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Frenzied Academy: Underneath the Political Polarization

In today’s society, everything seems politicized. From your view on the wage gap to the costumes you wear on Halloween, what you believe is right and wrong is often dictated by your personal political views. But at a school like Friends, we often grow up in the shadow of our parents. Their money, their religion, their childhood traditions, and their politics. At FA, there have been more heated political debates this year than I am able to count, whether it’s in professional format, Facebook, or in the hallways. When asking several students, the majority said that Friends Academy seems like a very politicized place. But when surveying 91 students from the high school in our community, a surprising statistic began to reveal itself. An average of 30% of people who took the survey said they “don’t really support one candidate” and 20% of people also said that they “don’t really pay attention to the news on politics.” Although the number of students who don't support one candidate doesn't seem huge, it does represent more than one third of the students who took the survey. And with this, one can ask themselves: do we really have a lot of people involved in shaping the politics of our school, or just a very vocal minority?

After interviewing several students, each came to the same conclusion. They all believed that a lot of the conversations at our school are controlled by politics, and the majority of the kids who speak up are politically savvy. Politics often separated classmates—even those who were once close friends. In fact, I distinctly remember one of my history classes in the beginning of the year. We had a substitute teacher, and after discussing the role of socialism in ancient societies, one student made a comment about presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and how he was an inadequate candidate. Immediately, about a fourth of the class erupted into a full-on political debate, while the other three quarters served as viewers. They all looked pretty tense, while a few other students and I voiced our obviously different opinions about how immigrants should be cared for in this country, among other issues. Whether it was because they didn't have an interest in participating, or because they simply didn't know what we were talking about, there was a very obvious group of students choosing not to participate, and an obvious group of very vocal students. But that group (the vocal one) was most definitely a minority in the classroom. It wasn't until I had actually received the results of the survey that I realized this history classroom scenario was not just a one-time isolated event, but something that has been occurring all over our school. My history class opened my eyes not only to a variety of opinions, but also to a variety of students who simply don’t have an opinion. I have always thought that being indifferent about politics was easier, but I have now to come to a very different conclusion: it’s not as easy as it may seem.

With clubs like the Democratic and Republican club, there is bound to be an epidemic of polarization in our school. Those that are liberal tend to have a very vocal platform in this school, through assemblies that many think have a very liberal slant, while the students who identify as conservative use this as an opportunity to create debate over liberal viewpoints. Regardless of intention, these debates cause not only controversy, but also a lot of tension within the student body. Until I did this survey, I had believed that the tensions were created as a result of the vast differences in opinion. But contrary to my own personal belief, I realized something extremely different through my research: the tensions are actually affecting the “in the middle” students—those who don’t identify with any political party or pay any attention to politics. Freshman student Chloe Papouchado says: “I identify as something in the middle. But to be honest, I don't even really pay attention to politics.” When questioned about how she felt when being faced with a political debate, she claims that she “feels very uncomfortable and tense” when being caught in one of the common Friends Academy political debates. Another junior student claims that he “doesn’t really enjoy listening to people always complaining” and that’s why he stays out of politics. He also said “People get called things and have stereotypes made of them, from both sides of the spectrum. If you’re a liberal, you're offended over anything, but if you're conservative, you're an insensitive and unaware person. There’s no winning side. Everyone just always ends up mad.” And for those of you who have been very involved in any Friends Academy debate, whether it’s about politics or about sports, you know that it gets really heated really fast.

In fact, the upper school here at FA was supposed to have a political debate, which was to be hosted by the Democratic and Republican club on a charged issue. But until recently, it hadn't occurred to me that the debate had never actually happened. What happened to this idea? Was it canceled due to scheduling? Or was something deeper going on? After questioning many students, almost all of them believed that the debate was canceled due to the fact that students here don’t know how to have moderate conversation. This theme of the lack of “keep calm” conversational debates carried through in all the questions I asked students in interviews. For example, upon asking one senior girl the question “Why do you think teachers would be hesitant to carry out a political debate at school, hosted by students?” she answered, “Well, everyone is always attacking everyone when it comes to politics. It’s not as simple as just having a debate. It’s about making sure that no one gets their feelings hurt, or creates some story in their head about our school. The debate itself is politics at the academy. Forget about the topics we’re discussing.” The same senior even went as far as to say: “Is politics even worth having conversations about if there is no leveled conversation?” This is obviously a bit frightening, because as the next generation of not just politicians but citizens, we should feel a necessity to be informed and knowledgeable about the country we live in and its state. But according to some responses, some students are growing hesitant to learn. One would think that due to all the accessibility—the Internet, television, and other sources of media—that it would be easier for students to learn and accept certain ideas, but it seems to be doing just the opposite. The constant polarization, not only in schools, but also what we see in our Facebook feed, may dissuade young adults from becoming involved.

Speaking of Facebook, in the later portion of this year, a debate sparked on Facebook after one student posted a charged status on their Facebook wall about the political party that they don't like. Of course, members of said political party rushed to say that this kind of statement was wrong, and that generalizing a political party was exactly what her party hated. This debate then went on to talk about reasons why individuals believed in the ideas that they did, but one thing stood out to me: those who knew how to respect others, and those who didn’t. While some students conducted themselves in a very professional and intelligent matter while debating on Facebook, some students showed complete disregard and blatant disrespect, even to those being polite and understanding. In school, this debate created tensions between people that used to be friends. It was at  that point in time where someone like me, who wants to know and be involved with a million things, realized how intimidating and tense some of these conversations are. I could see why polarization had actually made kids very hesitant to have these difficult, potentially charged conversations. Because of this polarization and lack of understanding, being someone interested in the way the world works such as myself may be hard. You will be faced with questions, debates, challenges, and sometimes insecurities in what you may believe. A lot of times, you may even question if you have a voice in any matter. You will feel perhaps even hated by some for being a passionate and invested person in a passion that you enjoy pursuing, as well as feeling like you're making no difference at all. Passive belief and active belief are two of the prominent types of belief, but there may even be a third type that seems relatively impossible. And according to my survey, believing in nothing may even actually be the new standard.

One Comment

  1. Carol Van Auken June 10, 2016

    Great job, Avalon!  I was wondering what happened to the debate too.  I admit that I find it is difficult to remain civil under these highly charged circumstances.

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