Palin And The Kids

A reader writes:

I teach in a well-off suburban public high school in the midwest. My students excel; they're hardworking and ambitious. My class is a demanding elective. The subject matter includes lots of critical thinking. Politics is a common topic. We have frequent opinionated political discussion which usually feeds rich, committed writing. These kids are well above the average high school student in nearly every way--communication skills, experience, close reading, careful pessimism, involvement. They are mature enough to balance the value of strong personal or family opinions with the value of balance in public discussion or their school research and writing. They can evaluate an audience. They succeed and come off as smart, articulate, mature, and balanced.

Except when it comes to Sarah Palin.

My conservative students can't discuss or write about Palin to my satisfaction. These conservative kids can be intelligently critical of Obama and his policies; of the wars; of Bush and torture and the Constitution, and so on. They can make arguments that touch on religion and social issues they care strongly about without sliding into emotion or fallacy. They can dispute with the other students in a thoughtful and orderly way over most issues.

But when Palin enters the conversation, they become adamant, unthinking partisans. The eyes go blank. They seem starstruck and smile a lot (girls and boys.) They do not dispute evidence that she was unqualified or ill informed; they just ignore it. When they returned from an appearance Palin made nearby, four of my students behaved like they'd seen Miley Cyrus, not a potential leader of the free world. When it comes to Palin 2012, they tend to nod knowingly with a little secret smile and say "You'll see."

And any political argument that flows from or around Palin becomes empty, uncompromising, and irrational. Suddenly they say "believe" or "trust" or "faith" a lot. They are suddenly uninterested in reading or checking claims, or even discussing issues. It's all personality and emotion all the time. This is a real problem. I don't think it's me. I am a very experienced teacher and I've always had good success in maintaining a challenging neutrality for these students. They usually can't even figure out how I vote. I've never had any trouble before keeping them in a productive path while respecting their opinions. But when Palin appears, their writing becomes unsatisfactory, their arguments become vague, their logic becomes spotty, their evidence contradictory or false.

I've happily worked with writers who idolized Brigham Young and Jesse Helms (and Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader, too.) In these classes I usually find conservative students very good at polishing arguments, making cases, and improving their writing. But Palin seems to suck the logic out of the room. The factual basis of claims is integral to my kids' work, and Palin--maybe just her, maybe her phenomenon, I don't know--makes that difficult, and worse every week as her wild discrepancies mount.

I risk parent trouble and the imputation of bias if I do as my teacher's experience, training, and conscience dictates. I fear that this is a true break from the already tenuous connection to reality represented by the American far-right. I'll say this--it is the first time I can remember that I had real trouble helping students write well when they were already engaged enough to care about politics.