Why Students Should Evaluate Their Political Perspectives

By Javin Dana '17

Imagine it’s 7:45 a.m. on a Monday: the stress and fatigue of an abrupt wake up call coupled with the anxiety of school on the horizon shake and tremble in the brain of a half-asleep teenager. After throwing their school supplies in the trunk, the teenager slips into the passenger seat of their parent’s car and sits idly by as their parent changes the radio station to NPR. As a story on the radio is recounted, the parent initiates a dialogue with the teenager, imbuing them with a single opinion.

Now multiply that experience by the number of days an average teenager spends in school each year, and then multiply that by the number of years they are in secondary education. All of a sudden, that seemingly innocuous, quotidian interaction becomes the foundation for an otherwise politically uninterested teenager’s opinions—whether they are in agreement with their parental guardians, or starkly against them. This poses an interesting problem for the future of American politics: namely, political stagnation.

The future of the United States’ democracy depends on students across the nation. Their political views will eventually develop into the opinions of future politicians, government officials and voters. As such, students should evaluate their own political experiences and perspectives, to avoid recycling the opinions of their parents, or other adults around them. By perpetuating parental political stances, issues of debate and conflict in the U.S. will remain unresolved, as the government officials of the future—the students of today—will merely be rehashing and echoing previously argued points and perspectives.

Now, the notion that children take after their parents, or the adults that surround them during adolescence, is highly contested. However, there are many examples to support this theory.

For instance, in the 1961 “Bobo Doll experiment” (http://www.simplypsychology.org/bobo-doll.html), conducted by Stanford professor Albert Bandura, it was discovered that children and youth would interact with others in a manner that precisely modeled the adults around them—namely their parents. This holds true for their political ideologies as well: children are inclined to wholeheartedly endorse and subscribe to their parents political perspectives at an early age, leading to a manufacturing of political ideals.

By imparting their views, many parents inadvertently create "carbon copies" of themselves. (Photo: Ben Waitches-Eubanks)

By imparting their views on their children, many parents inadvertently create “carbon copies” of themselves. (Photo: Ben Waitches-Eubanks)

Faced with the responsibility of “properly molding” their children, many parents attempt to instruct their children and impart their views, perhaps in hopes of “creating” children that share their opinions and perspectives—copies of themselves in a way. For some parents, however, this mission to raise their kids evolves into indoctrination: they strive to teach their children a designated political viewpoint from an early age. And if they’re successful, then they will have created the perfect, young ideologues.

These efforts to convert their children pose a significant risk to the political development and shaping of opinions they will go through as students. However, not necessarily for the reasons you would initially think.

A study published in the British Journal of Political Science, comprised of data from both the U.S. and the U.K., found that students and youths who were indoctrinated with their parent’s political viewpoints and agendas were more likely to abandon the same political views when they became adults. Essentially, by strictly and insistently imparting their views on their children, the parents had adversely influenced them.

“Extreme parental views of the world give children a clear choice for being with the parents through agreement, or against parents through disagreement,” said Carl Pickhardt, an author and child psychologist, in an interview with The Atlantic. “Thus extremely rigid views of right/wrong, trust/distrust, love/hate can be embraced by children who want to stay connected to parents, and can be cast off by children who, for their own independence, are willing to place the parental relationship at risk.”

The study also accounted for the theory that school environments affect the political views of students more than their own parents. More specifically, the recent consternation from Conservatives regarding universities and private schools, which they allege are “outposts” for liberal and progressive indoctrination.

For the sake of testing this theory, let’s narrow the scope. Looking at a school like Catlin Gabel, which is widely considered to have a homogenous, liberal populous, it’s important to evaluate how the school itself plays into a student’s own political experience, especially during early adolescence.

In an anonymous survey sent to the Catlin Gabel Upper School, the students were asked about their personal political experiences and the effect the school has had in shaping their political stances.

When asked if they frequented the same news sites as their parents, 68 percent of the students responded either “Yes” or “Somewhat.”

“I mean, with my parents, they don’t intentionally impart their own views on me, but because it’s what they generally think—these are their opinions—they would discuss them more often. This meant they ended up giving less credit than was probably due to the opposite side,” stated Drake Warren ’17.

Although many students are willing to acknowledge the effect their own parents have on their intellectual growth, they seem to dismiss the correlation between familial influences and their perspectives.

However, in response to another question, asking the students about the political party they align themselves with, 69 percent of them answered “The Democratic Party”, with another 18 percent mostly claiming to be “Moderate.” Although this may seem inconsequential, at a school with a fairly homogenous, progressive/liberal community, the fact that a sizable amount of the students consider themselves liberal, while only 13 percent consider themselves conservative, implies that some correlation between a school’s political environment and the political views of its students is evident.

Further reinforcing this trend of familial values impacting student opinions, a follow-up question asked, “Are your political views the same as your parents?” In response, 60 percent of the students answered “Yes”, with another 26 percent answering “Somewhat.”

However, many of the students disagreed with the notion that going to a school like Catlin Gabel affected their political ideals and stances at all. While 50 percent of the students explained that going to Catlin Gabel does influence their political views, 41 percent answered, “No, it does not.”

Anonymously, one student wrote, “I think [Catlin Gabel can affect my political views], because what we study can really bring awareness to what the issues and disagreements of our country are and then we are able to understand better what different parties are rallying for.”

However, another student disagreed, explaining that there “isn’t enough political diversity for proper dialogue” to influence or affect their opinions.

“Well, I think, let’s just say we’re in a setting, Portland, Ore., where the metropolitan area is 85 percent liberal. I don’t think it’s really as much about the school as it is about the area,” explained Jack Malsin ‘16. “If you plopped a school in the middle of King county, Texas, where it’s 95 percent Republican, the student body would most likely consist of conservative viewpoints.”

These comments and responses epitomize why students should evaluate their political views. Whether or not they feel directly impacted by their parents, other adults around them, or even their school, studies show that students, especially at the height of their development, are likely to shape their political views either in direct correlation with, or as an adverse reaction to, these environments and figures in their lives.

Now, it’s easy to resign oneself from further self-evaluation with reassurances, such as “my political views are my own, and are in no way a reaction to my environment of my parents,” or “I have already properly evaluated myself and the origin of my political views.”

However, truth be told, every individual, whether they be a teacher or a student, a steadfast adult or a politically ambivalent youth, myself included, struggles to self-assess without letting some level of their own bias percolate. And that’s precisely why evaluating one’s own political views, especially at the developmental stage of one’s intellectual growth is so crucial. Everyone should strive to be an individual, to develop not based on the figures around them, but their own perspectives.

And since students will eventually make up our work force, political parties and government officials—our whole society—it’s necessary for students, especially those with strong educational backgrounds, to take the time to evaluate their own political views, and where those values originate from.

In a growing, evolving society, it’s important to establish some notions of progressivism, rather than recycling the opinions and views of the institutions and guardians who look after us during our upbringings. And the first step to progressing such a society is to take the initiative, to evaluate one’s own views and stances, and most importantly, to try and understand different perspectives.