Students Are Uncomfortable Sharing Their Politics Today. Here’s Why

This past December, I interviewed Sanda Balaban about her work with Next Generation Politics, a civic learning and discussion initiative for high school students. Each spring, these “Civic Fellows” work in small, cross-school groups to tackle an array of hot-button issues. I thought it was worth featuring the reflections of one such group of New York state students, who wrote and administered to their peers a survey about free expression in school. (If you’re interested, the survey results were written up in RealClearEducation.)

— Rick

Madeline Mayes, Fort Hamilton High School, Junior:

I didn’t even know that the word “conservative” existed as a political term until I took a Next Gen workshop called “The Right Side of the Aisle: What’s Up with Conservatism?” during my freshman year. In middle school, I had no need to worry about how my political beliefs aligned with my peers’ because nobody talked about politics. When I entered my high school, political discussion remained just as hush-hush. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit in March 2020 that my high school peers seemed to instantly become civically engaged but in a very limited way.

Practically every high schooler I knew who had social media was suddenly hopping onto the trendiest political movements and shunning those who were not in favor of these trends, whether it be the Black Lives Matter movement or anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. My peers all had their cameras off throughout almost a year and a half of remote learning, seemingly so they could scroll on social media during class, and suddenly barely discussed anything that wasn’t politics online. But only a narrow span of perspectives were being addressed.

Why? A survey that I co-conducted on behalf of Next Generation Politics last spring found that about 59 percent of the 250 New York City high school students we surveyed said they were uncomfortable with sharing their political views on social media. This underscores a set of concerns we should all have: Why are high schoolers posting strongly opinionated content online if they are uncomfortable doing so? The teen voice online is disproportionately liberal, but is it a façade? Are all of these teens really so left wing, or has liberalism become just another new trend? Where are conservative teens, and why are they seemingly hiding?

Jack Flanigan, Regis High School, Junior:

The main threat to freedom of expression is more insidious than speech codes or “forbidden words.” Instead, a cultural limiting of speech among young people is afoot. As a student at an academically rigorous high school and an involved member of the debate team and political club, I bump up against issues of free speech on the regular.

I’m not convinced we need to sound the alarm at top volume; speech is still legally free. But the fact remains that the cultural climate around freely speaking your mind in many schools today stifles discussion and debate. Because of the extreme fear of being labeled politically — and therefore socially — unacceptable once someone has called your idea or preferred policy “racist,” you have no good options. You can either defend yourself, which will likely be seen as doubling down on your perceived (or actual) racism, or you can apologize, which is an implicit admission of racism. In today’s extremely sensitive atmosphere around race and other identity-centered issues, neither of these is desirable and often neither is acceptable. As such, almost everyone (save perhaps a very liberal minority) simply silences themselves or distorts their feelings to varying degrees to fit what they see as the acceptable political narrative.

Ayla Iqbal, Valley Stream North High School, Senior:

Theoretically, social media could provide a vehicle for students like me to freely express our thoughts and feelings on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. However, currently, self-expression beyond mainstream sentiments on social media is very constrained. According to our survey findings, 59 percent of high school students are uncomfortable expressing their views online, and only 9 percent of students report being very comfortable expressing an unpopular opinion via social media. This is worrisome, particularly given how vital social media has become during the pandemic with so many of us at home using technological devices.

Self-expression is an underestimated commodity. It cannot be purchased, sold, or marketed. Whether it be finding your own voice, clothing, or music, hiding behind others to fit in shows no character and camouflages you. Today, though I still have barriers in connecting with others, I do not let my shortcomings hold me back from achieving what I desire in order to thrive, because I always have the ability to express myself.

Malcolm Furman, Horace Mann School, Junior:

Data from our survey shows that concerns and constraints around expression are caused, in part, by an unwillingness to seek out different viewpoints from one’s own. For instance, almost three-quarters (71 percent) of students surveyed believe Americans do a poor or very poor job of seeking out and listening to viewpoints different from their own. This strongly contrasts with students’ perceptions of themselves: Almost the same percentage of respondents (72 percent) believe they do a good or very good job of seeking out different viewpoints.

High school students need to face up to the fact that we may be part of the issue. Freedom of expression in schools deteriorates when students hold an “I’m not part of the problem” mindset. It requires courage from students and teachers alike to be supportive of viewpoints that are different from what’s expected.

As a result, schools must put more time and energy into ensuring freedom of expression is protected so that students feel comfortable expressing their beliefs and teachers are accepting of diverse opinions. For example, in Next Generation Politics, we set community agreements that specifically encourage people to freely express their opinions, knowing that their opinions will be respected.

These reflections were adapted from articles Mayes, Flanigan, Iqbal, and Furman wrote after conducting their survey. To read each of their full articles, visit the Next Generation Politics blog.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.