saddening cases, including the few who have resigned to stay silent because the perceived risks of speaking their mind are too great. Looming over HM’s conservative students, there is the fear of unknowable and arbitrary reprisal by those in power. Even if some of those fears are blown wildly out of proportion, as I must admit, most non-progressives have determined that the safest path in the classroom is always the silent one.

It is the mystery of unknown consequences that constrains students’ desire to speak their mind on the most important problems facing our country. Just recently, I overheard a junior advising some underclassmen on how to get through discussions in humanities classes without “getting on the bad side of your teacher.” The advice consisted of: “just agree with what everyone else is saying, that’s what I do.” When I objected to this hapless approach, I received this defense: “it doesn’t matter if you disagree with it, just lie about what you believe. It’s not worth it.”

There are multitudes of HM students, with whom I identify, who privately speak of their opposition to progressive race-focused policies but would never volunteer to say this in a class discussion. None of us want to be labeled as a racist or be reviled by our peers. Those of us who have this opinion are not racist. HM’s environment would have one think otherwise. I do not claim to identify as a Republican, identifying instead as an Independent. I consider myself moderate in most of my views. That said, I leave the impression in nearly every classroom political discussion that I am a right–wing conservative, as I frequently hear through the grapevine. I have no doubt that this is because the students’ conception of the political spectrum has been so grotesquely warped from years in the bubble.

One of the fundamental reasons why so many students feel unable to share their beliefs is the endless newsfeed telling of academic scholars and regular citizens who have had their lives turned upside down by the ravages of cancel culture. It is not so much that anyone at HM fears being sent to the Honor Council for citing their support for a conservative policy. It is that many non-progressive students at HM are terrified by the ambiguity of an administration that preaches independent thought but permits and encourages attacks on it. As far as many students are concerned, the administration has practically endorsed cancel culture through its silence on the phenomenon. Currently, students’ conclusion is: watch yourself and censor yourself; you are not protected.

Even students who believe in the messages defended by the school should feel concerned over these examples. It should make you question where exactly education ends and indoctrination begins. It is easy to claim that HM is just a progressive institution and that students and families knew exactly what they were signing up for. I disagree. When my family enrolled, we were confident that HM would prioritize “teaching students how to think, not what to think.” We saw among the schools core values, “life of the mind” and “mutual respect.” The school is not living up to its own values.

I call upon the administration to clarify its policies on political expression; I call upon the administration to actively protect and sanctify diversity of thought; and I call upon the administration to disentangle itself from the progressive political agenda that has turned the school into an incubator of bias and intellectual intolerance.

Show us we are free to develop our own moral compasses. Only action can reassure us that it is okay to disagree at HM. Prove that we should be — and can be — confident, and the school will truly have safe spaces.