In view of the news of Brexit constantly in the media, there's no doubt that the EU referendum and its aftermath have divided and polarised our country. Coupled with the endless news stories about Trump, climate change, the NHS, refugees and immigration, should lecturers in a college or teachers in sixth form remain neutral or should they voice their political allegiance? And just why do lecturers need to reveal their politics?
There's no doubt that it can seem difficult to engage with students without hinting at one's own personal thoughts. It's the intention of all lecturers to make their students think and question the world around them. But never has it been as important as it is today. Our students have 24-hour news literally at their fingertips. Multimedia and social media tools have further alienated them in a barrage of activity. So, many of them need people to help them make sense of their world. The classroom can be a perfect place for frank discussions and an exchange of ideas. But the situation must be fluid. The discussion must arise naturally and must not seem artificial or contrived.
Broadcasting opinions: taking advantage?
As for teachers themselves, we have to recognise that one's political persuasion is part and parcel of one's identity or cultural background. It's a part of who we are. If religious groups can openly declare their ontological and eschatological affiliation, then it does not make sense to maintain that politics should be kept out of the classroom. After all, politics is far more important than one's belief in a particular god or holy book. Your belief in the afterlife does not affect anyone else, but your political persuasion – the way you vote – has a direct impact on society. The repercussions of one's politics are immediate and they affect you, me and everyone. Religious beliefs, on the other hand – with the exception of those who hold radical thoughts – are inconsequential, almost meaningless. Yet we give so much credence to what god(s) people pray to.
However, there will be people who argue that a lecturer stating his political standpoint is an infringement on students' consciousness – irrespective of his intention. What gives him the right to broadcast his personal opinions to unfettered minds? His critics might argue that such intrusion affects the power dynamics, that the lecturer might take advantage of his position.
Freedom of speech
Even if this is so, why, then, doesn't the same logic apply to religion? Do religious members convert students to their religion by simply stating what they believe? Of course not. Similarly, lecturers should be encouraged to share their political perspectives – inviting questions to tease out knowledge and understanding of topical issues. Surely that's what learning is all about.
Of course, it's possible that one or two lecturers might try and indoctrinate students. But does that mean colleges should ban all such frank exchanges of ideas and perspectives? Moreover, is the curtailing of constructive dialogue in line with freedom of speech?
In essence, current affairs matter more than ever before and so management should permit lecturers to state their politics.This will enable students to question and challenge them – and that's the core element of any western democracy. In colleges – as in public spaces (and as long as there is no incitement to violence or hatred) – openness and freedom of speech should be at the forefront of any classroom discussion. It's only when people speak freely that we create a conducive atmosphere for teaching and learning.
Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham