POLITICS IN THE CLASSROOM
By Stephen Wilson
Moscow -- A Russian school pupil from Bryansk was pulled out of the classroom during a lesson, by the police , for making and putting a video recording on the social network 'V Kontact'. According to the headmaster, pupils don't have the right to their own opinion or the right to use provocative
sources of information (i.e. opinions at odds with the government) . This incident led to a petition signed by 26,000 people calling for the headmaster to be fired. At around the same time, students at Moscow State Conservatory recorded a speech by a lecturer who lectured students on the dangers of a fifth column in Russia of alleged traitors'. The conflict between the students and the teacher which followed forced the lecturer to resign. Those incidents, along with numerous others , serve to emphasize growing tension between the
conflicting views of teachers and their students. What has angered many Russian pupils is the role of some Russian teachers condemning those who are attending opposition rallies and worse, even threatening reprisals or calling the police. An increasing number of students are incensed at the
double standards where it is okay for teachers to lecture them on patriotism and obedience to authority yet condemn the opposition.
In one strange incident, at school number 114 in Samara, one teacher thundered at a pupil who had participated in opposition meetings that :
"Do you like it when everything is in order? When you are the centre of attention, Yes? Against corruption in our country we need other methods so that we don't demoralise the country". When a teacher was showing a film about Ukraine, the teacher told a pupil: "If you don't want to watch, shut your mouth and get out. Don't prevent others from watching it. Off
you go to the headmaster's office."
Before the rallies of the 26th of March students had recorded many pro-government monologues by their teachers . They were then put on social networks and watched by many. What comes across is the authoritarian presumption that the pupils are not allowed to question or challenge their teacher's political views in anyway. It was such recordings, as well as a
popular anti corruption documentary which was watched by over 18 million Russians that led to many young people attending demonstrations.
Instead of listening to the grievances of pupils, some teachers, officials and the police are attempting to punish them , and even in some extreme cases, arresting them in the classroom.
The parents of many of those children claim that the preaching of politics or religion should have no place in the classroom. If pupils don't have the right to express an opinion in the classroom, then why should teachers be allowed to preach their own views?
Who is at fault? According to the Law on Education, part 3 , article 43, teaching staff are forbidden to use educational activity for political purposes . However, they can express what is a historical fact. While having political opinions they
are expected to keep them to themselves and certainly not provoke unwanted conflict in the classroom. It is not the case that teachers and pupils are forbidden from holding political opinions but only using schools as a means to promote their opinions. However, many teachers appear to forget that it
is not illegal for pupils to hold anti-government views. Yevgeny Bunimovich, a teacher and advocate of the rights of children states: "When I inform teachers by quoting from the Convention of the Rights of Children that 'children have the right to freely express their opinion ', and 'the state must respect the rights of children to free thought,' many of the
teachers listening become dumbfounded. After the detention of children on the 26th of March, I approached teachers, the police and a commission on the activity of minors, saying it is not necessarily to frighten pupils or launch a witchhunt. Yes , of course you need to explain to them that climbing lamp-posts .... is a violation , but it is worth considering why
children feel they have to climb lamp-posts to get answers to their questions".
Part of the answer to this is that Russia and other countries lack a philosophical culture where questioning is encouraged. One of my students , Olga, who helps special on-line techonology courses for undergraduates at five universities
in Moscow informed me: "Students at university are often afraid of their professors. They are afraid to ask them questions. Our role is to try and encourage students not to be afraid of asking questions so they can later adapt to the world of work following graduation". This statement hardly surprised me! At Moscow State University one of the students who attended my folklore course deeply apologised for disagreeing with me. It took a great effort to persuade him that I did not take such arguments personally and even welcomed opposite views. I mean it is boring if everyone agrees with you all the time.
It is important to stress that the attempts by officials and teachers to threaten, intimidate and punish outspoken pupils don't come from the top. More often they come from local zealous teachers who overreact to any form of disagreement. Such teachers are often ignorant of basic laws of the Russian
constitution not to mention the rights of school children.
The uneasy relationship between politics and the classroom is hardly confined to Russia. I heard how a British teacher in Moscow was dismissed from his post by the notoriously conservative British Council for simply having a political discussion with a student . He defended himself by claiming: "But everything is political. How can you avoid speaking on such subjects?" He was not preaching. This can't be said of an old acquaintance called Donald Anderson who was accused of using the teaching of Scottish history as a
propaganda platform for the nationalist cause. The authorities did not fire him but simply forbade him from teaching history. He was allowed to go on teaching English. What is evident is that the line between preaching and teaching can often be a thin one. Is freely expressing an opinion to pupils an attempt to make political propaganda or just being frank ? Surely not ! An old English rule of making conversation once insisted it was taboo to speak on two issues: politics and religion ! This proverb may have dated from the English Civil War when the English had become cautious about provoking unwanted strife.
However, one of the results of this was that some people became too inhibited about being forthright in expressing opinions. There was less conflict but also less genuine free discussion. Perhaps it is how we disagree which is more
important than what we disagree with. Listening silently to a disagreeable opinion should not imply consent. Just because we disagree does not preclude possible or future friendship on other matters we share!